With DeNA's help, Square Enix has made a decent mobile game.
Mobile games get a bad rap. It's a platform with a specific use case and style of input. You can make good games and bad games with any platform. Have many developers misused the platform in the past? Yes. There are a ton of clones, cheap ports, and free-to-play crooks on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The same can be said of Steam these days. The more open a platform becomes to new ideas - which is a good thing - the more likely you'll find those out for a quick profit.
When it comes to mobile, Square Enix hasn't hit homeruns on the platform. The publisher has released a number of ports of previous PSP, DS, and 3DS titles, all to the tune of $16. It also created Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, which was a free-to-play game that was purely made to get players to throw out more money. The title was panned by Final Fantasy fans for its shallow gameplay and transparent begging.
Final Fantasy: Record Keeper looks to have learned from those mistakes. The title was made in collaboration with DeNA, the publisher behind Rage of Bahamut and Nintendo's new mobile partner. Mobile gaming is what DeNA does and it shows in Record Keeper.
A little story background, even though Record Keeper is a story-lite title: the game takes place on a world where record keepers use magic to capture some of Final Fantasy's most amazing moments in paintings, all kept in the Royal Archives. An unknown evil rears its ugly head and steals all of the memories. It's up to you, as the neophyte Record Keeper Tyro (you can rename your rather-androgynous main character), to delve into the corrupted Archives and retrieve all the memories. You're helped in your journey by Dr. Mog and Cid, two of the Royal Archives' stewards.
Record Keeper is focused on combat of the Active Time Battle variety. You and your party of five dive into small dungeons related to the stories of past Final Fantasy games. Every character can attack, defend, use abilities, and when charged up, use a Soul Break (this game's version of Final Fantasy VII's Limit Breaks). Abilities include classic Final Fantasy spells like Cure, Comet, or Blizzard, special attacks like Jump and Power Break, and even the summons like Shiva, Ramuh, or Leviathan. You simply beat on your foes until they die; depending on your relative level, this can be a challenging battle or cakewalk. I think Square Enix knew about the potential for the latter, which is why the game has an auto-battle button that just makes your team auto-attack. Bosses or encounters of a similar level tend to make you strategize a bit more to win.
Every map and every character is presented in a circa-Final Fantasy VI art style, like Square Enix's technology reached that point back in 1994 and never evolved further. Record Keeper also features classic music from the respective games in the series (Final Fantasy VII's boss theme is still the best). The game is aimed hard at that nostalgia, folks.
Within every world - the North American version of the game only features Final Fantasy IV, Final Fantasy VII, and Final Fantasy X at this point - you'll fight through specific points in each game's story. There's no dungeons to explore here, no maps to check; each memory is separated into floors. Each floor has a certain number of rounds and the final floor has a boss related to that story moment, like FFIV's Mist Dragon or FFVII's Reno.
Here's where the free-to-play gating mechanics appear. To tackle a floor you need stamina, with each floor costing anywhere from 2-6 stamina a piece. You begin the game with a full bar that holds a total of 31 stamina. When you tackle a dungeon, you have to go all the way through. If it has five floors, then you need to beat all five floors in one go. Leave and everything resets.
It's a war of attrition, because your abilities are limited-use; the lower levels of each ability tend to have between 2-4 uses. Your health and your abilities refill between floors, but if you lose a party member, they stay dead until you leave the dungeon. To refresh and heal your party while in a dungeon you either use Mythril, a limited resource the game awards for clearing dungeons or Gems, the in-game currency you can buy.
The thing is, these aren't horrible limitations. Stamina refills at a rate of 1 point per 3 minutes, so as a gating mechanic it prevents you from grinding over and over again, but you can play for 10-20 minutes, put the game down, and return two hours later to a full stamina bar. In fact, it was rare that I tapped out on stamina. Dying or failing is merely a setback. If I lost too many party members during a run, I'd merely retreat from a dungeon; all you lose is any progress and items you achieved from when you entered the dungeon, which is 10 minutes at most. Some dungeons utterly destroyed me, but that just told me my party wasn't the right level or didn't have the right equipment. No harm, no foul.
When you succeed in clearing dungeon, you'll acquire new equipment, gold, experience, orbs, and most importantly, new characters. Your party will start with Tyro, your jack-of-all-trades character who's good at everything, alongside Black Mage and White Mage, who are non-title specific characters. Later on, once you clear dungeons, you'll add characters like Kain, Tidus, and Cloud to your roster. These characters aren't just for show though. While you can keep them in your party and make your own FF dream team, the characters get a boost within their own world. Take Cloud into an FFVII memory and he moves faster, hits harder, and gains more experience. This encourages players to keep everyone leveled up and switch up their party depending on which franchise they're tackling.
All of this is before you get into equipment, which you can purchase, sell, upgrade via items, improve via merging with other equipment, and acquire in the free daily draw. Each piece of equipment also hails from a specific game in the franchise, so it benefits from the same synergy boost as franchise characters. Then there's abilities, which you can craft with orbs or hone to improve their levels. Finished a memory? Well you get rated on your performance, with the best rank offering an experience bonus. Finished a memory on that Champion rank? That unlocks the much-higher level Elite version of that memory. And on top of that there's the event memories - the current one offers the potential to gain FFVII's Aerith - and daily dungeons, which offer different bonuses based on the day.
Which is to say there's a decent amount of depth in Record Keeper. There's a great deal to do to get your team just right. After how much you couldn't do in All the Bravest, Square Enix went the opposite way in Record Keepers.
Honestly, I enjoy it. I started a few days ago on a whim, but now Record Keeper has slotted right into my day: a play for a few moments here and there, switching back and forth between my Android phone and iPad mini. The game clearly loves the source material, featuring these cute little sprite versions of past Final Fantasy casts, familiar enemies, and classic FF tunes. It's freemium mechanics stay out of the player's way for the most part. Is it perfect? No. The game is a bit rote and combat-heavy at its core and no amount of additions will change that. But if you a Final Fantasy fan, it's worth at least loading up and trying. Get past the tutorial and dig in for an hour, you might find something worthwhile.
At the very least, Final Fantasy: Record Keeper represents two positives for me. The first is an upward trend for Square Enix's mobile titles. The second is my confidence in Nintendo's choice of partner for its upcoming mobile lineup. Great games on any platform is always a good thing in my book.