Thursday, 27 July 2017

Fairune (A Review)

You know, how we come across video games and play them is a process equally as important as the content of the games themselves. Sure, every game is imbued with some crackling magical alchemy (or necromancy, if the thing's dire) on the basic level. The essential psychogeographical (and psychochronographical, while we're throwing out the Big Smart People Words) power of where and when you are while first experiencing a game has some truth to it as well. So, today we're going to talk about a game called Fairune. Before that we're going to talk about the where and when of how I encountered Fairune. I had a day trip this past Wednesday, and I knew I'd be waiting for people to finish their doctor's appointment. I also had a PS Vita and about 8 dollars to spare. With that, off I went looking for a cheap and simple game experience for me to kill time with whilst waiting. Scrolling through all the games on the store and peeking at prices, I came across a little game with a pixel art character. Fairune. Peeking further, after all the hyped up mechanics and whatnot, this tidbit: "Fairune is a faithful homage to the computer games of the 1980s.". Which, you better believe we're going to unpack that. In a moment. The time and place had been set. Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland. Hospital parking lot. 8 AM. For the next 90 minutes I experienced Fairune, and then between... 4:30 and 5:30 PM, back at home, I experienced the rest of the game. That's fairly short, but in the end it was a good experience. We've set the where, we've set the when... and now for the what. Here is Fairune. It was good.

Right away, we really should unpack that "faithful homage" thing. Longtime readers of my work will know that these words are usually enough to send me into a fit of terror. I have a longstanding pet peeve aversion to referential computer game homage nonsense that, for the sake of brevity and not stepping on anyone's toes, I won't go into right now. I will say, however, that recent events have the subject very much on my mind at present... and after the initial wave of getting mad at it as usual, I pulled back for a moment. I have really been self-analyzing this particular bugbear of mine for a few days now, and I'm honestly thankful that Fairune happened to drop into my lap because it's a prime example of how to do faithful homage/loving tribute stuff without making me roll my eyes and groan. Now, to be fair, "love letter" games don't usually make me as mad as reference-heavy games. Usually the two are quite different, but you get some overlap of course. What's interesting is that, obviously, these homage games are homaging something that was quite popular and beloved back in the old days of retro gaming. To give some examples... Maldita Castila is a love letter to the Ghouls n Ghosts games. Super Cyborg is a love letter to the Contra games. Oniken is a love letter to both Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden. Et cetera, et cetera. You can easily trace these games' DNA back to the old video games that inspired them. Fairune is much the same, but what's interesting is where that lineage comes from. "The computer games of the 1980s" is quite vague, and I freely admit to not being too versed in this particular aesthetic myself. Still, I can clearly see some resemblance between Fairune and another classic game, one that was indeed a computer game in the 1980s. That game is a little number called... Hydlide. You've got three fairy-looking spirits like Hydlide, you waltz around an overworld running into monsters kind of like Hydlide, the whole thing just... aesthetically really reminds me of Hydlide. I find this very interesting, not the least because Hydlide is hardly a beloved nostalgic classic. I've tried playing the NES port and I couldn't muster it. Other friends of mine have, and have had fun with it! Good on them! With respect to them, though, almost nobody is going to be hype for a spiritual successor to goddamned Hydlide. It's a bold choice for a love letter, to something that's a bit niche and flawed but still something that deeply resonated with whoever was in charge of its creative design, and I absolutely respect that.

That's not all I respect, though! Other than it kind of visually resembling Hydlide in aesthetic and gameplay... that's it! Fairune is allowed to be its own brisk experience in the style of computer RPG/adventure games like Hydlide, without being tongue-in-cheek and meta in an attempt to remind me, the player, that Hydlide is a computer game that I remember existed and so do they WOW! Its connection to Hydlide and games of its ilk comes from the fact that it just sort of looks like those games did. An average PS Vita game player can breeze through this and have a good time without ever being confused at the game throwing thinly veiled non sequitur references to a 30 year old computer game at them. The Hydlide connection, if you spot it, is something that accentuates an already good game rather than serve as a barrier to entry for "getting' what it's going for. It is exactly the distinction I myself needed for what makes a good nostalgia homage and what makes a bad one for my own personal tastes, and now I have the perfect example for one of these done right. Fairune is inspired by Hydlide, but you don't ever have to have touched or looked at Hydlide before to get it to have a fun brisk little adventure. If, however, you have touched or looked at Hydlide, you can see Fairune as a loving tribute that improves upon the flawed game Hydlide was in many ways.


