Fantasy Life review: Dead end job

Game Info
Platform 3DS
Publisher Level-5
Developer Brownie Brown
Release Date Oct 24, 2014

Fantasy Life asks you to walk down a road — a long, occasionally beautiful road — that ultimately leads to nowhere.

Fantasy Life’s systems seem tailor-made for a handheld platform: It’s got countless progression hooks, repeatable short-form activities and enough collectibles to make your head spin. Its inspirations are as numerous as they are wise, with the zen-like materialism of Animal Crossing, the hunter-gatherer nature of Monster Hunter and the look and feel of the most recent Dragon Quest games.

But all of Fantasy Life’s best ideas and ambitious designs are means to a disappointing and repetitive end — one that offers a gaggle of different things to do, but not many ways to do them.

Fantasy Life drops players into a fairly traditional fantasy-RPG world, but allows them to hold a non-traditional job — or "Life," as the game calls them — for the genre. There’s standard combat-oriented roles like the bow-wielding Hunter and shield-bearing Paladins, but those are far outnumbered by careers in crafting — like Tailors and Carpenters — or harvesting — like Mining and Fishing. Each job has a ladder to climb, skills to unlock and proficiencies to master.

You’re never hemmed in to one job or another

You’re never hemmed in to one job or another; Fantasy Life lets you switch at will, and allows you to use your skills across classes — Hunters who have learned Mining can still mine, for example. Class-specific challenges allow you to move up their respective ranks, which is Fantasy Life’s most subversive and fascinating idea. Woodcutters don’t have to wage war to level up, they just have to cut down the right trees.

Scratching tasks off each Life’s list is the game’s most enjoyable compulsion, and evidence of its smart (and numerous) progression systems. Ranking up your Life unlocks new abilities, and boosts that job’s relevant statistics. Your hero levels up independently from their chosen Life, giving you room to experiment with different jobs. Skills, from magic use to sprinting, rank up organically as you use them. You’re almost constantly improving in a material, satisfying way.

fantasy life side img

But while your character is constantly changing, Fantasy Life’s core gameplay — regardless of your chosen career — never really does. After a few hours and a few Lives, you’ll have seen everything Fantasy Life has to offer, and then you’ll see it again and again, ad infinitum. you’ll see it again and again, ad infinitum

Crafting is the perfect example of this: The idea of making your way in the world as a humble Blacksmith is enticing, but the mechanics for each crafting class are nearly identical. To create an item, you play a mini-game in which you move between three different workstations, performing timed button presses and rapid taps as you race against a time limit. It’s barely fun the first time you do it, let alone the hundredth.

After making a certain item enough times, you can start manufacturing it in bulk, and as you move up the ranks of crafting classes, you earn skills that help you automate the process. It’s a telling method of progression: The more you craft, the less you have to play the mindless mini-game.

Collecting is more enjoyable, mostly by virtue of the fact that Fantasy Life’s world is a pleasure to explore. Finding the resource you want, assuming you have the right tool and have started the right Life, usually involves chipping away at a rock or tree until you zero in on its weak point, or outmaneuvering a fish until it’s weak enough to catch. Again, it’s pretty repetitive, though there are a few clever "boss fight" resources — massive fish and towering, sacred trees — to square off against in the later stages of the game.

What’s most disappointing is that combat isn’t much more complex. Each combat-oriented Life has its own suite of basic, charged and special attacks which evolve a handful of times as you move through the ranks. But fighting just isn’t much fun; enemies are either a breeze, with puny pools of HP and easily-avoidable attacks, or an absolute slog, with mile-long HP bars and … easily-avoidable attacks.

Battles require almost no strategy, regardless of the Life you’re living or how many AI characters or online friends (there’s no matchmaking with random players, unfortunately) you have in your party. Even the game’s toughest foes can be easily outwitted; every enemy has an invisible boundary they’ll never move past, so defeating any enemy is as easy as hitting them, running to the boundary and repeating.

Though you can live a Life that doesn’t require combat for advancement, it still feels like all of the classes feed into the action-oriented part of the game. There are some vanity items to whip up, like furniture and decorations for your room, but most items you craft will be armor, weapons or restorative items — tools for fighters, not chefs.

Even the game’s toughest foes can be easily outwitted

Fantasy Life’s storyline might be its most repetitive element. Every chapter starts and ends by talking to the same two NPCs. Every climactic fight in each chapter forces you to destroy a magic stone that’s corrupting the actual monsters attacking you — which takes about seven seconds to do, every time. In between, you’ll run from point A to point B, interrupted constantly by charming, albeit exasperatingly long-winded, conversations.

Everything Fantasy Life asks you to do feels like work. Before you can move on to a new chapter of the story, you almost always have to backtrack and talk to five or six characters you met in the last chapter. There are three different fast travel systems in the game, and a lot of the time, you’ll need to take two of them to get where you need to go. You can take on up to 30 optional missions from villagers, but they’re all fetch quests and repetitive monster hunts.

Wrap Up:

Fantasy Life is built on shallow repetition, not clever gameplay

Fantasy Life is just too big for its own good. It offers a wide variety of activities to take on, but they’re all heartbreakingly shallow — after tackling your first bounty or crafting your first end table, you know exactly what to expect from all future bounties and end tables. In lieu of depth, the game almost always substitutes repetition. It may have ample charm and smart progression systems, but life in Fantasy Life is more mundane than fantastic.

Fantasy Life was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS using a retail code provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information on Polygon's ethics policy here.

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