Compile Heart RPGs have a very clear sense of identity; they’re instantly recognisable.
Everything from their overall aesthetic to the structure of the game contributes to this distinctive identity, and it’s a formula that’s been working for them for a number of years now. Unsurprisingly, Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force is no exception to this rule, albeit with a few twists here and there to make it distinct from the company’s flagship Neptunia series.
Today we’re going to look at just how Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force works as a game, and how it differs from what people might regard as more “conventional” role-playing games.
Compile Heart games are typically structured in a “hub” format — that is to say, rather than engaging in a trek across the entire game world, visiting each region in succession as in the Final Fantasies and Dragon Quests of the world, we typically follow the characters as they move from one or more “home” locations out into the field and then back again having accomplished something. This gives the gameplay a distinct demarcation between “story time” and “game time” — or perhaps more accurately “town time” and “dungeon time” — and in many ways is more similar to the way strategy RPGs like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics are structured than the more conventional “hero’s journey” structure found in other games.
Fairy Fencer F kicks off with a tutorial dungeon designed to get you right into the action and understand how the game works, as well as introducing a few minor tweaks to the formula it introduces over the Neptunia series. The basic structure is largely similar, but Fairy Fencer F introduces a lightweight puzzle-solving element by incorporating locked doors in some of its dungeons; Neptunia dungeons, by contrast, tend to be fairly free-roaming, only occasionally blocking off areas behind the requirement to have a particular special ability.
Compile Heart dungeons are unusual when compared to more “traditional” JRPG dungeons in that you’re typically not passing through them to get somewhere else — you’re more commonly working your way into their darkest depths to retrieve or defeat something, then returning to town afterwards. Sometimes, you’re simply paying them a visit to harvest some materials rather than actually do anything “meaningful”. In some senses, this gives them a certain amount in common with grid-based dungeon crawlers, which tend to encourage exploration through multiple expeditions rather than tackling the whole thing in one go, though in this case they’re designed to be visually appealing rather than labyrinthine and complex; the “main route” through them is generally pretty obvious, with side routes typically just leading to dead ends with treasure boxes.
When combat begins by striking or being struck by an enemy in the field, we’re taken to a battle screen that initially appears to be identical to the Neptunia series. There’s a turn order indicator, with various actions having differing “wait” times that delay the character’s next turn; there’s a specific circular range that each character can move in before performing their action; there’s a sense of “organisation” to each clash, with friend and foe alike beginning combat in neat formation rather than the jumbled chaos you might find in games that attempt to blur the boundary between combat and exploration a bit more.
Once you start to fight, however, the differences become apparent. Whereas Neptunia is based on each character having three different types of moves — a Rush attack which prioritises hit count, a Power attack which prioritises strength of individual strikes, and a Break attack which prioritises damage to the enemy’s guard bar rather than their HP — Fairy Fencer F is instead based on weapon types and vulnerabilities. Each character’s Fury, or weapon, can transform into a number of different forms according to the actions you take and unlock as you level up, and different enemies are weak or strong against different attack types. The same is true for elemental resistances, as in most role-playing games, but here the weapon types arguably have greater emphasis.
Unlike Neptunia, where each weapon has an area of effect that can hit multiple enemies even with normal attacks, in Fairy Fencer F your normal attacks focus on a single enemy at a time. Striking an enemy’s weak point depletes their guard bar — initially invisible, but a character and ability becomes available reasonably early in the story that enables you to view it — and, should this be depleted, an “Avalanche Attack” results, during which time any characters adjacent to the currently active one in the turn order get to immediately throw in some attacks for “free” before taking their actual turn a moment later. Learning these weak points and attempting to manipulate the turn order to your advantage is a solid means of getting through the regular battles.
There are other mechanics at play, too. “Launcher” attacks, as in fighting games, fling the enemy up in the air, and “pursuit” attacks perform follow-up attacks on a launched enemy. The main benefit of this is that while in the air, as well as doing damage to the enemy themselves, you also do damage to any breakable parts they have. While an enemy is on the ground, a breakable part can only be damaged with the appropriate attack type — which isn’t necessarily the same as the enemy’s weak point — whereas pursuit attacks damage all breakable parts simultaneously. The benefit of breaking enemy parts is that you can get extra item drops when the battle is over, and also in some cases prevent an enemy from using certain abilities or taking advantage of resistances. The system isn’t used quite as drastically as it is in Megadimension Neptunia V-II, which features a boss fight where you need to break all the enemy’s parts before you can damage him at all, and nor is it positional as it is in that game, but it adds a bit of extra depth to the combat system, and is particularly useful when playing on the harder difficulty levels.
