Release Date: February 16, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, Switch, PCDevelopers: ZoinkPublisher: Electronic ArtsGenre: Action-adventure
It’s obvious from the start that Fe is cut from the same cloth as other indie art games like Journey, Bound, and Abzû, opening up a prismatic, ethereal world for players to explore and ponder, sussing out an opaque, slender narrative by unearthing one cryptic clue at a time. If you enjoy games of the poetic, minimalistic, folksy variety, you’ll no doubt find Fe to be a fulfilling experience, though that’s not to say it’s without its own voice. Swedish developer Zoink has crafted a moving fable about empathy, understanding, and acceptance inspired by the wonders of mother nature.
You play as a jaggedly, fox-like creature that coos at your command, at different volumes depending on how hard or gently you press your right trigger button. As you traipse around the day-glo forest, you encounter other critters, with each species speaking a different animal “language.” If you offer them a little howl, they’ll sing back, which initiates a sort of mini-mini-game that tasks you to get on the same sonic wavelength as your furry counterpart. It doesn’t work every time, but when it does, you gain a new ally to help you navigate the prickly environment and reach new areas. If you’re persistent enough, they may even teach you how to speak their language and absorb their unique attributes.
There’s a poignant underlying theme running throughout Fe that celebrates harmony and togetherness, and it’s constantly reinforced by both the art direction and the actual gameplay mechanics. It’s an entirely wordless experience, with all information communicated to the player visually, delivered via expressive character animation and smart environmental design. Flora and fauna give visual cues constantly, and while it’s not unusual to feel completely lost and unsure of what to do next at any given time, if you use your eyes and ears to observe and connect with your surroundings on a deeper level, the way forward will most likely become clear. (If that doesn’t work or your patience wears thin, you can summon a little bird companion to be your tour guide.)
The most active sections of the game involve antagonistic robot-things that capture frolicking cute-’n’-cuddlies in these odd energy-webs and leave them to squirm or carry them off to god knows where. You can use special green orbs burped up by plants to free the captured critters, but you’ll have to maneuver around the big baddies and use the environment to trounce them, which opens up a very simple, sort of wonky stealth mechanic that’s adequate but isn’t much fun.
In fact, as far as gameplay goes, Fe feels a bit rudimentary and unpolished, which is a huge bummer. The art direction is magical, but that spell wears off quickly because the platforming controls are imprecise, the camera isn’t fluid enough, and your character gets stuck on the geometry of the environments far too often. One moment, I’d be bathing in the splendor of the game world; the next, I’d be clenching my controller in anger as I fell to my death for the fifth time trying to make what looked like an easy jump. I’m happy to admit that I might have been a victim of my own lack of skill in the platforming department, but I’m confident in saying that there’s something off about how the controls feel.
But no matter how often the gameplay mires the experience, Fe always manages to suck you back in with the sheer beauty and grandeur of its game world. The sense of discovery the game instills is intoxicating, and it’s the look of the environments that propels you. Your surroundings are constantly changing, and with masterful use of color, light, shadow, and level design, no area of the map feels like any other. The way the sound supports the visuals is remarkable too, with swirling ambient sound and a heart-wrenching string score imbuing every moment with emotion.
Like in other games of its ilk, Fe’s best moments are steeped in a sense of serenity. There are items to collect, missions to tackle, trees to climb and powers to obtain. This is decent fun, but it’s all stuff we’ve done a million times in a million other games. There’s a hidden narrative to uncover, too, like peeling back the layers of an onion, which is more engaging, but still, nothing groundbreaking. If you want to experience this game in all its glory, keep your thumbs idle for a second and simply take in the living, breathing world Zoink has crafted from the ground up. Little moments like this are what make Fe special, and an essential play for those with a proclivity for games that actually have something to say.