I've played enough Japanese role-playing games now to know what I'm getting myself into when I boot up a Compile Heart title. There will be scantily-clad women running the gamut of fetishes - from nurses to maids to the traditional cute and clumsy girl-next-door - and the game's enemies will mostly be just recolours of the same few models. At some point, at least two women will get into an argument about breast sizes, likely during the obligatory bath scene, and if we're particularly lucky, a couple of enraged feminists may even take to twitter to voice their disapproval at the latest outrage of "patriarchy" - but to be honest, we'll take this innuendo-laced anime silliness over a testosterone-fuelled shooter any day.
Fairy Fencer F is the latest Compile Heart game to make it's way to the PS3, promising a more toned-down take on their trademark eye-candy and innuendos, all wrapped up in a game you can lose yourself in for 40+ hours.
The story is typical Japanese craziness. A long, long time ago, a battle raged between the Goddess of Light and the Vile God of Darkness, with each creating a huge armoury of magical weapons with which to attempt to topple the other. As the battles raged on, failed attacks sent the swords, known as Furies, falling to the earth, each imbued with a magical fairy. Eventually, the war ended in a stalemate, with both sides falling into an eternal slumber, and many years of peace went by. Now, beings who call themselves 'Fencers' are recovering the fallen Furies, and using the power inside them to revive the slumbering Gods.
Meanwhile, in the town of Zelwinds, a legend has grown around one such Fury, which became firmly lodged in a stone during the great war. Rumour has it that anyone that removes the stone from its resting place will have their wish granted - and that's where the youngish bloke named Fang comes in. Thinking with his stomach - again - he figures the sword could be the perfect way to get what he really wants in life - an infinite supply of food. Stepping up to the plate, and actually managing to tug the sword out of its resting place, it turns out Fang is "the one" - but unfortunately for him, pulling the sword from the stone isn't enough to grant his wish on its own. Turns out the legend missed out the most important part - and if he wants to have his wish granted, he'll have to revive the ancient Goddess first.
Now partnered with Eryn, the fairy that lives inside the sword, they set off to round up as many Furies as they can, as each one they recover can be used to remove one of the blades that impale either the Goddess or the Vile God - a choice which falls to you. It's kind of a shame then, that the story is pretty ho hum, despite it's less cliched foundations. Really, it serves as little more than a vehicle to get you to go from dungeon to dungeon, rounding up the game's one hundred Furies - but that's not to say the ride itself isn't worthwhile.
Each story mission begins with garnering some info from the gold-obsessed Lola in the town square - for a price, sometimes covered by your pals, sometimes not, she'll tell you where her latest juicy Fury-related gossip comes from, pointing you in the direction of your next dungeon conquest. From forests, to lava pits, to snowy caves, each is a maze of enemy-filled corridors, interspersed with conversations, hidden treasure and boss fights, with each end-of-level boss you beat netting you a new Fury/Fairy to add to your collection. It's a fairly standard dungeon crawling affair, punctuated by visual novel-esque talking head cutscenes, that's sure to be familiar to anyone who's played the games-consoles-turned-nubile-young-women Hyperdimension Neptunia series, also from the folks at Compile Heart.
As a Fencer, you have an allegiance with a single fairy; a special bond with the one you first acquired. But just because you're technically spoken for on the fairy front doesn't mean that all those fairies you find locked in the Furies you're steadfastly rounding up will have to go to waste either. Each Fury comes complete with it's own fairy, which can be equipped as a 'resonance effect', giving a boost to a character's stats or adding additional abilities to your arsenal. Only one fairy can be equipped by each character at a time, but your fairies earn experience while in use - earn enough, and it'll level up, increasing its stats and learning new abilities, all of which will be transferred to the Fencer in question.
The battles themselves are turn based, with your team mates and opponents taking it in turns to attack, defend or use items. As you both deal and take damage, a 'tension' gauge begins to fill, boosting your attack power as it rises - and once it reaches a certain point, you can unleash a special 'Fairize' attack, where the Fencer draws on the power of their partnered fairy in battle. Even if we don't think much of how its spelt, it's a pretty cool transformation that sends your attack and defense stats soaring, letting you deal more damage and soak up more hits, as well as giving you access to more powerful Fairize-exclusive special attacks - even if we are a bit disappointed you don't sprout a pair of wings and a pink dress.
If you're lucky enough to land a critical hit on an enemy, or repeatedly damage it with a weapon it's weak to, you can even kick-start an 'Avalanche Attack', where each person in your party lines up to have a go at the enemy, dealing massive damage in a huge combo. With many a role-playing game tending towards real-time battles these days, it's refreshing to come across a solid turn-based system for once - although the battles themselves can veer into the irritating from time to time.
You see, the main problem with Fairy Fencer F is one that plagues many of developer Compile Heart's other offerings - a bit of a wonky difficulty level. In the case of Fairy Fencer, this tends to manifest itself as either a seemingly impossible to beat boss at the end of an otherwise easy dungeon, or as a randomly tougher batch of enemies during a chance encounter. It's not really pronounced enough to make Fairy Fencer into a bad game - just a slightly unbalanced one that can seem unfair at times. Especially as it has a tendency to let you access optional side dungeons way before you're capable of beating the boss at the end.
But, like most of their games, what it lacks in polish, it makes up for with personality. It may not have the epic story of your average Final Fantasy, but the characters are entertaining, kooky and in many cases crazy.
Often filled with innuendo, dirty jokes and a fair slice of 'fanservice' (generally scantily clad women, upskirt shots and other forms of titillation), Compile Hearts' games often get a bit of a bad rep, particularly with the feministy crowd, but for better or worse, Fairy Fencer F seems to have been toned down somewhat, despite the potential for jokes. Let's just put it this way - Fang is much more interested in melons of the edible kind, his idea of "eating out" involves a five star chef, and anything saucy comes with plenty of ketchup. Generally more interested in stuffing his face and sleeping the day away, the reluctant hero makes a nice change of pace from the usual testosterone-fuelled horny teens of some of their other games.
Outside of the main guy, you have stuck up Fencer Tiara, who seems to very much enjoy Fang's insults and harsh words, Fang's amnesiac fairy Eryn, who looks down on her Fencer for being so selfish and lazy, and Harley, a rather well-endowed female who is completely oblivious to why taking your clothes off in public is frowned upon, much to her fairy's despair. There's even a green cat-like blabbermouth Fencer called Pippin, who seems to have a sword stuck in his head. Each has their own unique personality, and how they all interplay in their daft conversations helps keep the game moving in spit of its plot.
In a nutshell, Fairy Fencer F isn't a bad game - just an unbalanced one. Its cast of quirky characters and fun combat help keep things moving along, while the reams of Furies to collect and level up are sure to keep the OCD collectors happy. It may not do anything particularly revolutionary, but sometimes, that's fine. We just wish the difficulty didn't spike so wildly from time to time.