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Akihiro Hino on Fantasy Life, the game where it's fun to do 'pretty much anything'

Fantasy Life: rated

This week in Japan Famitsu magazine only reviewed one game. It's a big one, though. Fantasy Life, the Level-5 produced Nintendo 3DS title, is out in Japan this week. It's an odd mix of hardcore role-playing and Animal Crossing-esque time-wasting.

The game received 35 out of 40 points in Famitsu's review published this week. "Fantasy Life guides the player in really deft fashion with its approachability," one reviewer wrote. "You can while away the time fighting if you take a battle-oriented Life [job], or you can go fishing or cut down trees with a more peaceful Life. It's an excellent game, one that reminds me of Ultima Online in a lot of ways."

So, by the sounds of things, it's an extremely open-ended, MMORPG-like game. It wasn't always like this, though. "Three years ago, when we first started on this project, it was a much more text-oriented game, with each Life having a really long story associated with it," Level-5 head Akihiro Hino told Famitsu. "It was around two years ago when we decided to change directions, switching the graphics from 2D to 3D and putting more time into it."

"I'll never forget the day when we decided to go 3D," added Fantasy Life director Atsushi Kanno. "I remember thinking about what a pain it was going to be. Hino talked about 'making RPGs new,' and that really stuck with me. In Japan, most RPGs are turn-based, but lately you see games like The Elder Scrolls and Fable; games that are sort of like MMOs you play by yourself becoming popular. I thought we could take what makes those games fun, approach it from a Japanese perspective, and make it into someone anyone can enjoy."

While Fantasy Life has an overreaching story, you're free to play whatever role you like.

Three years of development time on a portable title seems a bit like overkill, but Hino sees the midway gear-shift resulting in a palpably better game. "That meeting where we went 3D was a major turning point," he said. "Instead of throwing more text into the game, we decided to make the game something where you can have fun getting to grips with all the individual actions each Life is capable of. That's where that pick-up-and-play comfort came from, and soon it became closer and closer to an MMO."

He isn't kidding. While Fantasy Life has an overreaching story, you're free to play whatever role you like, from a bloodthirsty warrior to a simple fisherman or woodchopper. The game balances out all these potential paths to the point that, with the right Life, you can reach the ending without actually getting in a fight.

"Balance was important between all the individual aspects," noted Kanno. "We didn't want fighting and fishing and mining to all use different controls. We wanted an easy-to-understand control system that people who haven't played this type of game before can easily handle."

The game's a departure for Level-5 in another important way. Instead of taking a mainstream route with Fantasy Life, enlisting Japanese celebrities or Studio Ghibli to help spread the word about the game (as they've done with Inazuma Eleven and Ni no Kuni), the company's aiming for both a casual and hardcore audience. They've gone so far as to hire artist Yoshitaka Amano and music composer Nobuo Uematsu, both storied names in Japanese RPG history, for the project.

"We didn't want fighting and fishing and mining to all use different controls."

"We wanted to show that this game is the 'real thing,' so to speak," commented Hino. "If we're going to put the word 'fantasy' into the title, then we had to make it into a large-scale project. That's part of why we wanted to get well-known people like Amano and Uematsu into the project, although I naturally loved their art and music, too. I think getting them on really helped complete the world setting."

Fantasy Life doesn't have an overseas release planned, but that hasn't stopped Hino from describing the 3DS game as nothing short of revolutionary. "We've completed a new type of game, one that doesn't really fit into the mold of any other game before it," he said. "Once you play it, I think you'll get to see for yourself that can have fun doing pretty much anything here."