REVIEW: Fae Tactics

Aug
29

REVIEW: Fae Tactics

Fae Tactics is just short of an excellent Tactics RPG focusing on adaptable party composition rather than role playing.

Released: Steam
Type: Single-player
Genre: Tactics, RPG
Developer: Endlessfluff Games
Publisher: Humble Games
Release date: 31 July, 2020

Intro

Fae Tactics is the new game from Endlessfluff Games, following Valdis Story: Abyssal City, a great metroidvania game.

This time, they decided to tackle the japanese tactics RPG genre, a la Final Fantasy Tactics (FFT). The first point to note about Fae Tactics, however, is that it is NOT FFT, despite the clear homage in its graphical and writing styles.
I had a rather frustrating time playing it until I realized what the game is actually about, in terms of gameplay, and only after that point did I come to really enjoy the game.

Fae Tactics is not about role-playing (more on which later), but about party composition. It’s not about training your party (individually or collectively), but about exploring their various uses and adapting on the fly.
It’s about constantly switching your skill points’ distribution, equipment and characters to tackle a specific fight, and not about creating a versatile party to win every battle. This is an extremely important point that, while thwarting fans of the genre, opens up a whole area of gameplay. The actual tactics, the turn-to-turn decisions were also important, but definitely secondary to deciding on a good party composition.

Also important to note is that levels were a bit “gimmicky”, especially bosses. Boss-specific mechanics were constantly added in a way that made it harder to use past experience on new challenges in a straightforward manner. While this isn’t my preferred style of game design (I intensely disliked Blackguards 2 for this very reason), Fae Tactics found a nice balance between the two.

I played the game on Normal mode and it took me around 45 hours to beat, with no grind at all. I would have liked to replay the game on Hard mode now that I understand the mechanics (which required a bottleneck in the game’s difficulty!); unfortunately, I find the base game too long to make it worthwhile.

Basic Gameplay

While the setup will be familiar to fans of FFT, Fae Tactics plays out quite differently – particularly in its eschewing of a menu. While it seems a rather strange point to make, it shows the game reinvents the genre from the ground up and, in this case, makes the combat a lot smoother (at least once you know what to expect from each enemy – which the UI makes a nuisance, at times).

Characters don’t have normal and special attacks as you would expect from a JRPG; instead, they have contextual actions – basic attack, assist, combo attack, and ultimate. While this seems too little, it works extremely well. Basically, units can be melee, single-target or beam-target ranged; every time you attack a unit, adjacent *melee* units will combo with an additional attack. Once they have their full combo charges, the ultimate will be triggered on either type of attack. Assist is activated when you “act” on an ally, with several possible effects.

These are the basics of the gameplay. All you do is move characters on the battle field and choose on whom to act (or not). Turn order is determined by every character and NPC based on their speed stat, and you can delay your action to coordinate actions. Positioning is crucial (for example, back-attacks are hit harder and don’t miss, and they also change the character’s direction, making it possible to combo multiple back-attacks).

Outside from the direct actions, each character/weapon has an element type (not unlike Pokemon) which may be weak/strong against another type, has a different assist effect, and may also have some specific map benefits (volcanic fights favor fire) as well as a zodiac benefit (each event in the game advances the day and each day of the week benefits a different element type).
You control 3 main characters and up to three “summons”. Summons are like Pokemons – monsters you can “capture” in other battles. The summons aspect isn’t nearly as deep as pokemon (no training, capturing is about a specific type without stat variation, etc.), but it works well for what it is.

There are a variety of other systems that makes the gameplay more interesting – killing enemies with a crit gives you more XP, has a greater chance of dropping an item, having no character/summon die will award you extra crafting material at the end, subduing bosses (based on a “down timer”) yields more XP (though it is riskier), there are spells, a crafting system for global upgrades, a “memory” mini-game to get stat benefits from food, etc. etc.. There’s quite a lot of extra stuff! These things are too deep, but they can be important (especially the optional battle objectives for XP and crafting materials) and they do change the micro-decisions during levels (do you want to safely end the battle, or what to pick up an item over there?) and makes the mundane battles more fun.

