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Final Fantasy’s creator is back with a classic RPG made of incredible handcrafted dioramas

Hironobu Sakaguchi talks about his upcoming Apple Arcade game Fantasian

Fantasian has everything you’d expect from a new Hironobu Sakaguchi experience. The creator of the Final Fantasy series is once again making a roleplaying game that takes place in a lush fantasy world, features turn-based combat, and centers on a globe-spanning quest. There’s even a new soundtrack from famed composer — and frequent Sakaguchi collaborator — Nobuo Uematsu.

But what makes Fantasian unique is clear from a single screenshot: the game world has a distinct vibe because it’s built from tiny, handcrafted dioramas. “We really wanted to capture that touch and feel, and unique charm, that is only found in these dioramas,” Sakaguchi says.

Fantasian is developed by Mistwalker, a studio Sakaguchi founded in 2004, and is currently listed as “coming soon” to Apple Arcade. He says the concept began around three years ago when he and some collaborators replayed Final Fantasy IV for the first time in years. “Playing that game reminded me of how much I really adore that classic RPG genre, and renewed my interest in it,” Sakaguchi explains. “It made me want to go back to my roots.”

The premise of Fantasian, meanwhile, even sounds like classic Final Fantasy. Here’s a snippet:

The tale begins in a realm governed by machines, in which Leo causes a massive explosion at a hybrid magic-tech factory, resulting in his memory loss. Following the one memory left to him — a vision of a young woman — he is transported to a dusty frontier town called En. There, he is reunited with the girl from his memory, Kina.

In an effort to recover Leo’s memories and find their own destinies, the two set off on an adventure together. During their travels, Leo’s past is revealed bit by bit as are the many layers that make up the game world. Within this multi-dimensional universe, the balance of “Chaos and Order” becomes a key factor in the struggle for these realms and the machinations of the gods who wish to control them.

The creation process from concept art to in-game.
Photo: Mistwalker.

Mistwalker has released several RPGs over the years, including titles like Blue Dragon and The Last Story; in 2014 the team expanded to mobile with the Terra Wars series. Sakaguchi says his goal with each new game, dating back to Final Fantasy, is to introduce some kind of innovation. In the case of Fantasian, new features like a mechanic that lets you banish enemies to another dimension to battle later so that you can explore without interruption, as well as combat skills based around aiming, are key selling points.

But the most obvious innovation is the way the game looks — and it was a lot of work. Every space you’ll explore in Fantasian, including both interior and exterior locations, is actually a hand-made diorama. There are more than 150 of them in total, created by a team that included artists who worked on franchises like Godzilla and Attack on Titan. The process starts with concept art, and then the artists start building props and other elements of the diorama. Once completed, the set is photographed, turned into a 3D model, and transported into the game engine, where it can then be enhanced with effects like lighting or fog.

Sakaguchi says that the process was “very tedious” and forced the designers to approach their creations differently compared to a traditional video game. “You have to be very conscious and intentional with how you construct the environment, because unlike 3D CG where I can add another path or modify an environment later on, you don’t really have that flexibility,” he says. It also took the team a while to find a 3D scanning method that could show the models with enough fine details.

While he admits that “I was sweating a few times during development,” Sakaguchi says that the painstaking process was necessary to achieve the look he desired. “You could argue, well, if you wanted to make dioramas, you could do a diorama-esque visual using all 3D models, and playing with the textures, or lighting, or shading perhaps. But instead we opted for a much more analog methodology,” he explains, adding that the team had to be “really careful” with post-processing, so as to not ruin the effect.

The handcrafted feeling was also well-suited to Apple Arcade, where many players will be controlling the game via touchscreens. “There’s an interesting synergy between touching something with your fingers and hands through the screen that has been created by these artisans by hand,” Sakaguchi says.

Fantasian will be playable on iOS, Mac, and Apple TV, and Sakaguchi says that, aside from the touch controls, the game hasn’t been tailored specifically to Apple Arcade. Instead, the goal was to create a console-like experience for mobile devices. He describes the game as “a really comprehensive RPG experience.”

Classic-style Japanese RPGs are having a resurgence of sorts, thanks in part to veteran creators either returning to or sticking by what they love. Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii started in 1986 and is still going strong, for instance, while comparatively new series like Bravely Default are designed explicitly to bring lapsed fans back to the genre. It’s a similar story for Sakaguchi.

“Let’s be honest, I’m in the latter chapters of my game development career, and each game can take years to go from conception to release,” he says. Because of this, he’s tackling projects that bring him “genuine joy” to work on. “I personally enjoy playing these types of games, and that is what brings me back to it,” he says of his long-standing connection to fantasy RPGs.

Sakaguchi is also well-known for creating expansive universes, ones that often grow beyond just a single game. It started with Final Fantasy and continued through to Terra Battle, which has already seen a sequel and spinoff, with more planned. Right now, that isn’t the goal for Fantasian, which has been designed as a standalone experience, according to Sakaguchi.

Whatever project comes next, Sakaguchi and the team at Mistwalker have to solve at least one problem first — figuring out what to do with Fantasian’s 150 painstakingly crafted dioramas.

“That’s actually one of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now, trying to figure out where to store these things,” he says. “I really don’t want to have to throw them away.”

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