PREVIEW: FoxTail

Aug
13

PREVIEW: FoxTail

A charming point and click adventure title that goes out of its way to respect the player and tell an interesting story over trying to force the jokes. Well worth grabbing before the post-release price rise.

Author: Astrobia
Steam: Early Access
Type: Single-player
Genre: Point & Click Adventure
Developer: Gingertips Game Studio
Publisher: Gingertips Game Studio
Release Date: 2 March, 2018

FoxTail is a game about a young fox named Leah who receives a letter from her grandmother asking her to visit. Leah arrives by train and is surprised her grandmother isn’t there to meet her. From here the player must guide Leah through the forest in which she grew up, rediscovering her roots, learning new skills, solving puzzles, and uncovering the mysteries of her grandparents past.

FoxTail is another indie point and click adventure title that tried to raise development funds through Kickstarter and failed. Unwilling to give up, the developers went to Indiegogo and released the first chapter of the game on Steam Early Access instead. Having now seen what is available of the game, it feels like a great tragedy that it didn’t get the financial support it deserved right out of the gate.

Barriers to Entry

Point and click adventures are not experiencing the same popularity they used to, which is surprising given the rise in popularity of visual novels. P&C is almost a parent genre that couples same character-centric storytelling with more player agency and providing an interactive world for them to explore, all without abandoning the storybook like presentation as an open world sandbox would. Perhaps the problem is how easy it is to get the formula wrong. The 90’s are over and the nostalgia market for such titles has already been satiated by both HD remasters and a plethora of decent Daedalic/Telltale titles.

There have been a few successful indie entries in recent times as well, but most make the mistake of trying to emulate the success of early titles like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle without understanding that they were products of the time. The genre is flooded with entries that resort to using forced jokes and camp or puerile humour as their main selling point. While there certainly is a market for that, these days it’s not really the same market willing to spend money on a slow-paced story-centric puzzle type game.

So, when the developers of FoxTail pitch the game using the description: “The main heroine, Leah the fox, is charismatic, funny and cunning, as any fox is supposed to be”, immediately all sorts of alarm bells go off. Is this some furry’s wish fulfilment self-insert character? Is this game another lazy meme ridden cringefest? On the surface, I’m not surprised so few people even gave the game a second glance.

Thankfully, the reality is that the game is none of those things. There is no emphasis on humour that doesn’t occur naturally and the theming is as innocent as a Beatrix Potter story (well, before Sony Pictures got the licensing anyway). In truth, the worst thing FoxTail can be accused of is being somewhat kid friendly. Even then it is clearly intended to appeal to all ages, with a focus on young adults, given it is a coming of age tale.

As it stands there are only two real issues that make me hesitant to recommend this immediately to anyone with even the vaguest interest in the genre. First, while it is not really buggy, the game isn’t currently very stable. In the 4 hours I played, I had it crash to the desktop 6 times. Worse, I could not load my last save from the main menu after a crash. Instead, I had to start a new game and sit through the intro sequence again before I could load my saves from the in-game menu.

The second issue is given that only the first chapter is currently available, there are only between 2-4 hours of gameplay at most to be found. That first chapter has a neat self-contained arc that sets the stage for the rest of the game nicely. However, it definitely leaves you wanting more and obviously leaves the main plot hook for the rest of the game unresolved. Given we probably won’t see the rest of the story for at least a year that doesn’t leave much incentive to purchase now.

To that end, the game is being sold at a low price while in Early Access and the price will go up when it is released. This is rarely well received at the time of the price hike and Steam review bombing is probably an inevitable result which is a pity. Since both the above issues are forgivable given it’s an Early Access title, I hope all the point and click adventure fans out there get in and grab the game while the getting is good.

Shadows of the Past

Since FoxTail is also trying to cash in on that waning nostalgia market, it is done in a classic pixel sprite style reminiscent of The Legend of Kyrandia games. There is always the potential trap of going too far with pixel art and winding up with a visually incomprehensible mess. FoxTail straddles the line of visually clear sprite work and having clearly visible pixels. If you are deliberately going for a pixelated aesthetic, this is pretty much the best you can hope for. As such fans of the style should be delighted, while those sick of seeing overly pixelated retro titles should still be able to enjoy the pretty scenes in the game without wanting to avert their eyes.

The resulting artwork is well done and succeeds at what it sets out to do. That is to say that it is colourful, charming and memorable. There is a remarkable amount of extra work that has gone into making each scene breathe. The visual style is winsome on its own but additional work has still been done to include extra animations that will occasionally play as you stand around in a scene examining it for clues. These are subtle, the occasional leaf falling from a tree, a train passing by in the distance, birds flitting by. These little touches weren’t strictly necessary but they do portray the developer’s passion for making a solid living backdrop for the game to be set against.