I enjoyed the combat a lot more than I expected. It was less tiresome than its genre companions, but the soul of the game lies elsewhere – party composition.

Party Composition & Role Playing

This is what the game is about. When a character levels up, you gain a skill point which you can spend of Offense, Defense, or Assist. These aren’t fixed choices, however – you can redistribute the points whenever you want. Or, perhaps more accurately, whenever you need.

Equipment comes in two different forms – weapons (typically gained from companion-specific sidequests) and scrolls. Weapons often change the element of the attack, and often the range of the attack, the assists, and other situational effects. Scrolls are an extra property – some are useless, like +10 HP or attack for units of a certain element; others are extremely useful, like extending the range of the assist effect (heal/buff in a radius rather than a single character), doing extra % damage to isolated targets, extra % of critical damage, lowering defense on hit, etc., etc.. Scrolls “level up” whenever you pick up another copy of them in battle, and they increase its effect. Equipment, too, is something you will find yourself constantly changing between characters and encounters.

Spells weren’t as crucial (I used a fairly limited set of them), but were useful for quick healing, resurrecting downed characters, or doing AOE damage at a distance.

The important part is that you will not have a specific role for each character – this is the sense in which I claim that this isn’t really an RPG. Characters’ roles shift and change depending on the situation. Sometimes the challenge is to discover a completely new use for a character, based on the combination of equipment and stat distribution.

I think this is great. This is what makes this game stand apart from many others and worth playing for its own sake!
When you commit to stat distribution or equipment, the kinds of challenges you can throw at the player diminish considerably – you can’t throw a fundamentally different challenge if the player can’t adapt. This is my frustration with many ARPGs (Diablo, etc.) where you must commit to builds quite early, and often the game changes the challenge completely in ways you could not anticipate. It encourages playing the game with a guide – because a 20-30 hour game doesn’t exactly encourage experimentation, the cost of mistakes is too high; JRPGs and Tactics game take a different approach in allowing you to grind for power (simply level up enough) or diversity (level up a new character to fit a new role). In fact, it seems that grinding is expected in the genre – which is a source of disappointment to newcomers to Fae Tactics.

As in, this adaptability is great! But not perfect – the game scales enemy levels when you play “story missions” (every mission), but not free battles. Free battles were apparently implemented after the game was balanced, so they aren’t required – but this isn’t told to the player. The result was that, initially, when I encountered a very difficult battle, I was frustrated at the game’s balance – I didn’t realize the shortcomings of my party composition for this particular battle and instead blamed poor balancing and the need to grind.
When I realized this point, everything changed. I felt “safe” to tackle the difficult battle without even considering grinding. I paid more attention to the Zodiac day of the week, element types in battles, and experimented with different tactics. I’ll come back to this point when I discuss difficulty and bottlenecks.

To conclude this section – this is not about grind at all. If an encounter is too hard, consider a radical change in strategy. This happened to me when I had only two boss battles available, both of which had massive amounts of AOE, HP, and seemed numerically impossible at the time. Yet when I tried a completely different strategy (using a certain character built for assist and a mana-shield spell), I became practically invulnerable against one of the bosses. I felt like I almost “transcended” the boss. It was not a problem at all. The whole game got a lot smoother from that point onwards – this tactic was tedious and not feasible in many battles, but I now knew I had to adapt. I took each level independently and had a great time.

Communication

This is the game’s biggest flaw, in my opinion. It doesn’t communicate itself or its mechanics well at all. Every piece of information is thrown at you in the tutorial, the first 30 minutes of a 40+ hour long game, and then you have no access to the information anymore. This is not how learning works. I wanted a manual, or some reference card or whatever, because I had no way to know what half of the stats and effects meant. Some information if given in loading screens, but this is somewhat random. Some information you can access during battle, but this is a rather small subset of what I wanted, ideally.

Some boss characteristics are also cumbersome and unclear to read – the information if given by icons (which do have a tooltip) on the boss’s sheet, which you can access by selecting it during battle. But there are often 10+ icons, so it’s a rather cumbersome way to convey information. Worse, these sometimes changed without any clear signal – in particular, some bosses had a “crit shield” which protected them from critical damage; this shield had a certain durability, but I have no idea how this durability changed. With some bosses it was by destroying his summons or totems, with others I have no idea. The game didn’t communicate this well at all.

