If there’s one thing that Zoink’s latest enticingly strange hybrid of a release proves, it’s that you should never judge a book by its cover. While the understandable justification may be there (born from many a smaller release attempting some kind of spectacle and falling flat due to narrow-mindedness) to dismiss Fe as just “another one of those games” — the operative those being the adventure title wherein the journey is considered by the developer as higher a priority than the inevitable destination — for all the balancing acts it performs in dishing out a myriad of ideas it borrows from similarly-scaled releases, there’s a peculiar charm to Fe. One that mostly avoids the potential pitfalls and resulting disconnect between developer and player.
Moments that are obvious and delicately subtle alike; Fe doesn’t go as far as to exploit the homages it pays to, yet in much the same way Zoink’s six-to-seven hour title incorporates elements of atypical adventure alongside puzzle-solving, platforming and the momentary stealth sections, Fe manages to work its way around these ideas and weave them into a game that, while not exemplary, does more than enough to make the run-time feel modestly worth it, but also make you care to a noteworthy degree about the visual pull underpinning it.
It would be easy to dismiss Fe‘s purposefully “low-poly,” blurry-eyed visual aesthetic with its abundance of bloom and restrictive draw distances — one that, admittedly, could have been touched down a bit, especially when one is trying to make heads-or-tails on what parts of the environment can actually be treaded across — but for the most part Fe‘s quaint journey through this fantastical take on Nordic forestry proves hard not to respect. The way its world’s allotted color palettes transition depending on the environment — calming greens and yellows of a more tropical surrounding making way for cool blues and whites that are the designated snowy reaches — is one the game does a good job at making happen without feeling awkward.
As is the case with some of the more platform-orientated moments that require the player to figure out how to get to a particular objective, perhaps while avoiding the perilous gaze of the main antagonists referred to simply as the Silent Ones. Granted, it can feel at points like the whole world is coated in ice as the movement in getting around can feel unfairly slippery and without much tight restriction. In some cases, landing a successful leap can still have you tumble back to ground level and this is one of Fe‘s most annoying aspects and one Zoink could have refined a bit more. Even so, when you finally manage to master movement through the world — that is if the game doesn’t decide to have you leap off a tree or a cliff despite your clear indication not to — it’s here where Fe momentarily shines in its exploration.
An early moment/set-piece in the game, revolving around making one’s way to the top of a staggeringly giant deer-like creature, is easily one of the highlights. Something that clearly makes nods to the perilous movement a kin to Shadow of the Colossus and as a result, presents something that is charming to survey and equally prevalent in its gameplay. When the game manages to make good use of its platforming — the more simpler leaps between areas upon your acquiring the ability to glide through the air — it hearkens enjoyably to the original Spyro the Dragon trilogy. There’s something both accessible and entertaining in climbing the abundance of trees present (another early skill you acquire) and merely gliding from one area to the next and around the half-way mark, the game even subtly challenges to get all the way from the edge of a cliff to one of the central regions without touching the ground. When a player’s involvement is mostly observant — inviting you to bask in the spectacle — Fe is a delight to engage with, but these moments are few and far between.
Of course that’s not what Fe‘s main gameplay revolves around and this is where its “singing” mechanics come into play and attain a sense of fruition on top of the exploration aspect. As you progress further into the world and come across the local wildlife, that can range from owl-like birds, to snakes, to even wolf-like creatures, resolving a dilemma pertaining to one of the larger animals allows a particular song/voice to be learned. Doing so — requiring you to resonate with a given creature at the correct pitch/intensity by carefully holding the shoulder button — will mean the animals in the environment will help you out on your journey. Consider it a more passive form of the Metroidvania ideal in that previously unresponsive parts of the world will then open up. In some cases, the very fact you’ve learned an animal’s “song” means certain objects are now usable.
When it works — that is when the AI doesn’t go randomly wandering off, severely frustrating in the case of particular puzzles that require you guiding particular animals to a set location…and said animals deciding instead to do a full back-track, starting the process all over again — the interaction between your player-character and fellow creatures has a kind of Pikmin-esque innocence about it. A favorite being the smaller, rodent-like animals that throw up muffled decrees of joy upon a successful song and subsequently follow you curiously, growing bigger and bigger as a group. But alas, competence of the AI is still an issue even in the more casual strolls.
There are also collectibles to find which range from glowing crystals (some of which are mandatory in order to acquire the next permanent skill) to monoliths and spheres of sorts which, strangely, shift the game — albeit temporarily — into first-person perspective whereupon you briefly take control of one of the antagonistic Silent One’s as the game tries its best to convey a sense of a backstory underpinning the events of the game. Sadly, not only do the more lore-focused efforts suffer from being too obscure, the optional, segmented manner caused by the fact they’re mere collectibles means you can often skip potentially-crucial details without ever knowing it.
Skipping on detail is perhaps something that does unfortunately taint the experience in more ways than one and ultimately comes to define Fe as a game that doesn’t go as far with its aesthetic in the case of its gameplay and the variety of such it offers in the long-term. Not only do each of these more short-term puzzles generally come down to simply gathering a key item or three (in a not-so-unique Resident Evil fashion), but it often means that particular area — along with the creatures that inhabit it — is done, disposed of and ready to be replaced by the next issue further down the line. Even during the moment, as satisfactory it is to leave it for players to deduce the correct solution, some of these instances can be too vague. Likely a consequence of the smothering art-style; a solution to one of the earlier puzzles easily mistaken for a part of the environment rather than the key object staring the player directly in the face.
It would’ve been easy for Fe to get lost in its potentially naval-gazing pretentiousness, and admittedly the overuse of post-processing as well as the story’s disjointed ambiguity does lend a degree of disconnect, but Fe mostly does enough with its gameplay and world-building for this brief adventure to offer a satisfactory level of enjoyment. The contrast of the primary black against its consolidated color palettes works surprisingly well and there’s undeniably a level of charm in the way the array of creatures are interacted with. It matters not that the low-poly aesthetic is so ever-present; ironically it’s the visual direction that might be Fe‘s biggest pull. Flawed as it is, it’s the bizarre juxtapose of adventuring, platforming, puzzle-solving and even stealth that Zoink somehow manage to find middle-ground for. That, at least, deserves some credit.