Neopets: the virtual pet-cum-conglomeration that's thrilled children the world over! It's one of those phenomena that anybody who's graduated from high school probably doesn't totally understand, but everybody has some kid, cousin, girlfriend, or little sister who is absolutely obsessed with the overtly cute Neopets. Something like a web version of Pokemon or Tamagotchi, Neopets originally started off with only a few creatures, some simple flash games, and a few shops from which you could purchase items for your chosen pet. It's hard to ignore the massive amounts of merchandise being spawned from the Neoverse: a trading card game, a magazine, licensing deals with McDonald's and General Mills Cereal, and an ever-expanding world in which to play. Now there is a video game.
For the first time, though, Neofans can experience Neopia in fully-realized 3D. The Darkest Faerie, set primarily in the country of Meridell, tells the tale of Tormund, a country-bumpkin Lupe (an anthropomorphic dog of sorts) who longs to be a knight, and Roberta, an Acara who serves as a young diplomat for the Kingdom of Brightvale. The story itself is fairly standard for this type of game. Meridell is a medieval world, complete with knights, evil magicians, small hamlets nestled in the woods, and a great evil poised to spread over the land. The Darkest Faerie, the principal villain of the narrative, has escaped from her prison under the sea and now seeks to control all of Neopia, including Faerieland, by enveloping it in evil, purple clouds. One by one, each kingdom begins to fall under her control, as well as its citizens. It is up to our two heroes, who have, by certain means, obtained amulets which shield them from this curse, to save the day.
Let's rewind, though, as that's getting a bit ahead. The first couple acts of the game have you playing only as Tormund (Tor, for short) on his quest to become a knight. Well, it's more like a quest to deliver his father's package to Meridell Castle, with Tor more or less stumbling into his destiny along the way. It plays into the young Lupe's plans, though, as he always did want to become a knight. The early parts of the game have you doing the requisite tasks for your family, villagers, and denizens of the castle. Some of them are designed to introduce the player to gameplay elements while others are simply there to progress the narrative. Thankfully, these tasks almost never take up an extraordinary amount of time and this part of the game moves surprisingly fast. Later on, you'll find more side-quests of these sorts, but at that point they become largely optional. Once Tor finally earns his knighthood, the real story begins. A messenger arrives in the court of Meridell's king, with word that the idyllic Illusen's Glade has been attacked by Werelupes, as nasty a bunch as they sound, and that the aforementioned purple clouds have begun appearing over the forest. When no knights return from their excursion to the region, it is up to Tor to fight back and rescue them.
It isn't too long after this when you get to play as Roberta, on a diplomatic mission to Queen Fyora of Faerieland. Maligning her duties, she convinces her mentor to finally begin teaching her magic. As you could probably predict, foul happenings are afoot, and eventually Roberta meets Tor. After that, you can switch between the two at any time; Tor providing a more powerful attack and longer health bar, Roberta equipped with long-range magic attacks and more mana to back it up.
So, the story is fairly standard, but it never feels like it is more ambitious than it needs to be. Despite what might be expected for a game with a theme like this, both Tor and Roberta are likeable protagonists, never lapsing into angsty tirades or an acute reluctance to accept their destinies.
In fact, The Darkest Faerie, as a whole, seems to succeed in most of what it tries to accomplish. Developer Idol Minds has done a bang-up job with this game, proving that it can create a game that's more than just a cash-in on a popular franchise, despite never working on a game like this before.
Neopets pans out like a Zelda quest, sans the handy tools which characterize that particular series' puzzles. Nonetheless, there are a lot of things to pick up and an expansive map to explore. What is perhaps most thrilling is that Meridell and the surrounding areas are one contiguous world. There is the occasional 3-5 second pause when entering a new area, but you don't have to deal with loading screens or anything like that. You can also see things in the distance. Much like the recent Dragon Quest VIII, the countryside is bright and visually appealing. The color palette is just as you'd expect from Neopets, but it feels entirely appropriate. This doesn't restrict the game from dark tones, though, as even deep forests and swamps are complete with gloomy atmosphere. It is reminiscent of the vibrancy found in the Jak and Ratchet series. The animation of the characters is quite well done, too. As the icing on the cake, The Darkest Faerie almost always runs at a great frame rate. To be honest, I can't remember it dipping once. There are a few glitches here and there. Occasionally a monster will clip through the scenery or something along those lines, but there was never an instance where I had to go and load up my last save. The only real sore spot concerning the graphics are during the FMV cutscenes. They are choppy with iffy resolution and look like they were ripped out of an early PS1 title.
