If this question has been haunting you for the past day or so, you shouldn’t feel ashamed, as the franchise is in a pretty peculiar situation, and the teams working on the two PS4 titles (Arc System Works and PlatinumGames) are way better known in the west than Granblue Fantasy’s own creators at Cygames.
One of the main reasons behind the lack of visibility for the franchise on this side of the Pacific Ocean is simply that the original Granblue Fantasy mobile JRPG was never released in North America and Europe. The peculiar caveat to this is that it is fully localized in English, but it’s available officially only in Japan.
In order to play it, you need to either do so on your browser, use a third-party software named Qooapp on Android, or make a Japanese iTunes account on iOS. Yet, once you have gone through the process of picking your platform and creating an account, you’ll have access to one of the best mobile JRPGs of all time, if not the best.
To find out why Granblue Fantasy is so good, we’ll have to go back in time to circa 2011, when a bunch of industry veterans led by 3D Dot Game Heroes Director Koichi Watanabe created a rather unknown studio in Tokyo. While the mobile market was the ideal environment for a new company, their goal was simply to create the best games possible, so they had the big league in their sights since the very beginning.
While smartphone games look quick and easy from a superficial point of view, Cygames’ approach was definitely not on the cheap side, as the team always strove to include the best possible production values in their titles.
A crucial part of this strategy was is the foundation of CyDesignation in 2012. Basically, it’s a studio dedicated exclusively to create the best possible art not only for Cygames’ titles but also for other publishers. A relevant recent example is NieR: Automata for Square Enix.
The CyDesignation team includes star-level artists who sharpened their pens at Square Enix like Hideo Minaba (Art Director of Final Fantasy XII and Final Fantasy IX), Akihiko Yoshida (Character Designer of Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy XIV, and Bravely Default), and many more.
Audio quality is another focus point for Cygames, with high-level voice acting and fantastic music by composers like Tsutomu Narita and even Nobuo Uematsu.
Cygames’ first title Rage of Bahamut was quite the hit, but the real revelation came with Granblue Fantasy in 2014. I still remember stepping out of the train at the Kahinmakuhari station in Chiba for Tokyo Game Show just a few months after the launch of the game.
The walls were plastered with Granblue Fantasy ads, and I was immediately charmed by Hideo Minaba’s beautiful character design, only to be disappointed by the realization that I was looking at illustrations for a mobile game. At that time, I was quite jaded towards the mobile market, and admittedly I still am, to a lesser extent. A mobile game needs to be really top-notch for me to enjoy it.
The beautiful art and promise of full voice acting managed to convince me to give the game a chance, and I haven’t quit since. Granblue Fantasy has an extremely deep story, an awesome cast of likable and complex characters, and it immediately struck me as an IP that would have been perfect for a full-fledged console JRPG.
That’s not to say that the mobile game isn’t a full-fledged JRPG experience, because it definitely is. It really scratches that turn-based itch perfectly, and the battle system is delightfully deep and complex. Add to that the top-notch production values, and we have a real winner.
The setting is both familiar and unique. In a world made of floating islands connected via airships, primal beasts rule the skies and free nations struggle to hold onto their independence from the Erste Empire.
Players step into the boots of a hero who can be male or female (named respectively Gran and Djeeta) who basically dies while protecting a mysterious summoner named Lyria. The girl shares her own power with the fallen hero to save their life, creating an unbreakable connection. This sets them on a trip in the footsteps of the Gran/Djeeta’s father while assembling a colorful crew on the majestic airship Ggrandcypher.
Does this all sound familiar? It’s basically the Final Fantasy game many of us have wanted for years and that Square Enix never actually made in its strange pursuit of less traditional stories. It feels like classic Final Fantasy. It looks like classic Final Fantasy. It plays like classic Final Fantasy, and it even sounds like it. The only thing that’s missing is the “Final” in the name, but I will go out on a limb and say that it may have surpassed its fairly obvious inspiration.
In four years the game has seen massive evolution, with a story that now spans several titles, tens of new characters, a dreamy soundtrack that keeps expanding, and even a great anime series that will soon move into its second season.
The natural next step is the debut in the console market, which will happen with Granblue Fantasy Relink and Versus. Cygames reinvested part of the massive profits coming from its mobile games in doing something that many Japanese developers tend to neglect, and that’s achieving bleeding-edge technology that can stand on par with the best western studios.
They compounded their relative lack of experience on consoles by hiring two of the best and most successful teams available in the Japanese industry, PlatinumGames and Arc System Works, and they’re providing them with the IP, the resources, and the time they need to potentially create some really groundbreaking games.
Whether this potential will be fully realized or not, only time will tell, but what we have seen so far, especially for Relink, is extremely impressive. With games like Persona 5, NieR: Automata, and Dragon Quest XI, JRPGs are seeing a wonderful renaissance, and Granblue Fantasy Relink seems to have what it takes to be the next natural step.
While we don’t yet know when it’s coming, I’m extremely excited for it and if you’re into JRPGs, you should be too. Just watching the gameplay, knowing what I know about its story, cast, and production values makes me smile. It really is a great time to be a JRPG fan.