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Review: Fairy Tail

30 Jul 2020

Some games are really tough to review coming in from the outside. Case in point? Fairy Tail.

Much like when I reviewed Gensou Skydrift, I am aware walking into this particular situation that this is material adapting a well-known and well-loved shonen manga. Fairy Tail is based quite directly on a manga that had an eleven-year run with 63 volumes and a solid ending to its plotlines. Fairy Tail – the game – has to adapt that not as a sequel but as a direct adaptation of how the manga itself works.

And that means it’s interesting to come into this with no pre-existing knowledge of the franchise or of how the series works beyond what can be gleaned from Wikipedia and, you know, the game itself. So it has to work as a game, first and foremost, but is it an impenetrable mess to people who don’t know about the existing manga? Is it a faithful adaptation for fans of the property? Is it worth your time?

I admittedly can’t fully answer if it’s a faithful adaptation in full, of course. But I can certainly try.

Fairy Tail releases on July 30th for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC via Steam. The PC version was played for this review.

You’ve Gotta Fight for Your Right to Continue Character Arcs

The game starts off very in medias res, not least because the game is very clearly keeping in the plot of the manga itself. Your initial tutorial fight pits you up against Hades, the very obvious final boss of an arc who sets up… well, perhaps not the plot, but the framing device. The eponymous guild of Fairy Tail has to put up a desperate protective spell to avoid destruction, and that means that they wind up sealed away for seven years.

Once they emerge no older, the team is happy to be alive but somewhat less happy to note that in the seven years of their absence, Fairy Tail has gone from a world-class guild to being at the absolute bottom of the pecking order. Our ostensible protagonist, Natsu, is very excited by the prospect of now having to build the guild back from nothing, and thus starts the guild on the path to…

Oh, no, this is the tournament arc, isn’t it? It’s the tournament arc. Every one of these shonen series has a tournament arc, and this is the one for Fairy Tail.

Now, to the game’s appreciable credit, this is the tournament arc that was actually in the manga. Far from creating a new plot that goes nowhere, the developers and writers for this adaptation have opted to settle the story into the middle of the actual run of the manga, and that also means that the events of the game get a chance to retell complete arcs without a problem. It can enrich and flesh out existing scenes while still knowing that the big points that have to be hit later will be.

Were I a fan, I could tell you whether or not this leads to better foreshadowing, analysis, and comprehensibility compared to the original manga. Alas, I can only speculate, but I think it was probably the right call to take advantage of the fact that the story is finished. Thus, a lot of what appears to be original material is focused around vignettes and interquels between the characters, fleshing out character relationships and the like.

It’s here that things get kind of messy, because… well, most of the characters are kind of one-note and simple. Natsu is the “affable idiot with friends” version of the Standard Shonen Protagonist. Gray is The Rival plus Fanservice Guy. Erza is… okay, Erza is fairly different, but mostly because she’s a lady instead of another guy. The lineup feels pretty rote, in other words. Ladies get a lot of fanservice shots, there’s speeches about the power of friendship and so forth…

But that’s the thing. All of that is what it’s supposed to be.

Like, full confession time, I’m not generally a fan of shonen anime specifically because of these being mostly familiar and repeated points. But the thing is that these familiar and repeated points are there by design. Moreover, while it might not be to my personal taste, it is executed well. Natsu might be kind of bland in many ways, but he’s not gross or unpleasant in any fashion. He’s just kind of like having a big stupid dog that also punches people with fire.

And if you’re not a huge fan of him, well… he’s not really afforded a huge amount of outsized importance. Sure, he has Huge, World-Shattering Backstory, but so does literally everyone else in the guild. It’s like an entire group of characters who could be protagonists in their own franchises, and so the story does actually treat them all as a fun, unified group.

I can’t say that this made me eager to go read the manga or anything, but to steal the oft-used Roger Ebert phrase, it’s not what a game is about but how it is about it. And Fairy Tail does a good job of being a story about a bunch of weirdos fighting other weirdos and weird monsters and having silly ramping-up adventures over time.

Punch! Building Kick! Explosions!

Of course, this series being what it is, it needs a battle system. It could probably get away without a whole lot else. And this was a good chunk of why I took the game, because this game was developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo. Even if I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the story, I felt very confident that this was a team that could produce a solid RPG, right?

Well… I was right.

The battle system is a bit on the simplistic side in terms of character building. Every character has access to a different arsenal of magic, but that functionally just means different elemental spells – and everyone is a caster of some type in this setting. Everything costs MP, and most of your fights are about hitting as many enemies in grouped formations as possible while aiming for weaknesses.

You also have a few other attack options, though; every character has an Awakening gauge unlocked in the story that allows you to go into a specialized power-up state with more MP and HP regeneration along with some powered-up abilities. You can also unleash a special magic chain attack that feels a bit like the team-based All-Out Attacks from the Persona series; chain together a bunch of attacks for a wild overkill, potentially with summoning in a huge spell along the way.

The battles themselves are basically fine. They’re not great, but they’re solid and enjoyable, even if you might get tired of some character voice lines along the way. If the game left things there, it’d be a lightweight but acceptable thing. Instead… well, it gives you a lot more to do beyond that.

