Fairune is a game that, at first glance, could be mistaken for an homage to the original The Legend of Zelda, the early Ys games or perhaps even Hydlide if you’re a real hipster.
It’s a top-down open-world game presented in chunky pixel art, in which you defeat enemies by simply running into them. You collect items which allow you to access new areas or provide you with new abilities, and your ultimate aim is to explore the whole world thoroughly until you locate three plot-critical doohickeys, at which point you descend into the final dungeon, rescue the three equally plot-critical fairies, kick the snot out of the Big Bad and then relax, safe in the knowledge of a Job Well Done.
However, it does just a few things a little bit differently to what you might expect from that description. And those little differences are enough to make it a unique experience well worth your time.
Despite appearances, Fairune, developed by Yuumi Kimura (aka “Skipmore”), is more of a puzzle adventure than an action RPG. It makes no attempt to hide this, even describing itself as such on its digital store pages. But what does that mean, really?
Well, it means that rather than merrily hacking and slashing your way through enemies with gay abandon and grinding to your heart’s content, you’ll need to think about things a little more.
Fairune’s combat is deliberately simplistic, but critical to success in the game. Walk into an enemy to attempt to defeat them. If they’re at your level, you’ll kill them, take one point of damage and gain an experience point. If they’re one level higher than you, you’ll kill them, take two points of damage but still only gain one experience point. If they’re more than one level higher than you, you’ll take damage according to the difference between you, but be unable to kill them. And if they’re lower in level than you, you’ll kill them, take no damage and get no experience points.
Much of Fairune is spent killing the “appropriate” enemies for your level — conveniently pointed out explicitly to you by your companion, the Ancient Codex — until you level up, at which point you’ll heal fully and be able to take on stronger foes. What you have to bear in mind, however, is that the only way to heal yourself outside of levelling up is by standing on patches of magic grass you’ve activated with a piece of mana you acquire early in the game. This means that you can “trap” yourself in an area if there are more enemies in your way than you have remaining health.
Thankfully, death is simply a minor inconvenience in Fairune; losing all your HP sends you to an underground cemetery that you can escape simply by following a spiralling pathway, and from there you can proceed with no penalties to the experience you gained or the items you found — you’ll just have to walk back to where you were previously.
Progression in Fairune, then, is a matter of levelling up to a suitable level to reach areas you haven’t been to yet, collecting items from those areas and then using them to reach other areas, at which point the cycle eventually repeats until you get to the end of the game.
Those items make it more than just a nice stroll in the forest, though, because you’ll have to figure out what to do with each of them, often having been given only vague, non-explicit visual cues. If there’s only one of something in the whole game world, it probably means something, even if said meaning isn’t immediately apparent. But the solutions to any problems you might encounter are always logical; you should never find yourself reaching for a walkthrough, completely at a loss for what to do next. You might just have to experiment a bit.
Fairune’s game world is small, but well-designed. It consists of an overworld, an underground area, a tower and a lava world. The overworld and underground areas both wrap around on themselves — leave the map on the east side and you’ll end up on the west. The others are more self-contained.
The regions are split into unique, individual, non-scrolling screens, so you can easily get your bearings and know exactly where you are — though a helpful on-screen grid-based map assists you with understanding the overall context of where you are. The interesting design comes from the fact that the layout of these screens frequently teases you by allowing you to see areas and items you want to get to, but making actually getting there a lot more complex than might initially appear.
There are also a couple of instances throughout the game where you’ll need to be keenly observant in order to know where to go next. Hmm, those tree tiles look a bit different to all the others, I wonder if that means something; hmm, I seem to be able to walk behind these pillars, I wonder if I’ll end up somewhere if I keep going?
The joy of exploration and the satisfaction of finding something “secret” (which is actually critical to your success in most cases) is constant in Fairune. By de-emphasising the combat aspect, the game becomes a multi-part, ongoing puzzle of traversal — and the way the combat works slots perfectly into that.
Not only that, but the whole thing can be beaten in a couple of hours, even if you don’t know what you’re doing. And after you’re done with that, replayability comes from a focus on speedrunning the experience, or perhaps tracking down some of the actual hidden items and enemies that are not essential to beating the game.
Fairune is an absolute delight. Presented in attractive, low colour-depth pixel art that brings the Game Boy Color to mind more than anything else — and accompanied by some inordinately catchy chiptunes — it provides a small but well-crafted world that is a pleasure to explore, along with a satisfying mental challenge to overcome. It essentially gives us a highly condensed RPG-style experience where the emphasis is neither on plot or combat, but on the simple enjoyment of wandering through a world to see what you can find.
There are lots of games out there that look like Fairune, but nothing that plays quite like it. It’s a fascinating game that understands you’re a busy person who doesn’t necessarily want a constant stream of 50+ hour epics, so it distils the core of such experiences down to the bare essentials and comes out feeling like something completely unique.
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