There is beauty in simplicity. I’ve always appreciated when a game is designed in such a way that it’s able to deliver a compelling experience without overwhelming you with unnecessary clutter or baggage. There’s an artistry to showing restraint when so many others place value in cramming as much as they can into a game. It’s something that we don’t see nearly enough of in video games, but the latest game from Swedish developer Zoink Games, Fe, does a fantastic job of creating something that is both elegantly simple in design and presentation but also features depth and sophistication to keep you engaged throughout the campaign.
The Guardian of the Forest
Fe is an open world adventure game in which you take control of the titular character, a small fox-like creature who has awoken in the middle of the woods with no recollection of where you are or how you got there. Throughout the 6 hour campaign (longer if you’re a completionist) you’ll explore the forest, befriend all manner of woodland creatures, and try to piece together the mystery of this mystical location which seems to revolve around the beings know as Silent Ones. Slender, armored sentinels who roam the world looking to enslave any creatures that dare to cross their path.
Your main method of interacting with the world is through song. By holding down the right trigger, Fe will sing a tune which gives her the ability to communicate with the animals and plant life in the forest, enlisting them to aid you on your journey. As you progress you will also learn new songs which will grant you abilities such as opening flowers for you to bounce off of or clear a patch of mushrooms which block your way. It’s a style of progression similar to games like Metroid or Zelda, in which your new abilities allow you to backtrack and take paths which were previously closed off to you. You can also unlock new moves for Fe by collecting crystal shards hidden throughout the world. These new tricks such as gliding and the ability to climb trees are critical to your progression and allow you to maneuver through the world more quickly.
A Game of Few Words
One of my favorite design decisions that the developers made was the complete lack of any dialogue or text in telling their story. Not a single word is spoken in the entire game (atleast not in any known language) and it creates a terrific storytelling structure. You piece together the narrative simply by watching the action on-screen and discovering dozens of wall carvings hidden throughout the forest. Each one crudely scrawled like a prehistoric cave drawing that gives you tiny hints as to the history of the world. You’ll also come across orbs which, when held, will transport you for a few brief moments into the mind of the Silent Ones. You’re able to see through their eyes and it gives you a possible glimpse into what their motivation might be. These storytelling methods create a sort of ambiguity to the tale, allowing each player to interpret what they’re seeing in their own way.
Without any spoken dialogue in the game, you’ll spend a lot of time listening to the sounds of the forest and the music in the game. Luckily both are beautifully arranged by composer Joel Bulle and are utterly brilliant. It’s a powerful and at times, emotional soundtrack which is an early front runner for my favorite OST of the year. In contrast with the more simple visual style of the game, the sound design is rich and complex.
Simple and Clean
While the visual design of the game is on the more simplistic side, it is no less effective. The graphics themselves aren’t particularly detailed and they aren’t relying on raw horsepower to impress players, instead they play to their strengths with a simple and attractive art style and beautiful use of color to create a game that is very easy on the eyes. I played the game on my Xbox One X and while the colors really do jump off of the screen, I would’ve loved to see some more impressive textures taking advantage of the 4K definition.
The creature design is top-notch as well. The animals that populate these woods are similar to ones you might come across yourself on a walk through the woods, but they have fantastical touches that make it clear that these aren’t the backwoods of northern Minnesota. Whether you’re soaring through the sky on the back of a great owl or climbing a majestic deer the size of a skyscraper, the creatures are all wonderfully unique and look like they could have jumped straight off of the screen of a Studio Ghibli film.
Time Well Spent
As a person with a limited amount of time to play video games each week, I appreciated that it seemed like this game really respected my time. While you could probably spend 10-12 hours if you wanted to find every collectible and hidden object in the game, you can finish it in about half that time if you just want to casually go through and experience the story. So many games these days focus on cramming countless side quests and extras into a game to artificially boost up the playtime, it was nice to play a streamlined experience that didn’t overstay its welcome.
Features like the ability to summon a bird who will fly in the direction in which you’re supposed to go and the ability to always have your next objective highlighted on the map also help to make things easier for those of us who aren’t interested in wandering the world endlessly trying remember what our current objective was. I do have to say though that sometimes the actual controls of Fe feels a little bit loose or imprecise, especially when compared to some recent platformers which control so effortlessly. It’s fairly minor though and wasn’t bad enough to detract much from the overall experience.
Singing It’s Praises
I have to admit that Fe wasn’t a game that was on my radar this year, which makes how much I enjoyed it a very pleasant surprise. It’s a wonderfully told story of life, nature, and the balance that it must all find. It takes inspiration from some of the all time greats like The Legend of Zelda, Ori and the Blind Forest and Shadow of the Colossus but never feels like it’s just trying to copy their successes. It has a unique vision that makes it it’s own special experience and if you’re a fan of minimalist storytelling like Journey or Inside I think you’ll find a lot to love here.
Fe is available Feb. 16th for the PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch & PC