There aren’t many heroes among the tailors – at least that’s what my mentor told me as I faced her with my latest design in hand. It was my first day back at work, my first time setting foot in the shop since I’d saved the world. My home, a quaint little primrose cottage that I’d purchased just before my adventuring started in earnest, was now packed with carefully arranged souvenirs from exotic lands. But she wasn’t congratulating me for any of that. No, she was congratulating me for putting the finishing touches on a silk robe – a high-level craft that finally pushed me above her in rank. I had become a Hero Tailor not for my experience saving every known life, but instead for my immaculate stitch-work. Once the apocalypse is out of the way, even world-saving tailors have to pick up where they left off.
Fantasy Lifeis every bit as idyllic as its name suggests, combining much of what’s expected from a JRPG with a leisurely pace and a gratifying work/reward system. There are a lot of games that could be named to put this into a more familiar context (Animal Crossing, Rune Factory), but the best way to frame this game may be to think of it as a smorgasbord of some of Level-5’s best work. You can pick up hints of titles that were developed both before and after in Fantasy Life, which was originally released in Japan in 2012. The story and setting may remind you of the more recent Dragon Quest titles, for example, and the rhythmic crafting might make you itch to play a little bit of Weapon Shop de Omasse. The bright-eyed, broad-headed characters are certain to invoke Ni no Kuni and, if you pay attention, the wit and sentimentality of its writing may make you feel the same pangs of longing as Attack of the Friday Monsters.
After creating a character in Fantasy Life (and choosing from several different skin tones and body types, among other things) players are presented with 12 Lives they can pursue. They can be a Paladin or a Mercenary or a Magician, of course, or they can be something a little more esoteric like a Cook or an Angler. While this is an RPG through-and-through, the majority of the Lives that players can choose from are miles away from the norm. Lives can ostensibly be divided up into three categories: Combat-oriented Lives whose activities resemble more traditional RPG classes, crafting-oriented Lives which turn basic resources into more complex items through timing-based mini-games, and gathering-oriented Lives with mechanics that lie somewhere in between the other two. Though they might sound dull, the rhythmic aspect of work in the crafting and gathering Lives does a lot to keep them engaging, even when you’re wrestling with a spool of ribbon rather than a pack of venomous lizards.
Each of these Lives comes with special skills and perks that are introduced as you progress. They will make your work faster and the finished product either more plentiful or of a higher quality. For me, this kept marathon crafting sessions from feeling too tedious, but there’s a chance that still may not be enough for more action-driven players. There’s always been a place in my heart and my gaming routine for laid-back and even repetitive play (Harvest Moon comes to mind), and Fantasy Life’s most leisurely moments satisfied that perfectly. For others, the line between relaxing and just plain dull might be much thinner, and while the game’s story and more traditional class-like Lives may be enough to satisfy them, it’s likely that they won’t get as much out of it as those who don’t mind taking things a bit slower.
I had my heart set on being a Tailor long before I started playing, but I was concerned that focusing on a crafting Life would make me too fragile to do anything beyond crafting clothes and following the story quests as closely as possible. As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. Although Fantasy Life offers players plenty of opportunities to avoid combat (story-driven or otherwise), I never felt weak or like I wasn’t supposed to be fighting in the first place. Even as a mere Tailor with a modest dagger and armor consisting of a jaunty beret and a sensible dress, I didn’t have any trouble tackling enemies (or collecting bounties) at my level. It was only when I took a few curious stabs at the area bosses scattered across the game’s maps (and ideal for Monster Hunter-like multiplayer sessions) that I felt out of my depth. Even so, by that point I’d already completed the game’s story without ever needing to cross them.
Although I chose to play through the story focusing on only one Life, Fantasy Life encourages players to take on as many as they like, and this system is handled with a surprising degree of flexibility. Many different Lives share stats, so while I was plugging points into Dexterity to improve my Tailoring skill, I was also essentially putting points towards my future Life as a Hunter. Furthermore, challenges that you’re given for one Life can be completed even while another Life is active, so when you’re buckling down on your Blacksmithing you can still get credit for the delicious lunch you cooked for your party members.
There’s another key reason not to focus on just one Life: By the time I had finished the main story (freeing me up to pursue the Life challenges and NPC errands I’d neglected during all that end-of-the-world unpleasantness) there were still large swaths of the map that I didn’t even know existed, enemies I’d never even seen, and dozens more compelling characters hidden in plain sight. I had finished the story, but I was still far from truly finishing the game. It was only when I was testing out the multiplayer mode, pressing deep into a cave I’d never even noticed before, stumbling onto a talking sword that had surprisingly little to say, that this really sank in. This is absolutely not a sprawling open world game, but it’s still much bigger than it seems.
I enjoyed almost everything about the world of Fantasy Life, but out of all of those things, its writing still shines the brightest. This aspect is as entertaining and endearing as it is in many other Level-5 games, in addition to being an example of truly outstanding localization, but that’s not the only reason it stands out. There were many times that the story made me pause, times when a character, a piece of stray lore or a cutscene would imply something that worried me. Frankly, I was worried about a lot of things. I was worried about how female characters would be handled. I worried about how characters with substance abuse problems would be handled. I was worried about how a faction that may as well have been directly named “The Exotic and Dangerous Other” would be handled. Every single time Fantasy Life seemed to be leaning into classic and harmful fantasy story tropes, I worried. I soon learned that (for the most part) when Fantasy Life seems to lean in to these tropes, it’s only for the sake of pushing off harder, and it pays off. There are still parts of the game that could have been handled better (and this game certainly deserves a few think pieces that it probably won’t get) but overall, the way it addresses some of its more challenging topics is worth recognizing.
Fantasy Life made me realize just how parched I was for another truly kind game world: a world where hard work is rewarded, where progress is tangible, where people care and conflicts can be resolved with a bushel of freshly-picked apples as often as with a blade. It’s an engrossing and joy-filled way to unwind, and easily one of the most charming games I’ve played this fall.
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.