Fairy Fencer F (PlayStation 3, PC)
Developed by Compile Heart and Published by Idea Factory and NIS America
Release Date: September 16/19th, 2014 (NA/EU), October 10th, 2013 (Japan)
I remember when Compile Heart first announced Fairy Fencer F and a lot of people I knew both in and outside of videogame reviewing immediately talked about how bad it was going to be. But I was positive and quite excited for the title myself, I thought it sounded quite interesting and I had previously enjoyed last year’s Hyperdimension Neptunia V from the same developer and publisher. So yeah, I was quite hyped when I downloaded and installed the title on my PlayStation 3 a few days ago.
I was a damn fool.
Fairy Fencer F, the game doesn’t clarify what the F stands for, is a game that at first glance might seem to be trying to snare in the FINAL FANTASY fanbase. What with it’s soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu, logo and illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano and even a title that contains nothing but words beginning on the letter F. But if fans came here expecting anything in the style of a FINAL FANTASY game, they’ll quickly be disappointed.
If anything, Fairy Fencer F is trying to replicate the style of Compile Heart’s previous series, Hyperdimension Neptunia, while at the same time going for a more large-scale fantasy setting. That’s all well and good in my opinion, but the problems arise quite early on in terms of story and tone.
The story is quite easy to follow. Once upon a time there was a Goddess who was fighting an evil Vile God and rather than either being victorious, both succumbed to an eternal sleep by being impaled by swords known as furies. Inside these furies there are magical beings known as fairies, who work alongside whoever picked up one the furies in order to awaken the goddess once again. The people wielding the furies are known as fencers, hence the title of the game.
That’s it really. The plot gets more complex when more characters start getting introduced, but that’s what’s at the core and it never really changes. Which is fine, it’s not a bad set-up for a game and it gives the player a clear goal to work towards. But the problem with this story is not that it’s bare-bones, simplistic or a little uninspired. Not at all, the problem is that it’s poorly told.
The game can’t balance tone at all, flipping between serious moments and attempted comedic moments in such an awkward and badly done fashion that the serious writing don’t have any weight to them and the comedic writing just gets, at best, annoying. It doesn’t help that the attempts at comedy are often straight up unfunny, be it due to unfunny content in general or because the game doesn’t seem to understand what it is.
I’ll give an example, in the first dungeon of the game a character runs into a bandit. The bandit quips something about it being standard practice for a character like him to appear at this point in a game, and the character running into the bandit calls him an uninspired cliché. This attempt at parodying RPG elements worked for a game like Neptunia, but here it feels awkward and it gets worse when you realize that the game does nothing in its entire runtime to pretend to be anything but filled with clichés and overplayed videogame elements.
Every single character is an annoying archetype cranked up to their most annoying level in what I can only assume was an attempt to be funny that just comes off as aggravating. There’s nothing new or interesting about any of the characters or their behaviour among each other. If you told me the F in the title stood for formulaic then I would believe you in a second, because this is the most formulaic writing I’ve seen in a game in a long time. But if only that was the worst thing about the writing, if only.
It all doesn’t help when all the characters do is banter and yell at each other in essentially every cutscenes there is. No one is getting along, but it’s not entertaining and when the game then tries to have special “moments” with the characters later on it just comes off as fake and unnatural. Fang, the lead character, is meant to have this arc where he goes from a whiny nobody to a hero, but nothing in his development works and just comes off as a standard thing that had to happen because he was the main character. And then there are the female characters. Right …how should I approach this?
Well, I have this feeling that most reviewers, regardless of their opinion on the game, will be sharing their views on how the game portrays said female characters just like they would if it were a Neptunia game. Now, while Neptunia gets a lot of flack for its highly sexualized characters and constant reliance on fan-service, I personally felt that worked for the tone of the game. More importantly, I never felt like the game was making the female leads seem useless because they were women and not men. I can respect that.
However, in Fairy Fencer F that all goes out the window. It seems every odd event in the game requires a female character to need the help of one of the male characters no matter how well established of a fighter the female characters may be. We have multiple kidnappings of lead characters happening off-screen without clear explanation apart from “Oops, they got caught by someone” just so the male lead can get some time to shine. I suppose I should mention that the game likes to allude to sexual assault now and then when this happens too. Because it seems the only way Compile Heart knows of when it comes to creating threatening characters is writing them as rapists. Not saying game’s can’t feature such content, but it seemed very out of place.
And that’s just one of the issues with how the female characters are written in the game. Whenever they’re on screen and they’re not engaging in the annoying group-banter that’s constantly ongoing, they’re most likely either entranced by pretty boys to the point of not focusing on anything else or they’re pushing the main character to do things for them because he’s a man and they’re not. Every single female character has at least one moment of being presented as completely helpless and completely out of character at the same time.
