Nippon Ichi’s ‘Disgaea’ series hasn’t seen release on iOS as of 2015, with no announced intention to do so in the near future. This is a great shame because the current phones on the market are more than capable of running the DS or PSP ports of the original game and its sequel. Perhaps the people at Nippon Ichi are afraid they’d break the app-store, with nobody ever having to buy another tactics game with 9999 character levels to achieve and generated levels outside the campaign to give infinite variety? It’s into this vacant spot that Fantasy War Tactics slides, a freemium game that boasts some extremely high production values.
Despite being a Nippon Ichi title in all but name, Fantasy War Tactics is actually the product of NEXON, who produce the MMORPG ‘Maple Story’. Though the game is free it does provide an extremely high standard of production, with a focus on making a fun-driven tactical game instead of the increasingly common attempts at capturing ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’’ serious tone.
Graphically, Fantasy War Tactics uses a heavily anime-influenced design with some crisp 2D illustrations for characters when speaking or seen in menus. The rest of the game however is presented in fully cell-shaded 3D and features some impressive character models. At first glance the home screen appears to be an overwhelming show of buttons and information, but as the game gently guides you through their varying functions and some begin to tuck away into sub-menus the game opens up into a more pleasing design. Everything can be controlled by one finger or thumb, allowing for the basic touch-screen design mechanic to play out. Menus appear a little dull, but are punctuated by amusing illustrations and small comical notices. In battle animations play out quickly and flawlessly, with no drop in frame rate, even when a dozen enemies and a full party are involved.
Sound hits the J-Pop scene heavily, featuring a number of bouncy and overly-energetic tracks designed to get the blood pumping and instil a sense of energy into players who may only be logging on to claim a daily reward and do some menu-based maintenance for their squad. Sound effects are well sampled and hit the sweet-spot between comical/cartoony and serious, with special attacks in particularly having a good sound to them.
Unlike many freemium tactical titles, Fantasy War Tactics puts its story mode at the centre of the action and presents a well-written and interesting tale. You are placed in the role of a young but powerful sorcerer who has recently discovered a means to re-animate the spirits of the ancients. Having successfully done so with a female warrior by the name of Chris, he sets about attempting to conquer the world. You see, as her lord you’re not a particularly good-hearted person, and for all her combat potential she is slave to your will. In a comical fashion you quickly clash with and recruit your old magic school mentor (who can’t believe how very evil you are and sticks around to mitigate the damage) and a talking cat. From here you launch your campaign but quickly discover and an evil organisation has already mind-controlled the heroes of the world and claimed it for their own, so it’s up to you to beat them down, wipe their minds in your favour and snatch it back. Comically the game does a fantastic job of making you obviously the bad-guy, but not the worst option given the choices at hand – lending a ‘hero by default’ feel to your actions. Some characters will choose to join your party willingly whilst others need to be dominated, and doing so always unlocks a skit that plays to the colourful cast. Skits can be viewed outside of combat and are purely illustrated dialogues between two or more characters, fleshing out their backstories, hopes, dreams and other interesting elements of the story. That these are included in addition to sequences before and sometimes after each battle to tell the story shows a commitment to storytelling on the part of NEXON.
Gameplay is a mixture of freemium standards (multiple currencies, unlocking multiple difficulties on stages, sharp difficulty spikes and limited-time content) with traditional Tactical RPG conventions. The meat of the game is found in its campaign, where you work your way island to island across a number of stages and take on each challenge in a tactical battle. Here you move your team of 5 (initially 4) around the map in turn-based fashion and attack/defend in the usual manner. Each character has a maximum of four moves they can unlock that starts with a simple attack and ramps up in power from there. Moves are linked to character levels, which max out and require that a character be ‘rebirthed’ by having the right items gathered from monster drops and enough cash to pay for the process. This sharply boosts their stats, adds a new ability and allows for continued levelling. A by-product of this is that characters can equip up to 3 items (weapon, armour and one other) for every time they have been rebirthed in this manner, allowing for multiple levels of differently ranked items to be equipped and stacked, adding stat boosts and special rules. These items can themselves be levelled using cash based on their rarity rating, with ‘friendship points’ allowing you to draw random free items from a gumball machine. You can also independently level a character’s perks, adding more boosts to rarer stats (such as countering or avoiding damage of certain types) and cloth the characters in limited edition outfits. The game gives you generous amounts of gold and friendship points come in the form of rewards between friends that can be shared daily or earned by using them to support you in battle. Monsters sometimes drop version of themselves that can be spent to add experience to characters that have lagged behind, so keeping your growing squad in-use is quite easy. There are a large variety of boss characters to recruit, and this entails fighting them again and again until they agree to join you (collecting DNA drops) and each character fights very differently, making them welcome additions to cater to any play style. Battles also throw in environmental hazards of various types, raising and lowering terrain, tiles that boost party performance and potion generating tiles that can restore characters or whole parties if one is snagged at the right time. It’s a surprisingly deep system. Of course a premium currency (in this case red jewels) is present, but at several weeks in I’ve found no shortage of this available in-game and the title only allows downed parties to use it once to revive rather than making it a winning strategy. Limited time content and PVP are present and make good showing, but the difficulty here ramps up sharply. The game also likes to advertise rare ‘sets’ of items you could try to collect or limited edition ‘bundles’ you could buy a little too frequently, but never when in a battle. Special mention should go to the games ‘auto’ feature, that plays with a thoughtful strategy and can take some of the load off when grinding the same fight for the fiftieth time.
Overall, Fantasy War Tactics is a very well put together little title that perhaps has a few too many sub-systems to be a streamlined experience comparable to a Nippon Ichi title, but does have a great story, satisfying battles and a customisation system that’s second to none once you have learned how to use it. Tutorials are available in-game and help can be found easily on most screens by tapping the relevant icons. As a premium experience it would have been first-rate. As a freemium title it still manages to kick most other free games in this genre to the curb. I recommend you download and try it for yourself when you’re between games.