Despite having a plethora of talent behind it, Fairy Fencer F seems an underwhelming prospect at first glance. Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Uematsu, both of Final Fantasy fame, worked as the game’s concept artist and composer respectively, while Toshiki Inoue, who was responsible for writing anime series Death Note, was its screenwriter – but for all that, it comes across as a peculiarly average JRPG. Fans of the genre will gladly lap it up and it somehow makes the most of all its lumbering parts, but you’ll also come away feeling that it could be a great deal more than it is.
Fairy Fencer F follows the story of young man named Fang, who discovers that he is a “Fencer” when he picks up a magic sword called a Fury and releases the fairy that resides within it. The fairy in question, Eryn, contains the power of the Goddess who defeated the Vile God at the beginning of time, and Fang finds himself bound to her. Together, they gather a party of other Fencers and embark on a quest to resurrect the Goddess, as well as foiling the plots of the mysterious Dorfa Corporation.
Unfortunately, the wheels start to fall off the story pretty early on, starting with the characters. Fang is a stereotypical anime hero whose main hobbies are eating, sleeping, and stupidity, and none of the other characters are any more original. The heroes are good because they’re good and the villains are bad because they enjoy laughing maniacally. The plot hits all of the traditional JRPG story beats – an evil corporation, an ancient civilisation, the primordial battle between good and evil gods – but it doesn’t seem to understand what purpose those beats serves. It hits them because that’s what is expected of it, but there’s no logic to the way things unfold.
It doesn’t help that the manner in which the story is told is extremely stilted. There are only about three traditional cutscenes in the entire game; the rest of the time the characters just appear as anime cutouts talking to one another. Although the quality of the voice acting goes some way to salvaging this situation, it’s pretty laughable when the game tries to inject drama without showing you what’s going on. At one point, for example, a main character falls off a cliff without you actually seeing it – instead, you’re just told what’s happening by someone else.
Fortunately the gameplay is where Fairy Fencer F starts to show its quality. Your battle party is comprised of three members, and each character on the field takes it in turns to act. They can move, attack, and use all sort of abilities and magic, which is fairly standard RPG fare; the truly unique element is in the “Fairize” mode. This allows characters to unlock their fairy’s real power, and can only be used once a bar is filled up by attacking or taking damage. Once activated, it drastically enhances a character’s strength and allows them access to their most powerful skills, and is only deactivated once the bar is depleted through taking damage. You’re allowed to use Fairize liberally and that’s a wise choice by the developers, as it makes the battles truly stand out.
Once again, however, the presentation lets the game down when you’re not in combat. Dungeons progress in the usual manner of JRPGs, but there is nothing outside of them. You select them, or the main town, using a cursor on the world map, and you can’t walk around town either; instead you choose your location from a menu. Nor are the dungeons anything to relish. The environments are universally boring in their design, acting merely as areas for you to walk through and encounter enemies in. In short, this is not a world you are likely to fall in love with, no matter how long you spend in it.
In fact, aside from the occasional moment of anime artwork, Fairy Fencer F is aesthetically disappointing in all aspects. Graphically speaking, it weighs in on the wrong side of lacklustre; you certainly wouldn’t imagine, at first glance, that it has been brought to Steam from the PlayStation 3. Nobuo Uematsu also seems wasted as a composer here. The stilted style of presentation and clumsy storytelling keep much of his work from having any dramatic impact, although the odd tune will get into your head and his prog-influenced style is plentifully evident in the battle music. It’s another case of wasted talent; Fairy Fencer F gathers together some of the best known names in JRPG history but doesn’t seem to know how to harness them.
Given that not much good has been said so far about Fairy Fencer F, you might imagine that this review is going to conclude negatively. And yet this is not the case, because it is much, much better than the sum of its parts. Bemusingly so, in fact. Taken on their own, each element of this game – apart from the gameplay – is underwhelming, but when they all come together they click perfectly into place. Yes, the characters are dreadful stereotypes and the story makes no sense, but you will still be drawn in by them. Yes, the graphics are poor, but it won’t matter when you’re enjoying yourself this much. The game wrings every last drop of possibility from its uninspired DNA, and succeeds in pushing itself to the limit.
There’s a fair bit of content to take in, too. There are plenty of side quests to complete and monsters to hunt, and you can collect extra Furies to obtain the power of the fairies within. There’s a lot of scope for configuring your party in different ways, matching them up with different fairies and adapting them for whatever role you have in mind. There are bonus characters to recruit and three different (though not drastically different) endings, and there’s a New Game + mode if you want to give it a second playthrough. It isn’t the longest JRPG out there in story terms, taking 20-25 hours to complete, but there’s plenty else to do if you want to extend your time with it.
If you’re a fan of JRPGs like the Tales series, Dragon Quest, or even Final Fantasy, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy Fairy Fencer F too. It’s unlikely to go down on your list of greatest games of all time, but if you’re looking for something to keep you occupied for a while, there are many worse options than this. In fact, despite its many problems, it is a positively enjoyable experience. With a sequel announced for the PlayStation 4, now is the perfect time to pick up a copy of Fairy Fencer F if you missed it the first time around on the PlayStation 3. You might not understand why, but it’s probably not a decision you’ll regret.