Final Fantasy Record Keeper recently broke ten million downloads worldwide, and is currently celebrating its first anniversary on global servers. Developed by DeNa Inc. in association with Square-Enix, FFRK allows you to "put your own twist on the tales: build your fully customized Final Fantasy party and lead them to victory" as you "battle your way through the most epic Final Fantasy moments." But as fans of the world's premier roleplaying video game, can a mere mobile game really deserve our attention on the same level as the classic titles it draws upon? Or is it simply another piece of fan service hoping to cash in on our nostalgia?
I've been playing Record Keeper daily since its global launch on March 25, 2015. I was reserved at first, especially after the utter train wreck that was All The Bravest, but figured a free FF game was worth investigating if it sought to recreate the original experience. Over the last 366 days I've checked in daily to, at least, clear a dungeon or two - so clearly it must do something right. Let's take a look at some of the reasons you, as a Final Fantasy fan, should be playing as well.
For the uninitiated, Final Fantasy Record Keeper places you in the role of the titular "Record Keeper," a young historian who works for Doctor Mog in the Royal Archives. Contained in the archives are magical paintings which illustrate the tales of Final Fantasy and preserve for future generations. When an unknown menace interferes with the paintings, Dr Mog charges you, his apprentice, with entering the "records" to face the evils they contain and restore them. Along the way you recruit core classes and familiar faces from each game to assemble a five-unit party, equipping them with gear, abilities, and special materia.
Each dungeon addresses a small chunk of story from an original game - for instance, the first you delve into is the mako reactor attack from the opening of Final Fantasy VII. Typically you progress through a couple three-round battles before confronting a boss at the end of the dungeon. Rewards are distributed based on overall performance, as well as the completion of certain objectives. Once a dungeon is cleared, the next is unlocked along with an "elite" version with higher stakes and bigger rewards.
There are also special Event Dungeons, which are introduced on a roughly weekly basis. These time-limited events feature new characters and unique rewards such as Memory Crystals, character-specific items which allow that unit to break its level cap.
Along the way, Keepers will need to upgrade their equipment and abilities using components won in battle or distributed as rewards, such as mythril. This coveted currency can be used to obtain Relics, including iconic weapons that may teach a unit a unique Soul Break super-technique - for instance, Cloud can learn to use Braver if the Keeper obtains the Buster Sword.
More Than A Mobile Game
Mobile games are still a divisive topic in the gaming community. Some resent the medium, as there are many trite apps saturating the market with questionable "gameplay" - including Square's Final Fantasy: All The Bravest, a miserable excuse to cash in on the series' popularity. Visions of Angry Birds or washed-up celebrities hawking click-fests like Clash of Clans or "Game of War" give the term "mobile game" sour connotations for many.
Despite being made for iOS and Android devices, Record Keeper is the deepest game developed for the medium that I've played. I've dabbled with several over the past few years: I currently play Marvel Future Fight and Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes on a daily basis as well, and have invested a decent amount of time in others before. None of them have the complexity of Record Keeper. Some games may have the appearance of depth but ultimately boil down to rock-paper-scissors mechanics and little else; others still follow shameless "freemium" tactics that prey upon gambling mentalities.
Record Keeper is, however, truly deserving of the Final Fantasy name. Yes, you are limited by the use of stamina; yes, there are daily login bonuses and premium currencies. However there is also a deep battle system that feels like a SNES- or PlayStation-era installment of Final Fantasy. If you've played one game from IV to IX, you will jump right into FFRK's battle system without blinking.
Most mobile games can be played with a couple mindless prods of your screen, usually assigning tasks to different units or features of a base and waiting for them to complete, resulting in a small shower of gold and experience. Even here I admit there are times where I, as a high-level player, set my phone down and let the game auto-battle through the minor enemies of a dungeon until I reach its boss. To truly succeed in this game, however, you will need to give it all the attention its source games deserve when planning your party or dealing with its bosses and challenges.
The major hallmark of mobile games that discredits the medium is the sale of premium currency. Most games claim to be free-to-play, in that you can download and play the game for free, but to truly excel in them you'll likely need to shell out some cash to purchase special upgrades. This can easily result in a player spending far more than the retail price of a new console game on a simplistic tap-fest (again, looking at you, All The Bravest).
FFRK distributes the aforementioned Relics, its special upgrade items, in three ways. Every player gets a free Relic draw daily, though the items obtained from it tend to be weak - usually rated one or two stars on a five-star scale. It is possible to draw a five-star item this way, but the odds are very slim (I recently did this for the first time, but it took almost a full year of daily draws; your experience will vary).
Mythril is the main method of purchasing Relics. It can be obtained as a login bonus, as special distributions from the developers, or from clearing most dungeons. Five mythril buys one relic, or players can save up 50 mythril to draw 11 relics and get one free. The odds of five-star results are much higher in mythril draws, and include items related to the current Event dungeon.
Alternately, players can spend real money to purchase Gems, which function just like mythril. The cash-to-gems ratio isn't great; it's comparative with most other mobile games, and not as horrible as some (like Galaxy of Heroes), but you aren't getting as much bang for your buck as you might realize.
However, it is entirely feasible to play this game without spending any real money. Mythril is given out far more generously than premium currencies in other games - if you play every day and complete a fair amount of dungeons, you'll end up with enough mythril for the 11x draw relatively often. (I recommend saving it up for big events like the anniversary celebration going on right now, or for an event featuring items for your favourite characters). This is the first mobile game I've encountered where spending real-world money is so optional.
