There are certain trends in "arthouse" video games that are so prevalent, they have become stereotypes. Mute, silhouetted characters traipsing through a treacherous landscape. Vague, implied stories of destructive exploitation and apocalypse, with the player in charge of nature's reclamation. Aesthetics steeped in European folklore. There are many games that you could easily place under at least one of these design standards, and a significant proportion of them are some of the highest rated games in the last decade. Abiding by these principles is only half of the battle though, and while Fe hits a lot of the right notes with competence and heart, it spends more effort trying to feel like its direct influences than elevating its own identity.
Fe's story falls directly into the expected pattern. As a fragile little fox-like creature, you will travel across a strange and dreamlike land to gradually free the natural world from the scourge of strange drone-like monstrosities relentlessly capturing and enslaving the local wildlife. The story has an extremely light touch and while it's not particularly original in premise, it at least delivers a few interesting notes in the final third. It's told entirely without dialogue or text, so it's down to you to decide what it's really all about; this can be supplemented by finding discarded helmets containing short sequences of life as one of the monsters, or by screeching at black monoliths to reveal cave painting style depictions of the past. It's actually quite easy to ignore the story completely or miss crucial threads of information, but on the whole, the message appears to be one of environmental protection over exploitation. Certainly these aren't themes to be discouraged, though it would have been nice if Fe had twisted further away from the basics that have already been covered well by other titles.
The little character at the centre of it all is only mildly interesting. His heavily silhouetted design is interesting but not particularly expressive, and he lacks any real fragility or connection to his environment. A few animation frames or sounds of struggle when mantling a platform, recovering from a fall or sneaking past an enemy would have helped connect us a little more to the character and his journey.
Flying is cool, but the little dude could at least act like he's enjoying it.
The main hook of Fe is communication with other animals, and happily, it's one of the more impressive aspects of the experience. The little fox can learn to communicate with all sorts of different animals over time, and these unlock new abilities should you have the appropriate critter nearby to call on. The process of communication is a pleasant little mini-game in which you must match the pitch of your speaking partner's animal call in order to transmit comprehension. This is accomplished by gradually pressing the shoulder trigger until the fox's waveform matches the straight line of the new animal's speech pattern. This is presented in audio as well as visually, and each new animal type has a distinct and very natural sounding call. It seems like a perfect opportunity for a musical interlude where several notes or a phrase has to be matched, and instead it's a slightly grating battle of matching the pitch of your fox's wail to another creature's screech by feathering a single button. It feels under-developed and sparingly utilised, but at least it's unique.
Fe has metroidvania in its DNA. Progression through the world is not marked by stages and levels, but the acquisition of abilities that grant access to previously inaccessible areas, leading to an ever-expanding world and a good reason to retrace your steps to previous areas to look for secrets. The abilities you unlock take the form of animal calls. At first, each time you come across a new area and a new animal, you have to call on those animals to help you use a type of platform or clear a blockage. After you have helped that particular species, they grant you full understanding of their language such that you can use their abilities independently in areas of the world where those animals can't be found. It's a little nugget of genius, creative and immediately understandable thanks to a colour coding between the animal call's icon and the environment asset it affects. Deer calls are orange and activate orange flower-lifts, while blue boar calls illuminate blue mushrooms in dark places. Only one aspect of this concept threatens to let it down: those animal wails get really irritating after a while, especially if you are trying to platform across a long and tricky path and need to keep screeching continually to keep all the platforms active.
The classic colonial tradition of shouting at the locals until they understand you.
