I never thought I'd be so excited to say “It's time to Fairize!” Never thought I'd say that at all.
I've got to start this review off with a couple of disclaimers so you all can get the full picture. First is the fact that of the three prongs that make up how this game moves forward a big one of them is visual novel sequences. Therefore I'm going to be critiquing the viability and structure of a kooky story as much as the quality of the game.
The second caveat is that as a reviewer when I'm looking at a sub-sub-genre game (as these entries from Compile Heart and co are) then it's more important to take into account how the established fan base will receive it than whether or not it stands up to full genre games. In other words Fair Fencer F is apples and oranges to any Tales game or the like.
Thanks for indulging me with that, now onto the review proper.
Things begin inauspiciously. The main character Fang is in jail for stealing some bread (all he does is talk about food) and his fairy friend Eryn (whose presence is explained through a flashback) is there to break him out. He says he'd rather stay because he gets free food and can sleep all he wants. So much for a brave hero at the center of this narrative, but after you get past this gratingly painful beginning to the visual novel sequences I promise things pick up.
Eryn and the first new character you encounter Tiara take pains to explain the plot. A long time ago a great Goddess and a Vile God fought a massive battle. In the end they unleashed a torrent of swords upon one another, managing to pin each to the ground. There they slept for eons. Not all the swords hit their mark and are now all over the world, perhaps even a hundred of them. They each have a fairy inside. The mission of a Fencer is to find them all and awaken the Goddess. Fang has become a fencer because he casually pulled a sword from a stone, freeing Eryn, with the hopes of … *sigh*, getting something to eat, since someone told him whoever pulls the sword out gets a wish granted.
Tiara is the first Fencer you encounter and she provides access to the realm where you can interact with the Goddess and Vile God. She also seems to have her own secrets, ulterior motives, and an unusual fetish. Yes this game follows in the footsteps of its predecessors with innuendo but it isn't quite as in your face and flamboyant as we saw in the Hyperdimension Neptunia games. As more characters and Fencers pile into the story the framework for their personalities which wasn't so interesting now begins to work as a structure from which a lot of callback humor and interpersonal dispute hilarity makes the story work increasingly appealingly. Even the folks you're supposed to dislike are more in the realm of love to hate as opposed to super annoying, which can plague the sub-sub-genre.
Pacing in the visual novel is not a strong suit in recent years, but FFF seems to get it right. I don't recall any spots where I got stuck navigating an extremely lengthy skit before I could get back to what I wanted to do. One way this is achieved is by making many of the skits a part of the optional gameplay elements instead of mandatory. As a final word on the story, you'll learn to like these characters and love their antics rather than fall for them right away.
I mentioned above that there's a three pronged approach to these kinda of games and FFF is no different. There's the visual novel, there's the dungeon combat, and there's the customization (see: fun, geeky., menu navigation and point allocation).
Towns and cut scenes are part of the visual novel. You navigate by point and click menu and talk to people and enter shops from pictures. These areas are 2D backdrops and gamers who are looking for big 3D worlds will need to keep going. Each area will be marked if it has an event or conversation ready in it. You can also pick up requests at the bar because you will need some money for potions and equipment as it's kind of scarce, plus you'll have to pay an uppity little girl for information. Other important pieces of story will occur unbidden as you progress. Customizing the look of your characters with new gear is addicting if you're like me and can't help but give them all a personal touch.
The term “dungeons” is used loosely. Any area where you can fight is a dungeon, including easygoing countryside with little carrot enemies. They have obvious boundaries, obvious item pickups, and enemies roaming about. If you swipe your sword at the right time you can get a “symbol” attack that gives you a preemptive strike, fail the timing and you are ambushed. It's actually harder than it sounds. The battles will seem incredibly similar to fans of Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2 and HN Victory except that they are faster, more involved, and much more fun. The battles are turn-based. When someone in your party gets a turn they have a circle of influence that they can run freely within and decide what to do. Initially you have a single physical attack, one special move, and one magic spell to try out. These are courtesy of your fairy Eryn. Later on you can get more goodies and the ability to create wicked combos, which comes into play with the menu fun later. Abilities are in the menu that comes up with your turn and they cost SP to use, some heavy hitters even cost HP a la the Persona series.
The development team has described the battle system as an evolved form of the Neptunia one and in this I declare they have succeeded. Transformations in those games were nearly pointless, they made you look good but cost all the points you needed for special moves and barely raised your powers. In Fairy Fencer F you will have a gauge of general frustration that raises when you are hit or land attacks. When it reaches a certain point you can “Fairize!” If you like anime, it's just plain ultra cool and also very familiar transformation sequences. When you do this there is a cut scene that adds your new armor and initiates an exciting music track. Since this game is made by masters of satire, it makes fun of itself for all of this. Most importantly, Fairizing is very helpful but doesn't last forever. Use it wisely on major foes or use it just to have some fun in general encounters.
