Something we’ve been seeing more and more this generation are video game re-releases. It’s a trend that proves to be a win-win for most of the parties involved. Developers get a chance to polish older games with modern improvements, while publishers get a chance to earn some more revenue. Likewise, returning fans get an excuse to experience a favourite game again, while newcomers get a great bargain for the most up-to-date version of the release. Whether they be HD remakes, current-gen ports or Game of the Year edition collections, many older games are getting a second lease on life. Fairy Fencer F is the latest of those games, although it hardly feels like the “new and improved” release that it’s supposed to be.
Fairy Fencer F originally came out in late 2013 for the PS3. It was a JRPG release from the kingpin of niche grindy anime-fanservice RPGs, Compile Heart. It boasts the same character artist as their flagship series Hyperdimension Neptunia, and even features music composed by the revered Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. Dark Force brings this experience to the PS4, with some quality of life improvements as well as a few gameplay additions and a significant expansion of the story.
In Fairy Fencer F, you play as Fang, a handsome JRPG protagonist with spikey brown hair and zero motivation. When Fang obtains an ancient sword imbued with the spirit of a fairy, and said fairy invites him on a mystic journey to recover a hundred enchanted relics to revive a goddess and save the world, he quickly declines and walks away. The fairy, Eryn – who happens to be a pretty brightly colored anime girl because of course she is – persists and almost forces him onto the journey, and it’s with this ragtag duo that our grand adventure begins.
The main story is nothing ground-breaking or unique, it’s a basic JRPG adventure to the core. Most of the fun comes from the unique and colorful characters who inhabit the world, but even to experienced players of Compile Heart titles, these characters are just as generic as the rest of the story. The haughty spoiled princess, the sexually abusive older female figure, the beautiful perfect prince character that clashes with Fangs harsh personality, and so on and so forth. The characters are all very trope-y, but they still deliver plenty of fun and laughs, and the humor of the game helps keep the otherwise unoriginal story fresh and engaging.
One of the biggest parts of this re-release is the hugely expanded story mode for the game, which offers you three very distinct branches of story to explore. Throughout the game, you make various story decisions, and these choices affect which path you go down about 20 hours into the game. This moment sees the story of the game shift in unique ways, with one path actually letting you side with the antagonists of the game. It’s an amazing feature that not only provides some actually original and engaging story content, but gives a healthy amount of replay-ability to the game.
There is one huge snag in the branching path system, however. The default, middle of the road path basically sees you playing through the entire game over again with very minor changes to character dialogue and which party members you recruit. For people who will end up going through multiple routes, that might simply be an annoying snag or a skippable aspect. But many players might only ever see that one path, and being forced to replay nearly 15 hours of content just feels like a slap in the face, especially when it’s not even for some secret true-end thing that happens after beating the game.
On the gameplay side, improvements are much smaller but still significant. For the unfamiliar, this game basically players like Hyperdimension Neptunia, but better. For the even more unfamiliar, you control a handful of characters in a turn-based battle system, but characters can move freely in a three dimensional battle field within their designated movement circle for that turn, and then utilize a number of battle and combo systems to inflict damage, win battles, gain experience, the whole nine yards.
Battle is slightly faster paced than the latest Neptunia game, and player characters can even move further than characters in Neptunia could, offering many more gameplay options. There’s also a particularly fun Challenge mechanic, where each character has a series of challenges they can fulfill, from using a special attack a certain amount of times to being used as the party leader for a certain length of time, that give you permanent stat uprades.
One important note is to not get put off by the opening segment of the game, because it throws an absurd amount of tutorials at you. I got sick of having to read instructions every 5 minutes, especially when they could have just said “It’s Neptunia gameplay, go nuts” and I would have been set.
One of the new gameplay options added to the game is that your party size has been upgraded to six characters, and there are even new characters to recruit and play as. Most surprising is the new difficulty system added to the game, which lets you select between three difficulty modes in case you want to play on easy and really blast through the gameplay to get right to that generic JRPG story goodness.
Another new thing is that the framerate actually works! In the original game I struggled with the choppy framerate from the very beginning with only one party member, and it only got worse as the game went on. The framerate in Advent Dark Force is consistent even in crazy end-game battles, which is a blessing. Unfortunately, the graphical fidelity hasn’t made nearly as much of a jump in quality. Certain textures on characters and environments look ridiculously blocky, which is especially jarring on the smooth and detailed character models.
Worst of all, though, is the consistent blurriness seen in the game. Many cutscenes feature close ups of characters that look like they’re unchanged from the blurry PS3 version, and it’s insanely jarring. For all the improvements the game has, it still looks as much like a PS3 game as the original PS3 game did, especially when you compare it to JRPGs made for the PS4 like Megadimension Neptunia and Atelier Sophie.
The audio is thankfully not nearly as flawed as the visuals. The music of the game lift a lot from the style of, you guessed it, Hyperdimension Neptunia. There’s plenty of flashy guitar J-Rock goodness, as well as cutesy anime-style background music for the more goofy scenes in the game. None of it particularly feels like it has the distinct touch of Nobuo Uematsu on it, but it’s still good music nonetheless. Voice acting is just as great, no matter which language you decide to use. The English voice actors fill their roles perfectly, especially the actor for Fang, Kaiji Tang, who nails all of the deadpan delivery of his character’s lines.
Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force improves on the previous game, but that still doesn’t make it a perfect experience. The story does nothing original unless you wind up on one of the new story paths after 20 hours of play. On top of that, the visuals still reek of PS3 muddiness despite the smooth framerate. It’s a grindy number-managing repetitive experience, and you might automatically love that or hate it depending on your allegiance to Compile Heart. It simply feels out of place next to other PS4 JRPGs on offer, and could have used a lot more polish if it wanted to stand a chance in the current gen.