I can’t really help but like the adorable little fox-like cub that you control in Fe, which also happens to be the name of this little creature. Waking up all on its own in the middle of a huge and dark forest, it’s a scary environment for a young animal to be in. However, Zoink’s adventure is one of exploration and discovery within this environment, with the overarching aim of stopping the Silent Ones that are attacking and, well, silencing the forest.
“We wanted to start the game with a blank slate,” Creative Director Hugo Bille explained to us. “You don’t really know why you’re there or what you’re supposed to be doing, because finding that out on your own is really what the game is about. A lot of this has been inspired by our own upbringings around the Nordic forest, because there are a lot of forests around where we grew up! It’s a special type of playground, because it’s not really designed, so we’re trying to go for a feeling in Fe where you don’t have a game designer looking over your shoulder and pointing you in the right direction all the time, it’s more about getting the feeling of being a small and vulnerable child that’s lost in a strange world.”
Fe’s distinctive art style is absolutely one of the main draws into this world. As colourful as each screenshot and viewpoint that you find is, it’s colour that’s largely been leant to the world by the heavily blooming light that bathes it. Scenes can be flooded by deep oranges, greens, blues, purples, but the actual forest and the creatures that live within it are an dark and shadowy figures.
“There’s definitely a bit of impressionism in the style in general,” Hugo said, . “We’re trying to work with these triangular surfaces, but a lot of the image is made up of these very large surfaces and – look at me, I can’t talk about this stuff! We worked a lot with contrast as well, because there’s a lot of very dark colour; all of the animals are basically black, the trees and rocks as well. That’s something that we’ve gone after, that there’s a blackness to the forest and that’s why it’s a bit scary. It’s beautiful, but you also can’t quite trust it.”
Within this, the creatures that you encounter are just as weird and wonderful. The first deer, as Creative Director Hugo Bille called it, that you encounter is rather unlike any deer that I’ve seen. It might have a similar silhouette to a deer, but its mouth is on its forehead, it lacks antlers, and there’s numerous other differences. It feels like Zoink are trying to evoke a particular feeling with these creations, with the seeming allegory to mankind’s influence on nature coming in the form of the Silent Ones with their sinewy bipedal forms when upright, even though their preferred method for getting around sees them skittering around on all fours.
Speaking of the unusual animal design, Hugo said, “It was kind of important generally to not adhere too closely to real nature, because we still wanted it to be about discovery. If you just discover things you already know about, that’s not as intriguing as it could have been.”
He continued, “All of the animals are voice acted. We tried using actual animal sounds, but we found that, again, if it gets too close to animals that exist, we lose that fantasy element. There’s an animal we call a ‘deer’, but on the other hand, its mouth is above its eyes and it’s not really a deer, so we can’t have it sound like a deer either. It’s actually only two people doing all the animal voices.”
These languages play into how you get to explore the world. The cub’s native tongue can interact with certain plant life and get it to open up into bouncy platforms, but the deer can interact with other plants, birds can extract seeds that destroy the barriers of the Silent Ones, and so on. While you might eventually be able to learn and imitate these other sounds, opening up certain parts of the world to you in a light Metroidvania fashion, you will initially need to befriend these creatures to get them to help you by singing to them.
Singing is analogue, with the right trigger on the controller determining the pitch and volume at which you sing – on Switch this is handled by tilting the controller as you hold the button. Much like if you startled a cat or tried to catch a squirrel, these animals will be skittish and afraid of you if you simply run towards them, but chitter away quietly in Fe’s garbled little language and you can draw them toward you.
“Animal attraction is one of those cases where it requires a gentle touch,” Hugo explained as he demonstrated the game for me. “What I’m doing now is not how you would go about befriending an animal in the wild; this is where I need to keep my distance and make gentle sounds. It’s almost like a conversation in a language that none of us understand, […] this cross species meeting where we don’t really understand each other but need to work together anyway. It’s a bit The Last Guardian in that sense.”
Get it just right, draw the animal toward you and you can enter the little analogue mini-game in which you find the right degree to depress and hold the trigger. After that, you’re effectively best friends. A deer will bound after you, birds will flutter ahead and leave a trail for you to follow, you’ll gather a little band of lizards to chase behind you. Better yet, you can hop onto the deer’s back and ride it around, and adorably pick up and carry the lizards around, or throw them with a suitably cute audio cue alongside it.
However, even without the threat of the Silent Ones, this dark forest is full of dangers for a tiny cub such as Fe. For one thing, various larger animals will simply ignore you, or you have to learn their language before they’ll even consider acknowledging you, and then there’s those that see you as a tasty snack or an annoyance that they’d rather chase and squish. Trying to help a large bird-like creature by reclaiming its eggs that were in an unusual nest, I saw this big beast crush the Silent One that had stolen it and then take it for itself. It was only by distracting this bear, as Hugo called it, with food that I could sneakily steal it back. While I made a clean escape, Hugo told me that I could have let it chase me further and lured it towards other Silent Ones to crush them.
Much of the game revolves around building these links with the world around Fe, whether friendly or hostile, but as a young cub, there’s plenty of growing for Fe to do itself. Finding pink crystals within the world, these can be exchanged with a giant mystical tree to lend Fe the ability to clamber up trees and then leap and glide from treetop to treetop like a flying squirrel. It’s also through these that new areas might open up to you, while some of the grandest moments come to rely on these core abilities. Interestingly, Hugo said, “Climbing is the first ability, then you get gliding pretty early on, and then there’s a whole bunch of other abilities that we haven’t shown, but aren’t really necessary to complete the game either.”
Finding your way in this world is done in a rather hands off fashion, with only the most minimal of indicators at a few key points to inform you of the trigger to sing, the ability to climb for the first time, and so on. While Zoink prefer this hands off approach, there are concessions to those who need a bit more guidance. You have a world map for one thing, but there’s also the ability to sing and bring a bird straight to you, to then lead you to the next place you need to go.
Also briefly sampling the game on Nintendo Switch, it holds up rather well in handheld mode. There’s an obvious step down in the level of detail distance settings, so shadows and foliage pops into view closer to the camera, and the frame rate doesn’t feel as nice and smooth as the game on PlayStation 4, but the strength of the art style and the optimisations that Zoink have made with the Unity engine mean the game looks great on Switch too. We’ll have more of this as we come to review the game in the next couple of weeks.
Ever since its unveiling at E3 in 2016 as the first game under the EA Originals brand, I’ve wanted to see more. It’s no doubt with good reason that Zoink have kept it under wraps, giving themselves the time and breathing room to develop it in. I came away from an hour of playing Fe delighted with the charming adventure that Zoink have managed to create.