Beyond screaming at the wildlife the main gameplay on offer here is 3D platforming, and it's here that Fe gets noticeably uneven. Our little fox friend suffers from most of the common pitfalls in the genre at one point or another. He doesn't really have much in the way of useful animations or sounds to accompany actions like mantling a platform edge, and lacks the weightiness of a Mario to help judge timing and jump distance. The best part of platforming in the game is definitely hopping around in the treetops. When scaling a tree, our hero zips up to the next branch on a single tap before reaching the peak of the tree with squirrel-like speed. The problem is consistency — this kind of hopping is completely different in feel to jumping around anywhere else, so it takes a brief moment to re-orient when you accidentally hop off a tree and go into freefall. This problem is exacerbated by a fairly unwieldy camera; it's not a problem most of the time because many paths are linear, but becomes maddeningly frustrating when you miss a tree trunk and try to glide back around in a circle. Thankfully the stealth mechanics don't suffer the same fate; you'll need to avoid monsters regularly but this is really just a matter of walking into small shrubs for cover and avoiding their line of sight, which is simple and intuitive enough.
There are some impressive moments when the platforming, the caterwauling and the aesthetic really come together. Without spoiling anything, the end of the deer sequence has some lovely reminiscence of Shadow of the Colossus, while the final ascent in the game appropriately pulls together several animal-call mechanics into one extended sequence. However, in between these moments, there's a lot of time spent wandering around some very similar looking areas. Fe is massively cluttered with unnecessary debris and little paths to nowhere; it's a wonderful thing to get lost in a game world, but only if there is something worth looking at off the beaten path. With no real secrets beyond some bog-standard collectible hunting, all that's left to look at are the visuals. These are initially stunning and engaging, but over the course of the game the style never really develops or evolves apart from in one ice section. It all starts to look a bit messy and monotonous by the finish. As there isn't actually much to do or see in the game beyond the main quest most will likely find themselves following the story path anyway, meaning accidental detours are more frustrating than they are interesting. This really isn't helped by a fairly ineffective map that fails to capture verticality; luckily you can scream at a passing bird to give you a more tangible line towards your objective in the game world itself
Harrowing, wordless screaming often leads to success, just like in real life!
The game invites you to explore its single open world in principle, but sometimes backtracking can feel like a bit of a chore. There are some weird design choices that make sense during the main story as they funnel you in the right direction, but to head back up the way you came looking for a collectible is cumbersome. It's in these moments that the animal noises and the syrupy-sweet soundtrack can sometimes test one's patience as you try and get around. In short, you'll probably find Fe enjoyable enough if you keep your experience short and follow the main thread of the narrative to its conclusion.
Achievement hunters will have to stick around a little longer though, as you'll need to go on a collectibles hunt to unlock all of the creature's fairly underwhelming additional abilities. A couple of fun distractions spice up the list in the form of a daring uninterrupted glide across an entire environment, and another for luring a bear into an enemy camp. The rest are straightforward for the most part, and once video guides and maps start appearing on site for those collectibles the list will likely be a breeze for everyone.
SummaryFe is an eye-catching and reasonably competent 3D platformer that never quite lives up to the sum of its parts, and that's probably because so many of its parts are too familiar if you have spent any time around the "arthouse" end of the gaming spectrum. It has a few interesting ideas of its own, but they fail to stand out among the usual silhouette characters, vague story and syrupy strings of the soundtrack. The unique flavour of the art style and sound design are a brief delight yet both begin to grate due to a lack of real variety. Beautiful moments of platforming brilliance exist, but so do moments of needless frustration. Still, the game has its charms and is worth a look if you're either obsessed with or brand new to the last decade's worth of arthouse gaming. There are far more brilliant games in this genre to recommend, but Fe will certainly do you no harm over its short play time.
- Animal calls make a nice twist on the standard metroidvania
- Some memorable platforming moments
- Occasional moments of artistic beauty
- A lightweight yet emotive story
- No real connection or weight to the character or world
- The usual frustrations of 3D platforming appear frequently
- Audiovisual design gets more cluttered and repetitive over time
- Imitations of other arthouse games outweigh genuine innovation
EthicsThe reviewer spent 14 hours hopping around the treetops, earning 10 of the game's 12 achievements in the process. An Xbox One digital code was provided for the purposes of this review.
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