PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
It’s a game that celebrates the idea of two disparate beings finding a shared language to overcome their problems
Developer Zoink Games Publisher Electronic Arts Format PC, PS4 (tested), Switch, Xbox One Release Out now
When Fe’s credits roll, learning that its game director was also its art director hardly comes as a surprise. That’s not to suggest it lacks substance, but it’s a game that relies on the goodwill it frequently banks with its looks to forgive some of its exasperating faults. And it really is beautiful: pulsing light juxtaposed with inky shadows in a delightfully angular, otherworldly forest setting that elicits wonder and trepidation. If there’s a whiff of familiarity about the way it looks and feels, that’s because it’s been gazumped slightly by Ubisoft Reflections’ Ode. That game’s soft edges are absent here: this is a spikier game in every sense (and a prettier one, too) but both present reactive worlds that flourish through sound.
In Fe’s case, those sounds come from the throat of a scrawny, courageous little fox cub – from scratchy babbling noises to more tuneful howls. This is how he communicates with the other flora and fauna, from a stag upon whose back he can ride around, to fungi that illuminate darkened caves – at least until their glow fades and you’re forced to issue an urgent vocal reminder. You’ll get a response from most things, such that you’ll often be tempted to break the occasional silence with a bark or two, if only to jolt the forest from its torpor.
All of this is sweet but inessential, though inevitably there are obstacles you’ll need some help to pass. At which point you’ll need to learn the lingo: animals naturally make different sounds, and you’ll need to tune into their frequency to communicate with them. You’ll begin a conversation of sorts, adjusting Fe’s voice to the right pitch, eventually locating the right note that lets you know you speak their language. It’s a smart use of the analogue triggers, as you try to find and hold the sweet spot for a few seconds and a wavering line steadies, permanently binding Fe and her new ally.
Their assistance rarely comes for free. To soar between nests on a bird’s back, you’ll need to first retrieve four eggs for a fretting mother; wormlike critters will only teach you the uncomfortably phlegmy sound needed to trigger trampoline-like blooms after you’ve escorted their offspring to safety. One playful flourish sees you engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with your own kind, scampering up trees to knock them off, as you both tumble happily to the ground. Other abilities are gained from scattered collectables fed into a giant tree at the heart of the forest, letting you climb, glide and, a little too belatedly, break into a run. At times, exploration has a rhythm that’s almost reminiscent of
Breath Of The Wild – only here you’re climbing trees, rather than cliffs, from which to float down.
Threats come predominantly from an invading army of imposing bipeds. At first they resemble automata, but they soon seem more alien, as they suddenly drop to all fours and scuttle along, somewhere between a spider and Boston Dynamics’ terrifying dogbots. Their mission, seemingly, is to get some peace and quiet – as such, parents may well empathise with the apparent villains of the piece – by capturing the forest’s animals. This involves imprisoning them in spherical cells formed from a flimsy organic webbing; a foolproof masterplan were it not for the fact that a single seed, gathered from a nearby plant, is enough to break them free.
They’ll use the same stuff to trap you if you’re caught in the open, unless you quickly break line of sight, whether ducking behind scenery, leaping to higher ground, or hiding in patches of long grass. It’s here where Fe starts to come unstuck. Environments often seem built for form not function, with some platforms set at a height which seems just beyond Fe’s leap, while others are just low enough that you’ll be able to scramble up. It’s rarely more than a minor nuisance, but discerning which is which under pressure isn’t always easy, and if you’re pressed up against the platform in question, Fe sometimes won’t bother jumping at all, forcing you to try again. A scant few seconds to move out of range of an enemy’s gaze can be the difference between life and death; the low-slung camera isn’t always ideally positioned either.
It’s not an awful lot better when it joins you in the sky. Combined with the speed with which Fe’s glide kicks in after a jump, you’ll regularly overshoot platforms or pickups. The jump button is a pain elsewhere, too, since it’s used to scurry up trees in a jerky, stop-motion fashion that’s delightful to watch at first but can prove irritating in practice. The number of taps required to reach the top differs depending on the height of the tree and where you grab hold of it, meaning it’s all too easy to tap one time too many and immediately dive off, sometimes prompting a long climb to get back to where you were. It sours the game’s outstanding set-piece: an exhilarating, exhausting climb which ends up evoking Shadow Of The Colossus, in bad ways as well as good.
Otherwise, Fe’s biggest problem is overfamiliarity. Its story, told obliquely through stone carvings and sporadic visions, touches upon well-worn themes of nature and our treatment of it. And though it’s hardly developer Zoink’s fault that its game has launched so close to the aforementioned Ode, the latter’s unorthodox traversal trumps Fe’s more conventional powers. Even its stringsoaked score feels customary. Still, even as the music labours to make us feel, it’s hard not to be moved by the connections you make within Fe’s world – whether it’s crooning to a bulbous flower that nods like a weary drunk until you rouse it with song, or witnessing the smallest creature in the forest finding a kindred spirit in the largest. It’s a game that celebrates the idea of two disparate beings finding a shared language and using it to overcome their problems; in these troubled times, such moments are powerful indeed.