This EA Originals title embodies the fantastic but does it offer much substance beyond that?
There’s something wholly enticing about ambiguity, especially in video games. I’m not talking about games where the solution or story isn’t entirely obvious but those which compel you with the mystery of something deeper. Perhaps that deeper meaning exists and maybe it’s something you make for yourself. Ambiguity can be used in varying degrees and it’s created some of the best experiences with regards to story and gameplay in the past few years. However, handling the ambiguous isn’t easy. Whether you’re using small pinches or entire dollops, the process can backfire, leaving someone confused for the sake of confusion. The effect isn’t entirely ugly – it’s just there, skittering about in its own bizarre universe without much regard for compelling playtime.
"Fe isn’t wholly concerned with explaining everything, taking a minimalist approach to its story-telling and a silent approach to the dialogue."
Zoink’s Fe is an interesting game, one that flirts with ambiguity without fully committing to it. The game’s atmosphere is a mix of “preserving nature and appreciating artistic beauty” and sort of just goes with that in its running time. The story is clear insofar as your role as Fe, a little fox-like being that can sing and communicate with animals for their assistance. The forest is threatened fairly quickly by the Silent Ones who capture animals and haul them off for some unknown mission. Gathering crystals, assisting the animals and combating the Silent Ones when you’re not gathering info on their purpose via astral projection makes up the main plot. Fe isn’t really concerned with explaining everything, taking a minimalist approach to its story-telling and a silent approach to the dialogue.
Instead, feelings, thoughts and emotions are conveyed through sound. Fe has the ability to sing to animals, matching the wave-length of their songs for different purposes. The Silent Ones’ voices are more distorted, even cacophonous, whenever they’re on the hunt. Whether you run into small critters, a playful stag (that’s subsequently captured, which angered me because we barely got time to solve puzzles…I mean, bond) or a protective mama bird, Fe conveys plenty of personality with its sound. The background music, combining heavy violin tunes and slow orchestral pieces adds to the tone admirably. There’s a sense that it could overpower the animals’ sounds but there’s a nice balance throughout.
Tying further into the “nature” theme are the different plants that can be interacted with. A critter may provide access to a plant that bounces you upwards. There may be a plant that lets you float with a gentle breeze. Larger birds may be capable of ferrying you to different places and there’s a helpful little hummingbird-type creature that will guide you to the next objective. It even doubles up as a source of unlocking little seeds that can disrupt the cages of the Silent Ones. Fe also likes to throw in some stealth. You can’t fight the Silent Ones head-on and if they spot you, they creep up on all fours with some decent speed, leaving you a few seconds at best to escape. This is all in addition to the platforming as Fe acquires different moves like climbing up trees and jumping off them to reach further places along with gliding.
"The ambiguous atmosphere bleeds into the aesthetic. In terms of art direction, Fe looks very unique."
Not every plant and animal is willing to listen to Fe. Sometimes you need to “learn” their song so to speak. Other times, areas will be closed off unless you unlock specific moves. It’s a decent reason to explore areas you’ve already cleared, perhaps collecting some crystals missed, before moving on. I’m hesitant to slot this into the Metroidvania genre though – there are slight aspects of that here but nothing too crazy, especially given how the levels themselves are laid out.
As a whole though, Fe‘s gameplay should be a lot more compelling than it actually is. The system of enticing plants to open the way forward, flitting up trees and gliding from one to the next, sneaking around, etc. should be a lot more arresting. At certain points – especially one epic sequence later in the game – it certainly is. It’s that moment where I feel the experience peaks. However, Fe just doesn’t strike that chord all throughout. Its level design is fairly rote. Aside from a few hidden nooks and crannies, the overall platforming won’t really tap into your ingenuity like Super Mario Odyssey or Celeste would. At times, I was caught thinking about Grow Up and how its concept felt like it could have used a lot more work to go with its massive levels and epic scale. Fe does have that slight bit of cleverness tucked away but it’s slow goings from the beginning.
The ambiguous atmosphere bleeds into the aesthetic. In terms of art direction, Fe looks very unique. Some animals come across as sharp silhouettes more than fleshed out figures (though their markings keep them from being too shadowy). The environments are a mix of minimal geometry and complex hues with the plants obviously sticking out as very intricately designed and luminescent. I could appreciate the screen hue changing dramatically when the Silent Ones became overbearing, simulating a crushing feeling but not really pushing the envelope. The playfulness of different animals in their animations is also a nice touch – when a game is so centred around nature like this, the developer deserves credit for imbuing so much personality into its creatures while still maintaining a fairly nondescript plot.
"If Fe‘s ambiguity was the set-up for compelling, tight-knit gameplay throughout its entire playtime, I would have probably been more interested in it."
Don’t get me wrong – aside from the ambiguous nature of the story mixing into the gameplay, making it hard to tell exactly what needs to be done next sometimes, Fe isn’t a bad game to play. The controls are fairly tight, roaming around the world is pretty soothing and aside from a few frame rate stutters here and there (old school Xbox One for the win), its performance is fine as well. You’ll sink a good couple of hours into the story and maybe go back to find the things you’ve missed. Don’t be surprised if you don’t though, even if the game can be fun at a number of points.
Sadly, despite the personality in its inhabitants, I never felt like Fe beckoned me to truly get lost in its world, much less fully appreciate its makeup. The stone tablets that depict various hieroglyphics of events taking place somehow reinforced my detachment rather than strengthened it.
If Fe‘s ambiguity was the set-up for compelling, tight-knit gameplay throughout its entire playtime, I would have probably been more interested in it. For as relaxing as the world can be to walk around in, if it was just a bit grimier, maybe a little more lived in and organic (which feels odd to say given all the flaura and fauna within), I would have had a stronger urge to see what the next corner held. As it stands, Fe is a whimsical experience that leaves a brief yet forgotten impression when you’re done playing it. Unfortunately, it’s more content to be dreamy and breezy instead of capturing your entire conscious during its short playtime.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.
Unique art direction that conveys tons of personality. Background score is good without overpowering the experience. Interesting gameplay and a few epic sequences where platforming elements synergize beautifully.
Not a whole lot to the experience to really draw one in. Minimalist story-telling feels a bit drab at times. Level design doesn't feel clever enough to tap into the mechanics. The odd frame stutter here and there.
Fe is dreamy and looks the part but doesn't completely immerse one in its whimsical setting. It's a trip that's fairly painless but doesn't offer much more than a few amazing highlights.