Gust is well known by RPG fans. They make the popular Atelier series and release games at a rate unprecedented by any RPG developer outside of Compile Heart. When I heard that Gust was developing an RPG based on an anime property, my interest piqued. Could Gust bring their usual charm and intricate system development to a licensed property, and if so, what could it mean for the future of licensed RPGs?
In preparation for Fairy Tail, I decided to refresh my memory of the manga. Back when the series was ongoing, I kept up with it for a year or two, but the game begins around the 243rd chapter, much further than I ever read. Going through the manga up to that point set some expectations for me. Fairy Tail is set in a fantastical world where magic is commonplace and guilds made up of mages for hire undertake all sorts of odd jobs. The series chronicles the lives of the members of one such guild, which is known, to the surprise of no one, as Fairy Tail. The manga has a solid found family element, bombastic fights, sloppy world building, and some genuinely touching moments. This makes for an overall fun read, if not something I found special. Unfortunately, the awful treatment of the female cast quickly becomes a huge letdown. From the beginning, both the manga and the game depict Lucy, the main viewpoint character, in a heavily sexualized manner, with panel after panel and scene after scene of what are essentially pin-ups. This depiction extends to other women who are also treated inappropriately, including by Makarov, Fairy Tail‘s Guild Master, who utilizes spanking as a punishment.
In spite of my annoyance with the portrayals of the female cast, the women of Fairy Tail are its best characters, whether in the manga or in the game. Lucy, Erza, Mira, and the other women are both powerful and feminine, with strengths and flaws explained by their individual histories. Erza proves to be Fairy Tail‘s most interesting character with her explosive fight scenes, memorable lines, and a backstory made relevant to the greater plot. She also happens to be one of the most powerful characters, in both the manga and the game.
Speaking of the game, it retains much of what works in the manga, as well as what doesn’t, but it also takes some of the issues even further and introduces all new flaws. Fairy Tail (henceforth referring only to the game) has a mess of an opening. The first few minutes take place at the climax of an important story arc, which will likely cause confusion for those new to the series. The final battle of the arc is set up as a drawn-out and unnecessary tutorial fight. The combat system features little complexity; enemies exist on a grid and magic attacks target different squares on this grid. After “winning” the fight against a villain powerless to stop you, a literal slideshow drags you through the ending of the arc. If I wasn’t writing this review, I would have stopped playing at this point. Things do get better after the opening, but this clunky beginning may be the part of the game that stuck with me the longest.
The bulk of Fairy Tail takes place within a heavily abridged version of the manga’s “Grand Magic Games” story arc. This arc involves the titular guild working to bring themselves back to prominence as they aim to become the number one guild and win a magic Olympics in the process. This central focus on rising through the ranks allows Gust to do what they do best: implement numerous systems related to upgrading. Your characters both level up from experience gained in battles and rank up from shared “Fairy Points” gained from side quests. Each playable character also has a bond rank with each other playable character that is increased through doing side quests together. And it’s not just your characters that can be upgraded, but your guild as well: you can upgrade and remodel different facilities in your guild hall (which includes a laboratory for crafting new lacrima, Fairy Tail‘s version of equipment), and your guild itself ranks up, allowing you to take on higher-level side quests. I found myself particularly enamoured with upgrading my hall, but even this lost its appeal by the time the game moved on to other story arcs.
Fairy Tail‘s host of impressive and recognizable spell animations, along with the faithfully realized character models, do a great job of convincing you that you are playing a manga or anime. Reinforcing this are several CG cutscenes that show off pivotal moments of the story — even if one of those “important moments” just had to be a pool scene with all the women of Fairy Tail. The lack of budget becomes apparent elsewhere. There are a few unimpressive environments that meet you on the world map; these are small and drab areas filled with a handful of palette-swapped enemy designs. Even stranger, many of the story characters don’t have 3D models. At most, these unmodeled characters get a few animation stills, but many don’t even get a line of dialogue and are assumed to exist somewhere off camera. This is made all the more hilariously apparent during the Grand Magic Games when only one or two character models step out to represent the five-person teams. Even the main cast is impacted by these budget constraints, as many of Lucy’s summons don’t have in-game models; instead, they’re replaced by 2D static images and some spell effects.
Knowing the reputation of Gust’s sound team, I wish I could sing praises about Fairy Tail‘s soundtrack. Unfortunately, outside of the main theme, which plays endlessly during every single “big” moment, I can’t remember a single song. For me, the mark of a good soundtrack tends to be when I find myself humming songs long after I have left the game behind, but I barely noticed the music in Fairy Tail at all. Even the game seems to forget the music at times, either drowning it out with other sounds or having it fade away to nothingness.
The large cast of characters with unique powers in Fairy Tail makes for a compelling selling point. The game has an ever-growing roster of playable characters, including series mainstays like Erza and Natsu as well as characters you might not expect like the Blue Pegasus’ Ichiya. However, the game often falters in the portrayal of these characters outside of combat. More than once, I found that scenes repeatedly focused on quirks a character had already grown out of in the story, to the point where they felt flanderized. For example, Juvia obsesses over Gray during every moment of her screen time, even her victory animations. Beyond the surface-level characterizations, the ever-present objectification that mars the manga comes through just as much, if not more, in the game, partly thanks to a sleazy camera.
Over-the-top combat animations bring various techniques and spells from the manga to life beautifully. However, these animations cannot be skipped, which means they quickly become repetitive, even painful, after a couple dozen hours of play. I rarely added Lucy to my party, as her spell animations are particularly long. In contrast, many attack animations are snappy, and the large cast of playable characters presents a variety of attacks to utilize while questing.
In much the same way shonen anime tends to have filler episodes, Fairy Tail has side quests. These activities make up the bulk of your playtime and are necessary to rank up your guild and get past gates imposed on your progress by Makarov. Quest dialogue is forgettable at best, and the vast majority of quests take you to one of the game’s handful of locations to fight a couple battles or pick up some items. As side quests are brief (especially when skipping dialogue), you never find yourself running out of MP and can generally go all out in every battle. Most spells have added effects like a chance to poison or stun the enemy, but you are given little reason to consider these because damage is king in Fairy Tail. You also build up your chain attack gauge easily, so using chain attacks to annihilate even the weakest foes becomes standard procedure. This results in a crushingly easy game. I started the game on normal difficulty, but changed to hard in the hopes it would put up a bit more of a fight. I promptly forgot the difficulty change as I blew past enemies with barely any perceptible difference. Bosses occasionally proved a bit more challenging, but only because they had to be tediously fought more than once with little change. The gameplay loop was fun most of the time, but I constantly yearned for something more.
For fans of Fairy Tail, I recommend turning on a podcast and smashing some monsters with your favourite Fairy Tail characters while filling up various experience bars. Not a fan of Fairy Tail? Then I don’t see much to keep you around. Some of Gust’s charm and design comes through, but not enough to make the game stand on its own. The story is likely to be almost incomprehensible without prior knowledge, and corners are cut in all aspects, from the environments and quests to the combat. I enjoyed my time with Fairy Tail less than I thought I would, but I sincerely hope Gust gets another chance at making a licensed RPG, just without all the budget cuts.