Running through the forest of Fe, one of my favourite things to do is to pull the right trigger on the controller and have the cub’s little voice lift from a quiet mutter to a haunting yowl that fits the often dark and foreboding environment so well. The plant life resonates with your singing, but sometimes another animal will be there to answer back, potentially striking up a bond that lets you work together to stop the forest from being silenced by the Silent Ones.
Singing to the flora and fauna and bonding with nature is one of the key parts of Fe, letting you overcome hurdles that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. You have to make gentle overtures to them, as much like the real world, you can’t simply run up to an animal and shout “BE MY FRIEND!” at it, as it would be utterly terrified. Instead, you need to gently mutter or hum through the trigger’s analogue input, barely depressing it and moving slowly to show you’re not really a threat. Court their interest and they’ll come to you and sing with you so that you can harmonise with them and become friends.
Over the course of the game, the fox-like cub learns a few tricks to help it get around, lending the game a light and simplistic Metroidvania feel. First you learn to hop up trees in a matter of seconds, and shortly after comes the ability glide through the air like a flying squirrel, giving you plenty of freedom to explore the world. The game world isn’t particularly big and within the four or five hours it takes to reach the credits you will revisit a few areas, but there’s still plenty of the ability granting crystals to find and collect, which unlock added boosts to get you around the world.
Initially you’ll also have to rely on the other creatures you befriend to help you get around, as certain plants respond only to a particular language of the forest. Birds can open up a little plant with a core that you can throw at the Silent Ones’ barriers, while the little lizards’ chatter gets purple flowers that bounce you up into the air. Eventually, you’ll gain independence by learning their languages, freeing you to move at your own pace without following or waiting for the AI, but having you rely on the other animals lets the game gently lead you through each area – Zoink have avoided too much overt handholding – and builds this bond with the rest of nature.
The creature design is really fantastic in Fe, taking inspiration from our world and then twisting familiar forms into something new and unusual. All of the animals are shadowy black creatures with coloured highlights, but while one might look a little like a lizard, a bit like a deer, or something like a big wolf; they have distinct differences to real animals. Some of the highlights are the towering creatures that teach you their language, such as the gigantic deer that you clamber up in a manner reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus, leaping from tree to tree on its back. By far and away my favourites however are the little lizards that you can befriend so very easily. It doesn’t take much to gather a group of them together and then get them to engage in an adorable call and response as the cub makes a little sound and then they collectively “wow” back at you like mini Owen Wilsons.
The animal voices can also be eerie and haunting at times, taking the sounds of human actors and altering them into new forms, though this does lead to one or two sounding quite similar, especially when harmonising and linking with other creatures and plants. The soundtrack adds its own melancholic tone to proceedings, emphasising the secluded setting and the loneliness you can find at times, but also there to add drama or uplifting moments when it needs to.
The Silent Ones do actually have their own seldom used voices, seemingly ripped straight from a 56K modem’s dial up tone. Their presence is always menacing, with their humanoid forms that turn to scuttling quadrupedal motion and the light beams in the centre of their body that they can freeze and capture animals with. Avoiding them isn’t too tricky, with lots of little tufts of grass to hide in, the ability to climb up trees and above their line of sight, and being able to bait some of the larger and angrier animals into attacking them – not all animals are your friend and the adults dismiss you until you’ve learnt their language.
The game’s story and conclusion are largely left open to your interpretation, and has been deliberately obscured by Zoink. While you might have you suspicions on how it ends, you can’t be certain and there’s still a lot that’s fairly vague and unclear. You come across many flat black stones in the world covered in simplistic and mysterious drawings, there’s also stones that resonate to your voice and drop globes that let you view the world through the eyes of the Silent Ones and their unusual actions, feeling like they’re suppressing the forest with with technology that borders on being like arcane rituals.
However, some of the underlying themes are clear to see, from the innocence and youthful adventure of the fox-like cub, to the allegorical impact that the Silent Ones are having on the forest and its inhabitants. Of course you’re going to defy them and stop them from trapping the animals, and there’s a genuine emotional reaction as you see one of the bird-like creature’s eggs stolen away, the rather chilling manner in which animals of all sizes are caught in cocoons. As alien as this forest can be, it can tap into your very human empathy.
There are a few minor niggles that I had on my journey, however. A few of the leaps you’re expected to make between trees are just a little too far to make comfortably, which can be a bit frustrating when you’re trying for the fourth or fifth time, and a later enemy is awkward to deal with because of its high tail position. For someone that habitually pulls the right trigger to sing as I’m running around, setting off a ripple of sound in my surroundings, it’s perhaps a bit too easy to call a guiding bird to your location, and these can detract from the feeling of pure exploration you have.
The game looks gorgeous with its dark scenery covered in black trees and being roamed by shadowy animals, and the thick blooming lighting gives the game its own distinctive tone. The blurring to the edges of the screen is a bit much though, softening the image in a way that almost makes the game hard to look at sometimes. Generally performance is excellent on PlayStation 4 Pro, though there are frame rate stutters when loading in new areas.
Though the art style is very much intact on Nintendo Switch, which helps it feel very close to the quality of the PS4 version, the frame rate does struggle a lot more in both handheld and docked modes. In addition to when it’s streaming in a new area, larger areas push Nintendo’s console beyond its comfort zone, though the game remains more than playable despite this. Without analogue triggers, controlling the singing is done by tilting the controller, but in handheld mode, this means tilting the entire console and your angle to the screen. It takes a little getting used to so you can still see what’s going on, though you can change the controls to use the right stick for this input instead.
Fe is a thoroughly lovely adventure, full of wonder as you explore and lose yourself in this darkly wonderful forest. Its distinctive art style and the unusual creature designs conjure up something that’s both familiar and alien at the same time, which is only enhanced by the etherial lighting and the animals’ voices. A few nitpicking design issues and some shaky performance on Switch aside, it’s easy to recommend this charming game of discovery and singing.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch