Fe review: lost in the woods
A simple but visually interesting adventure set in a sprawling Nordic forest, Fe tells a story about the connection between living things, and the violence of industrialisation. Unfortunately, while its impressionistic art and emotional themes indicate it desperately wants to be the next Journey, Ori or Proteus, Fe rarely has the gameplay chops to back it up.
As a tiny forest creature, you roam the woods and use your cry to talk to other animals. Weird alien machine things are capturing the other creatures, and it's up to you to help stop them. Different animal cries have different effects on the world around you, so making friends with other small critters is handy (and adorable) but ultimately you need to learn animal languages and new skills to progress.
Fe looks beautiful, but its style doesn't lend itself very well to exploration, with every area and creature in its spiky, near-monotone world looking very similar. The colour does change from area to area, but I often got the impression the complex, bloomy look was mainly there to hide the fact that underneath it all there wasn't a whole lot going on. I constantly had to check the map to work out where I was and where I was going, even if my objective was only a short way away and I'd been there several times before.
There are some very interesting moments in Fe. An early area has you rescuing eggs that were stolen by the machines, but one machine runs afoul of a giant beast who steals the egg, and isn't interested in giving it up. Given time and some trial and error you could probably work out how to retrieve your prize, but a cave elsewhere in the area — which you would only find through exploring — features some diagrams on the wall that give you a big hint.
Shortly after, in another area, a giant stag with a whole forest on its bag struggles against the machine's chains, and you need to figure out how to free it.
These small stories and puzzles are great, but the path between them is very often dull. Meanwhile, some big issues with the most basic controls make getting from A to B a slog.
Climbing and jumping between trees plays a big role in getting around, for example, but is an imprecise science thanks to some clunky controls and temperamental camera. Given the vertical design of many of the areas, missing a jump can mean falling a long way. Sections that require you to stay out of the machines' sight become frustrating very quickly.
The game is also surprisingly brief, which is not an issue in and of itself, but it never really seems to make the most of its modest content. After learning to climb and glide, your basic toolset remains the same for the whole game, with only your collection of learned songs growing.
Especially in the back half of the game, I was hoping to combine or evolve my skills in an interesting way, or return to earlier areas with new capabilities that opened new paths, but it never happened.
As beautiful as some moments in Fe are, and as vast and disorienting the forest seems, beneath it all is a very linear and basic game with ordinary platforming and a competent but forgettable story. Worst of all, it just doesn't seem like it has a whole lot to say. It gives all the signals of a game with an emotional story and a powerful message, but in the end it just doesn't communicate one.
Fe is out now for Switch (reviewed), PS4, PC and Xbox One.