Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
The iPhone and iPad may not play host to the newest mainline Final Fantasy entries—like the ambitious Final Fantasy XV, coming to consoles this November—but they might have the most series entries in one place. You can grab ports of Final Fantasy I through VII and Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy Tactics, and free-to-play mobile exclusives like Final Fantasy Record Keeper, Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, Final Fantasy Dimensions, and even more.
It’s a lot, and we’ve seen a couple of those games launch just within the last few months. Well, here’s another: Mobius Final Fantasy is a new mobile entry designed to capture the high production values of the big-budget console entries. However, like last year’s Record Keeper, it’s primarily a game about fighting, minimizing the other elements of the role-playing experience in the process while emphasizing the free-to-play grind.
Like many of the typically self-contained Final Fantasy games, you don’t need to know any previous entries to jump into this one. While there are familiar magic spells, nods to popular characters in the cards you’ll collect, and some common series themes, Mobius has its own storyline. You play as one of many “Blank” warriors awaking in the land of Palamecia, hoping to prove his mettle through battle and become the land’s prophesized Warrior of Light.
Final Fantasy Record Keeper saw the series relive some of its greatest old-school moments by making you fight through classic battles, while Mobius Final Fantasy does much the same with 3D graphics and totally fresh material. Similarly, you don’t get the complete experience: The story is kept to a minimum and there’s almost zero free-roaming exploration. Instead, you’ll pick a spot on the world map, fight a bunch of monsters, and then repeat over and over again.
To some extent, it feels like a miscalculation of what makes Final Fantasy so great, much like in Record Keeper. True, you’ll spend a large chunk of your time in any Final Fantasy game fighting monsters and other baddies, and the quality and depth of those combat systems can significantly impact the overall enjoyment. But I’ll tolerate all of those battles in a Final Fantasy game because it allows me to take in the storyline and experience the unique world and characters built for each adventure—not the other way around.
At least there’s some meat to the action here. The combat system is built around collectible cards for spells and summoned monsters, and you’ll grow and tweak your decks over time, amassing new cards and improving them via experience points as well as fusing and augmenting them. And in the turn-based battles, you’ll collect elemental orbs from your enemies while bashing them and use those to unleash your magic attacks, healing spells, and more.
There’s a bit of active strategy at play—certainly more than in some other freemium games—and that’s true both in deck composition and actual battle techniques. On the flip side, you can simply tap a button to automate combat and watch the action instead of directly controlling it. The battles unfold very quickly and effectively when automated, and it’s a great way to speed up the grind. In fact, after a few hours of play, I preferred to just let the battles run automatically while I watched TV or checked email. At least the option is there to jump back in as desired.
Mobius Final Fantasy’s biggest downfall is a familiar one for free-to-play mobile games with a strategic or role-playing edge: The experience is overly and unnecessarily complicated in spots. It’s not so much that there are punitive freemium elements butting heads against each other, but rather that there are so many things happening behind the scenes that you may not know anything about—or even need to care about.
Deck building, for example, brings a lot of variables and options. You’ve got job cards, ability cards, and summon cards; your cards can be fused, sold, or augmented; and if you want to buy more, you can use ability tickets, summon tickets, spirit tickets, friend tickets, or magicite currency. And I still don’t have a firm grasp of what skillseeds do, despite hours spent staring at this game.
Mobius has such a dense and busy interface, and while all the different options could be described as adding nuance, some of it seems needlessly obtuse. There’s a lot going on here, and the game’s infrastructure isn’t very streamlined. In all likelihood, that’s intentional: There’s enough confusion here that you might be tempted to spend money to clear it up, rather than pour a bunch of time into menus that don’t seem to provide obvious benefit.
Magicite is earned gradually throughout the day, with a meter that fills up to 100 over the course of about 16 hours. Once you tap it, that amount is emptied into your bank and the meter begins slowly filling again. You’ll also earn daily item bonuses for logging in, as well as extra items granted for other online players using one of your cards for support in battle. Those are free goodies, in essence.
Bundles of magicite are sold in amounts ranging from 120 for $1 to 12,500 for $75, and it can be used to buy tickets to randomly draw different types of cards. The game also offers a Mobius Gift Box, which offers a smattering of perks: various tickets, power-ups, items, a skillseed bonus for fusions, and a regular supply of additional items over the following 30 days. In fact, you can only buy this bundle once every 30 days. It’s priced at 3,000 magicite, which sells for $19 in the store.
That’s what I spent my money on, and to be honest, I’m not 100-percent sure what my $19 ultimately got me. I mean, I have a list of things in my inventory that I can point to, but none seem like dramatic benefits based on all the time I’ve spent in battle and fiddling with my deck. In fact, I haven’t sensed a real need to spend money at all in Mobius Final Fantasy. It has an energy meter that depletes with each new battle and recharges over time, but the game is so generous with bonus energy points that I once played for three hours straight without draining the thing.
At some point, the gradually longer waits between leveling up probably means you’ll tap out that energy meter and need to wait or pay to fill it up again. Likewise, the ever-building challenge surely means at some point that you’ll need to play and replay battles to slowly boost your abilities and progress ahead. All of that comes with the freemium territory. But across many hours of play, I encountered neither roadblock.
Mobius Final Fantasy isn’t the most enthralling series experience. With minimal storytelling and character building, it’s a combat-centric game with minimal window dressing—and the series magic is in thinner supply than usual. If anything, the game and its many iOS brethren show that being a “Final Fantasy” isn’t an exact formula (or promise) anymore, which means you don’t necessarily know what you’re getting with each new entry.
If you want a classic Final Fantasy entry with a grand storyline and zero freemium trappings, you can certainly find them on the App Store—for upwards of $21 apiece. Mobius Final Fantasy isn’t that… but it is an attractive battler with a deeper tactical edge than you’ll typically find in freemium action games.