Publisher: Nyu Media
Big things can come in small packages. The inexorable rise of the indie scene proves that dedicated designers can overcome tiny budgets and miniscule resources with big ideas, innovative art direction and enormous amounts of hard graft to deliver absolutely sensational games. In Japan, many developers share ideas and skills to form Doujin circles, and many of these collaborations have reached the west courtesy of localisation publishers like Nyu Media.
Fairy Bloom Freesia is their latest localised offering, developed by the esteemed Edelweiss doujin circle responsible for the likes of Ether Vapor. Playing as the forest guardian Freesia (who is, somewhat predictably, an adorable anime girl of indeterminate age), you'll engage in some frantic 2D arena beat 'em up action against armies of ravening golems, with gameplay resembling a singleplayer Super Smash Bros in parts. Visual novel-style cutscenes introduce some zany supporting characters, many of whom become bosses or powerful allies and all of whom come out with some suitably offbeat translated dialogue. Some may buy into it for the sheer Japanese quirkiness of it all, but the colourful 'moe' stylings mask a fundamental truth.
Put simply, Fairy Bloom Freesia is one of the most technically accomplished, responsive and satisfying beat 'em ups I've played in ages.
It all comes down to the mechanics. Fairy Bloom Freesia is built around a fantastically responsive combat system that puts split-second attacks, blocks, dodges and aerial skills at your fingertips, allowing you to effortlessly chain enormous combos together, switch from attack to defence and use the verticality of the stages to advantage. Golems attack in large numbers, both on the ground and in the air, meaning that you'll need to stay nimble, mobile and flexible to fend off their assault while making devastating ripostes of your own. Bosses demand split-second excellence from players in terms of perfectly-timed blocks, feints and all-out attacks, encouraging you to make the most of your varied palette of ground-based and aerial techniques. Thanks to the speed and precision of the combat mechanics, you absolutely can.
Attacks impart a satisfying sense of power and oomph, especially when you manage to knock back an enemy into a crowd of its fellows and smash them all to bits. There's no latency or lag, no lengthy knockdown attacks or infinite spamming. Impact detection is spot-on, while your implacable second-perfect block needs to be used sparingly to avoid powerful attacks crushing your defences and leaving you momentarily vulnerable. I've played any number of double and triple-A beat 'em ups that fail to provide even a fraction of Fairy Bloom Freesia's fluidity and surprising depth for a far higher price.
Note that Fairy Bloom Freesia plays best with native gamepad support, though you'll likely want to rebind some of the buttons using the in-game menu. No messing around with .ini files this time...
Each arena battle acts as a single day in Freesia's life, after which you'll retire to an intermission screen to lick your wounds and peruse a selection of character upgrades. Defeating enemies rewards you with persistent experience (as does strong level performance), which gradually evolves Freesia into a more powerful combatant. Should you fall in battle, you'll retain any experience you've earned, thus removing the often-aggravating feeling of losing progress and giving you a good reason to keep plugging away at the more difficult arenas.
A cumulative mana supply adds another addictive and deceptively deep gameplay system. Players can spend this valuable persistent resource on new basic attack skills (such as some outrageous aerial raves), passive boosts and magic bombardments, but the more powerful special skills come at a price. Using them consumes mana, thus leading to a balance between battlefield domination and forward-thinking strategy. Do you want to save up for extra HP? A new projectile attack? Or is it worth burning mana to win a particularly tough boss fight?
In terms of presentation, Fairy Bloom Freesia is a cut above the vast majority of Doujin games (at least those that have made it over to the UK). Colourful and crisp backgrounds lend a real sense of personality to the proceedings, while attacks are generally accompanied by some pyrotechnical visual feedback. Characters are well-designed and brought to life with fluid animations or sharp, detailed portraits in cutscenes. Though some of the sound effects can get slightly repetitive, an upbeat soundtrack helps to keep things light and frothy. Expect plenty of bizarre - and well translated - dialogue, too.
For all of its strengths, Fairy Bloom Freesia is still far from perfect, and much of it comes down to a lack of scope and/or development resources. You'll only encounter a small clutch of palette-swapped enemies during the course of the campaign, who increase in power but generally provide a similar selection of attacks. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they're also rather drably designed to say the least - many of them appear to be piles of sludge. Compared to the vibrant backgrounds and bosses, they're jarringly dull.
It's also a little on short side. A single playthrough will last a handful of hours (think old-school game length), though a tough difficulty spike in the late-game will compel some extra time out of you. Thankfully, a new game + mode and extra difficulty settings extend the raw value of the package and increase replay potential.
But, ultimately, Fairy Bloom Freesia will only set you back £5. Considering the quality on offer, both in terms of mechanics and visuals, it's impossible not to recommend to fans of the genre.
- Responsive, fluid and dynamic combat
- Colourful stage and character designs
- Compelling upgrade system
- Lame enemy designs
- Little enemy variety in the early game
- Short if replayable
The Short Version: Fairy Bloom Freesia is a delectable slice of masterful beat 'em up action, wrapped in a colourful art style and offered for a throwaway price. If you're a fan of brawlers and all things Japanese, don't let the holiday season glut distract you from this little indie gem.