In the world of JRPGs, there are developers that produce consistently good titles, those that get it right sometimes, and those that miss more than they hit. Compile Heart generally falls into that third category, often pumping out games at record pace at the cost of quality. On top of that, they are perhaps best known for fanservice-y games that simply creep some gamers out. Needless to say, the studio has a checkered past and an equally fitting reputation to boot. They are, however, synonymous with the Hyperdimension Neptunia series, which is their biggest IP and gone on to acquire quite the cult following. Outside of that franchise, though, there’s not one particular game Compile Heart can really hang their hat on. Or at least there wasn’t — until Fairy Fencer F came along.
Fairy Fencer F is the studios most recent North American release, published by NIS America; a game with no established bloodline, Fencer comes out swinging as if it has something to prove. In fact, it does have something to prove. Because it’s such a quality title, many will want to overlook it immediately after they see Compile’s name in the corner of the box. But doing that would be grossly unwise seeing as it is the studios best game to date.
It’s a bold claim, we know, especially considering Neptunia is the fan-favorite; but it’s practically fact thanks to how it almost literally takes all the best elements of previous Compile games (namely the Neptunia ones), subtracts many of the detrimental aspects and builds a world filled with charm. So what are the aforementioned mechanics that make this endeavor such a pleasing one? Well for starters, its battling is the most refined out of the studios entire library of games. Built off Neptunia Victory‘s combat engine, players throw down via turn-based combat that is ripe with ways to dispatch enemies. Because Neptunia V‘s battle system was already balanced, Fairy Fencer merely tweaks aspects of it to deliver a more wholly enjoyable and challenging experience. There’s also an abundance of actual tutorials this time around, ones that explain the game’s many systems in a way that is easy to understand and digest, helping newcomers come to grips with all the disposal methods at one’s finger-tips.
But it’s more than just the actual combat that excels here; it’s the lead-up to fist-a-cuffs that make the encounters all the more tactical and thereby rewarding. There’s the standard weapon and armor upgrades for players to pour over, in addition to a synethsis mechanic that lets folks craft their own items on the fly; but there’s also the fairy-bonding facet that is unique unto the game. One fairy can be matched with each character, offering different powers depending on the pairing. These powers can enhance melee attacks, magic abilities as well as resistances. As a character levels up, so too does their adjoined fairy, creating a kind of reward system for keeping a fairy with a hero over several levels. It’s a simple algorithm, really, but one that adds just an extra layer of depth to an already feature-rich structure.
So while the gameplay is strong, what’s perhaps most interesting in all of this is the emphasis FFF places on narration. The team have chosen not to do the typical comedy routine with this one. Thus, the writers seem to have pulled back substantially from the usual fanservice stuff that too easily typecasts an experience such as this. Instead, they’ve opt for a more serious approach to the story. In fact, this is one of, if not the single most thematic title the developers have pushed out, tackling the concept of light-versus-dark through the use of gods, in addition to exploring the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. In fact, that latter bit seems to be the primary focus; while the mechanic of fairy and hero is front and center in the gameplay and customization options, it’s even further spotlighted in the dialogue and plot. The writers appear especially focused on explaining the importance of individuality even in the midst of a relationship, delivering the message that one can only find happiness with another once they find happiness and understanding within. It’s a message that’s fundamentally human, and unsuspecting from a Compile Heart project, but certainly welcomed by anyone who enjoys their story to have more than superficial gags. Sure, there are still an abundance of those silly moments, but even those have been scaled back to the point of being tame by comparison sake. The over sexualization of female characters is reigned in quite a bit too, making this the last creepy game of the bunch. So if that kind of thing normally bothers you, know that it’s not nearly as central in Fencer.
Fairy Fencer F is a great looking game to boot. Its presentation is top-notch; with lush visuals, unique character designs, more fluid animation than ever before, some great dubbed voice-acting and our favorite OST from Compile’s entire discography, it’s easy to see why the game earns high marks in this category. Of course, not everything is sunshine and rainbows — there are issues. In fact, our own Nikola Suprak talked much about those very missteps in his review; but by and large, its problems are meager when put up against the likes of Record of Agarest War, Mugen Souls, Cross Edge and even Neptunia.
At the end of the day, Compile Heart should be proud of what they’ve accomplished with Fairy Fencer F. It has the tightest storytelling, the most three-dimensional characters, the most imaginative, realized world, the most robust combat engine and the best presentation fiedlity of all the studios excursions. It would seem audiences have thought the same as well, as there’s already a PlayStation 4 sequel in the works. No, it’s not going to be the next big roleplaying blockbuster, and there are certainly better JRPGs on the market right now, but if you’ve ever wanted to dive into something a little more off-the-beaten-path, something a little more Otaku, don’t hesitate to pick up Fairy Fencer. It’s worth your time, and then some.