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The Fantasy of a Triple-A RPG on Mobile

When Final Fantasy VII released in 1997, it immediately rose to the top of many all-time favorite list. At the time, its stunning FMVs, engrossing plot, and engaging gameplay, made for an unmissable experience. Gaming has come a long way since I first played Final Fantasy VII. Today, gamers still turn to their consoles for the latest-and-greatest in gaming, even though our mobile phones pack enough horsepower to produce far more impressive games than our consoles did back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Why are we still waiting for a true triple-A RPG on mobile?

Fans of large-scale RPGs were given cause for optimism when the Nintendo DS remake of Final Fantasy III was ported to Android in 2012. As Final Fantasy III, which was originally released on the Nintendo Famicom in 1990, had never before been released in the West, the release was hailed as a brand-new Final Fantasy title by most major publications. This marked the first time a 3D mainline Final Fantasy title was playable on an Android device. Despite some quibbles over the frame-rate and control scheme, Final Fantasy III made for a great experience on mobile devices.

Despite the three in its name, Final Fantasy III is something of a bit-part player in Final Fantasy’s wider pantheon of titles. Final Fantasy’s watershed moment came in when the aforementioned Final Fantasy VII finally landed on Android in 2016, almost twenty years after its original release. Millions of eager fans quickly hit the download button. Although Final Fantasy VII remains as engrossing today as it was back in 1997, the Android port of the game launched with so many persistent bugs it’s hard to recommend over other versions of the game. Even so, if you’ve never joined Cloud, Tifa, and Aerith on their quest to beat Sephiroth, you could do worse than to pick up the game in the Google Play Store.

An Android port of Final Fantasy IX followed not long after. But, with mobile gaming quickly overtaking console gaming as the largest driver of the electronic entertainment industry, Final Fantasy fans on Android soon started clamoring for a proper triple-A RPG on mobile. Whereas Indie Developers pushed out hordes of successful titles, triple-A developers like Square Enix never took to mobile platforms with the same support as they had given to home consoles.

When an original Final Fantasy title finally launched on Android, fans didn’t receive the triple-A experience they had been expecting. Instead, many triple-A developers gambled on the ‘gacha’ genre. ‘Gacha’ is the Japanese name for the ever-popular capsule-toy vending machines you’ll find on virtually every street corner and metro station in Tokyo. In the west, a ‘gacha’ system is most comparable to the much-maligned Loot Box. Instead of a traditional RPG, most RPGs to land in the Google Play Store were presented as Free-to-Play alternatives to fan-favorite titles available on console. Players who made the jump were unable to make serious in-game progress without investing in randomized item capsules. Most gacha games rely on a quickly dwindling stamina gauge, which determines how many actions a player can undertake. Your ability to play wasn’t the only thing to be determined by your willingness to spend, players also had to purchase item capsules to gain access to the best equipment available in game.

Instead of offering fans a full Final Fantasy experience on mobile, Square Enix tried to capitalize on the popularity of the gacha genre with ‘Final Fantasy Record Keeper’, which released on Android in 2015. At over 10 million downloads worldwide, Final Fantasy Record Keeper proved a genuine hit for Square Enix. Though it was successful in generating downloads, game critics and players were left underwhelmed by what felt like a bare-bones imitation of the games they’d played on their consoles.

Hardware doesn’t seem to be a limiting factor, though. With the most powerful SoC on the mobile market, the OnePlus 8 Series isn’t lacking in firepower. Its GPU, the Adreno 650, has a hypothetical computational power of around 1.2TFLOPs, putting it in the same weight category as the current console generation. Similarly, Nvidia’s Shield TV, running Android and first released in 2015, welcomed many triple-A game adaptations, like Borderlands, Tomb Raider and Resident Evil 5. In fact, the popular Nintendo Switch is powered by the same SoC as Nvidia’s console.

Square Enix raised hopes of fans with the announcement of Mobius Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, which were promoted as console-worthy game experience exclusive to mobile phone owners. When it was finally released, Mobius Final Fantasy had more in common with ‘Record Keeper’ than ‘Final Fantasy VII’. Using the same predatory ‘gacha’ mechanics as its predecessors, Mobius mainly distinguished itself from similar games with its high-definition graphics. To this day, Mobius Final Fantasy stands near the pinnacle of what a mobile phone game can achieve in technical terms. In terms of gameplay, the game’s visual splendor wasn’t enough to convince players to overlook the returning stamina gauge, obtuse plot, and predatory micro-transactions. Those who stuck with the game were ultimately treated to an evolving narrative that grew over the course of many story episodes. These episodes ultimately fleshed out the world of Mobius Final Fantasy and made for an exciting experience. It’s just a shame that players had to wade through a litany of exploitative mechanics to get to the heart of the content.

Square Enix finally moved away from the gacha format with its most daring attempt at bringing a full-fledged Final Fantasy title to mobile. In 2018, Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition launched on Android. The promise of seeing Final Fantasy XV, which was released in 2016 on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, on mobile devices had fans both swept up in enthusiasm and understandably cautious. With stunning graphics, hundreds of hours of content, and a fully open world to explore, Final Fantasy XV was a technical marvel on the most powerful consoles money could buy. The developer smartly decided to pare down the console version to something much more mobile-friendly. The first difference between the original release and Pocket Edition are the cutesy graphics of the latter. It’s a jarring transition at first, but soon becomes second nature. The game’s narrative is strong enough to be compelling even in this decidedly more kid-friendly coating. What Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition does not have are the many side activities and sprawling open world that defined the full game. Stripped off all distractions, Pocket Edition leaves only the critical path through Final Fantasy XV’s story. Pocket Edition does a surprisingly good job at keeping the original game intact, all the same boss fights, all the same tragic character deaths, and all the same shocking plot twists are here. It’s a remarkable “demake” that makes a case for itself despite the existence of its much larger cousin. What it is not is a full mainline Final Fantasy title.

Hope may be on its way in the form of game-streaming services like Google Stadia, which remove the technical limitations of our phones altogether. Triple-A console titles are rapidly growing in accessibility thanks to platforms like Google Stadia, and when these services are more widely adopted by publishers, we can expect to fire up our favorite titles wherever and whenever. It’s a promising prospect, one that we expect will only grow in promise in the coming months and years. However, while streaming will make existing titles accessible to mobile gamers, mobile gamers looking for a must-play mobile-only title will have to look elsewhere.

When push comes to shove, there is nothing like Final Fantasy VII Remake on mobile phones. But, recent developments have me positively excited about what we might see in the future. Titles like Mobius Final Fantasy prove that our phones have the technical capabilities to run games with stunning graphics, complex gameplay systems, and intricate plots. When developers finally decide to eschew the micro-transactions that have defined the mobile RPG’s of the past decade, and start putting the same care and attention into their mobile games as they do their console counterparts, our phones will be ready.

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