"...the tension gradually ratchets up to a fever pitch by the end."
Echoes of the Fey is a planned episodic series of visual novels by Woodsy Studio. The primary creative force behind Woodsy Studio and this game is the multitalented Jenny Gibson, who had a hand in the myriad aspects of this game: writing, art, music, programming, and sound design. She and her crew clearly put a lot of heart and soul into their work; this is quite evident in The Fox's Trail, the first episode of the Echoes of the Fey saga.
Echoes of the Fey: The Fox's Trail takes place in a post-war fantasy town called Vodotsk, where the relationship between humans and Leshin (elf-esque people) is politically strained due to a catastrophic wartime incident known as "The Immolation." Protagonist Sofya is a human with a troubled past who barely escaped The Immolation. Not only striving to eke out a living as a private investigator, Sofya also aspires to figure out the truth behind The Immolation because some of her memories surrounding that time are blank. Sofya's business partner is a Leshin medic named Heremon who offers a cooler, tactful, and more objective counterpoint to her sassy, hard-drinking, devil-may-care nature. Although each finds the other exasperating (Sofya thinks Heremon is too stuffy and Heremon thinks Sofya is too reckless), the two care deeply for and rely greatly on each other.
Although the setting and characters are perfect for adventurous high fantasy, The Fox's Trail is a detective story through and through. What starts out as a missing person case becomes something larger and more sinister than Sofya imagined, and the tension gradually ratchets up to a fever pitch by the end. Be aware that the narrative contains some heavy themes and adult situations, so this is no Scooby-Doo mystery. If I were to give this game an ESRB rating, I would say T for Teen.
The story presented is easy enough to follow, despite some slightly choppy progression in places. Sofya shares history with several characters, and I feel like I was only given cursory glances at those relationships in The Fox's Trail. I definitely wanted an in-game glossary to keep track of characters and chronicle their backstories. That being said, some of the worldbuilding is fleshed out via the free supplemental materials offered by Woodsy Studio. The first of these supplemental materials is a prequel game entitled Episode 0: The Immolation
, which offers backstory into Sofya's past. Another free download is a novella called The Prophet's Arm
surrounding an interesting NPC that Sofya utilizes as an informant.
The Fox's Trail's gameplay is nicely varied, featuring both classic visual novel gameplay and an exploratory component. Pivotal moments in the game involve reading until presented with a decision. Even the simplest decision should not be taken lightly, and every action has a consequence. The crux of the narrative lies in solving the mystery, and though there is only one ending sequence (since it needs to tie into future episodes), the events within that sequence vary subtly depending on decisions made throughout the game. There are a few optional romantic paths to follow as well as a few side mysteries, but it is possible to avoid those entanglements if so desired.
A healthy portion of the game is spent exploring the city of Vodotsk in a 2D side-scrolling fashion, uncovering clues, staking out locations, finding people, engaging in lucrative sidequests, and even doing some shopping. Purchased items aren't required to complete the storyline, but provide pleasant distractions. For example, certain items change the color of Sofya's outfit. This exploratory component made me feel like a more active participant in the story and that I had a freer range of movement than in the average visual novel.
The sprites in the side-scrolling scenes are large and detailed. Sofya's is the only one that animates, and it animates nicely. The character portraits in the visual novel scenes have vivid styling more reminiscent of Western style comic books than the more Japanese anime or manga inspired designs most visual novels go for. Faces animate during conversations and it is amazing how much more organic dialogue feels with eye blinks and lip movements.
The Fox's Trail can be played using either a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad. There were some button mappings for both paradigms that felt quirky at first, but once I got used to them, they made sense. I vastly preferred using my gamepad, though. The gamepad provided me with a much smoother play experience, which bodes well for the console version of this game. Regardless of the preferred input method, the menu interface is intuitive and has legible fonts, though some of the red text in the shopping menus is a tad dark.
Extensive voice acting is featured in the game with the voice actress for Sofya also singing the lovely ending theme song. The voice actors were well selected in that each actor's voice timbre truly fits their individual character's appearance. They also smoothly and consistently pronounce the challenging Russian-inspired names of people and places. I felt that genuine effort was made to portray characters convincingly, though some actors seem like they are trying too hard with their scenes while others appear to be holding back. This leads to occasionally unnatural cadences that sound more like dramatic narration than conversational dialogue. There is potential in this upcoming crop of talent, and I prefer to view this akin to the first episode of a cartoon where the actors haven't truly become their characters yet and need a few more episodes to really get a bead on them.
The musical compositions are wonderfully atmospheric and make an impression without overpowering their scenes. The descriptive analogy I would use is the perfect amount of salt on a plate of pommes frites. The sound effects are crisp, clear, placed appropriately and used judiciously. Overall, the sound design of The Fox's Trail is nicely balanced.
Echoes of the Fey: The Fox's Trail is a cool little game with lush graphics, composed sound design, and intriguing characters. Although I would have liked more insight into some of the characters and their backstories, I suppose that is what the supplemental materials are there for. I plan to check those out while waiting for the next episode, because it looks like a whole new heap of trouble will land on Sofya's doorstep.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.