A while back, I wrote a piece on my other site MoeGamer about how free-to-play games had quietly got good. While there is, make no mistake, still a veritable flood of absolute shit being released on a seemingly daily basis, occasionally someone gets it right, and it’s worth celebrating when they do.
Which brings us to Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, a free-to-play mobile game developed as a collaboration between Final Fantasy rights holder Square Enix and mobile game specialists Alim and Gumi.
The astute among you will recognise the latter two as being behind Brave Frontier, one of the mobile games I had previously praised for not being a total pile of shit. Brave Frontier wasn’t without its problems — most notably a lack of any real strategy in the combat thanks to a relatively limited number of things you could do — but so far as mobile free-to-play RPGs went, it was certainly one of the better ones, featuring an interesting story with some enjoyable characterisation and a wide variety of units presented in beautiful pixel art.
FFBE, as I shall refer to it from hereon, is essentially Brave Frontier 2 with a Final Fantasy skin. And that’s not a bad thing at all, because it manages to fix the few issues I had with Brave Frontier while simultaneously being a surprisingly decent Final Fantasy game in its own right.
I’ll rewind a moment for the benefit of those not already familiar with Brave Frontier and explain FFBE.
In FFBE, you take on the role of Rain, a young and rather idealistic member of the castle knights, who appears to have some unresolved daddy issues in true Final Fantasy tradition. Rain is accompanied by his longstanding friend Laswell, who ironically seems to have gotten on with Rain’s father better than Rain himself. While out on patrol, Rain and Laswell encounter some strange happenings, including a mysterious girl called Fina trapped in a crystal and a man in dark armour who appears to be up to no good.
Unsurprisingly, the man in dark armour is indeed up to no good, and Rain and Laswell return to their home city to find it has been attacked. Their adventure then begins in an attempt to determine what the motivations of the black-clad man are and who exactly this “Fina” girl actually is.
Gameplay has a number of components. Firstly is the metagame, where you collect various units by “summoning” them using premium currency (which the game is pretty generous about doling out for reaching significant milestones), summon tickets (which often come as rewards for logging in regularly, or as part of events) or “friend points” accumulated when making use of your friends’ units. The units vary in strength and their rough power level is denoted by a “star” rating — the more stars, the more powerful, or rather, the more stars, the more potential a unit has, because in order to make it useful, you’re going to have to level it up. In other words, a fully levelled two-star unit may well be a better choice than a completely unlevelled four-star unit.
Levelling up can be accomplished in two ways: by gaining experience from participating in battle (an option that was absent in Brave Frontier) or by “fusing” it with other, unneeded units. In the latter case, you can fuse a unit with any other unit, but there are particular benefits if you fuse with an identical unit, or with a special “experience” unit, the latter providing you with significantly more experience points than a regular unit and thus being the best means of quickly levelling a character if you happen to have any on hand.
Your party can also be equipped with weapons, armour and accessories, which improve their stats to varying degrees, and most units can also equip up to two additional Abilities above and beyond their innate abilities that they acquire as they level up. In this way, you can customise your units as you see fit according to the challenges you know you’re likely to be facing, or simply munchkin them all with the best gear possible so you can steamroller your way through every encounter.
On top of the battle units, you’ll also acquire Espers a la Final Fantasy VI along the way, which can be attached to specific characters to provide them with various passive bonuses as well as a super Summon attack when a meter fills up to maximum in battle. Espers can be levelled up independently of characters, though you have to use collected materials to do this rather than just grinding, and each level awards them with Skill Points that can be used to unlock various abilities, both passive and active.
Once you’re finished fiddling with your party lineup, you can either visit a town or go into battle. Pleasingly, visiting towns is presented in traditional top-down RPG style and there are even sidequests to complete, giving a great degree of personality to the world that Brave Frontier lacked somewhat, thanks to it being entirely menu-driven. For those for whom time is money, however, there’s also a quick access menu that quickly warps you around town to the important places like the shops, though in doing this you’ll probably miss out on NPCs who might have useful information or quests for you.
