In the world of Fairy Fencer F, there are people called Fencers who can wield special weapons crafted by gods known as Furies by making contracts with magical creatures called Fairies which have various looks from animal and robot-like to fully human-like. If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not the only one, as the whole game feels like many anime tropes I’ve learned to love mixed together in a tight, well-developed package.
The case of Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is noteworthy in its own right; it is a sequel being released almost a whole decade after the first game. It completely changes the gameplay from turn-based combats to a tactical RPG, and it does it right. The game’s story follows Fang and his group of Fencers as they try to gather all the Furies to ask for a wish from the Goddess, but on the road, they meet Muses capable of healing or brainwashing anyone who listens to their songs. Now they must be prepared to uncover many secrets and plots that threaten the fate of the whole world.
Playing it for the first time made me feel as though I was watching the episodes of a seasonal anime, thanks to its recognizable visuals and its humorous and convoluted storytelling. The most remarkable of all is its endearing main cast, composed of complex and flawed characters that feel like real friends, each with their own distinctive personality. Plus, the game raises its stakes with antagonists that can feel very threatening and interesting, to a degree.
Fang, the leader, can be self-absorbed and overly confident to a fault many times, but the dialogues and side interactions flesh him out as a very caring character capable of protecting his friends. The same happens with every other character. Although at first glance they may fall into various anime archetypes (e.g.: the goofy one, the serious one, etc), each one shows real growth and proves they’re more nuanced than the usual tropes. This makes it very worthwhile to accept any character interactions and follow the story just to see how they overcome the many challenges ahead of them. However, just like a traditional anime, the writing has its hit-or-miss moments, with jokes that can be cheesy, silly, or even just plain off-putting, but I still generally found those scenes worth it for some good punchlines or just to keep moving the already engaging story along.
As for the gameplay, Sting once again nails it by providing a very fun and well-rounded tactical RPG. Combat takes place in grid-based locations, where every turn counts with plenty of astounding animations. Each character has a set of abilities defined by the primary Fairies they’re paired up with and sub-Fairies you can unlock by beating quests. All the Fairies can be leveled-up using a system of points that increases the more you play with them, making it feel natural to keep on using skills at any moment possible. In addition, there’s a positional mechanic where if you hit an enemy from the side or behind you can maximize the damage done, but they can do the same to you. All of this mixed with a Fire Emblem-like prediction system pushes you always to be planning two steps ahead. I ended up challenging myself to destroy enemy units in as few turns as possible.
Nevertheless, the real jewels in the crown of Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord are the special skills and attacks, mainly the new Muses’ songs. In every battle, you’ll have the power of Fleur at your disposal as your team’s Muse. With her, you can activate a Fairy Aria, a skill that will affect a determined area of the stage giving your team different buffs according to the chosen song. The same can be said for the enemy team, which will also have its own Muse on every battle whose song can also alter the bonus effects if placed over Fleurs’ for both allies and enemies. This mechanic may be the most interesting of all, as it can not only change the outcome of a battle in a few turns, but also replace the game’s music itself with the songs sung by the muses, sometimes even colliding in a very attractive duet with as many variations as songs available.
That being said, the game is not without its problems. A large number of different area abilities used at the same time can make the stage somewhat difficult to see at times. Sometimes the camera can end up behind a wall or an enemy’s back during attack animations, but not so much that it becomes game-breaking. Furthermore, there are a lot of things to learn, such as the Fairize and Avalanche group attack mechanics, which can seem quite overwhelming. At least the game takes its time to teach you everything in a way that is more fun than tedious.
Besides, the gameplay elements don’t just end with the combat. After eight hours in, I still kept on unlocking new tutorials for activities like interacting with NPCs to enrich the worldbuilding or synthesizing materials into new elements at the shop. Out of all these, the most unexpectedly fun must be the Location Shaping minigame. In it, you get to dig out materials and treasures in a minesweeper fashion with the sub-fairies you have unlocked. This activity offers something different to do in between the battle and story segments that can feel a bit repetitive every now and then.
The story in Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is told using dialogue scenes in a visual novel style with text in front of portraits. However, the use of live2d models (the same technology used for many VTubers) allows the characters to move their mouths as they speak or add effects to each emotion, making the interactions more interesting than watching normal still images. While there are many skippable scenes, such as the conversations at the inn, each one helps flesh out all the characters and ultimately pays off in following their adventures.
To be honest, the story as a whole doesn’t bring much new to the table, but it doesn’t need to either. The whole time I was playing it, I felt like I was watching a seasonal anime with different narrative arcs that either left me quite at ease or even kept me on the edge of my seat. Annoyingly enough, there were also moments with some common tropes, such as misunderstood comments or awkward dialogue, that also felt very anime-like to me. However, I would dare to say the most remarkable element narrative-wise must be the pacing. I never felt like the 40-ish hour story ever dragged on, and some of the plot twists felt actually very rewarding to play through.
At the end of the day, Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord was a great time. The gameplay was very entertaining, every battle felt like a fair challenge and I ended up taking on almost every quest both for the rewards and just for the sheer fun of it. The story has its ups and downs but nothing that made me abandon the game completely, on the contrary, it felt the high points mattered the most. And finally, the characters made it all worthwhile, it was refreshing to follow the adventures of friends that don’t feel heroic in a standard way, yet still completely endearing all the time.