Granblue Fantasy Relink and the challenge of translating a domestic RPG phenomenon into a global success

Granblue Fantasy: Relink
(Image credit: Cygames)

It's difficult to please everyone, especially when you're releasing a new game in a long-running franchise. Do you appease the diehard fan, or reach out to new audiences? Is it even possible to translate and make a domestic phenomenon accessible while retaining the depth and breadth that made local fans fall in love with it in the first place?

This was the decade-long challenge facing Cygames when they sought to expand the world of their skyfaring mobile RPG Granblue Fantasy to consoles. At first entrusting the task to Platinum Games, the struggle to find this answer led the company to restart development in-house, subjecting the project to heavy delays in an effort to bring the baby that transformed their company into one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in Japan to a wider audience. As the team plugged away in search for an answer, they loaned out the IP to fighting game veterans Arc System Works.

Granblue Fantasy Versus was a worldwide success, but it wasn't the answer. It had only a minimal, non-canon storyline and lifted the characters into the world of fighting games rather than translating the experience of the original title to a new platform. Luckily for Cygames, the new Granblue Fantasy Relink seems to deliver on its lofty original promise: not only is it a highly entertaining and polished story-driven action RPG honoring its roots, it provides a blueprint for fellow Japanese developers seeking to bridge a language and cultural divide in broadening their domestic darling to a global audience.

Worldwide wonder

Granblue Fantasy: Relink

(Image credit: Cygames)

Although the mobile and browser game has been available in English for most of its nearly-10-year existence, the series remains relatively unknown outside of Japan. And while it's a grand RPG adventure set in the Sky Realm - a world of disconnected islands floating amidst the clouds - where you're tasked with saving the world countless times on a journey to find your father on the mythical island of Estalucia, the enduring appeal is less in this main quest and more in the grandiose lore and characters hidden within.

Indeed, at times it can feel like this core storyline is merely an aside for something far larger (and, necessary in a gacha game, unlikely to end as long as it generates a profit). You'll save the world and make steps towards this mythic land as you dive deeper into the world of Granblue, but you'll spend far more time plundering in secondary, character-driven mundane tales of daily life from its over-1000 strong cast of characters, or participating in timed adventures that feel like snapshots into a life of adventure. It's easy to get lost for thousands of hours and still have something new to enjoy.

This living world is the heart of Granblue Fantasy, one which explains how this franchise remains in the top 50 highest-grossing games on iOS with broad multimedia expansion into manga, anime, in-person festivals and concerts, a permanent-themed cafe and more. Yet this breadth and variety of content is exactly what makes the series so inaccessible to newcomers, especially for an international audience for whom much of this expansive world is inaccessible outside of its home country.

Granblue Fantasy: Relink

(Image credit: Cygames)

That's before considering the technical difficulty of this task, of course. Relink is ambitious, transforming the watercolor sketches of the Sky Realm into something tangible, adhering to the intent of the original while updating its gameplay and design for differing expectations on more advanced hardware. It requires balance: your cast of characters are the familiar crew of the airship Grandcypher from the original game – including the mysterious blue-haired girl Lyria, Katalina, your flying companion Vyrn and more – but the story is entirely original. Here, Lyria is captured by members of the mysterious Church of Avia upon entering a new region of the Skydom after losing control of her summon Bahamut to ensure everyone is on the same page.

While the characters are already good friends and the technical jargon is thrown around almost immediately without much fanfare or explanation, the game is more than accommodating in filling in the blanks. One of the most extensive glossaries - complete with relevant backstory for events prior to Relink's beginning, alongside playable Fate Stories to introduce the lore and motivations of every core and side character - are waiting at your fingertips. Rather than sitting forgotten in the menu as such encyclopedias typically are, the game motivates players to seek out answers by tying them to quests or offering stat boosts for completing Fate Stories, each bringing tangible rewards to the pursuit of knowledge.

It helps that these addendums are not only written with newcomers in mind and expertly-translated, but also entertaining and effortless. Even gameplay retains the core of the original experience while understanding the necessity for change to appeal to audience expectations on new hardware. By losing the turn-based content of the original, we in essence retain the chain combos and special charge attacks in the form of Skybound Arts, allowing players to deal large amounts of damage and execute even more lavish and deadly finishing movies if conducted in conjunction with other players.

Fan-favorite side characters are a pleasing playable inclusion for players like myself while remaining optional and absent from the story beyond the core crew to avoid appearing overwhelming. As with everything, it's all about balance: I'm glad I can unleash chaos on my enemies with the gremlin herself, Cagliostro, yet no newcomer will complain about having over 20 characters with unique weapon and playing styles to mess about with, from magic to whips to swords and more.

Granblue Fantasy: Relink

(Image credit: Cygames)

"It makes the Sky Realm feel more vast and inviting than I had ever imagined it to be, longing for the impossible chance to jump into an airship of my own and adventure into the great unknown."

While I've drifted in and out of the mobile game over the course of the last few years personally, finally stepping through these towns in such a well-realized form through the lens of an all-new story has been pretty emotional. I've caught myself idly gawking at the environments and characters, seeing the watercolor artwork I recognize from playing or attending art exhibits (such as the recent Cygames Exhibition) finally brought to life in such a tangible way.

It's made the Sky Realm feel more vast and inviting than I'd ever imagined, and I've longing for the impossible chance to jump into an airship of my own and adventure into the great unknown. Better still, with this new game finally convincing friends to give the series a chance, I can now form my own crew to join me on this endeavor.

It's always a challenge to transform a domestic success story into a global phenomenon. Yet Granblue Fantasy Relink is proof that, if you retain the essence of what attracted people to the series in the first place and leave an open door, new players will give it a chance, even if just to see what all the fuss was about. If you make it fun, they might even stay. Despite launching between new entries in more established franchises in Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth and Persona 3: Reload, it is Relink that attracted a higher peak player count on Steam in its opening days of release.

Relink feels truly unique, in some ways a callback to a prior era of design inspired by its origins (for better and for worse), yet also one that feels like a true spectacle and joy to play, elevating its source material into something I can't help but admire. By embracing its new home without forgetting what made the series unique, this team has taken the franchise from the smallest screens possible to the largest, all while condensing a 10-year epic into something manageable. It's a success, and a mighty enjoyable one at that.

Who knows, maybe when you're done, you could be tempted to dive in further. That's perhaps the best thing about Relink: it's an invitation to something more. If you like what you discover from this world with this experience, well. This is only the beginning.

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Alicia Haddick is a freelance writer based in Japan specializing in gaming, film and animation coverage on the industry and indie gaming scene in Japan. After graduating with a degree in Japanese, they moved to Japan to work within the country they center much of their reporting. They have particular experience with covering events in Japan such as Tokyo Film Festival, Bitsummit and Tokyo Game Show, and specialize in broaching the language gap between Japanese and English while reporting on the ever-exciting and constantly-changing world of entertainment in Japan.