I've never written a review for a free-to-play game before, nor have I ever come into possession of one that I would say I was "proud" to have in my video game collection. Leave that to Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to change things.

He and his independant studio Mistwalker's debut on the mobile free-to-play scene, Terra Battle, has captured my interest for the past several days, and so far it has put an end to my bias against RPGs in the form of free-to-play games. In fact, the cruelest twist of fate in all of this is that it has stolen my attention from a genuine Final Fantasy game that was having trouble keeping my interest!

Granted, his game is probably similar to many other free-to-play games out there like Japan's ultra popular Puzzle Dragon, but just the feeling of "playing a Hironobu Sakaguchi" free-to-play RPG is enough to push this little gem over the top… for the first few hours at any rate.

Are all free-to-play RPGs this deep?

What is Terra Battle? Well, like I said, it is a free-to-play RPG from one of the founding masters of the genre. Combining elements from different huge franchises like Fire Emblem and, of course Final Fantasy, it compresses the core ideas behind these games into a streamlined experience not-unlike a block puzzle game.

When first glancing at these strategy RPGs, as they have become to be referred to as over the years, block puzzles like Lumines or Candy Crush Saga are the last genre that would spring to mind. However, if you really crunch down to the basics of the genres, like Sakaguchi must have done when developing this game, you'll find they are more similar than you could imagine.

Essentially, both are set on a grid and both encourage the player to position blocks/characters in a fashion that will clear the most blocks/cause the most damage.

Terra Battle lives by both rules and perfectly snags that mind ground between the two. Players are allotted six characters at a time, and damage is dealt to opponents by flanking them with two characters on directly opposing sides. Only a single character can be moved in a turn, so it is best to make that one move count!

At first glance, it appears as if enemies have a clear advantage over the player. They don't have to rely on surrounding the player's fighters to cause damage, instead being granted the freedom to use AoE attacks on command, and they also have the ability to move whenever their turn comes up. This could give opposing squads six or seven moves before the player is allowed to make even ONE!

It all balances out though in terms of power. Players have the ability of putting a unit anywhere they choose on the map and can attack any monster they feel like so long as another warrior is touching its tile. Even without that limitation though, taking the game at face value and causing damage by only surrounding a single enemy puts players at a severe and slow disadvantage. This is when positioning and chaining attacks come into play.

Allies of the attacking characters can stack up and also contribute to the attack. Any unit within a direct row or column of the attacking characters will not only get a chance to participate, but also add an extra touch of its own strength to the fold. Any healer involved in the attack will be able to restore the life of the characters they are chained to, and any magician or archer will be able to rain magic or arrows down upon enemies after a successful attack.

Foresight two or three turns ahead is necessary to set up such devastating moves, but it is entirely possible to clear five waves of enemies without losing a single unit this way. Monsters, even entire rows or columns of them, crumble under the weight of all six characters attacking at once!

Terra Battle eventually tosses in other obstacles like elemental traps, enemies who leave poisonous trailers behind, and enemies with counter abilities, so there is no shortage of new experiences to be had as players climb the ladder of difficulty. Fire Emblem's contribution also comes into play with a rock/paper/scissors system of weaponry strengths and weaknesses in the form of sword/bow/spear.

I've also barely begun to scratch the surface of the game, and I am all too excited to dive into the rabbit holes that job classes, summon Eidolons, and power-up items have to offer.

All in all, it feels every bit as genuinely thought out as some of the best classics that the genre has to offer. If it didn't come with the baggage of being a "free-to-play" title, would we hold it higher regard? Perhaps. It's too good of a game to be ignored, and I'd go so far to at least call it the smartest and most engaging battle system to appear in a Sakaguchi game since his departure from Square Enix.

Not much competition there, though.

In a class of its own

Bringing it back to that feeling of "playing a Hironobu Sakaguchi" though, Terra Battle does set itself apart with a stunning aesthetic. Trust me when I say the initial heartbreak of seeing that grid and those puzzle tiles vanish after a mere battle or two. This is a block-puzzle game with a higher quality of art and sound than any we have seen to date.

I suppose we can thank the iconic A-list of JRPG designers for that.

Seriously, the credits for this game read like a Hall of Fame ballot for the JRPG world. Just to name a few:

  • Hironobu Sakaguchi – creator of Final Fantasy
  • Nobuo Uematsu – famed composer of Final Fantasy
  • Yasumi Matsuno – director of Final Fantasy Tactics and XII
  • Kenji Ito – composer of the SaGa series
  • Yoshitaka Amano – character artist for Final Fantasy
  • Yoko Shimomura – composer of Mana, Kingdom Hearts, and Parasite Eve series

In addition to these heavy hitters, Sakaguchi has also employed the help of various character artists and writers he once worked with during his years with Square Enix, the same foot soldiers who make Final Fantasy one of the most beautiful series on Earth. Each contributor brings their obvious touch to the game as well with gorgeous art, lovely music, excellent lighting effects, and a level of production value unseen for the free-to-play genre.

