2016 is a big year for Final Fantasy. After a decade of waiting, fans will finally be able to play the long-standing franchise’s latest flagship title, Final Fantasy XV, when it launches next month. But before that comes another important entry in the series: Mobius Final Fantasy. The mobile game, which is out today on iOS and Android, looks to merge two often disparate concepts: the approachability of mobile and the epic feel of a console experience. It features beautiful 3D graphics, and Square Enix has enlisted some of its most notable talent to work on the game, including producer Yoshinori Kitase and writer Kazushige Nojima, both of whom worked on the iconic Final Fantasy VII, among other titles in the series.
But for Kitase, it’s not the flashy graphics that make Mobius a proper Final Fantasy game. "When we started the development for Mobius Final Fantasy, I thought about how we would be able to create a mobile app worthy of the Final Fantasy name," he explains. "And the answer that we came up with was the story."
Mobius opens with your character waking up in a strange land alongside a group of other half-naked, equally confused young men. None of you have any idea where you are or where you came from, but early on you learn that one of you could be the prophesied savior of this mysterious realm. Thus starts your pilgrimage through a desolate wasteland to become a hero, guided by a disembodied voice named Vox. From the very beginning, fans will notice familiar FF trappings: the hero of light, character classes like onion knight and black mage, and creatures like the cute-and-cuddly moogles. Meanwhile, the character designs look ripped from the grand fantasy realm of FF XII, and even the icon looks like an old-school logo painted by Yoshitaka Amano.
But Mobius doesn’t play like any Final Fantasy before it. It’s a free-to-play experience built around touch, where the main focus is on character customization and combat. Instead of exploring a vast open world, you’re moving along a predetermined path and fighting a series of battles at each stop. There aren’t any towns to hang out in or dungeons to conquer. Combat is a sort of mashup of different FF battle systems but with a number of tweaks that make it work on mobile. Battles are turn-based like in the series’ classic games, while the interface has been designed in a very touch-friendly way. The most unique aspect is how you actually perform spells and special attacks: instead of having a set amount of magic points, you earn them in battle by attacking enemies. The result is battles that zip past — you can get through a series of three or four in just a minute or two, excluding boss encounters. Perfect for a game you take with you anywhere.
In between those rapid fire battles you’ll spend time tweaking and customizing your character. Mobius uses a deck-building system that makes equipping spells and abilities sort of like creating a hand in Magic the Gathering. As you progress and defeat enemies, you’ll earn cards, opening up more options for your character. It’s actually all fairly complicated until you get the hang of things. Over the first 30 minutes of the game you’ll be subjected to around a half dozen tutorials detailing the many different, and sometimes confusing, systems in place.
Mobius is far from the first time that Square has attempted to take Final Fantasy mobile. In addition to porting many of the older adventures to smartphones, the company has also released free-to-play spinoffs like Final Fantasy All the Bravest and, more recently, Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. Both of those games traded on nostalgia, using retro graphics and classic characters to lure in long time fans. Mobius goes in a different direction, introducing a completely new world and characters, with a look and feel that aligns closely with Final Fantasy games from the PlayStation era and onward. (That said, it does have many of the typical free-to-play trappings, like an in-game currency and energy system. But over the few days I’ve spent with Mobius I haven’t yet felt the need to make any purchases.)
It’s also a game where the narrative works as a way to keep players coming back. Mobius features an episodic structure, and since the game debuted in Japan last June, it’s been regularly updated with new story elements that further flesh out the world. "In a sense, we have taken a game design style similar to [massively multiplayer online games] where players can become immersed in the world for a long period of time," says Kitase. But unlike MMOs, Mobius follows a particular story arc, as opposed to being a collection of simple quests. Fully-voiced cutscenes are interspersed amongst the experience, and it feels like the narrative is building towards something big.
According to Kitase, the idea of doing a fully 3D, story-driven take on FF for mobile wasn’t initially a popular one inside of Square Enix. "The concept of having a rich 3D game on a smartphone itself did not get much understanding from others when we initially started this project," he says. "This is because casual games were dominating the app store ranking at that time. That is why we intuitively thought that there is value to be found there… Our overall mission was to break this perception that mobile gaming equals casual gaming."
Combating this perception is a big reason why Kitase recruited talent that had previously worked on console Final Fantasy games. Composer Mitsuto Suzuki is probably best-known for the soundtracks for FF XIII’s two spinoffs, while Toshiyuki Itahana served as an artist and character designer on games like FF IX and the Crystal Chronicles series. Arguably the most important piece of the team, though, is Nojima, whose writing has helped define some of the biggest games in the series, starting with FF VII, and continuing all the way through to FF XV next month. With Mobius’ grand ambitions to be more than just a mobile time-waster, the kind of experience that maintains the the same epic feel as one of gaming’s biggest franchises, having the right writer on board was paramount.
"We entrusted Nojima to come up with a new story for Mobius Final Fantasy worthy of a Final Fantasy title," says Kitase.