When Monkube’s 6th Planet swung into the iOS scene as proof positive that Western-style comic book and videogame could be blended to sweet perfection, I began letting my imagination run wild with thoughts of how a manga and videogame crossover might turn out. Hungry for the kind of deep storytelling that graced the console games of my childhood, I thought that, surely, iOS games stood to benefit from the well-defined characters and psychological undercurrents I’ve always associated with the best that anime and manga have to offer. On the other hand, as every seasoned otaku has no doubt observed, the much-acclaimed Japanese visual arts are hardly immune to disastrous turns; whether due to production pressures or dry spells in the wellspring of good ideas, some anime and manga protagonists have been allowed to engage in all manner of completely inane shenanigans that tend to derail, rather than communicate, a solid tale. Sadly, this is exactly the state into which Square Enix allows its grand iOS experiment, Imaginary Range (Out Now for Free), to devolve.
It’s not that Imaginary Range lacks an interesting premise. The player alternates between perusing and controlling the activities of Ciela and Cid, a mismatched duo trapped inside a mutually experienced dream in which anything that might be imagined becomes reality. Their goal is apparently to destroy or otherwise break out of their altered state of being, and the plot’s focus is their battle against a marauding creature summoned by a shadowy group with like abilities but starkly different intentions. That its subject matter appears to tread a path already well worn by The Matrix and Inception is the least of Imaginary Range‘s shortcomings. Far more injurious is the fact that we learn so little about the protagonists and their world while they’re busy a.) transforming the Eiffel Tower into a guided missile; b.) drawing psychic energy from such random articles as scissors and fish; and c.) dressing up in superhero costumes inspired by wall posters. Seriously, what the player has to read through here makes Godzilla look like a completely mundane and understandable occurrence by comparison.
Granted, some over-the-top craziness goes with the territory when one happens to exist in a virtual simulation. Imaginary Range‘s major weakness is that it fails to play upon its eccentricities in a way that builds dramatic tension and draws the player into the game world. Monkube, in contrast, mastered this art in 6th Planet. Ciela’s and Cid’s doings finally begin to flicker with appeal once all the hullabaloo quiets down and they get a chance to reflect on their relation to the antagonists, but this comes too little, too late — a stultifying “to be continued” slide denies their audience an opportunity to further identify with them. With no payoff in sight, Imaginary Range‘s attempt at a creative plot only drives a wedge between the player and its game world.
On the upside, I found Imaginary Range‘s translation a joy to read when textual quality is considered alone, and its videogame component fares much, much better than its weakly constructed plot. Rather than string the manga together with gameplay segments belonging to a particular genre, Square Enix went out on quite a gutsy limb and decided every interactive break from the manga should be unique or at least sparingly used.
Imaginary Range‘s eclectic mix of minigames range from well-worn rounds of Find the Hidden Object and casual puzzle solving to overhead perspective segments that defy easy description. These involve guiding rockets toward the juggernaut of a creature Ciela and Cid are continuously fighting, or else gunning down pods dispatched by said creature, making use of a reflecting laser in a little game that plays like Galaga with a twist. Lest the player become overwhelmed by all the different styles of minigame that pop up regularly, each is preceded by a thorough tutorial that can be reviewed at the player’s discretion. Casual gamers and longtime Square Enix fans alike should find them both interesting and accessible.
Imaginary Range doesn’t limit player interaction to minigames. Far from it! Its most interesting quirk must be how it blurs the line between story presentation and gameplay by requiring the player to gather items cleverly tucked within the manga panels as he or she flips through. These become important to Ciela’s and Cid’s progress, so the player may have to flip back a few pages in search of a missing article before the story can make way for the next minigame. Non-critical secrets award the player with coins that can be used to unlock concept art once the game ends. A completed playthrough also allows the player to access the most interesting minigames separately from the manga. Game Center or OpenFeint integration might have stretched Imaginary Range‘s replay value under these circumstances, but it appears these aren’t on tap in the initial release.
h.a.n.d., the development team responsible for Imaginary Range‘s technical implementation on iOS, did a commendable job building the diverse user interfaces required for its various modes and minigames. Most actions, from flipping through manga panels to hurling missiles at Ciela’s and Cid’s giant adversary, are reliably executed with swipes at pertinent objects; an item hidden in the comic book environment is captured once the player draws a circle around it. A single tap at the touchscreen while the game’s in comic mode summons an options menu, while a double tap zooms out from the current manga panel to an entire page — not necessarily an option the player will want to exercise on a tiny touchscreen. Other than my tendency to accidentally zoom from time to time, I could find nary a complaint with Imaginary Range‘s user interface.
It’s a shame that close-ups on character faces aren’t employed more often, as Toshiyuki Itahana – character designer for Final Fantasy IX and numerous franchise spinoffs – has risen to the top of his game here as far as I’m concerned. The game’s score may be extremely limited at a mere three tracks, but their dark ambient quality is well employed throughout. One playthrough should last two to three hours.
iFanzine Verdict: While it fails to be a truly engrossing comic/videogame crossover for lack of a coherent plot, Imaginary Range succeeds as a casual variety game thanks to its solid interface and daringly varied take on gameplay. Since it’s a freebie, you can’t go wrong looking into it for curiosity’s sake — just don’t expect much relation to Final Fantasy aside from a few playful nods here and there.