There is also the fact that the game is styled very much like FFT (particularly the Advance version), and so sets up certain expectations. But Fae Tactics is unique in the genre and plays out very differently, in my view. But the game never explicitly sets itself apart from those games it wears on its sleeve. This is likely to create friction for many players (as it did for me!).

If you decide to play the game, which I think you should, be mindful of this. The game doesn’t communicate itself well nor does it give you all the tools to make sense of all the information you need.

Difficulty and Length

The last point I want to mention regards difficulty, length, and expectations.

First off, the game doesn’t let you change difficulty half-way through (neither up nor down). The game wasn’t clear either about whether or not grinding was feasible or expected. I played the demo in hard mode and it was hard, but manageable. However, skimming the forums, I saw many people mentioning how difficult some later encounters were. Fearing unwanted grind, I decided to play the game on Normal mode once it was out. I’m not sure if this was the right choice.

The game’s balance is strange. Early on, it wasn’t very challenging, but it felt challenging enough. Then came the first bottleneck – where I had two big boss fights that I simply could not beat. And those were the only two fights available. These were fairly early on (at the end of the first third or quarter or the game). This was extremely frustrating but, looking back, necessary. This is what made me reevaluate my whole approach to the game, up to that point. I was playing it wrong. My team was rigid, and I wasn’t tailoring my tactics to each particular encounter.

It took a few hours of mild existential crisis, but I got over it. I realized what I had missed. Unfortunately, from this point onwards, the game became extremely easy. There was a difficult encounter here and there, but most of the game wasn’t mindlessly easy. This is probably because of my change of approach, I finally “understood” the game and was able to think much more effectively. The flip side is that most of the game became rather boring.
There was another very difficult fight later on (requiring some more soul searching – by which I mean fundamentally changing some assumptions I had about my tactics), and a couple of others that were dicey, but I managed to beat on first or second attempts, if by the skin of my teeth.

But the game was 40+ hours long. This is a rather imposing commitment, to me (though of course different people play games differently). Looking back, when I was in the last quarter of the game, I felt like I would have probably enjoyed hard mode a lot more – but I needed that first bottleneck to enjoy the experience. I wouldn’t have lasted long with my incorrect expectations.
At the same time, going back for another playthrough, potentially an even longer game (if more encounters require heavy experimentation) is a bit too much; I also found some people on the forums complaining that the game got much easier after the same bottleneck I encountered.

In the end, I feel like the game is somewhat imbalanced. I feel like it could have been better to shorten the campaign a bit and bet on a two-playthrough kind of structure, the first to teach the mechanics, the second to challenge the player on a solid foundation. As is, the game occupies a weird position where it seems too difficult on first approach, but too long to play through twice. The optimal experience is lost somewhere in between (in my view).

One point I forgot to mention is that the game also has missable content – of the most frustrating kind. There are at least two optional characters. The first one I missed without even realizing it was a special character – basically, you encounter an NPC during a certain mission, and you will be able to recruit it if it survives the fight. There was nothing to suggest that it was a special character, however – other missions had fodder NPCs and this one seemed exactly the same. I missed it and only realized it when looking through forums later on.
The second character I managed to get, but only because I happened to stumble on the right forum post. This character apparently had a hidden time limit for you to beat certain missions after first meeting it. Furthermore, you needed a bunch of crafting materials (within the time limit) to recruit it – but neither the time limit nor the materials were mentioned when you first encountered it.
These are two situations that don’t fit any of the game’s previous patterns. There’s nothing to suggest you should pay attention to the two encounters. This has implications in the game’s length as well – maybe a shorter game would justify a replay after being aware of this missable content, but not such a long one, perhaps.

Conclusion

Summing up a rather long review, Fae Tactics takes the genre in a unique direction, but fails to signal this properly.

The game is great if you like to experiment with different party compositions and strategies without any grinding, but you should know what to expect going in.

I feel like some design problems prevent it from being a “landmark” game, but it’s absolutely worth playing if you enjoy the genre!

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