Hell, I’ll actually go one step further than argue that the game even uses some fairly negative male stereotypes as well. The main character only seems motivated when he gets to stuff himself full of food and his simple-minded nature is played up in a manner that’s less funny and more saddening at times. But just because you write awful male characters doesn’t mean you get away with writing awful female characters, two wrongs don’t make a right and there are more than two wrongs in this game.
Moving away from that topic however, let’s talk about the localization which is actually pretty good. Just like Neptunia, NIS America handled the localization process. The writing in English never sounds off in terms of language and it even keeps some of the more obscure words from Japanese fiction here and there. I suppose this could confuse certain players, but it’s never a case of it being important information. Naturally there are references ranging from the Ghostbusters to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, your opinion on this may vary but I personally found it non-intrusive and fine. There was one bit however where NIS America had missed hopping to a new line so that a sentence wasn’t fully readable.
So, now that we’re over a thousand words into this thing I think we should talk about the gameplay. If you were hoping I was holding off gameplay because it’s the good part of the game, you’d be mistaken. However, it’s one of the lesser bad things when you consider the whole deal. The game has been called out as being a reskinned Hyperdimension Neptunia V and that’s essentially what it is.
The game is essentially a tour of dungeons connected through a worldmap. In these dungeons you’ll run around and battle enemies to gain experience and weapon points. While I’m sure you know how experience points work, weapon points is where the game gets a little interesting. You use weapon points to boost your weapon through stats, spells, special attacks, passive abilities and even how long you may keep a combo in the battle sequences.
When you’re in a battle, the game takes a turn-based form of you moving your character within a confined space and assigning a command before the next turn takes place. By dealing and taking damage, you can increase a character’s tension. When it reaches a certain amount you can use the Fairize command to merge your fencer with your fairy to up your stats and essentially become super-powered. It’s lifted from the CPU mode of the Neptunia games, and it serves its purpose well.
The game also uses a combo system that can break into a group attack where every character in your party will attack one enemy. This attack, and the combo system in general, is a nice touch but easily breaks a lot of the fights in terms of difficulty as you can suddenly get way too many hits in if you specialize in it. A bit of an annoyance comes out of the fact that you need to do a full combo even if you’ve already killed the enemy however, which just seems like a weird miss in the design.
Every character also have their own special ability that can be switched on or off during battle. For example, Fang has the ability to increase his attack stats further by going into Serious Face mode, but it will cause his regular attacks to use special points which would normally only be used for spells or special attacks. Meanwhile, Tiara, one of the female characters, has the ability to create a barrier for herself so that she can take more damage. Every ability has different pros and cons, which is a nice concept.
Unfortunately, for all the options that are available in the game, you’ll soon realize that there’s not much going for it. In a manner that reminded me of FINAL FANTASY XIII, I often found myself just hammering the attack button for long periods of time turned away from the TV because I realized I would win the battle without further strategy. I kept this up throughout the entire game and I’m honestly glad I did, because the battles get so repetitive and dull that focusing on other things while just blasting through them was preferred. You can also activate a thing called Symbol Attack which allows you to skip fights with lower enemies if you get the first strike on them. However, this takes away experience and gold drop from said enemies and isn’t really worth it.
Speaking of repetitive, the game is keen on constantly filling up your time by forcing you to play through the same stuff over and over again. I’m not just talking formulaic any more, I’m talking constantly reusing the same dungeon layouts while claiming they’re a different dungeon just to fill out the amount of content there is in the game. There’s even one bit in the story, which I won’t detail too much, where the game essentially forces you to replay certain segments of the game with the only change being that enemies are now tougher. Maybe the F stands for filler?
And more content might have been welcomed if the game wasn’t so incredibly easy to get through. There’s never a challenge in the game’s main story that you feel a need to overcome. Beating 2-3 enemies tops in whatever dungeon you’re in will give you the necessary level boost to take on the next boss without worrying about anything and sometimes the game seemingly is just throwing you free levels for no good reason other than an excuse to have higher numbers flash on screen.
That’s not to say the game won’t pretend things are hard though. More often than not the game will interrupt your boss battle with a cutscene about how hard the fight is, often resulting in some awkward dialogue and potential party switch before the battle starts over again. This happens no matter how well you played making it all seem very out of place. Multiple times I thought I defeated a boss and it turned out I just hurt it so much that the life bar was essentially depleted when the timed cutscene came in to tell me how bad I was doing. It’s quite infuriating to say the least.
