A while back I read an article on thatguywiththeglasses.com written by Dr Gonzo. He was giving quick descriptions on underrated games for the most recent consoles and the one that caught my eye was 'Folklore'. So I asked for it for Christmas and I only completed the 20-hour-strong game today. I have to say, Gonzo didn't give the game justice, describing Folklore as a dark fantasy Pokémon or some such. Yes, the gameplay bears striking similarities to any Pokémon game, but also plays around with said mechanics. You see, Gonzo reveals so little of the story, most likely due to his unwillingness to spoil anything, so before I go into the nitty-gritty of the game, this is my summary of Folklore's story: it's a murder mystery with fairies. And I have to say, the premise is pretty original.
I think I should start off with the negatives. The camera's sh***. The auto-camera is non-existent in this game (why?) so when you're backed into a wall, it just turns first-person-ish for no reason and suddenly you have trouble seeing and lose health thanks to enemy attacks. The other major complaint is the final boss. No, I'm not complaining it's too hard, in fact it would have been downright disappointing were it too easy. The problem is that in most games, when the final boss beats you, you try again. In Folklore, should a boss beat you, you go back to the nearest used portal. Throughout the game, this was the chamber/area directly before the battleground where you faced the boss, so you simply walked in and tried again. Not with the final boss. The portal was 2 chambers back, so you're forced to enter the next chamber, watch a whole set of cut scenes (every time), which you can thankfully skip, but the process is still annoying, then you're in control again and have to enter the boss's chamber manually before having another face-off with the final boss and attempting to not die. These are serious issues.
So time for a quick positive: the soundtrack is excellent. Except that rock song that played in the second half of the end credits, I thought it sounded out of place (not least because it was in Japanese while the game's set in Ireland, oh the game's made in Japan, did I mention that?)
OK, so now I can finally talk about the story in some detail, and I'll talk about the gameplay mechanics in relation. The story begins by introducing the 2 protagonists. Yes 2; throughout the game you alternate which one you play with at particular times. First we meet Ellen, a girl who was orphaned at a young age and grew up in the social care system. At the age of 21 she suddenly gets a letter from her mother, asking her to come to the village of Doolin. So off she goes. We then meet Keats. An English reporter for occult magazine Unknown Realms, who actually doesn't believe in the supernatural, but the readers appreciate his scientific approach to any paranormal investigation. One day, he gets a phone call out of the blue from a woman in Doolin claiming the fairies will get her. She doesn't say anything else before hanging up, so with his curiosity aroused, Keats makes his way to Doolin. Both protagonists arrive in Doolin, meet each other, then immediately discover a body. So begins the murder mystery.
The way I wrote it, makes the introduction seem very strong. Actually...it isn't. The way the mystery just punches you in the face from the get-go is certainly effective, but the introduction sequence struck me as being rushed, almost as if the developers didn't really know how to begin, so they just rush you into the story as quickly as possible. Considering how involving and complex the story becomes, I can't really complain, but the intro does stick out like a sore thumb in contrast. Anyway, we learn that the coastal village of Doolin is a no-go area, has been for nearly 2 decades. For whatever reason, the people get so spooked by the place that fishermen no longer go there and roads are blocked off. It's not to say Doolin's cut off from civilisation, they still have electricity and television, but apparently no internet or mobile coverage (judging from the lack of computers and mobiles). So what are the villagers of this scary place like? Creepy and over-superstitious? Cagey, unaccepting and suspicious? Neither actually, the villagers are rather pleasant and helpful where possible. From the way they talk to Ellen/Keats they seem to like the fact that there are new faces in the village, but it's also very clear very early that the majority of the populace have skeletons in their closets.
I like how walking through the village, it really hits home that Doolin is dead. Not sleepy like most villages, it's dead, nothing going for it. You even find a building boarded up and the clouds are very dark and foreboding. But I can't help but notice something: it has all the essentials like pub, church and lighthouse (they are on the coast) but there's no farm and farmer. So I couldn't help but wonder where they got their food. I also found the village too small for any kind of realism. You're supposed to get the idea that there used to be a bigger population, but people moved away out of fear, unfortunately there aren't enough empty houses to corroborate this. (Oversight perhaps?)
By now, you're obviously wondering what the hell could have happened to make the village decline so badly. Well that's what you spend the entire game investigating, so I can't really tell you, all I'll say is that it began with an event that took place 17 years prior (or 1989, Folklore was released in Japan 2006 and the US in 2007). You're also wondering what fairies have to do with all this, I'm sure. Well it's in the Prologue that you're forced to visit the Netherworld as soon as possible. What is the Netherworld? It's the dwelling place of fairies, folks and souls of the dead (this is the condensed explanation). Ellen and Keats both have guides explaining how the Netherworld works, their own powers and skills, and how this information can help them. I do like this device because it means the dead are characters as lively as...the living. So the folks. There are lots of them. Basically you have to weaken them, absorb them, then you can use them as weapons. You can also power them up, if you so choose. Sometimes you just do it without realising. Anyway, the complex boss fights and variety of folks in battles means you're changing which folk you use rather frequently. The Netherworld itself has many realms (of which we only see 7) and they were all created by the thoughts of people, specifically their beliefs in mythology and thoughts of death. Once we learn this we very quickly learn that, parallel to the decline of Doolin, the Netherworld faces its own crisis. Throughout the entire game I was left wondering just how the Netherworld and the events in Doolin tied together and how far.
I also feel the need to talk about presentation. The genre that Folklore is classed as is RPG, role-playing game, but it's an RPG in the style of Pokémon and Legend of Zelda. For those not so game-savvy I'll explain: Folklore gives the player the freedom to explore their surroundings and interact with anyone they come across. While in something like Heavy Rain or Grand Theft Auto, the person would then speak to you, with a voice, in Folklore and other such games you get scrolling text. During most cut scenes the events are depicted through still images with speech bubbles. At first I found this form of presentation backward but it grew on me. The cut scenes reminded me of a story book. I can also understand why this approach was taken: it's cheaper (no need to hire lots of voice actors spending hours in studios), easier (easier programming also means quicker loading times), and less effort (less effort in translating and getting a new cast for said translation, as well as less effort animating and programming full motion videos). Now for those who do enjoy full motion video cut scenes I assure you, this game does have them. But it's clear to me that Folklore had a more restricted budget than...Metal Gear Solid for example, so they only used FMV cut scenes for moments that would have the most impact. I get the feeling the developers would have liked to have used the FMV technology for more cutscenes because certain dramatic moments in the storybook format, with the dramatic music, over-the-top expressions/poses and jagged speech bubbles, looked a bit corny.
My final thought on Folklore is: more game developers should look to it as a fine example of coming up with a great story and executing it fantastically (*cough*Ubisoft*cough*).