Another key difference between Fairy Fencer F and Neptunia’s combat is the fact that each character has a unique support action of some description. These vary from Fang’s “Serious Face”, which increases his damage output but means everything he does costs SP, even normal attacks, to Harley’s Analysis ability, which allows you to view detailed stats and information about the enemies you’re fighting, including their guard bars, and Pippin’s “Negotiate” ability, which has a chance to convince an enemy to leave the field completely — although you get no experience points for enemies “defeated” in this way.
Outside of combat, one of Fairy Fencer F’s core mechanics is the “World Shaping” system, whereby it becomes possible to manipulate various things about the world’s dungeons by using the Furies you collect over the course of the game’s plot. Stabbing a Fury into the ground typically has a positive and a negative effect on an area roughly corresponding to the level that Fury is at — higher levels equal larger areas of effect. These effects may be a direct impact on stats — increasing Attack by 10% while reducing Defense by 10%, for example — or may have more concrete effects such as doubling all damage received by both enemies and players, changing the enemies that spawn in the dungeon or preventing the player from using items or skills in exchange for a drastic increase in experience points or item drop rates.
The twist is, these same Furies that you use to shape the world and manipulate the dungeons can also be equipped on characters for stat boosts. While equipped, the Furies level up and provide stronger stat boosts and passive abilities in some cases — but, of course, while they’re equipped, they can’t be used for World Shaping. Unless you make use of the DLC Furies — which frankly break the game a bit, making it far too easy, so I recommend against using them unless you’re really having trouble — you’ll need to think carefully about which Furies you want to use to boost your characters, and which you want to use to manipulate the dungeons. It’s an interesting mechanic with a certain “collectible card game” charm about it — many of the Furies in the game are optional, and all have lovely artwork, amusing quotes and even periodic item drops if you make use of them.
The final way in which Fairy Fencer F differs from Neptunia is in character progression. In Neptunia, characters are fixed, unlocking specific abilities at specific levels, with your only real customisation being the attacks they use in their regular combos and their equipment loadout. In Fairy Fencer F, meanwhile, characters earn Weapon Points (WP) as well as experience points, and these can be spent in order to unlock new stat bonuses, actions, spells, normal attacks, weapon transformations and passive abilities. Ultimately if you play for long enough you’ll probably unlock everything for every character, but up until that point you have at least the illusion of building your characters the way you want them to be, and this even allows you to specialise them accordingly.
It’s clear from the varying lineup of abilities for each character that Compile Heart has a particular role in mind for each character — Tiara, for example, has a heavy loadout of healing spells, making her an obvious choice for team healer — but there’s nothing stopping you prioritising their more interesting sounding abilities first of all. Sure, it might make the game a bit harder for a period, but there’s no way of “breaking” it and getting yourself into an unwinnable situation progression-wise — if you find yourself without healing spells and facing a battle where healing spells would be really useful, all you need to do is go back and grind out enough WP to unlock the relevant abilities. There’s another thing about Compile Heart games: it’s pretty rare you’ll find yourself locked into a “point of no return” and unable to progress because you did something wrong beforehand.
For completionists, the game features a solid New Game Plus system, whereby after clearing one of the three story routes, you’re immediately prompted to start a new game and choose what you would like to carry over. The default is to carry everything over — levels, money, items (with the exception of plot- and puzzle-related key items) and even party members, meaning that you can use favourite characters before you “meet” them in the story on a second or subsequent playthrough. You can optionally turn any of these off, however, so if you want to keep your levels but start from no money and only use party members you’ve unlocked in the story, you can do. It’s a nice system, though after a certain point things do get very easy indeed if you carry everything over.
DLC allows you to raise the level cap from 99 to 999, and one of the DLC dungeons provides a very easy means of grinding up to that extreme power level, at which point you can absolutely flatten pretty much everything in the whole game, even on the hardest difficulty levels. There’s even one of the seemingly “undefeatable” bosses that you encounter in the story that can be defeated by a level 999 party, and doing so rewards you with an enormous injection of cash that makes getting the “obtain 5 million gold” trophy an absolute snap.
While its overall difficulty perhaps errs on the side of being a bit easy — arguably preferable to the unreasonable difficulty spikes in some of the earlier Neptunia games — Fairy Fencer F is one of Compile Heart’s most satisfying games to play. Combat is enjoyable, quick and speedy but still strategic, and the addition of a player-controlled progression system is a nice change from simply grinding levels waiting to unlock a specific ability. The World Shaping system, too, allows you to manipulate the game to your advantage, and the whole thing is tied together nicely by the distinctly “gotta catch ’em all” feeling from hunting down the Furies across the world.
While Fairy Fencer F may not be as radical a reinvention of their proven formula as something like the excellent Omega Quintet, Advent Dark Force definitely ranks among the company’s best titles when it comes to gameplay. Bring it all together with some excellent story and characterisation, which we’ll explore in the next article, and you have one of the company’s best games, full stop.
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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