Tower of Fantasy gets off to an intriguing start

Despite the undeniable appeal of the visual style and the characters, I never jumped on board with Genshin Impact — and at this point it sort of feels like it’s a bit late to get into it. A pretender to Genshin’s throne has arisen in the form of Tower of Fantasy, though — so I thought I’d take a look at it and see if I’ve been missing out on anything in the “open-world free-to-play action RPG with gacha elements” subgenre.

While Tower of Fantasy is not yet available on Steam, it is available to download for free via the official website, both for PC and mobile devices. And so it was that I jumped in, not really having a clue what to expect other than the fact it would probably be quite a different experience from something like Final Fantasy XIV.

Tower of Fantasy

Free-to-play online games have a bit of a tough balancing act at this point. While ideally they need to be accessible to newcomers, they also need to provide plenty of depth for veterans. It can be tricky not to overwhelm new players with all the possibilities available to them — something that Phantasy Star Online 2 has always struggled with, particularly with how late it released to western players — but you also need to make sure not to bore veterans in the opening hours.

Tower of Fantasy takes the approach that it will draw players in, regardless of experience and skill level, with a significant chunk of interactive narrative that just happens to incorporate some tutorial elements along the way. And for the most part, it’s quite effective; after just shy of two hours with the game so far, I feel quite invested in the game world, the characters and the story — even if there are more than a few elements that initially appear to be a tad confusing!

In Tower of Fantasy, you take on the role of either a male or female adventurer who, in the introductory sequence, is caught unawares by some monstrous “aberrations”. They manage to escape immediate danger, but not before a device they’re wearing called a “Suppressor” malfunctions, leaving them to pass out on the ground just as they see someone seemingly coming to save them. Unfortunately, the last thing they hear is that their memory is about to be wiped.

Tower of Fantasy

So it is that your character awakens in a makeshift community built around a ruined spaceship, with absolutely no recollection of how they got there. Their Suppressor has been repaired and they have been nursed back to health — and in short order you’re given the opportunity to fully customise their appearance from their default look.

Tower of Fantasy’s character creator is pretty solid, albeit a little limited. There are several different outfits to pick from, the ability to customise the colours of your hair, eyes and clothes, and some detailed facial modelling sliders. You can create a good variety of different anime-style faces — with many community creations available for one-click adoption through a showcase feature — but there’s no real flexibility in terms of body type, shape and size.

Once you’ve established your own identity, you begin taking on some initial linear quests that allow you to get to know the major characters around this initial settlement as well as introducing you to the major game mechanics in Tower of Fantasy. As you progress through this initial story, you’ll have the opportunity to engage in melee and ranged combat, fight a battle using a fixed turret, and enjoy an on-rails shooting segment. You’ll also doubtless stumble across plenty of little things on your way from one objective to another that you’ll want to investigate further when the game opens up a bit.

Tower of Fantasy

The initial storyline of Tower of Fantasy is compelling enough to keep you interested in following it rather than immediately charging off on your own, though. You’re initially introduced to a young engineer girl named Shirli, who is an absolute delight to be around — but after helping her out with a bit of work around the place (as well as having the inevitable “mini-adventure you’re not supposed to be having”) something terrible happens, and her fate is left seriously in doubt.

Since she’s been built up to be such an appealing character at this point — and without any sort of over-the-top characterisation; she’s just a pleasant human being — you will, hopefully anyway, feel invested in what’s going to happen to her next.

From my limited time with the game so far, Tower of Fantasy feels like a pleasure to play, with a few caveats. Firstly, the game’s controller support on PC is a bit dodgy; you can use it to move around and fight, yet, but it’s painfully obvious at times that the game’s whole interface has been built for both touchscreens and mouse control. This won’t be a huge problem for those playing at their desks, but for those hoping to sit back on their couch and play the game on a big TV with a controller, it’s a bit of a pain.

