In the modern era of action-adventure games, platformers, and RPGs, the “open world” concept has become the blueprint for a large portion of titles. We travel across giant virtual spaces and embark on countless side quests in so many unique worlds…and yet, so often, these titles firmly direct you at the cost of something valuable – a sense of discovery and curious exploration. The results often feel large in scope, but small in soul.
This couldn’t be any further from the case with Fe. Although it is a comparatively pint-sized offering when I think of AAA titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Skyrim, and Zelda: Breath of the Wild, it absolutely insisted that I set a slower pace to explore and chip away at its bizarre, Nordic-themed world. It may have been a smaller game world, but it was very dense, with every corner begging to be discovered.
Fe is based around an adorable, flying squirrel-fox creature, and focuses on its ability to interact with other organisms by “singing” and bonding with them. Combat is not an option; the little guy is utterly defenseless. Most of the other creatures in the game are harmless, and in fact they can help you explore more nooks and crannies as you progress through the story. Along the way, players learn more singing voices from giant birds, stags, and other forest creatures. These new voices allow you to backtrack, interact with different plants and beasts, and discover more secrets. This gave Fe a very Metroidvania-like feel, just on a smaller scale.
Not all things you encounter are harmless and want to hear your singing talents though. Robot-like beasts known as the Silence roam the land, and will almost instantly kill you when spotted. Fe made me feel very vulnerable and confused at the beginning, and from there it provided little direction. As a result, the focus on exploring and occasionally using stealthy measures was very apparent, and also necessary.
When forced to sneak around The Silence, Fe actually became pretty intense. It was never a scary game by any means, but the sense of vulnerability along with the production values really did a great job in immersing me in my surroundings. The art style provided an emotional response whenever I was spotted by The Silence, and everything turned to a reddish hue. It was extremely effective, along with the cello-heavy background music and bizarre sound effects. I also loved the shift in the color tones as I moved from area to area, giving each area a very unique feel.
Going back to the theme and plot of the game; Fe was almost maddeningly esoteric. From the moment I picked it up, all I wanted was to “get it,” and I can’t really say I ever did. Is this a soliloquy about connecting with nature? Do The Silence represent humanity in some way? The more I questioned, the less I seemed to understand it all. Perhaps I missed something, but other esoteric games like Journey and Braid weren’t even so vague, and they’re widely revered for exactly that kind of artsy-indie quality.
Unfortunately there were some other missed opportunities and frustrating issues that hampered the experience, first and foremost involving the actual platforming. There sure is a lot of jumping, climbing up trees, and gliding over large drops – and although you can’t take fall damage, I missed some jumps and wrongly judged distances, thanks to sluggish movement controls and the erratic camera. This wouldn’t have been such a problem if the level design wasn’t so focused on vertical movement. At many points, I wished the poor guy would just die and respawn at a convenient checkpoint closer to where I was climbing.
Speaking of checkpoints, I encountered an odd bug multiple times throughout Fe. During a few story-related sequences, I died while attempting to steal an object or distract The Silence away from an escape route. On three separate occasions, after respawning, I was basically allowed to stroll away unscathed, with my objective complete, my item in hand, or my path completely cleared. Strange as it was, I didn’t complain, but didn’t feel much of a sense of accomplishment. I also couldn’t figure out if this was one of the only instances of hand-holding in the game.
The lack of accomplishment actually popped up from time to time, naturally, simply because the game was so unusual with its sense of direction. Although Fe could be blasted through in a few hours, that was clearly not how it was intended to be played, and the lack of cues from the game itself make it slog along sometimes. Extra replay value is offered by collecting all the hidden items and consequently earning some cool abilities, but these were less effective at providing new wrinkles in the game, and more about making it easier to get around.
Fe wasn’t perfect, but the more time I spent patiently exploring its world, the more I was charmed by it. If its slow pace and intentional vagueness aren’t too much to handle, Fe definitely offers a unique and vibrant adventure, and would certainly appeal to fans of similar titles (Journey, The Witness, Flower, etc.). Although it runs a bit short for its $20 price tag, the value is in the journey – not the destination.
Fe is available now for Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. This review was based on a copy of the game for Playstation 4.