Idea Factory’s label Compile Heart has repeatedly proven over the years that they’re not afraid to look back on their past work and try to improve it.
As a result of this highly iterative development process, we’ve seen a significant and dramatic improvement in the overall quality of their games over the course of the last five or six years.
The poster child for Compile Heart’s improvement over time is the prolific Neptunia series, which has gone from being niche-interest to a highly successful, well-regarded franchise with instantly recognisable characters.
But the Neptunia games aren’t the only ones Compile Heart wants to improve. They’ve also gone back to revisit their PlayStation 3 title Fairy Fencer F for a new generation of consoles, and the results are impressive, with Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force being arguably Compile Heart’s most significant revamp to date.
While the Neptunia series is a parody of anime, role-playing games and gaming culture in general, Fairy Fencer F was designed as a more conventional experience. That’s not to say it’s particularly strait-laced, mind you; Compile Heart’s trademark cheeky humour and occasional fourth wall-breaking are present and correct, but the difference is that the focus isn’t on the humour this time around.
Fairy Fencer F tells the story of a young man named Fang, who comes into possession of a sword known as a Fury. In Fairy Fencer F’s world, Furies are weapons that have living beings — fairies — attached to them, and those who wield the Furies are known as Fencers. A Fencer taking up a Fury causes the Fencer and the Fury’s fairy to be bonded together for life, and it’s shortly after this has happened to Fang that we join the action. The adventure that follows is typical JRPG fare: Fang, initially cynical and reluctant to do anything, learns of bad things happening in the world, and embarks on a quest to awaken the sleeping Goddess, gathering allies along the way and eventually learning what it means to be a hero and a leader. We’ll explore the narrative in more detail in a subsequent article.
The original Fairy Fencer F was a PlayStation 3 title, released in the latter years of the system’s lifespan. Compile Heart had released a number of titles on PlayStation 3 — most notably Trinity Universe and the three original Hyperdimension Neptunia games — but had seemingly never quite mastered the hardware. While all their games had absolutely gorgeous 2D artwork, their 3D visuals tended to be a little on the primitive side compared to more impressive, big-budget games of the time.
Specifically, they tended to be somewhat on the low-resolution, low-polygon side of things, frequently made use of copy-pasted environments — even between games in some cases — and often ran at sub-30fps frame rates. Their technical mastery and overall performance improved over time, but it wasn’t until the company largely abandoned the PlayStation 3 in favour of the handheld Vita and subsequently the PlayStation 4 that they started to produce more accomplished work.
It’s unfortunate that the technical issues that plagued Compile Heart’s PlayStation 3 output were quite so pronounced, as these formed one of the main reasons that the company struggled to find mainstream success. After all, thought those members of the audience who prioritised graphical fidelity and technical proficiency above all else, why would you want to play a low-resolution game with a crap frame rate when you could play something that looked as amazing as Call of Duty or Final Fantasy XIII? (I’m aware Final Fantasy XIII is a contentious choice for some people — that’s something to explore another day! — but few can argue that it’s one of the most beautiful games on the PS3.)
The answer, as existing enthusiasts of Compile Heart’s work will already know, is because despite their shortcomings, these games were filled with soul. Their writing was snappy and entertaining, their characterisation was excellent, their 2D artwork was without peer and, once you delved into it, their gameplay was actually fun, engaging and a little bit different from more conventional Japanese role-playing games. The original Fairy Fencer F was no exception in any of these regards, and Compile Heart’s subsequent output has never faltered from this description.
Fairy Fencer F and Advent Dark Force are also noteworthy for the high-profile names that were attached to the project: Final Fantasy concept artist Yoshitaka Amano and composer Nobuo Uematsu both contributed in their respective fields, plus Neptunia fans will appreciate Tsunako’s distinctive in-game artwork and character design.
You may have questions at this point. Let’s address three of the most common: what exactly is Advent Dark Force’s relation to Fairy Fencer F, should someone who hasn’t played the PlayStation 3 version play that first, and should someone who has played the PlayStation 3 version play this?
Firstly, then, Advent Dark Force is not a sequel to Fairy Fencer F. It is, instead, an enhanced and expanded remake. That description doesn’t quite do it justice, however; on top of completely revamping the battle system to allow up to six active party members in combat at once (compared to the original’s three) and upgrading the visuals to high resolution and a slick frame rate, Advent Dark Force features two completely new story paths to follow as well as that seen in the original game. The first half of the game is the same as the PlayStation 3 version, then at a significant plot moment partway through, it diverges into one of these three unique narrative paths according to your actions.
These aren’t just slight changes to the overall narrative, either; the latter two stories are completely different, even going so far as to introduce brand new characters in one of the routes. And, in the grand tradition of Japanese games with multiple endings, in order to fully understand the overall story, it’s worth playing through all three, especially since the one that is clearly intended to be played last leaves things nicely open for a sequel.
To address the second question, then: you may have already surmised this from the above, but since Advent Dark Force includes the entirety of the PlayStation 3 version’s narrative, there is now no real reason to play that version if you have a PlayStation 4. Advent Dark Force’s enhanced mechanics and presentation make it the best way to experience that original story, and then there are two more to enjoy after that, too.
As for the third question, yes, even veterans of the PlayStation 3 version should check this out, not only for the two new narrative paths, but also because a number of underexplored characters from the PlayStation 3 version get a lot more love and attention in this version, meaning there are no party members who are left feeling like “filler”; by the end of the game, you’ll have a good understanding of who all these characters are and why they are doing what they do.
To put it another way, then: Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force is the definitive way to experience not only the original Fairy Fencer F, but also its two brand new stories. It’s one of Compile Heart’s most consistently solid games to date, with quality gameplay, entertaining characters, enjoyable stories and plenty to keep you busy for a good long while. And, judging by the ending of one of the routes in particular, it seems that the company is keen to make it into a new series to run alongside the popular and prolific Neptunia.
Compile Heart may still be regarded as a “niche” company, then, but one thing they’ve demonstrated over the years is a laser-sharp focus on what they’re actually good at, and this, in turn, is reflected by products that respect their audience and cater to them without compromising their sense of artistic integrity and consistency. I can think of a lot of other developers and publishers out there who could learn a lot from this approach!
Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force is available now for PlayStation 4. The original Fairy Fencer F is available for PlayStation 3 and PC.
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