On paper, the original Fairy Fencer F sounded like JRPG Mad Libs, with Final Fantasy legends Yoshitaka Amano and Nobuo Uematsu collaborating with the studio behind Hyperdimension Neptunia. It’s an absolutely bizarre combo on paper, but one filled with potential to deliver a game with unparalleled style, aesthetic, sound, and writing. It didn’t play out that way at all, as Fairy Fencer F was a goofy, unpolished RPG adventure that ends on a massive cliffhanger.
Rather than closing that wide-open door, the 2015 re-release Advent Dark Force Chose to retread the same story with a few alternate paths mixed in. Surely a new entry arriving nearly ten years later with brand new gameplay would be a step forward in addressing the ending of the last game and turning this one-off RPG into something bigger? In that regard, Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord shatters all expectations.
Things don’t quite pick-up from the original story, or even from any of the prior routes. Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is more of a re-contextualisation of the original – we jump in seeing himbo hero Fang and his full crew of companions already assembled, but what follows is a third near identical adventure to recover ancient relics called Furies in order to resurrect the ancient Goddess responsible for creating them. This time around, though, there are a lot of new characters mixed in that quickly shuffle around otherwise familiar events – most important of them being mysterious women known as Muses, who have the ability to heal or harm with the power of their songs.
It’s honestly a struggle to pin down what kind of audience Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is meant for. Fang and his crew are charming and hilariously written, but you’re thrown into the middle of their world with the assumption that you’re a long-time fan. Characters and catch-phrases go without introduction, making it feels like you’re the new person in an established friend group and watching them sling inside jokes around that go over your head.
At the same time, a dedicated fan of Fairy Fencer F has to be frustrated with the concept of this game. We’re three games into this series, but Compile Heart has chosen to retell the same story instead of building on it or writing a full-fledged sequel. It’s a similar issue playing out with their golden goose Hyperdimension Neptunia series – by skewing between the realms of sequel and remake, all this game does is alienate both parties.
I’m sure this game is an even harder sell to long-time fans when it’s an entirely different genre of JRPG now. The original game and the Advent Dark Force update were both turn-based RPGs that used the same combat style as the original Hyperdimension Neptunia games, but Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is a grid-based, top-down tactical RPG. It’s an entirely different beast, though they definitely do their best to give it some stand-out features.
The abilities of the Muse songstresses apply to battles too – you recruit one in your party and the other one is almost always present on the enemy team, but both can activate a special Fairy Aria ability that covers an area on the field in a special aura. Any allies standing in the area of their Muse’s Fairy Aria get a buff, and the Muse can choose to increase the intensity or size of their Fairy Aria each turn. A really cool effect is that your Muse and the enemy Muse will change the in-game music when they activate this, and if they’re both active at the same time, a special overlapping medley of both their songs will play at once.
It’s a really flashy, stylish system, but that’s where the flair and polish of the battles ends. Character attack animations are incredibly flaccid, and environments are flat visually while also only rarely providing unique environmental hazards or challenges. Most of the combat variety comes from your choice in Skills, attacking enemies from behind, or using the extra powerful Avalanche Rush to have multiple characters attack a single target. There are also Fairies to equip on each character that grant stat boosts and extra skills.
It’s a decent spread of mechanics to keep you engaged, but the full package just doesn’t back them up. It’s hard to truly customise character play styles and builds to the same degree as more expansive tactical RPGs, and even in the end-game the scale of your battles and the types of enemies you face just aren’t all that exciting.
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord just feels like a swing in the entirely wrong direction for this series. Instead of building on the ending and the gameplay of the last game and turning this into the next big franchise for Compile Heart, the team hesitates to change the status-quo of the narrative while also starting fresh with half-baked tactics action instead of refined and expanded party-based gameplay. The game has charming visuals, bubbly music, and some polished art that a niche JRPG enthusiast might appreciate, but both newcomers and diehard fans might be left wondering if this is truly meant for them, and it feels like even the developers don’t quite know how to answer that question.