Welcome back to the In-App Purchase Inspector- our regular look at free-to-play games from the consumer's perspective.
In each instalment, we consider the incentives or pressure applied to make in-app purchases, their perceived value, the expansion offered by IAPs and the overall value of the experience.
The end goal is to see whether the game makes a good enough case for us to part with our cash, or whether players are content - or engaged enough - to 'freeload'.
This time, we're taking a look at Bandai Namco's Tales of LINK, the F2P spin-off of the long-running JRPG series.
The tale continues
The Tales series is one of those franchises that's been around for what feels like forever - just over 20 years, in reality - but has consistently remained unknown to all but the most hardcore western gamers.
For a western mobile gaming audience, it's a tricky proposition.
This is different in Japan, of course, where the series enjoys the bulk of its success and is spun off into other media such as manga, anime, and audio drama.
But for a western mobile gaming audience, this makes Tales of LINK a tricky proposition.
It's a free-to-play mobile spin-off of a series that most will have never played, not to mention one that mixes elements of traditional JRPG with a combat system based on matching puzzle gameplay.
In practise, it's nowhere near as alienating as it appears.
The plot's JRPG 101, all dialogue is entirely optional, and references to the main series are either non-existent or subtle enough to go unnoticed by newbies.
Furthermore, while there clearly is a depth and complexity to Tales of LINK - each party member has their own skills, can be equipped with various items, and levels up along the way - you can also survive for a good while by quite mindlessly matching colours.
You can survive for a good while by just mindlessly matching colours.
It's always interesting to see how a company like Bandai Namco approaches free-to-play, especially when expanding a series that made its name on console.
Puzzle mechanics make Tales of LINK accessible to new players, but how does monetisation impact upon the experience?
The Japanese heritage of Tales of LINK is unmistakable, and this is also the case with its monetisation.
Taking the typically more generous approach to free gifts and login rewards, you're immediately bombarded with splash screens telling you how much new stuff you've been given.
The presentation of these free gifts also differs from that seen in the majority of western free-to-play titles, as all have to be manually redeemed in your 'Presents' menu.
The monetisation is built primarily around a gacha system.
It's an unnecessary additional step that could cause confusion, perhaps, but there's something about selecting 'Redeem All' on a list of 20-odd freebies that makes the reward feel more tangible than if it were automated.
In another example of typically Japanese F2P design, the monetisation is built primarily around a gacha system.
Hero Stones, effectively the game's hard currency, are used to summon random new characters. Hero Points do the same for gear.
Hero Stones don't come cheap, with packs ranging from 1 for $0.99 to 130 for $69.99 (working out at approximately $5 per character), which is slightly at odds with the rate at which they're doled out.
Yes, this is a game of plenty. Much like fellow Japanese titles Rune Story and Downtown Showdown, the generosity is much appreciated, but it does beg the question why anyone would bother to fork out cash for IAPs.
There's a focus on retention first and revenue second.
Why would you pay $0.99 for a single Hero Stone when you can get the same reward simply for completing a quest for the first time?
Even the energy system - something I'm not ordinarily a huge fan of - restores at a rate of 1 every 5 minutes, making it particularly difficult to deplete even with a concerted effort to do so.
It all points to a focus on retention first and revenue second, which is understandable.
Released by a firm for whom mobile is a secondary focus, and leveraging a franchise with such a cult following, Tales of LINK's biggest objective is to satisfy the fans. If it picks up any more along the way - and if they happen to spend money - even better.
It's perhaps naive to assume that any developer could be so casual about their game's chances of generating revenue, but that's just how its monetisation feels as a consumer: casual.
And while this player-first philosophy is something I advocate, there are arguments to be had from a user experience angle about whether it's the right approach, too.
It'd be churlish to complain about the game being too generous.
For example, this is an RPG in which Level Points, the resource with which you level up your heroes, is in near limitless supply.
It devalues the feeling of progress, and makes me feel as though I've cheated somehow.
An embarrassment of riches
It's unclear the extent to which it's been altered for the western market, but one wonders whether just a few more tight-fisted killjoys on the team to apply limiters could have helped the game to strike a sweeter balance.
It'd be churlish to complain about the game being too generous, though, and for the most part Tales of LINK presents exactly what the average player is looking for: it's reasonably fun, deep, and its IAPs very strictly optional.
If the biggest criticism that can be levelled at you is your excessive generosity, then, by the standards of this column, you've done pretty well indeed.