As for sound, the game is populated with fitting medieval ditties that evoke the feeling of being in a renaissance fair. In fact, the whole game gives off that vibe, with anthropomorphic Neopets running around towns in tunics and armor. Honestly, the sound effects could use a little work, though, as weapon strikes don't feel very convincing, but on the other hand, the voice acting is more than competent most of the time.
Everything sounds quite nice by now, I'm sure, so I'm happy to relate that the gameplay is actually pretty strong in Neopets, with an emphasis placed on new ideas and convenience in accessing them. Unfortunately, anybody looking for the "virtual pet" aspects of the online game won't find them here as The Darkest Faerie is an action-adventure through and through. Still, that is what the website is for and it's good to see Idol Minds go in this direction instead.
The control scheme is well handled, with the face buttons being mapped to the essential commands. X is jump, square is sneak/interact/use, circle is attack, R1 is for running fast, L1 to block with a shield, and triangle is for using a selected item. The directional pad gives you quick access to your items, quests, the current map, and your supply of motes. Most of these can also be found on your status screen, brought up by pressing start, but the convenience is nice. As far as combat is concerned, your options are surprisingly varied. Pressing circle repeatedly does a standard rapid attack, though a more powerful attack can be performed by timing your strikes. Every time you end a swing, the tip of your weapon will glow, at which point you should immediately hit circle again. Other techniques include a spin attack, which can be pulled off by spinning the analog stick and then hitting the attack button, or a dashing strike requiring the player to pull back on the analog stick and then push forward while attacking.
The power-up attack is an especially useful technique, as it makes use of the motes which you pick up during your journey. Motes are elemental orbs with little faces on them that can be attached to your character's weapon, armor, or shield. They can be used to reflect elemental attacks or do more damage to an enemy of the opposite alignment. Motes must be used with caution, though, as some are rarer than other, and each attack taken or given involving a mote depletes that particular mote's reserves. The only way to replenish them is to find more or buy them from a shop. Motes also allow you to open special treasure chests that must be attacked with a certain element.
You'll also find various items throughout the game that replenish HP, MP, or cure status effects. Some enemies can do a fair amount of damage, so it is always good to have a health item in your quick-use slot. A few rare items increase your health/magic meters, though these, of course, are tougher to find. Items also serve as food for petpets, small creatures which are almost like Neopets for…Neopets. If you happen to find one wandering around the environment, try walking up and feeding it. It'll usually follow you around and boost one of your stats, slowly regenerate health, etc. Each petpet has a meter that ticks down to the time it will leave, but as long as you keep them fed, they'll stick with you. Sometimes a lack of items can get you in a pinch, so it's always a good idea to break some pots or cut down foliage, as they tend to yield a few here and there. What helps is that all of these items and petpets should be fairly familiar to longtime fans.
Neopets: The Darkest Faerie is a surprisingly strong game that does so many of the fundamental things right. Smooth, colorful graphics, a respectable score, a working camera (I can't stress this enough), and a 15-20 hour action-adventure quest are good points for which almost any game should strive. Indeed, in some areas, the game never quite reaches the pinnacles that it could, and there are no doubt many people out there that won't take to the Neopets theme, but those who do should be immensely surprised by the quality title that Idol Minds has shaped here. I'm not much of a NeoPets fan, myself, but even I was taken aback by this enjoyable game. If you are disappointed by the lack of "virtual pet" simulation in The Darkest Faerie, though, there is a PSP title in development called PetPet Adventure. Hopefully it will get the same treatment as this one did.