Fairune kicks off with a magical book setting up the plot, three spirits sealed up by the Dark One, Chosen One needs to save the day. It gets things going, and then your protagonist gets to explore a chunk of the world. Said protagonist is a lady so that's nice. She doesn't have a name, as near as I can tell, so let's call her Kari. Kari gets to walk around the overworld in a cute dress (because monsters won't attack a cute girl in a dress) and then after a while you find some goodies for mechanical fun. A "piece of mana" which lets you create healing points on special patches of grass, and a switch that opens a path to getting your sword. Once you get the sword, now the monster attacking begins... and Fairune's approach to monster grinding and levelling up is novel. For each level of experience, your magical book suggests fighting a different monster. Level 1 is slimes, Level 2 is Treants, Level 3 mushrooms and so on and so forth. You just walk into an enemy to "fight" them, and depending on what level you are and how strong or weak they are, different things happen. Bumping a suggested monster kills it, but you'll take 1 damage (or 2, if it's a monster one above the suggested) and gain some XP. Bumping a weaker monster kills it, but you gain no XP for it. Bumping into anything stronger than you currently only does damage to you, or outright kills you if it's way above your level. Levelling up in this game is nothing more than walking into a certain type of monster for a few minutes, and then once you level up you gain all your HP back and run into a different type of monster. It sounds more repetitive than it is, and it goes by quite quick. Even if you die, there's little setback. You just respawn near the starting point of the game, and the game's world isn't really that big so you only lose a few moments. Even with such a simple system, you still get a feeling of progression. Monsters you once had to avoid you now just get to waltz through without a care on your way to your goal.

Fairune is light on the RPG elements, but it really shines in its puzzles and dungeons and whatnot. With the game world so teeny and tiny (plus a few extra areas), they've packed quite a lot of devious puzzle solving and items for you to get to solve the puzzles. Most of these I was able to figure out on my own, but one stumped me about 90 minutes in and I had to patch into the hospital's public wi-fi from the parking lot to figure it out. The game's heavy on the puzzles but sometimes light on clues for those puzzles, and it progresses in a linear order so if you're stuck then you either have to figure it out on your own or look it up. Thankfully, very few puzzles enter the "oh COME ON!" territory; of the ones I had to look up, only one or two had me wondering how the hell I was supposed to figure it out without aid. I think my favorite puzzle in the game involved a Lost Woods-esque infinite looping maze. The room before it has six statues facing certain directions. Aha, this is the way to go... but not quite. Underneath each statue were dots, from one to six. AHA! THAT'S THE CORRECT ORDER! Granted, it's my favorite because I figured out the visual clue... and the few puzzles I didn't get did sort of have those visual clues and I just needed to pay more attention. Whoops. The only one that really made me yell "OH COME ON" was the final puzzle after defeating the last boss. It uses an aspect of the actual system you're playing on that you've not had to use up until now (I played it on the Vita, but 3DS/iOS/Android versions exist as well). It's clever but a bit obtuse at the same time. Speaking of the final boss... the game becomes a little shooter for that battle! Neat! A bit of a shame that he has all this big laser attacks and pattern recognition things that drain your HP by way too much if you get hit by them, and dying means walking back for a minute or so... but still, it's not the worst thing I've ever done.

And, as it turns out, that's all I think I need to say about Fairune in general! For $7 I got a game I cleared in just over 2 hours. It's a bit on the steep side, pricewise, but there's a little replay value involved in getting achievements and whatnot. I'll give it a pass, because I liked it. More to the point, it came into my life at exactly the time I needed it. Not only did it fill the time while I waited for that doctor's appointment to be over on a warm Wednesday morning, but it gave me a clear anchor point to assist me in solidifying my own stance on nostalgia and loving homages and whatnot. This was great! A beautiful tribute to a game that not a lot of people would claim to like, but one that builds on the basics of that game and tweaks them down to a breezy quick 2-hour adventure. A game that, I feel, respects me as a person enough to not need to loudly remind me that a 30 year-old computer game exists in an attempt to make itself seem more interesting. Fairune, for me, is retro nostalgia done right; accentuating the game itself, rather than gating all understanding of what it's doing behind a big barrier that only retro geeks can enter. Not bad. Not bad.

And it has a cute girl in a dress, what's not to like?

(Fairune is available in a lot of places, but if you've got a PS Vita you can get it here.)

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