And while the game wants to focus on group combat, it seems the only idea it has for simulating difficulty is to take out party members for contrived reason so that you’re fighting whatever boss your fighting one on one. However, since the character most likely is Fang, you can just do Serious Face and Fairize and you’ll have whatever you’re fighting right in the palm of your hand. I’m not one to ask for hard games, more often than not I prefer games that are of a milder difficulty. But I at least want there to be some challenge if the game wants me to both level up and go through moments of “Oh no this is so hard” in the forced cutscenes.
Ironically, the one time i can think of where I was actually having a lot of trouble with a fight, when I finally got out of it victorious the game had the characters talk about how easy it was. Which almost felt like the developers didn’t actually bother checking that the writing matched what they were designing. It was an odd fight in general since every fight leading up to it and coming after it was by far much easier than said one fight. If it was a side-quest it’d be okay, but it wasn’t, so it felt very out of place.
The game also never lets up on its tutorial messages, often throwing multiple ones at you in the same moment, causing you to confirm that you don’t want to read the help messages 2-3 times for each go. You can’t deactivate these messages and more often than not they’re not telling you anything you needed to know in the first place. It’s not often I see a game seemingly talk down as much to the player as Fairy Fencer F does, but with the tutorials and the forced cutscenes mention above it’s close to insulting.
The controls of the game feel quite off as well. When you’re not awkwardly jumping around on the world map, you’ll find yourself having a hard time properly aligning yourself up with the enemies in combat. Thankfully you can fine-tune your rotation with L1 and R1, but it feels like that shouldn’t be necessary most of the times. The camera is also very stilted in its movement and is better off left alone more often than not. And a word of warning, the game calls normal camera controls inverted and inverted normal for some reason.
I played the game for a total of seventeen in-game hours, with probably another hour or two lost due to one of the few tricky boss fights. This was how long the entire game took for me from start to finish which quite frankly might sound short for a JRPG. However, never have seventeen hours of a game felt so much closer to seventy. Perhaps it’d be a bit more forgiveable if the game didn’t force you to replay so much of the game in order to finish it. There are multiple endings that the player can achieve as well, I only unlocked the normal ending.
There’s a ton of side quests for the player to take part in, which can double or even triple your time spent with the game. While these side quest offer some of the more fun fights in the game, they’re not something worth getting into as it’s just more of the same boring gameplay as you’d experience in the main quest line, but with some slightly tougher enemies. After you finish the game you also unlock a New Game+ mode where you can restart the story with your levels intact from your previous run.
Let’s not pretend the game’s visuals is what people are here for. While the art-style is decent, the graphics of the game are not worthy of any praise. This is hardly new for people who’ve played Compile Heart’s games in the past, but at least with titles like Neptunia they would sometimes try and make the environments seem more appealing thanks to the world-design. With Fairy Fencer F‘s bland world it all just looks stale and outdated. If you told me it was an early Wii RPG scaled up to HD I would be somewhat more forgiving, but at the same time, even upscaled titles from the Wii look better than this a games like Tales of Graces F shows.
It doesn’t help that the framerate issues are worse here than they were in the Neptunia titles, with some areas of the game dropping down to what I’m quite sure was below ten frames per second when you were moving around. It’s completely unforgivable that a game that looks and plays like this would has these many issues, especially when Compile Heart has had plenty of time to learn the PlayStation 3 hardware in and out. I’m scared to see what they will end up putting on the PlayStation 4 at this point if they still haven’t learned basic optimization, let alone somehow gotten worse at it.
I will praise the game’s voice acting however. The English dub actors do a great job of delivering their lines and I rarely if ever stumbled on some of the bad acting that you might be worried might be a given for a more niche title like this. The game also offers the ability to switch to Japanese voices if you prefer that. I listened briefly to the Japanese voices and they seemed good as well, but I played with English voices for the sake of the review. So points for good English dubbing and including both options, well done NIS America. Have a gold star.
The soundtrack by the legendary Uematsu is unfortunately not that amazing. It’s certainly not bad and a few of the tunes are catchy. But most of the memorable tracks would be the vocal tracks, and that’s hardly for the composition unfortunately. I do like how different characters have different insert songs when they transform with the Fairize command, making it feel very sentai-esque, which I can dig a whole lot. I’d compare the vocal tracks somewhat to the boss theme from Blue Dragon, another Uematsu composed game, but it’s not really as fun or energetic as that tune was.
I’m afraid I don’t have many kind words about Fairy Fencer F as a game. All the very few moments of potential are quickly squashed by the terrible writing, the annoying characters, the repetitive gameplay and the insulting design. It’s like Compile Heart decided to collect the worst bits of the most mediocre and sub-par RPG titles of the last generation and give you the full tour of them. After the hours I spent on this game I think it’s clear what the F actually stands for; a fiasco.
Now give me back my gold star.