Tower of Fantasy

Secondly, it suffers a tad from the problem that all free-to-play games do, which is that it absolutely bombards you with rewards at the beginning, with no explanation whatsoever on what any of them are. To the game’s credit, it doesn’t do this in an obtrusive manner — you have to specifically go looking for them in the interface, rather than being confronted with pop-up after pop-up before you can even start playing — but you’ll still find yourself with an inventory full of myriad different types of currency before you know it, and not a clue what to spend any of it on.

Thirdly, it doesn’t do a great job of explaining some of its systems from the outset. When introducing the gacha system, for example, it explains that SR or SSR-tier weapons also come with a “simulacrum” attached, allowing you to take on the appearance of an associated character — but it doesn’t explain what the benefits of doing this are, if any. Sure, you can play as a loli catgirl in a leotard at the click of a button — but outside of the obvious reasons, why would you want or need to do this when you’ve spent time making a custom character?

Fourthly, there need to be a few tweaks to the subtitles and language options in general. On more than one occasion, subtitles disappeared from the screen before it was possible to read them, and prerecorded video sequences (as opposed to in-engine cutscenes) seem to use the English dub by default even if you’ve set your spoken language preference to Japanese.

Tower of Fantasy

Aside from these niggles — none of which are particularly gamebreaking, and none of which are by any means exclusive to Tower of Fantasy — it’s fun to get around the game world right from the outset. The game features a “climb pretty much anything” mechanic similar to that found in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which makes getting from one place to another much more straightforward than it could be if you were stuck to the ground.

Early on, you’re also provided with a jetpack, whose main functionality is shooting you high in the air and then allowing you to glide back down again. This is great for navigation, as it allows you to take the lay of the land from above, but it doesn’t make getting around on foot meaningless. It’s also very helpful for getting off the top of tall structures that you’ve ascended with the climbing mechanics!

In combat, weapons can unleash combo attacks with simple repeated tapping of an attack button, and each also has a skill with a cooldown. There’s a strong emphasis on switching weapons to cause a “discharge attack”; as you fight, you’ll build up a meter on the two equipped weapons you aren’t currently using, and switching when this is full causes you to perform some sort of special move. I suspect there will be greater tactical depth in this beyond simply “doing more damage” later in the game, as weapons have elemental affinities and suchlike.

Tower of Fantasy

There’s also a really satisfying dodge mechanic. You can dodge up to three times in succession, and timing a dodge perfectly results in a Bayonetta-style “time slowing” situation where your weapon-switch attacks are immediately fully charged, and you’re given the opportunity to unleash some free damage on your foes. You’ll doubtless accidentally discover this feature before it’s actually explained to you — but in this instance the game does, at least, tell you about it properly eventually.

Incentive to explore in Tower of Fantasy is provided by collectible items around the area that add to an “exploration” meter, with rewards on offer when you make this reach various milestones. On top of that, there are landmarks to find based on pictorial and textual clues in the game’s “Chronicles” section, encouraging you to track down the most interesting or attractive vistas in the game world.

And, judging by the map Tower of Fantasy shows to you quite early on, we appear to be talking about a pretty large game world right from the outset — though during your initial hours you’ll be confined to a single island. In traditional open world game fashion, however, you’ll gradually locate and unlock towers that reveal various other areas of the map — and over time you’ll have access to the whole world, with a fast travel system allowing you to quickly warp from one place to another as required.

Tower of Fantasy

Tower of Fantasy may not be doing anything especially new — it’s fairly shameless how much of a Genshin clone it is in terms of presentation, with even the dialogue window layout and font bearing an uncanny resemblance to MiHoYo’s hit — but it does what it does very well. It’s a good-looking game with an intriguing storyline, likeable characters and enjoyable mechanics — at least in its early hours.

It remains to be seen if Tower of Fantasy has the same staying power as Genshin does… and if it attracts the same kind of absolutely horrendous, virulently toxic western fanbase. Here’s hoping not on that latter front, hmm?

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Pete Davison
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