Monday, December 02, 2013

Review: Fey

Title: Fey
Developer: Ashes of Emerald
Genre: Action/Adventure
Program: RPGMaker 2003

Fey is an ABS-based game that tells the story of Landon, who I think is searching for an artefact called the fire stone in order to save a relative; the truth is that I actually don't have a clue what the motive behind their quest is because the storytelling is incredibly fragmented. The background to the story is told through a series of flashbacks that unravel themselves as the quest progresses, the problem being that the gaps between each flash-back are too large for anything to really stick. The upshot of this is that I found it very hard to give a damn about any of the characters in this game, so much so that I didn't feel like the game had hooked me at the point where I had to stop playing (more on that later), so instead of trying to talk about the storyline (which I get the impression I didn't see enough of the game to comment on too much) I'll mostly be focusing on the gameplay.

I'll start with the dungeon-exploration, which is very well worked in this game. There is always something to vault over, jump across, dangle from, creep along, cut down or blow up. The developer has done a good job of diversifying the type of actions required to get through each dungeon, maintaining a good mix of platforming, labyrinths, puzzles and stealth. In many ways, it's the way that these exploration elements are linked together that makes them stand out. Having different elements is all well-and-good, but if the player only has to utilise a couple of them at a time then does it really count as diversity? Fey generally makes sure that each element available to you is utilised throughout the course of any given area. Importantly, the levels themselves are also diversified really well, ranging from burning-down ships to snow-covered hills to dimly-lit dungeons to heavily guarded prisons; such variety keeps things interesting by allowing you to exploit the wide variety of actions available to the hero in a range of different contexts. 

There are a lot of things to interact with in this game, all of which have helpful tooltips to make themselves obvious.

Combat in Fey utilises an ABS, which I feel obliged to point out is something RPGMaker games have traditionally done badly. The RPGMaker engine has a number of limitations that make it difficult to create an efficient ABS, the most prominent of which is tile-based movement, and this is because RPGMaker was ultimately designed so that developers could quickly replicate the Final Fantasy series rather than the Legend of Zelda series. Despite these limitations, the ABS in Fey actually lets you control your character very smoothly; everything works as advertised and you never feel like you're being hamstrung by either the engine or the developer's own execution of the battle system... which would be amazing if the enemy AI wasn't god-awful. 

Enemies in this game fall into one of two categories; they are either completely non-threatening or are ridiculously zealous. The non-threatening enemies are set on random paths and make little attempt to attack them unless you're stupid enough to walk straight into them without swinging your sword. What this means is that there isn't any challenge involved in avoiding damage from these enemies, which means that they might as well not be on the screen because they don't serve any purpose whatsoever!

As for the zealous enemies, their presence quickly exposes a secondary problem; that most of the maps simply weren't designed with combat in mind. As I've already said, the maps are really fun to explore and look great, but a lot of them simply don't give you enough room to fight enemies that continuously run at you. Once enough of these enemies are on the screen, you actually need a decent amount of room to fight them in else you're quickly going to get surrounded and pounded into the floor; despite this, such enemies were too often situated in areas where there simply wasn't enough room to deal with them. This led to very frustrating battle sequences, a good example being a pirate ship level that is almost entirely made up of narrow corridors and tiny rooms.

Nor did there seem to be any enemies that reacted to what the hero was doing; there weren't any enemies that transitioned between aggressive and passive dependent on things like how close the hero was to them, how badly they were injured, whether the hero happened to be facing them, or any other form of simple reaction that might come to mind. They either kept coming or kept dawdling about as if you weren't there, which meant that enemy encounters quickly became dull despite how well polished the battle-system is from a mechanistic point of view.

Beautiful as they may be, many levels are too narrow for the combat system to work properly.

The major thing that this game does badly are quick-time events (QTEs). For those that don't know, QTEs are prompts that pop-up on the screen during cutscenes, which then go on to influence how the cutscene pans out. They can be quite a controversial addition to a game as there are quite a lot of people that flat-out don't like them, but I'm not one of those people; what I don't like about them in this game is that they're the most blatant exhibition of developer difficulty that I've ever seen. 

Except for the few occasions were the game makes it blatantly obvious that a QTE is about to happen, it's nigh on impossible to hit them the first time around because they're simple not on the screen long enough. In more extreme circumstances, it's nigh on impossible to hit the QTE properly even when you know exactly when it's going to happen and know exactly which button you're gonna have to press! What makes these events even more frustrating is that they often lead straight to a game over screen if you fuck them up; in a game were dying in combat doesn't lead to a game over screen (at least if you're using the default settings) this is really fucking annoying. 

This QTE was impassable for me. Mashing Z continuously did nothing, hitting it perfectly did nothing, trying the same with a range of other common RM2K3 keys didn't do anything either. All I kept seeing was the "game over" screen. This is where I quit playing...

EDIT (10/12/2013): It turns out that the above image isn't a case of the game being broken or the QTE being overly difficult, but instead a situation were the developer decided to use a fake game-over sequence. This actually reinforces my point about the QTEs being bullshit; because the game had conditioned me to treat them as if I was always going to fail them the first time around, every subsequent "failure" that I had resulted in me instantly hitting the reset button to try it again. My mind didn't think for one second that the game over screen was fake because I'd become so accustomed to seeing it. Ultimately, it pissed me off at the time and it still pisses me off even if I now know why I couldn't get the QTE to trigger. Fake game-overs are pretty stupid anyway, so I stand by what I've said.

One thing I can't criticise in this game are the graphics. I can't think of a single thing that didn't look beautiful. The stand-out element is how well the main character is animated; whether they're fighting, running, jumping, slinking along walls or dangling off cliff faces, the animations used are absolutely perfect. For example, I may have criticised QTEs for being difficult to play through, but what I can't criticise are the animations contained within; they almost made failing worth it just to see what befell the hero when the QTE didn't trigger! The sound effects and music aren't too shabby either, even if they don't play as large a part as the graphics do; they fit in well, never detract from what's happening on the screen, and they're even important for one of the minigames (lockpicking), so make sure you don't blast music over the top of the game!

No comment necessary.

Fey contains a lot of good ideas and, in a strictly mechanical sense, they're very well executed. It's also an incredibly beautiful game, with amazing animations that are pretty unmatched as far as recent RM2K3 games go. Unfortunately, problems such as dull enemy AI, "developer difficulty" (and sometimes flat-out broken) quick-time events and a scatter-brained narrative ruin what would otherwise be a stellar effort. 5/10.