The battles have a drawback that should have been dealt with, whenever it is someone's turn, including an enemy, the camera focuses on them. So you can have the camera jarringly bouncing through enemy turns. It's annoying.
A final word on the battles before dealing with how the true RPG customization comes in, your physical attack is not just a boring swipe. It is something you can advance into combos. These combos can be extended into longer ones as you progress, and you can customize which ones are mapped to which buttons. So doing something awesome is just a matter of preprogramming into the face buttons. Remember though, the game is still turn based, this does not turn it into an action RPG. It's a bold decision not to make that leap and it works very well while making the older Neptunia system more fun.
On the field there are save points, exit points, and story progression points. It's always a good to save before walking into those orange progression points. I caught a serious flaw here, sometimes you are just walking into a visual novel sequence and sometimes you are walking into a boss fight that you can't run from.
The character customization is deceptively simple. You earn weapon points, WP, and divvy them out to whichever areas you want to expand. What makes this system so easily brilliant is that there are dozens of parameters that can be increased. Something unique is the ability to learn moves that are best pared with certain kinds of weapons: swords, glaves, scythes, etc. You can increase all the common things like strength and defense, you can increase your combo count, learn new combo attacks, learn new special moves, learn field abilities, learn new spells, create resistances, cause status based attacks, etc. The list goes on and on but WP are not super plentiful. Where you put them will define your character heavily. Trying to make a balanced character is difficult because of the number of parameters. This forces you to build a team of specialists. It also makes you want to take on side quests to earn WP. In recent times developers have squashed the ability to create overpowered teams, not so here. If you are willing to grind you will reap the benefits of doing it. If you don't want to grind you can get through the game with a reasonable amount of fighting.
In addition to WP there are also swords with fairies in them that you can collect. By using the sword to release a hold on the Goddess or the Vile God you can earn new abilities unreachable with WP. Who would help the Vile God though? Right? Ehhhh. It's something that hangs over your lust for powers. When you then use the fairy that helped you, you'll gain that ability. This is irreversible.
On the map you have to open up new areas by stabbing a sword and its fairy into the ground. If you leave it there you will have special conditions active inside the dungeon, if you pull it out then you can use the fairy's normal abilities inside the dungeon.
Graphically Fairy Fencer F is has some improvements over previous games by this team, namely more and better realized 3D models, but it just isn't pretty in general. Nothing is smooth and the nasty frame rate issue is back. This makes timing your symbol attacks difficult. I had thought that it was almost licked with Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory but Fairy Fencer F takes a step back and needed a little more polish on the frame rate front. Unfortunately there are also some very obvious missing animations, making things happen via shortcuts during the otherwise really cool special moves and transformations. It's a reality, but it quickly vanishes from the player's care because of the fun one has executing all these creative plans that mimic anime battles.
Story cut scenes using the 3D models are rare. Most are done in visual novel style but having some more things happen with the character models would have mixed things up even if they aren't beautiful. One spot where things come off without a hitch are the victory poses, which I couldn't get enough of.
The visual novel background art is nothing special but also more than adequate. It has a medium level of detail. The characters are well drawn and full of extra details. They breathe, move to represent position, react to situations, and speak during most cut scenes. That all keeps things interesting while the story jogs along.
The sound has some great things going for it. We've got a little Final Fantasy talent on board and it's clear in the very broad range of music Fairy Fencer F offers. Music follows and sets the mood of every location, transformation, and conversation. From moody and contemplative serious fantasy to goofy encounters to exciting metal jams FFF just keeps it coming. The only drawback is I caught some medium balancing issues while the tracks overlap each other. Sound effects are nice and crisp but there clearly needed to be more; some are just missing where they should be present.
Now the question every JRPGer wants answered, how's the language? Well, sorry folks. You don't want to play this in English. While some actors are really quite good like Eryn, others are simply not believable. There seems to be some casting issues, the main character Fang is pretty bad and you don't want to put yourself through his obnoxiousness. This analysis is coming from someone who often plays Hyperdimension in English. I don't blindly believe the original Japanese is always better, but for this game it is leaps and bounds ahead. Well cast, excellently performed, and wonderfully timed, the Japanese language option is the way to go.
The game has some solid staying power worth extra playthroughs for the hardcore. Your decisions will affect the ending you get and how your friends treat you. There are endless ways to customize your team and specialize which weapons they use. Plus there's that nagging question: what will happen if I use my fairies to pull swords out of the Vile God and set him free?
Fairy Fencer F is a big step forward for Compile Heart but not quite the realization of what these kinds of games are capable of in terms of quality. Most fans simply won't care about the quality issues, I didn't, but they are integral to a purchase decision so I've laid them bare for you. Compile Heart has taken an amazing journey on PS3 from the almost unplayable first Hyperdimension game to this well paced, fun-filled jaunt. Folks who are interested in the structure or know the brand couldn't possible be disappointed. Folks looking for what amounts to a mainstream JRPG would be shocked that anyone plays this kind of game.