In 2010, Ubisoft unveiled a custom-made engine called UbiArt Framework. This engine allowed those utilizing the in-house engine to create games such as Child of Light, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, and a series of Rayman games. It was invigorating to witness a triple-A developer invest in AA games, particularly those with lively color palettes reminiscent of the 2D 16-bit furry platformer days. Not to be outdone (and better late than never), in 2016 Electronic Arts announced “EA Originals,” a program dedicated to promoting smaller (indie) projects so that they may shine. Beginning with Unravel in 2016 with A Way Out to come March 2016, we have here Fe, a game that wowed during its Gamescom 2017 trailer.
Gamers may only find two content concerns in Fe, and they are minimal if not also pedantic. On occasion, a puzzle solution results wildlife gorging or pummeling an enemy until they are disabled. There is no blood, but rather a brutal animation that is more likely to incite jubilation due to the spectacle of seemingly divine justice rather than cringes.
Speaking of the divine, there is no explicit mention or demonstration of religion. However, Fe is intentional in its production of sacred rite of passage. In this way, Fe is analogous to a digitized Walden.
Fe grants players direct control of an adorable fox-like creature that walks on two legs. One can freely roam the twilight-tinted beginning area to appreciate the lush vegetation, or, if the hint systems have not been previously deactivated in the options menu, obey the prompt to follow a deer-like creature deeper into the wood. This, I do, until coming upon a machine unconventionally fused with organics. I am prompted to “speak” to it in a way reminiscent of the “chirp” mechanism in Journey; the difference here is, in Fe, the player-avatar sings. I am required to harmonize my “C” note with this thing by managing the pressure I place on the R2 button (I play with a DS4). Success yields some purple jellyfish-like seeds pollinating a cluster of flowers, causing them to grow large so that I can sequentially jump-bounce upon them to reach higher elevation. In the opening minutes of Fe, the platforming elements are coming together.
“Bambi” and me doing some platforming.
I manage to corner the deer, but it would run from me every time I drew near. Frustrated, I would stand my ground and sing, experimenting with the pitch of my tune, hoping the deer would draw closer. I does, and the orbs slowly emerge from our mouths indicating our consonance until they meet midway between us. When they touch happens, the deer fox hop with celebratory mirth in light of their newfound friendship.
The deer now follows me, and the only exit out of this meadow is further up elevation. This time, the flowers are not opaque white, but translucent orange. I try to sing to a flower, and I am denied with a “wrong” chime and a big red “X” on the flower. The deer, however, approaches and sings, empowering the flower to create a wind turbine that I use to air-surf to the higher surface. The next valley wows me in the serenity of its running lakes and waterfalls, additional deer and Rodentia, runic shrine and aforementioned ancient tree. After collecting the conspicuously-placed pink icon, I unlock the ability to climb trees through a hallucination.
Only the first hidden skill is required to complete the game. The others are optional. Fantastic design choices.
I use the treetops to escape this place of immaculate tranquility only to encounter within the darkness of a cave the Silent Ones (as the promotional materials for Fe calls them), anthropomorphic machines whose appearance is accompanied by a shift in tone with the lighting and music from whimsical wonder to dread. I mark them as sinister, and evade them. My suspicions are confirmed when I emerge from the cave and witness my deer-friend apprehended by a pair of these machine-people who use the flashlights emitted from their heads to cocoon the poor Cervidae and carry it away. Disturbed, I cut the corner and dip through a valley to come upon a large bird who is also captured, but it is too large for the Silent Ones to take with them away; they leave it, blocking my path. An unlikely hero arrives—a small bird who, after we sing to establish that we are of the same accord, flies over to a green plant yielding a similarly-colored fruit that can be used as a projectile to dissipate the cocoon. The larger bird is liberated and my path is clear.
Happy Momma Bird
Fe then prompts me that the smaller bird serves as the game’s built-in hint system. If I am ever stuck, I can sing loudly, and the bird will come and lead me to my next objective. To demonstrate, it flies forward, leading me to I must credit the developers at Zoink for creating a system that the smaller bird leads me to a gargantuan foul who is waylaid by the Silent Ones for her eggs. Ah, a classic platforming mission: I must stealthily recover the maguffins to advance in the game. When I do, the elder bird prompts my fox to match her pitch, unlocking the ability for me to speak with not just smaller, younger birds, but the large adults as well; they serve as “moving platforms” upon which I can hitch rides for shortcuts throughout the land.
Taking flight with my new friend, I discover an orb that unveils some story.
It is after acquiring this latest pitch that the themes and objectives of Fe come into full realization for me. I take note in my song selection menu where the bird’s is represented by a yellow bird’s foot; my default fox’s song is a white icon resembling a Spitz‘s head; I remember that the deer’s symbol is a large orange “V,” or antlers. Therefore, similar to Seasons After Fall, I realize I will be traveling the forest, appealing to the respective patron “guardian” of each animal species by thwarting the Silent One’s efforts in suppressing them. In return, I will be granted the secrets to their respective languages, allowing me to communicate with both the fauna and flora in my quest to advance deeper into the mysteries of the forest to investigate the purpose of the Silent Ones’ invasion of an otherwise peaceful place.
Like Journey and Abzû, the story in Fe is optional, conveyed through both the examination of murals placed throughout the forest, as well as the environmental interactions in which the player engages. Therefore, interpretation of the story will require an attentive player—and perhaps a bevy of screenshots. I am pleased to report that Fe takes after the former game rather than the latter, successfully conveying a touching narrative and spiritual experience. With my fox-avatar serving as a proxy, I welcomed my conversion into an extension of the forest in its struggle to flourish despite occupation.
Me and my homies run deep! I love the chorus that sings with the purple things.
It is here where feel it necessary to dispense with the varnish of remaining as objective as possible. For readers who have made it this far, indeed, the first several paragraphs of this review read like an op-ed rather than a review. That is because I feel as though Fe is as much a masterpiece as Journey, a game that I also describe as much a pilgrimage as it is video game, but it is not without fault. In a game of this nature, immersion is paramount. The art direction in Fe is consistently beautiful, and at times breathtaking. yet there are a few sections of the game where I experienced drops in frame rate. The draw distance is limited, and imagery is more colorful than dense in textures; I hardly excuse frame drops for more technically sophisticated games—in Fe I certainly see no excuse. I own a G-SYNC monitor displaying in 2k with a 165 MHz refresh rate, yet I found myself in the options turning on Vsync, and experimenting with lowering the resolution (Fe at 1920×1080 did not last long; it looks fuzzy on a 27″). I also got stuck once and was forced to restart my game.
In gratitude of an unseen error, the boar teach me their ways.
It is a rare occasion among the heap of merely good or marginally better than mediocre games where I am blessed to experience one that gives me pause, forcing me to rethink how I approach video games in general, even to the point of considering recalibrating review grading scales. Fe is such a game—it is the game I wanted, needed Abzû to be: a successor to masterpiece known as Journey. Finally, after six years, a worthy successor has arrived has arrived in the form of a fox.
Review code generously provided by Zoink AB.
The Bottom Line