Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord review

Developer Compile Heart seems to have set themselves the challenge of making the most quintessentially Japanese role player of all time. Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord features dragons, mechs, monsters, heroes with swords, and a lot of sexual tension. If you’ve seen it before, it’s in this game. Unfortunately, Fairy Fencer doesn’t have much new stuff of its own to add.

You play as Fang, a silly man-child who keeps making stupid jokes. Of course, all of the female characters are secretly in love with him. Fang is a ‘Fencer’ – someone able to wield special weapons called ‘Furies’. These come with fairy spirits who are tied to you, help out in battle, and converse between fights. Fang wants to collect loads of Furies so he can resurrect a kind goddess and restore his fairy’s memories.

The dialogue frontloads a lot of this jargon, but the key to having a good time with Fairy Fencer is just to let it wash over you. None of it really matters. The story isn’t so much a story, but a kind of background for hanging out with characters and watching their jokes. This is all high-stakes but low-key stuff.

Characters are introduced at breakneck speed, and consequently, we spent the first five hours highly confused. Those versed in the series may have a little more joy. After a while we started to get a grip on these characters and who they were. Not that there’s a lot to get a grip on. Most characters fit into typical role-playing tropes as tightly as many of the female characters fit into their costumes.

Before we go any further, we have to address some of the content. If you’re put off by scantily clad anime characters, close this review now. One of the main characters has her insanely large breasts barely covered for the entire game, while one of the first sub-plots involves a female character misplacing her panties. And there is, of course, a hot springs scene. Talk about hot under the collar.

When battles take place, it feels more like a traditional Fire Emblem game, with characters taking turns moving around a grid and executing attacks. Positioning here matters. You have a far better chance of landing a great hit if you strike an enemy from behind. Of course, there are magic and special attacks. Two types, in fact. It isn’t the deepest tactical experience, but we found battling weirdly addictive.

The reason for the game’s subtitle arrives in the form of muses. On each side of a battle, there’s a muse; a special character who can sing a song to buff the abilities of anyone close enough to hear the song. It’s a cool little feature because singing a song obviously changes the soundtrack, and when both muses are singing, the two songs blend in a fun way. Unfortunately, the selection of songs is rather limited, and the Muses don’t really add much to the tactical variety.

Throughout the experience, more and more characters join your cause, and we found it a little overwhelming. Different side quests encourage you to try out new characters, but we found ourselves sticking to the same six as much as possible. Each character has equipment and skills to manage, a main fairy to level up and unlock new skills with an option of a sub-fairy (often scantily clad) to add to those skills. There’s a lot here, and tinkerers will love trying to find the best combination of fairies, sub-fairies, and equipment. There are also loads of sub-quests to unlock if you want to grind yourself to a winning team.

It may sound like an experience that should have depth, but actually, it’s just a lot of…stuff. A lot of options are given on a turn, but we never really felt like we were developing a true tactical plan. We were just waiting for our ‘Fairize’ meter to fill up. When it’s full you can transform into a more powerful version of yourself for a few turns and access a special attack that batters opponents. Well, batters them a bit. You never really unlock the kind of screen-killing power that you often do in other RPGS, which means that fights can tend to be longer than is fun. We had one particularly brutal fight that felt like it lasted forever as we slowly chipped away at the health of our opponent’s muse – the only unit they had left. They couldn’t hurt us, but we had to do turn after turn of slow chipping.

One thing we really must give the game credit for is its accessibility. You can change the difficulty level on the fly – a really nice feature for a game like this, and when you’re defeated in battle and want to retry, you get to keep all the XP you gained rather than being pushed back to the last save. It stops things from getting too frustrating while preventing unwanted grinding.

It turns out, however, that was kind of our thing. Fairy Fencer’s story isn’t told that interestingly, its characters aren’t that likeable or memorable, and its battles aren’t that tactical. But we still found ourselves drawn in. We ended up doing loads of side quests and diligently playing the ‘Location Shaping’ mini-game which unlocks new dungeons and items when you explore a map overview. By the time we reached the end, we had just over thirty hours of playtime.

Fairy Fencer F wears its influences on its sleeve. A lot of the backgrounds resemble Xenoblade art, and the fairies you collect are a clear crib of that game’s Blades. When characters use the Fairize skill, a cutscene plays where they impale themselves on their own weapon, like a medieval take on Persona 3’s protagonists shooting themselves in the head. The scenes between the battles are clearly influenced by Fire Emblem’s increasingly visual novel-esque direction. But none of that really matters. Somehow Fairy Fencer is more than the sum of its parts.

There are some reasons we can’t give Fairy Fencer F a universal thumbs up. The developer’s heart is clearly in the right place, and they want to write a diverse cast, but one of the gay characters comes across as a very clumsy stereotype, which is typical of the clumsiness of the writing in general. It also goes on for a tad too long. But if you’re after a comfortable RPG for a lazy holiday, you could do a lot worse.

Published by Reef Entertainment/Idea Factory International, Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is out now on PS4, and Switch. A PC version is due May 25th.