When you choose to go into battle, there are several different ways you can do this. You can advance the story, which presents you with a string of battles that you have to complete without stopping, punctuated by cutscenes. You can “explore” an area you previously completed the story for, which again goes into a top-down RPG-style exploration mode punctuated with random battle encounters. You can visit the Colosseum to battle monsters and earn points towards various prizes. Or you can enter the Vortex to the Farplane, which has a different special dungeon every day, plus a series of other specialised dungeons that you can unlock as you desire — one for free, additional ones for premium currency. These specialised dungeons provide a convenient means of acquiring experience points for your units, money, crafting materials or other materials needed to power up units or Espers, but the payoff is they tend to cost significantly more energy to jump into than story missions.
Yes, there’s an energy system, but like in Brave Frontier, if you manage it carefully it never becomes an issue. Following story quests tends to see you level your player up regularly enough that your energy bar rarely empties — not only does its capacity expand when you level up, but it also gets refilled to maximum — so this is the best thing to do if you’re spending a bit of time with the game. Alternatively, if you know you only have a few minutes, by far the most effective use of your energy is to tackle the most difficult Vortex dungeons you can manage, as not only will this burn through your energy but it will also provide you with far more loot and experience than regular missions tend to provide in the same amount of time.
The battle system itself is very much like Brave Frontier, with one notable exception: units have more options than just attacking or using their special Burst attack when it’s charged up. Individual units can use items now, rather than you using items on your party from your omniscient overseer perspective, and each unit unlocks individual abilities as they gain levels, which are appropriate either to their Job if they’re generic units or appropriate to their original incarnation if they’re making a guest appearance from another Final Fantasy.
Yes, indeed, Brave Exvius features a considerable amount of series fanservice by incorporating characters from past Final Fantasy games, and they work exactly as they should; Edgar from Final Fantasy VI has his machinist “Tools” abilities present and correct, for example, while more magically-inclined characters have plenty of magic spells to fling around to take advantage of enemies’ elemental weaknesses.
Which perhaps brings us to an obvious question: is this better than Final Fantasy Record Keeper, which is also a fanservice-heavy Final Fantasy free-to-play mobile game?
Yes, it is. And I don’t hesitate one bit when saying that.
Record Keeper is a clunky mess of a game, with loading screens literally every time you tap a button. It’s slow, sluggish, poorly optimised and generally a chore to play, and even the wonderful SNES-style pixel art depictions of every Final Fantasy from I to XIV don’t make up for this. Record Keeper also has no real focus; it sees you leaping around from timeline to timeline pretty much at random, attempting to act as a sort of Final Fantasy Greatest Hits but losing all sense of coherence in the process. This lack of focus also extends to its progression and collection systems, in which you collect characters, but also equipment items, and the main “fuse and improve” mechanics come with the far less interesting equipment than the characters; it’s way less fun to upgrade a sword that supposedly appeared in Final Fantasy XII than it is to buff up Balthier to the max.
Record Keeper makes nostalgia the main — no, the sole — point of its existence, and it suffers for this, particularly when it comes to the underrepresented Final Fantasies like XIV and XI. FFBE, meanwhile, uses nostalgia wisely; it just drip-feeds you classic characters without making a big deal about it, and it doesn’t demand any knowledge of the previous games — if you’re a Final Fantasy newcomer, you might just find that Firion is an awesome fighter, but if you know your Final Fantasy history, you’ll have an understanding of where he actually came from, for example.
FFBE, while suffering from occasional loading breaks and the requirement to be online at all times while playing, at least preloads enough stuff into memory for it not to have to load after every button press, and both in combat and when wandering around town, it’s smooth as butter.
Oh, and FFBE is also a beautiful-looking game. And a beautiful-sounding game, featuring one of the best Final Fantasy battle themes of all time. Yes, seriously. Listen.
Basically… look, it’s really good, all right? And regular readers will know I don’t say that lightly about free-to-play games.
Check it out here on Android, and here on iOS.