Many games are bound to compare unfavorably to last year’s one-two punch of Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, but here in early 2018, I’m hard-pressed to think of a game that is left staggering more than Fe. It’s a shame then that Fe, the flagship title released by Swedish developer Zoink as part of the EA Originals project, begs such comparison with its teeming, natural setting and an emphasis on ability capture and platforming. The similarities mostly end there, however, and what’s left, while admittedly beguiling, too often squanders its best ideas in the service of lengthening the experience.
You play as a small canine-like creature called (no surprises here) Fe. The opening of the game captured my attention subtly, drawing me forward to follow some sort of deer further into the game’s low-poly wilderness. When I caught up to the creature, an understated prompt asked me to sing, introducing me to Fe’s signature ability, an atonal yowl that can be pitched-controlled to recruit other fauna to help me progress through the game’s world. After singing with the deer for a moment, I was allowed to mount it, and used its superior jump to clear a series of hurdles to the game’s central hub.
The prominence of indirect control of the player comes as no surprise—Fe is somewhat billed as a counterpart to tutorial-less games like Journey or Abzu, but with a greater emphasis traditional gameplay elements like the ability-locked progression found in the Metroid or Zelda series. This best of both worlds approach works well for the opening hours of the game. The song-sharing mechanic initially bolsters the game’s themes of the interconnectedness of the natural world. There is joy in encountering a new creature, caterwauling with it for a moment, and then have it assist me in some light platforming challenge.
There is a strong sense of unity in these moments, and the muted terror of the Silent Ones, the game’s encroaching antagonists, only heightens this feeling. While a frolicking string arrangement scores my interactions with fellow fauna, minimalist, Twin Peaks-esque synths overpowers any playfulness when the Silent Ones are involved. I couldn’t help but detect a light Pikmin vibe as I ran into an area controlled by the Silent Ones with a guerrilla force of aquatic squirrel-like animals in tow, only to see my comrades moments later beamed out of existence as I attempted to sneak around to the objectives that cleanse the corrupted landscape. Appealing to this feeling of shared struggle is where Fe shines.
The spirit of camaraderie is undercut, however, as you gain the other creature’s abilities for yourself, no longer requiring you to recruit them to your cause. Further dampening the experience is the fact that neither the platforming or stealth mechanics feel precise. While the checkpoints for death or capture are generous, the game rarely triggers a death and checkpoint warp, meaning a missed jump in a particularly finicky platforming section can result in Sisyphean climbs back to from where you fell. The same can’t be said of genre-defining platformers like Super Mario Odyssey or, more recently, Celeste. These games demand a lot in the way of timing, but in their hardest moments, death comes quickly, and your next attempt is seconds, not minutes away.
If Fe were a shorter game, the lack of fine-tuned platforming would be trivial—this game has some cleverly designed sequences, but they are just too few and far between. Sadly, singing with new creatures becomes less delightful because their abilities are usually only good to maneuver through to a new area or back to the central hub. I was waiting for the game’s end stages to require me to use all of these ideas in compelling ways, but I can’t report that they did. The initial enchanting introduction to the game also becomes stale as it is repeated after nearly every area with a new animal. Tutorials, while unneeded at the outset, are soon missed, as the path back to previous areas (in order to collect the items that would make exploration easier) is unclear. Too often I felt like I was falling through the environment, rather than becoming one with it.
All of these shortcomings make me wonder what Fe might have been if it had ditched its Metroid aspirations and narrowed its focus to building on the strong foundations of its central narrative themes. What is here isn’t terrible by any measure, but too often Fe feels exhausted as it tries to keep pace with other heavyweights in the genres it emulates.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided by Electronic Arts.
Fe's best moments are built around its narrative themes of the connectedness of the natural world, but its platforming and open-world ambitions can't compete with recent titans in those genres.