When the original Fairy Fencer F came out on PS3 it lacked a certain something, scoring quite poorly in reviews. Instead of being deterred, Compile Heart went back and came out a few years later with Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force on PS3, PS4, and it more recently joined the impressive list of Compile Heart games available on Steam. It was an improvement on the original game, upgrading the resolution to 1080p, doubling the party size, adding more characters, and even branching the story to double the amount of gameplay. Despite all this hard work that undoubtedly did make this new game better than the original, it failed to address the very source of the issue. It wasn't the lack of content that made the original a bad game, it just wasn't very exciting.
If you have ever played Compile Heart games before then you will know exactly what to expect from Fairy Fencer F; it's not the mediocre story, nor the underwhelming dungeon design that will keep you playing, but the characters. Compile Heart are nothing if not consistent in that respect. That isn't to say the other aspects of the game are bad, it’s just they never rise above being merely ‘okay’.
The story of Fairy Fencer F: Adventure Dark Force follows the story of Fang, a lazy and overconfident young man who becomes a reluctant hero. While chasing his dream of a free meal, Fang pulls a magical sword from the ground, Arthurian style, after hearing a local legend that doing so will grant him one wish. A fairy appears before Fang and, ignoring his constant demands for food, explains that by pulling the sword that houses her from the ground he has proven himself worthy to become her partner. She then explains that while she can't grant his wish, if he finds another one hundred magical weapons and uses the fairies they house to wake a sleeping God, then his wish will come true.
It's an interesting premise, unique enough and with the promise of a sizeable amount of content, given most of these weapons can be found at the end of dungeons. The problem is that while there is a lot of game to play, three endings and two sixty-hour stories worth, it is mostly recycled content. Anyone familiar with other Compile games, like Hyperdimension Neptunia will recognise Compile Heart’s drag-and-drop approach to game building; the same five or six dungeons being used over and over with different names and very few unique enemies. It's hard to stay enthralled when every cave or field looks the same, with a few rather odd exceptions. Given their very limited texture catalogue you sometimes find that the one that was used for a particular setting doesn't fit at all. One dungeon was supposed to be set in a church, in the middle of a ‘quiet and peaceful town’, only the design that was used for the environment was that of a ruined laboratory.
Enemies also make repeated appearances, with the same dozen or so monsters popping up again and again in different colours. While this is normal for most JRPGs, it's even more prevalent here. The same creatures don't show up later in the game, as experienced in other games, instead they show up one or two areas apart with little variation between. Once again, players of other Compile Heart games will feel a sense of déjà vu as it becomes clear that every creature they fight has shown up in other titles. This, again, is par for the course to some extent - every series has its mascots, but in this case it is virtually every single model that isn't a main character has been reused.
It's not just visually that the game fails to stand out from the myriad of other Compile Heart games on Steam; the writing could also be straight out of Hyperdimension Neptunia or a Mugen Souls, right down to the character personalities. They all fit snugly within their tropes, from the lazy hero to the overly sexual older lady, and refuse to budge from their comfort zones; while character development is seen it's often sloppy and out of the blue. This is not to say that the narrative is necessarily bad, it's warm-hearted tale, with likeable characters and some genuinely funny moments, but it just isn't exceptional.
Gameplay-wise Fairy Fencer F : Advent Dark Force is a solid turn-based RPG. Inside dungeons you can see your enemies wandering around and, if timed right, you can get in a sneak attack by striking the enemy before they come into contact with your character. Battle takes place in an arena where characters take it in turns to move around and strike, depending on their movement range. Each battle rewards weapon points, as well as experience, which can be spent to learn new abilities or increase a character's range, movement, or other stats. This allows some degree of customisation for your party members, up to six of which you can have in battle at once. You can prioritise certain changes first, like longer combo attacks or more magical spells, to suit your playstyle.
In addition to these there is also a special transformation skill called Fairize, allowing you to access special abilities and boost your strength by temporarily fusing with the fairy that resides inside the character's weapon. You can only do this while the character’s tension meter is high enough. Tension works like the limit break system from Final Fantasy, insofar as it charges when you attack, but it also raises a character's stats when charged. This means that after a character returns to normal, having used their bar up by transforming, they will be weaker than before they changed. At least until the bar fills again.
Stats and attributes aren't the only things you can customise; both a character's appearance and even the parameters of the dungeons you go into can be changed. Costumes and accessories can be equipped to each party member, and while the costumes aren't all that interesting the accessories can be rather amusing. There's something oddly satisfying about Fang taking down evil with a slice of toast in his mouth, anime-style. Dungeons can't be changed visually but, by using the fairies you have collected via terraforming on the world map, you can change what enemies appear inside, how much experience you gain from monsters, or even boost certain stats while inside.
All in all, despite the by-the-numbers approach that Compile Heart has to its stories, and it's penchant for lacklustre world design, it's the little details that honestly make Fairy Fencer F : Advent Dark Force an enjoyable experience. Even with shallow, predictable characters, they do have genuine-feeling interactions behind all the clichés. These walking anime stereotypes end up being quite endearing, if you can get over the initial first impressions that each one gives. Unfortunately all of these aren't enough to redeem the game quite sufficiently to make it a hit; the repetitive nature of the dungeons can get incredibly tedious very quickly, turning what could have been a fun time into a dull slog.