Yes, you can shell out real cash for in-game currency, but the cash-to-gems exchange rate isn't great (prices in Canadian currency). You shouldn't need to, however, unless you desperately want extra attempts at coveted relics.
Always Leveling Up
Record Keeper looks vastly different now than when it first launched. DeNa regularly updates the game with game balancing tweaks and improvements to the overall experience. At launch, the special requirements for Mastery of dungeons were secret and players had to rely on their knowledge of the series to make an educated stab in the dark, or replay the mission to seek its mastery rewards. Now enemies' health is represented with visual gauges, and players have the opportunity to outfit their parties to meet the dungeon's parameters before entering. Furthermore, characters that proved weak or incomplete have been upgraded to grant them new abilities or stat increases. Keeping a game with ever-expanding content balanced is a never-ending task and DeNa does well to keep everyone afloat.
This constant updating is what keeps me coming back above all. New Event Dungeons come out every week or so, featuring new characters and specific moments from their games. For instance, the recent FFIX event added Beatrix to the roster, and the accompanying event followed major moments in her storyline. This model ensures that there is always something for players to be doing; there are only so many "Realm Dungeons" (the core of the experience, the dungeons which summarize the stories of each FF game), and the truly avid player could easily run out of content. While new Realm Dungeons are added regularly, the Event Dungeons are the driving force of the game.
As the game goes on, the challenge levels increase, and so do the power levels of characters. Memory Crystals allow units to transcend the default level cap of 50 and unlock special Record Materia, a form of equipment that grants special abilities based on the character. Later, a second tier of Memory Crystals were added to increase the level cap from 65 to 80 and allow for even stronger materia. For instance, Terra's RM after she's broken the 65 cap allows her to sometimes double-cast Black Magic. These materia can be equipped to other level-broken characters - I often equip Quistis with Terra's.
The depth and strategy of the game continues to evolve weekly. I play daily but even still there are tons of dungeons I haven't yet tackled, as the weekly quests keep me occupied - and it's still a challenge to put together the right team with the right abilities to take on the biggest, baddest bosses. There's enough content in the game that DeNa could stop putting out new dungeons and it would still take months to get through everything.
The Ultimate Celebration
I alluded earlier to FFRK's similarity to other games in the proper series, and that knowledge of the originals is beneficial. This similarity borders upon outright emulation - Record Keeper is, in a way, a cross-section of each game combined into one meaty app. Enemies are drawn from their respective games and behave in almost identical ways. Sprites from the 2D games are sometimes given slight animation effects to make them look like living, breathing creatures, and enemies from the 3D games are recreated in amazing, loving two-dimensional detail. Original music appears in the menus and battle sequences. Key story points are presented before and after each Realm Dungeon, along with images from the non-battle segments of the corresponding events. In-battle dialogue is recreated if game-authentic conditions exist. Characters have skill sets faithful to their original abilities. In every way, Record Keeper is a perfect love letter to the series.
Dissidia and Theathythm tried to fill this role before. Designed for the series' 20th and 25th anniversaries, instalments in these sub-series did a great job representing aspects of the franchise (I still maintain that Theatrhythm is the ultimate tribute to Nobuo Uematsu and his impact upon game music). What sets Record Keeper above them, however, is that it recreates the biggest moments of its source material in the same fashion. Dissidia was a great fighting game with Final Fantasy characters but its battles looked nothing like the combat of a JRPG, and Theatrhythm was a rhythm game with Final Fantasy music and JRPG influences. Record Keeper is truly a Final Fantasy game in its own right, one that's constructed from its predecessors; it pays homage via emulation - and the longer it's updated, the more obscure moments will be given a time to shine.
Think of a character from the series that is playable and they're almost certainly in Record Keeper (and if they aren't yet available on the Global version, they might be in the Japanese and bound for Global release in less than six months - with the only exception I know of being Guy from FFII). Now that the core party members of the offline main series and a solid selection of core Job classes are present, antagonists, supporting characters and stars of spinoffs or sequels are starting to arrive. Several Tactics characters are inbound, as well as Serah, and even FFIII's Desch. And that's just the heroes you can recruit - almost every iconic boss from each game will challenge you at some point, from set pieces like the Demon Wall to final bosses.
The sheer quantity and quality of content derived and adapted from each game is astounding, a level of comprehension neither Dissidia or Theatrhythm could attain with their narrower focuses. To simply shove the sprites into a new game would be simple and hollow (again, as proven by All The Bravest), but instead DeNa has taken the time to craft a proper tribute to the aspect of the franchise that arguably consumes most of our time.
Best of all, there's so many ways to play and they're all valid. You can hunt down your favourite characters and use them for everything. You can develop teams for each game to best take advantage of the synergy bonus from using a unit or item in its home realm. Or you can chase down the best setups for the current metagame and optimize a God-tier team worthy of the toughest bosses. Try using nothing but Core Job units for a real challenge.
The Final Verdict
It's hard to quantify a rating for a game like Record Keeper when it's constantly evolving so much - though it only gets better as time goes on. It is, however, easy to recommend it to Final Fantasy fans. The more you've played of the series, the more there is to appreciate here; even if you've only played one or two titles, there's still a great JRPG available here. It's more than nostalgia exploitation, and it's more than a mindless app game; it's a quality RPG in its own right, inspired by and derived from a series we love, and if you own an iOS or Android device it deserves your attention. You don't have to throw money at it, or give it any more than five minutes of your day, and it will reward you.
If you are playing the game and could use a powerful Squall Roaming Warrior, here's my friend ID!