A lot of people avoid Compile Heart RPGs like the plague. Their over-the-top wackiness, blatant “T&A” fanservice, overuse of needless play mechanics, and sharp difficulty spikes requiring periods of grinding do not endear them to most people. However, those who love Compile Heart RPGs truly love them and don’t care what reviewers like me have to say. I myself have mixed feelings about Compile Heart games. I embrace weirdness and can live with some “giggle-giggle-snort-snort” double entendres, but dislike the tedious level grinding, unbalanced difficulty, repetitive nature, and arbitrary play mechanics.
Enter Fairy Fencer F: a game that could be best described as a toned-down Compile Heart. The setting and characters are less exaggerated than in Hyperdimension Neptunia or Mugen Souls but are still delightfully zany. The play mechanics are also noticeably more streamlined and accessible than the aforementioned games, while still retaining that unique Compile Heart flavor. The fanservice that Compile Heart fans know and love is present, although they occur less frequently, making the comic relief more welcome when it occurs. Unfortunately, like many Compile Heart titles, Fairy Fencer F gets painfully repetitive over its 50+ hour duration.
The game stars a reluctant hero named Fang, who only wants to eat and sleep all day, like Garfield the cat. In fact, when he’s first sprung from prison in the game’s opening, he doesn’t want to leave because in prison, he gets free meals and can sleep all day as he pleases. Yes, he’s one of the laziest slackers I’ve seen in a JRPG, but he shows formidable skill when sufficiently pushed or motivated. Think of him as Shikamaru Nara from Naruto, except more selfish and with less sense of duty.
So how did Fang end up in prison? Well, while he was in town looking for free food handouts, a food vendor told Fang about a “sword in the stone” type challenge with a 100% failure rate that could grant any wish. Fang effortlessly pulled out the sword and was greeted by a semi-amnesic fairy named Eryn who sprang an arduous quest on him. The quest is to find 100 world-changing objects (seriously, they can alter the properties of dungeons) to resurrect an ancient goddess before an evil corporation does, to make sure an ancient demon-god does not destroy the world again. Thinking that success in the challenge would net him a freebie, Fang helped himself to the vendor’s food, was put in prison for shoplifting, and an exasperated Eryn had to spring him. So now Fang’s locked into a quest he doesn’t want to do with people he doesn’t want to do it with. Man, what a drag.
Despite the lighthearted hijinks seen throughout the game, Fairy Fencer F develops a slightly darker undertone than other Compile Heart games I’ve played, and early news reports say that its sequel will take that further. Expect to spend a good 20 hours or so before the hackneyed plot and characters become more interesting, but be warned that the game’s progression will feel repetitive before then. Perseverance definitely pays off in Fairy Fencer F.
The game’s setting is a traditionally-styled JRPG world, so the garishly bright neon colors seen in Mugen Souls or Hyperdimension Neptunia are nowhere to be seen. Sadly, the environments themselves have rather plain colors and textures. The character designs too are a bit more understated than in previous Compile Heart games, but there is still enough fetish clothing and large bosoms to appease Compile Heart die-hards. The visuals themselves don’t tax the hardware or dress to impress, but they get the job done, albeit with some frame rate schisms. The polygon characters are much larger on the field than in, say, Mugen Souls, which reduces eye strain. Battle graphics are pretty much on par with the field graphics, save for spectacular special attacks which, thankfully, can be skipped with the push of a button.
Battles themselves are fun, if a tad loose-feeling. Like Mugen Souls, battles are turn-based with free-roaming movement where characters can run around the battlefield before enacting an action. As the game progresses, the standard attack command evolves to something akin to Xenosaga whereby players can chain together combo attacks by pressing different buttons. Players can set up attacks to mimic different weapon types (e.g. sword, scythe, gun), and if an enemy weak to a certain weapon type is repeatedly hit, the entire party will be able to get in on the combo action. Only 3 members can be in the active battle party at a time, but they can be swapped out for inactive characters. It’s good to do this so characters can level up more quickly. The biggest disadvantages to the free-roaming battle system are that area attacks are quite finicky to target and the escape command is only available once a character has reached the edge of a battlefield, which can take several turns.
Combat also features a “Limit Break” style meter that gradually fills up, and when it does, the Fairize command becomes available. Fairize is similar to the dragoon transformations in Legend of Dragoon where characters undergo “magical girl” type transformations into more powerful forms temporarily to really dish out the hurt.
Dungeons have visible enemies and are fairly linear. In fact, players used to “old school” games like Phantasy Star 2 or dungeon crawlers like Etrian Odyssey will probably think the dungeons are really small. Dungeons just seem bigger than they really are because the camera is panned very close to the leading character during exploration. I often felt the camera was panned too close and wished I could move it further back to get a better view of my surroundings. I had this same complaint when I played The Granstream Saga back in the day, and its close camera made dungeon crawling more tedious than it needed to be. In addition, there are some mild platforming sequences since, like in Xenogears, characters can jump in dungeons. Although there was nothing like Xenogears’ Tower of Babel to make me abuse my controller in disgust, the jumping itself is floaty and makes some platforming imprecise.
Besides gaining cash and EXP, collecting “Weapon Points” to pump into weapon upgrade stats and to learn new combat skills and magic spells is important. Sometimes, meeting the prerequisites to get a desired spell or skill can take a lot of Weapon Points and therefore a lot of time. While that may require some grinding, the amount of required grinding is actually not as bad as in prior Compile Heart titles.
At least the menus are reasonably ergonomic to navigate, have decent sized fonts, and require less rigmarole to do simple tasks like change or upgrade skills and equipment. Yes, there are some parameters that seem tacked-on, but for the most part there are few useless or wonky player statistics. My one complaint regarding the interface is that creating battle formations is clunky and feels like trying to get your pet cat in the bathtub.
The best part of Fairy Fencer F is its music. Put simply, the soundtrack has some rockin’ tunes. The opening vocal theme is great with its happy blend of dubstep electronica, distorted guitars, and pop vocals. There are a bunch of vocal themes peppered throughout the game, such as the drivingly catchy one that plays whenever a character Fairizes. Although the setting is a fairly traditional JRPG setting, the music contains a lot of modern touches, even in its traditional pieces. “Tradition with a twist” is how I would describe this cool soundtrack. The game offers players the option of hearing Japanese or English voice acting, and although the English actors were generally acceptable, I vastly preferred the Japanese voices.
Fairy Fencer F shows developing maturity on Compile Heart’s part, but is still stuck in that awkward stage. I appreciated the game’s slightly darker undertone compared to its stable mates, was happy that the eye-popping fanservice occurred less frequently, and really enjoyed the music. Unfortunately, the environments looked dull and the gameplay got mind-numbingly repetitive before the story showed life. Fairy Fencer F is not a bad game per se, but it is difficult to recommend since there are more enjoyable titles available, both from Compile Heart and others.