For example, the game has a lot of little Contracts for players to undertake, little missions that send you into an area to hunt stuff or clear objectives. Some of them require you to bring specific members, others let you bring whoever, and while most of them are on the simple side they’re all fine for repeated and solid farming.

This also leads to growing your bonds with teammates (which unlock little scenes of the characters interacting one-on-one) and growing your guild rank, which is also key to ranking up individual characters with unique abilities and outfits. And it’s also a key component to improving your guild facilities, restoring things like the equipment crafting station or the item shop.

None of these systems are particularly deep or anything. Crafting is just a matter of farming reagents and then assembling the thing, you unlock more recipes by doing stuff. Dueling your fellow guild members is just a little training fight in which you get rewards for your first victory. And so forth.

But all of it works hand-in-hand to provide a game that feels like it’s actually significantly richer than it necessarily needs to be. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, mind you; I mean that it’s clear this was adapted not as a cynical cash-in, but a chance to enrich and flesh out the world with more things for players to do and more aspects to explore. Instead of just slapping in battles and free roaming and calling it a day, the game emphasizes doing kind things for random people, clearing requests, exploring character stories, and unleashing your power in battle.

More to the point, the game also does a good job of reinforcing the intermarriage between the characters across multiple fronts. Case in point: there’s a part of the tournament arc wherein Erza makes a tactical decision that pits her against a huge number of monsters. The resulting battle is difficult, but not overwhelming, but you still have to play intelligently and think about how you’re deploying your abilities even as Erza doesn’t have a lot of the more subtle abilities you might expect when alone. You feel like Erza really is insanely capable after you win, not just like the story hands you an easy win and then praises you for it.

The overall system and way that the game plays still feels on the simple side; you’re not going to be doing in-depth customization of your characters at any point. But it’s all solid and fun to play, and there was never a point wherein I felt like the game’s systems were annoying. Sure, they feel chunky and a bit simple, but they’re fun and flow nicely.

Come and Look at Both of our Buildings

Visually, the game is very nice. The cel-shading works smoothly, character animations are expressive and vibrant, and the attack animations are generally of a reasonable length. I say generally because, well… some of them go on for a while with no obvious option to skip them, and while they’re not abilities you’re likely to be spamming, it can be a little bit obnoxious to wait through the whole thing every single time.

But what matters more are character models, outfits, and animations. The game does a good job of bringing in the style of the artist and having it clear through all the character designs. While there are choices I’m not terribly fond of, none of it is a mark against the modelers in the least, and while I can’t be certain all of this looks exactly right to fans of the anime or manga it certainly does look good.

The music is similarly on-point throughout. Most of the tunes are catchy and memorable, although it does have an unfortunate tendency to restart from the beginning every time you swap areas or even open the map. I believe a lot of it is taken from the anime itself, with a definite tilt toward anime rock and the appropriately wailing guitars.

I do have to mark it down a little bit on the PC technical side, though. While you can navigate menus with a mouse, the game refused to give me prompts for anything other than my controller, and there’s no borderless windowed option for the game. I didn’t actually have any problems alt-tabbing around, but it’s a sign that the game seems to be built as a console title first. Hardly a dealbreaker.

There are also plenty of quality-of-life elements scattered throughout. An extensive encyclopedia is available to refresh you on concepts (or introduce you to things you didn’t know), along with a full game guide that lays out mechanics in a straightforward fashion. You can save anywhere and quick-travel to areas easily, ensuring that you can get right to what you’re trying to do at any point; however, there are various little items scattered around in the open world, which does reward you a bit if you’d rather explore more.

Oh, and there’s a jump button. I don’t know why there’s a jump button. You don’t seem to be able to jump over anything. But everyone does have their own jumping animation, so hooray?

A Fine Enough Tail

In some ways, reviewing Fairy Tail is odd simply because for fans of the series, the primary question is one I’m not equipped to answer. Does it live up to the legacy of what it’s adapting? I can’t tell you that.

What I can say is that it adapts the story directly, clearly works hard to get characters right while being accessible, looks great, plays well, and feels fun even to a non-fan. And even as a non-fan, while you feel like you’re coming in on the second reel of a movie (because you explicitly are, the game frequently referring to events that happened before the plot started), you never feel like it’s impenetrable in that regard.

Seriously, any time I found myself saying that I didn’t know who someone was or what their deal was, in seconds the game was explaining exactly who they were and why they mattered. Not obtrusively and not unpleasantly, just clearly enough that I could follow along within seconds.

In fact, the biggest thing that keeps me from recommending it more heartily is that while the game is solid, it doesn’t have a whole lot to recommend it to people who aren’t fans of Fairy Tail already. It is a very solid game for the property, but if you aren’t a fan, it’s likely to feel chunky and adequate but not groundbreaking. It’s for an established audience first and foremost.

But to draw that Gensou Skydrift comparison again? This is a solid game no matter what. And I’m willing to bet that if you are a fan of Fairy Tail, you’re getting rewarded with a fun and solid RPG that keeps the spirit of the original and adds on more besides.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Koei Tecmo.