Developer: Compile Heart
Publisher: NIS America Europe | Reef Entertainment
Oh look. A quirky parody JRPG with female character designs that resemble a head-on collision between a Victoria's Secret truck and a Kill la Kill cosplay competition. This must be another Compile Heart game then!
As much as I enjoy their wares, Compile Heart infuriate me. They're clearly competent developers, having honed a truly fantastic combat model and experimented with crazy layered gameplay systems throughout the Hyperdimension Neptunia and Mugen Souls games, but they always stop short of delivering a genuinely well-rounded JRPG. In fact, they make the same killer mistakes every time: concentrating on cheeky dialogue and flagrant fanservice instead of delivering technically proficient field maps, acceptable 3D visuals to match the gorgeous 2D anime art, non-clichéd characters with more than one jump sound effect and interesting dungeons that are worth grinding through.
I'm as partial to cheesecake as anyone, but for Compile Heart it's usually the starter, main course and dessert rather than the end of a big delicious meal.
Fairy Fencer F makes me take heart, though. It's still guilty of the same issues to some degree, but at least the stockings and cleavage and comically erotic misunderstandings are backed up by a strong storyline, more diverse characters and an interesting setting. Plus a few songs from the legendary Nobuo Uematsu. Compile Heart aren't quite there yet, but they're definitely on the right track.
All Compile Heart titles attempt to parody something, whether stock JRPGs or even the game industry itself, and Fairy Fencer F is no exception. The story takes aim at the sweeping melodrama of the Final Fantasy series, and delivers an appropriately overblown and epic premise that wouldn't feel out of place in any big-budget Squeenix yarn. Two ancient warring gods battled for aeons until finally summoning a legion of enchanted swords to finish the fight. These blades, known as Furies, contain the soul of a 'Fairy' (halfway between Sekirei and AI constructs), and were thus powerful enough to impale each deity and trap them in a state of near-death, unable to move or act due to effectively being turned into pincushions.
Some of these swords missed their mark and fell to Earth, where they're now prized as weapons of war for Fencers, powerful warriors who bond with their Fairies to fight for both good, evil and selfish ends. It's a great basis for a JRPG, a genuinely interesting overarching story that leads to some unique gameplay quirks that we'll get to later.
It's also ripe for parody, though, and Compile Heart didn't miss a trick. Into this deadly serious setting marches a genuine anti-hero, Fang, a lazy, selfish and meat-obsessed layabout who is absolutely not cut out for being a JRPG protagonist. He naturally ends up bonding with an earnest Fairy and becoming a Fencer against his will, and much of the humour of the game stems from seeing how a totally unsuitable hero manages to muddle through and get caught up in the grand machinations when all he really wants to do is fall asleep after having a good meal.
New characters, typically Fencers and their fairies, join the party throughout the game, and end up bringing their own agendas and deeply odd character quirks to the table. From the masochistic aristocrat who's sexually excited by verbal abuse to an uninhibited researcher with a long-suffering fairy guardian (who despairs as his charge continually takes her clothes off at the slightest provocation and makes lustful advances towards female Fairies), they're less clichéd than you'd expect from a Compile Heart release, and are naturally brought to life by unpredictable and colourful dialogue delivered through attractive visual novel sections. Apart from the idiotic overuse of the word "jeez," which goes directly against the canonical pantheon (is Christianity really part of your setting, Compile Heart?), the quality of the localisation is sound.
As per usual, the character designs tell us almost nothing about the characters themselves and are primarily designed to titillate (or provide cosplay inspiration), while there's a degree of off-kilter fanservice from time to time, but it's a more restrained offering than the likes of Mugen Souls Z. Critically, Fairy Fencer F is genuinely funny, and the disconnect between the dark mature story with its irreverent fourth wall-breaking cast never fails to amuse.
Sadly, though, Fairy Fencer F then falls flat on its face when the visual novel sections end and the dungeon crawling begins. Dungeon environments are a far cry from the vibrant 2D artwork: primitive, cramped, boxy, crushingly linear, pathetically empty pieces of real estate that are populated by three enemies and floating 'event' tiles. They're horribly designed, but even more embarrassing to behold, due to their shameful 3D visuals that wouldn't overly tax a PS2. The washed-out colour palette, fuzzy dithered textures and lack of detail are incredibly weak, yet the frame rate often dips to physically uncomfortable levels in certain zones. At least they're short.
Once again, I have to take Compile Heart to task for the sheer lack of effort put into this core part of the game. They must do better. Even the likes of the painfully average Sudeki managed better on the original Xbox!
Thankfully the combat picks things straight back up. It's the same brilliant system we're used to from the Hyperdimension Neptunia and Mugen Souls games: turn-based battles that let you individually manoeuvre your characters around the combat zone to use a dizzying array of situational skills and attacks. A new 'combo' system lets you set up aerial launches and multiple attacks on the fly, often chained together with other heroes in 'avalanche' attacks, while each hero brings unique special skills and abilities to the fight. Better yet, though, Fencers can merge with their Fairies to become massively powerful death machines for a limited time, accompanied by suitably OTT transformation cutscenes and a catchy J-rock tune that blares out for the duration.
A class act, and arguably worth the price of admission.
There's naturally a huge degree of customisation, both visually and in terms of extra boosts to weaponry, stats and unlockable combos, which lets you tailor your party to your specific tastes. The Fairy premise also provides some neat new gameplay systems, in that you can use your collected Fairies to remove swords from either of the two sleeping Gods, providing them with extra bonuses that can then be used to add bonus modifiers to characters or even dungeons when you stab their swords into the world map. It's a superb little wrinkle that adds extra flavour to the proceedings, yet is much easier to internalise and digest than Mugen Souls' Moe Kill mechanic or other more impenetrable systems.
I still can't shake the feeling that Fairy Fencer F could and should have been so much more. But ultimately it works, buoyed up by its humour, characters and combat. Keep on trucking, Compile Heart.
- Genuinely excellent combat, crisp anime artwork
- Effective parody humour, quirky characters and funny dialogue
- Engaging setting and overarching storyline
- Lengthy campaign with clever and versatile 'Fairy' mechanics
- Disappointing dungeons, both in terms of level design...
- ...and primitive 3D graphics with uncomfortable frame rate dips
- Some jokes, fanservice and character tropes can misfire
The Short Version: Compile Heart have yet to create a truly superior JRPG, but Fairy Fencer F feels like a huge step in the right direction. Lazy level design and primitive visuals bring down the package, but the quirky dialogue, interesting overarching storyline, unique gameplay systems and superb combat make for a worthwhile romp for genre fans.