I don't know about you but sometimes it seems this gaming lark can all get a bit overly serious. While the impending festive season brings all the blockbuster titles we've been anticipating for months onto shop shelves I have to admit to a hankering for something a little less grey and brooding. As if by magic along comes Fairytale Fights, a game seemingly designed to fill this particular void.
The concept behind FtF is full of possibilities. Take the ever popular world of traditional fairytales, cartoonize it, add in a plot about disgruntled characters wanting to reclaim their waning popularity, sprinkle it with a heavy dose of tongue in cheek violence and you have a game with the potential to bring many a smile to jaded gamers faces this Christmas. Except of course in reality you don't, instead what you have is a dull ultra repetitive action game that wastes every good idea and ounce of potential it had with almost deliberate ease.
After the setup is explained via a well animated if slightly vague intro movie you're plonked rather unceremoniously into what looks for all the world like the first level with absolutely no idea what to do. Eventually you'll realise it's actually little more than an over elaborate main menu allowing you to pick a character (you can choose from Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Beanstalk Jack or the Naked Emperor), start a game, load a level or go online etc. However, this process is so devoid of hints as to what you should be doing that it's quite possible to wander around bewildered for an age before you realise where you're supposed to go.
Initial confusion out of the way and your first glance at FtF-proper reveals potential for much frivolity and for the first half hour or so you'll have a whole bundle of fun hacking the inhabitants of the game's fairytale land into pieces and covering the land in cartoon blood. The problem is that the second half hour feels suspiciously similar to the first, and by the time you're a few of hours in you'll realise you saw pretty much everything the game had to offer a long while ago.
The problem is that unlike almost every other action game you care to mention (even the ropey ones) the initial limited set of combat moves you start with are the exact same set you're stuck with two, five or seven hours later. At first mapping your attacks to the right stick rather than the face buttons feels kind of fresh and in theory at least could present a lot of scope for combos and special moves. Instead what happens is that you all too soon realise that simply twirling the right stick in circles is the most effective form of attack meaning the rest of the game becomes a case of repeat until done.
In one of the game's many design paradoxes there's absolutely loads of weapons to get your hands on either dropped by downed enemies or simply cluttering up the landscape, unfortunately almost all of them as so similar you'll rarely care if you're wielding a rolled up bit of paper or a large saw. A key part of the whole fairytales gone bad idea is blood, lots of blood. Every twirl of the right stick results in fountains of claret covering the brightly coloured landscape as you carve your way through the bad guys. Much like the rest of the game, this kind of cartoon gore is amusing at first. Leaving dainty red footprints in the grass or skidding around painting blood pictures on the floor isn't something you do every day after all (we hope...), but before long you realise it'd be much easier to see what was happening on screen if there was less blood around and any comedic value is instantly lost.
In an attempt to inject some kind of fun to the painfully repetitive combat a 'humorous' close-up panel appears comic book-style at the side of the screen during battles to show you your more gruesome kills in detail. While fun the first couple of times you see this soon becomes annoying, taking up far too much of the screen and acting as little more than a distraction. Thankfully you can turn it off, well not off so such, instead you can tell the game to show it rarely rather than often. A bit like being able to 'almost' turn the volume down on the X-Factor.
To compound the problems with the already fatally flawed gameplay there seems to have been a concerted effort made to remove all sense of challenge from the game, too. Not only are you blessed with infinite lives but the penalty for losing one of them is so small as to be barely noticeable. Die and you'll reappear instantly pretty much at the exact same spot you perished, missing whatever weapon you were brandishing and with any (completely pointless) treasure you'd collected strewn around you, but otherwise fit and able to carry on as if nothing had gone wrong. With death reduced to little more than a minor niggle and no sense that there's much point really trying to avoid it, it's mind numbingly simple to just grid your way to the end through gritted teeth without ever really needing to engage much more than the most basic of motor functions. Sounds like fun doesn't it?
So much about FtF feels unfinished. The elaborate yet completely un-fleshed out 'menu' level at the start feels like it should have contained far more things to do, the basic and repetitive combat surely should have evolved during the game while the story that drives the whole thing seems curiously half done with the nicely made cut-scenes badly in need of some kind of wry narration. In fact the whole game could do with more speech in it, as it's more often than not left to loading screens to tell you what's going on, something that feels like a waste considering the darkly humorous potential of going psycho in a fairytale land.
By far the best thing about the game is the art direction. The stylised cartoon world conjured up by Playlogic's designers is a wonderful mix of big bold primary colours and chunky yet perfectly formed environments that make the game look and feel like an animated kids TV show. Each new area is themed around a particular fairytale staple and all are crafted in loving detail using the Unreal engine to good effect. The characters too are nicely designed although there's not enough variety and little chance to appreciate them with the zoomed out camera, copious amounts of blood and crowded close-quarters combat, meaning it is next to impossible to really make out what's happening mid-fight.
When all's said and done Fairytale Fights is the most depressing game I've played in a long time. That doesn't mean it is the worst, although its not miles off, it just means that it takes an idea so plump with potential and wastes it in such a way that it made me feel genuinely sad. In the hands of someone like Insomniac (of Ratchet and Clank fame) this could have been a cracking little game. Unfortunately, Playlogic have instead managed to craft something with oodles of style but absolutely zero substance.