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One of the best JRPGs of the past year was a free smartphone game

There’s a longstanding rift in videogame fandom with regard to smartphone games. Characterized at worst as snake-oil cashgrabs and at best as acceptable timesucks for killing 5 minutes on the train platform, smartphone games bear the stigma of being altogether lesser than their console and PC cousins. They don’t always require dexterous skill or strategic forethought to be played well, the reputation goes, nor do they drive players forward with emotionally engaging narratives. Though some mobile games do contain one or all of those traits, the medium’s reputation is seen through the murky lens of flooded App Store bogs. But when one of the best role-playing games of the past year on any platform is Terra Battle, a free-to-play phone game from Hironobu Sakaguchi, the original creator of the console generation-spanning Final Fantasy series, it’s time to reconsider these games’ outsider status.

While many mobile games have certainly used the unique potential of phone hardware to offer distinctive play experiences, Terra Battle presents a crossover pathway for console players who may be hesitant to give a phone game the time of day. Terra Battle plays like a hybrid of console RPG sensibilities and original, mobile-centric design. There’s a 30-chapter story, told largely through text that follows a cast of characters across time and space, applying its own spin on the now-ritualistic “save the universe” plot. There’s an elaborate battle system where you slide character tiles around a 6×8 grid, smartly incorporating status effect spells, bonuses for fighter arrangements, and other tactics systems you’d expect in a sprawling Final Fantasy game. And there’s a time limit imposed on your character movement per turn that makes every second count, while leaving plenty of room for human error. That’s story, strategy, and skill, for those of keeping score.

Moving past the reductive baseline that justifies Terra Battle as a “legit” videogame, it’s how the game uses the mobile format to refresh on old genre standbys that makes it so refreshing. Terra Battle’s combat system is the backbone of the game, and the way it revitalizes staid RPG tropes without resorting to replacing the formula entirely is perhaps its most impressive trick. Traditional Final Fantasy battles took place along one-dimensional lines: monsters on the left, heroes on the right, each character action drawing a path across. Meanwhile, modern Final Fantasy games, like the upcoming XV, take place in fully three-dimensional worlds, where you simultaneously manage party members scattered around on the ground against monsters that tower above and don’t politely sit still. Terra Battle is very much cut from the Final Fantasy cloth, and not just because the development team is an all-star cast of Japanese RPG game veterans. Terra Battle fully realizes the Final Fantasy battle model as a 2-dimensional design in a way that could not exist before touchscreens.

Things start out simple enough: you press and drag one of your fighters to the opposite side of a monster from another one of your characters, thus sandwiching it and initiating an attack. You’ll eventually build a party of six adventurers (with more you can keep in reserve), which allows you to chain attacks by situating the characters not involved in the pincer within the same vertical or horizontal line as the attackers, adding their basic physical attack to the assault while deploying other available skills. This allows characters with weaker physical attacks to contribute indirectly by either casting offensive or healing spells without getting their hands dirty. The more characters you recruit, the more skills they learn, increasing the possible approaches to battle scenarios exponentially.

every turn dares you with another gamble 

But Terra Battle also throws some wrinkles into the mix: a 4-second time restriction on your actions and the limitation of directly moving only one character per turn. The movement system is not entirely dissimilar from the mega-popular (in Japan) Puzzle & Dragons series, which essentially transforms an RPG dungeon crawl into a match-3 puzzle game. By passing one character tile over another, you force them to swap places. You can use this technique repeatedly with a single character to move them, square by square, across the entire grid, if you can perform the maneuver fast enough. Terra Battle isn’t a puzzle game where knowing the solution is an automatic victory; you also have to be skilled enough to pull it off. The way the game constantly employs new enemy types and formations, every turn dares you with another gamble. And unlike older Final Fantasy games where conducting battles under pressure means furiously selecting prompts from menus, in Terra Battle your actions directly manage the fight instead of existing on a once-removed metagame layer.

That Terra Battle’s creators at Japanese studio Mistwalker have figured out how to translate an RPG onto phones is impressive, but perhaps inevitable. The studio had already taken a couple stabs at smaller touchscreen games, getting their feet wet with mobile development prior to Terra Battle. They’re not alone. Titans of Japanese games past including Konami, Capcom, and Square-Enix are putting their eggs in fewer console-shaped baskets, and even the isolationist Nintendo will be entering the phone game fray in the near future. But Terra Battle proves that this migration needn’t foretell the dire straits that “phone games” once signified.

It’s worth mentioning that Terra Battle, like many mobile games, is free, and Mistwalker has been running a stretch goals-type campaign to get more people to download it. For every 100,000 downloads, a new feature is added such as a cooperative mode and original characters and music from industry legends like Yoshitaka Amano and Yasunori Mitsuda, respectively. With its most recent update, Mistwalker added a standalone battle series based in the world of their Wii-exclusive RPG The Last Story. There always seems to be something new coming down the pipe for Terra Battle, and the “live” nature of the game gives it some legs beyond the initial story arc.

However, last week Terra Battle hit its peak milestone at 2 million downloads, and the reward was a curious one: Mistwalker promised it would begin developing a console version of the game. Wait, what?! Now, what a console version of Terra Battle would even be remains extremely unclear at this point, and in an interview with Japanese magazine Famitsu, Mistwalker boss Hironobu Sakaguchi admitted that he doesn’t really know either.

Terra Battle proves phone games can outgrow their past stereotypes 

Perhaps a console Terra Battle could somehow adapt the 2-D battle system for controllers, or maybe it would be a totally different type of game that merely takes place within the same fictional universe. Either way, it actually feels like a backwards endeavor, both in terms of franchise development and in recognizing the success of what the team at Mistwalker has already put together. Developing a console game version of Terra Battle reads as an appeal to traditionalists who would bemoan Sakaguchi “wasting his time” on mobile games in the first place. In truth, Terra Battle proves how phone games can outgrow their past stereotypes as cute trifles and throwaway companion apps to offer play experiences worthy of as much merit as anything you control with sticks and buttons.