Uematsu even lifts music keys straight from a few of his popular Final Fantasy battle themes. I pick up on them every time!

In terms of the writing, Terra Battle plays out in a first-person narrative rather than traditional third-person Final Fantasy storytelling. No cutscenes, no character interaction. More like a stream of thought. It delivers an excellent feeling of playing a perfectly scripted Dungeons & Dragons scenario with friends and feels more like Yasumi Matsuno's excellent indie RPG Crimson Shroud for the Nintendo 3DS.

I suppose the best compliment I can also give to Terra Battle's presentation is that it wholeheartedly delivers the single most important feeling when playing a classic strategy RPG: comradery with your nameless units. My recruits genuinely feel like my teammates.

My reliable healer has never let me down in a fix, my duo of sword/spear wielding soldiers power through puny monsters. I have a named "hero" sword wielder who can boost his strength when required to take down an exceptionally strong boss. He looks like the offspring of a cat and a catfish. I also recruited a turtle through random chance, and his high defense and spear attacks wreck havoc on enemy archers.

Recruiting new members is the main drive of the gameplay, and 3,000 coins in battle will land a new nameless recruit. 5 points of energy will summon a "hero" character, one with a name. I suspect that once I start to nab more powerful "hero" characters, ones with a name, my feeling towards my nameless units will fade, but Terra Battle is only getting bigger as well. More than just a standard update from a normal free-to-play RPG, every 100,000 downloads promises to deliver content from another of Sakaguchi's legendary colleagues. New music, new character art, new scenarios, new everything! When the game hit 2 million downloads, he has even promised a console port!

I'm not so sure if I would want to play this on my PS Vita or not though. If it were a premium product, absolutely. No doubt. However, its free-to-play scheme forces me to hesitate. When my Vita died on an especially long train ride one morning, and this was all I had to play, my smartphone became a perfect substitute in the occasion. Terra Battle didn't suck up too much battery life, and it gave me a perfect compelling gaming experience to not only help me survive but even keep me going!

I'm not so sure of its lasting ability, but in regards to stepping up to the plate for quick doses of free-to-play gaming in between my bigger gaming habits, it is genuinely the best I have ever experienced.

The ever looming threat of a pay wall

Which leads to the final big question which hangs over the heads of every free-to-play game. What about that pay wall? When does the game stop becoming a free experience and when do you have to drop cold hard cash to enjoy it?

I've gone for a solid 6 hours or so with Terra Battle since I first turned it on, and problems are only just arising at the end of the fourth chapter, mostly because the boss battle here sees a huge spike in difficulty.

The only purchasing option here is "energy," a kind of second currency within the game. Each battle requires a certain number of stamina to take part in, and without that stamina, you simply can't play. Purchasing "energy" allows for an easy refill of the stamina meter or allows for stronger characters to be unlocked.

Luckily, it never takes too long to refill the stamina meter on its own. One point takes a countdown of five minutes to replenish, and this continues while the game is off or another battle is already underway. If a battle takes ten minutes to complete, then you already have two points of stamina when you wrap up.

I currently have a total of 28 stamina points in a chapter where battles cost 6 to participate in, meaning when I turn it on for a session, I can realistically get in about five or six battles before the wall becomes an issue. The beauty of the first few hours is that Terra Battle's chapters only have five to ten total fights before they are completed. Wrapping up a chapter not only refills the stamina meter but it also adds to the maximum.

One or two flawless gaming sessions should be enough to wrap up a chapter.

I started with 20, and the game has graciously added 8 after defeating the first three chapters. Beating a chapter also rewards players with a free point of "energy," so that's at least one free refill there. Signing on for consecutive days also gives a free "energy" point as well, encouraging frequent playing. These can be stockpiled as well and used for continuous play, but I would rather use these "energy" points to summon named characters.

You get the idea. In the earlier levels, it's not a problem, but I am anxious to see how heavily it comes into play in the later stages when battles start to take 20 stamina points to complete. That's a bridge I'll have to cross if I stick with it for that long.

Losing a battle also piles on top of these issues without being able to replenish your stamina in any other way.

In regards to unlocking characters, the basic "free" game itself grants enough resources to get a powerful party going, but I suspect that the deeper and deeper the gameplay and story take me, the more and more tempting it will be to cough up a few bucks here and there. Sakaguchi masterfully designed his battle system, but just as masterfully balanced out how much "free" content you can enjoy from it.

With a little luck, Sakaguchi will show a little mercy and make the console port a premium product. Terra Battle has all the right pieces to make it an excellent game, possibly the best Mistwalker has ever developed, but it is catered to be a free-to-play experience after all. Putting in time and/or money is the only possible way to see it all.

Quick bursts in between bigger games are fine, but don't expect to make a career out of this game. That "pay wall" will come, those servers will be shut down, and the game will not have the timelessness of his other classics.

In the meantime, Terra Battle could very well be the absolute best free-to-play title of all time thanks to the caliber of talent behind it. Fans of Final Fantasy or JRPGs in general should find it a worthy addition to their smartphone… possibly more so than any available Final Fantasy game!