The central plot hook of the game is that the protagonist’s grandmother is sick, so Leah must go on a journey filled with adventure and self-discovery in order to find a mysterious plant (the titular foxtail) to be used as an ingredient by an elderly scientist to mix a cure. If this is all sounding very Once Upon a Forest, that sensation will only be reinforced when 5 minutes into the game you find diagrams and models for various types of flying machines. But in truth, the similarities end there.

A lot of effort has been put into making sure there’s a rich original backstory to be explored. Besides the main plot thread, there are whole sections of the game dedicated to uncovering the mysteries of the past, finding out what secrets the protagonist’s grandparents have been keeping from her, scrounging up old memories and rediscovering the parts of her childhood she had otherwise forgotten. Just as an example, there are a series of puzzles that lead to discovering a new area containing a swing. This was completely optional and served no purpose other than unlocking a cute scene of Leah remembering her grandfather pushing her on said swing while she closed her eyes and pretended she was flying.

The idea of rewarding the player with more story is a part of the art of game design that seems all too often forgotten in games these days. The whole “The cake is a lie” meme stemmed from a little bit of visual storytelling hidden in a secret area of the first Portal game. It was of little consequence to the main plot, but to the players, the value of these little extra insights into the history of the game’s setting and lore cannot be overstated.

With the need for multiple red herrings in point and click adventure games to discourage players from just resorting to using every object on every other object, this whole concept is an ingeniously perfect fit for the genre. Instead of a bunch of useless items cluttering up the inventory, the principle of Chekhov’s gun is respected and the player is instead given outlets to learn more about the game world by applying their intuition in the right places.

Respect the Player

Speaking of the puzzles it’s refreshing to see an adventure game where the puzzles generally follow standard rational reasoning instead of requiring leaps of crazy moon logic to solve. There’s usually enough context to make it clear what you should be doing without leading you around by the nose and robbing you of the satisfaction of figuring things out for yourself.

The game’s options even let you carefully tailor exactly how much help the game gives you. There are various options for highlighting the active zones in a scene to eliminate pixel hunting. Different mouse cursor options show how certain things can be interacted with and you can even set if specific items show whether or not they can interact with each other.

In addition to the standard text speed options there is also an option that lets you select the character’s walking speed. Letting the player customise the game’s difficulty through the AI is great but also respecting the players time shows a great understanding by the developers of the importance of keeping things user-friendly over maintaining their own arbitrary ideas of how the game ‘should be played’.

That’s not to say the puzzle design is perfect. The endless supply of fruits and candies you can collect do largely act as the traditional red herrings I previously mentioned. That is with the exception of the fact you can eat them and gift them to other characters to eat which serves to make the world feel more lifelike. I do appreciate that when including such items for the purpose of misdirection the developer saw fit to give the player something interactive to actually do with them.

One place I did get stuck and was unable progress was when you need to have Leah ‘smash’ her grandfather’s beloved old radio. The description of the radio makes it abundantly clear there are useful items inside but it did not occur to me to go ahead and destroy an old family heirloom that even the protagonist expressed had sentimental value. This is especially vexing given there was a screwdriver (that you couldn’t pick up) 2 feet away from it that could have been used to respectfully disassemble it instead. But this is a minor complaint and hardly compares to other infamous examples irrational puzzles in the genre such as the ‘monkey wrench’ (Monkey Island 2) and the ‘love custard outhouse’ (Discworld).

The game also has plenty of other redeeming features. Books in the game tell stories of how the world was created. At first glance, these come across as lazy lore dumps until you realise they are also references for later puzzles which are based on those stories. A huge chunk of the current game is mostly about the protagonist learning herbalism for a variety of reasons and solving the related puzzles will fall back on a reference book that mixes in-game lore with real-world botanical facts. This results in what it called tangential learning, something I love when games actually get right. Edutainment is only a dirty word due to the shovelware that gets it wrong.

There is a fine balancing act between giving the players all the tools they need to solve the puzzles presented to them, without painting a picture of the solution and insulting the player’s intelligence. By provided references, the developers have allowed players to figure things out themselves while both encouraging and giving them the means to learn what they don’t already know when they are stuck.

Verdict

At the end of the day, FoxTail is currently a rather short experience. The game’s presentation is sweet and endearing. Its music and visuals, while not masterworks, are carefully crafted by competent artists who clearly have a great amount of love for the world they are creating, in order to support a pleasing story that will hit you gently in the feels.

If the rest of the game is anything like the short sample they have provided then we have a truly great entry into the genre to look forward to when the game is fully released. Even with the instability and other current Early Access woes, its current low price makes it very easy to recommend it as an appealing taste of what is to come.

About Dead Parrot

This review was written back in the mists of time by a member who is no longer with us but he's not dead, he's restin'... There, he moved!

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