I finished up Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force this evening, including getting the Platinum trophy, and I’ve come away thoroughly satisfied with what is possibly Compile Heart’s best game to date, although it’s a close-run thing between this and MegaDimension Neptunia V-II.
I was particularly impressed by how much the two new narrative paths diverged from the original Fairy Fencer F’s storyline — while they involve many of the same dungeons, locales and characters, the important stuff about the story is very different indeed, right from the characters’ personalities in some cases all the way to their motivations and eventual goals.
I found the fact that the game wasn’t afraid to be a bit dark to be very much in its favour. Its colourful Tsunako character designs would suggest an adventure similar in tone to the Neptunia series, but in actual fact Fairy Fencer F is lighter on the comedy, heavier on the drama and even tragedy at times. That’s not to say there isn’t any comedy at all — what comedy there is tends to be well-timed in order to lighten the mood after some particularly heavy exposition — but it’s not the main point of it all.
This seems to be a direction that Compile Heart is moving in with its recent releases, and one that it seems to feel comfortable with. The Neptunia series has been expressing greater confidence with storytelling as it has proceeded, too — while the first game felt a bit like a string of amusing events loosely tied together with the semblance of an overarching plot, mk2/Re;Birth2 took a much darker tone with some truly odious villains (and one of the series’ most notoriously unpleasant optional endings) and Victory/Re;Birth3 had a much stronger sense that it had been composed as a complete story rather than a series of episodes. As for MegaDimension Neptunia V-II, that had its darker elements — particularly towards the end — and consequently, narratively speaking, was the most “structurally sound” of the series.
I didn’t play the original Fairy Fencer F when it came out, but I’ve now experienced that game’s story thanks to Advent Dark Force’s Goddess arc. It’s clear that Compile Heart wants to experiment with more ambitious narratives, but thought, quite rightly so, that Neptunia probably wasn’t the best place to do it (although that said, mk2’s Conquest ending is effective precisely because it is so tonally dissonant with what you’ve been conditioned to expect from the rest of the series). Fairy Fencer F jumps in headfirst with a likeable cast of rogues, many of whom are a bit morally ambiguous, and which Advent Dark Force does a good job in exploring over the course of its three distinct narrative paths.
Perhaps most striking about Advent Dark Force is that it isn’t afraid to let main characters die — something that would be unthinkable in a Neptunia game, regardless of how dark the overall plot got — and it demonstrates this early on. In most of the narrative paths, which take place after a “time loop” at the end of the common route, then diverge in three very different directions, protagonist Fang seeks to atone for the deaths he directly or indirectly caused in the common route, with varying degrees of success. Each path features a different combination of characters from the complete playable cast, with some of these characters dying or even being on the “other side” in different routes.
Of particular note is the character Sherman, who — mild spoiler, sorry — is the villain in the original Fairy Fencer F story, but in the Vile God arc he spends a significant amount of time being the protagonist in Fang’s absence. In the Evil Goddess arc, meanwhile, he has a more complex role that I’ll leave for you to discover.
One of the other great things about the additional routes in Advent Dark Force is that it gives some of the “filler” characters from the original something to do. Fairy-loving scientist Harley, for example, doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the original game’s narrative, but in the Evil Goddess arc in particular she plays a leading role. Likewise, in both the Vile God and Evil Goddess arcs we see a lot more of the taciturn child assassin Ethel, including how she became the person she was and how it came to be that she could only communicate through the word “kill” with varying intonation.
After having finished all three routes, I’m left with the feeling that I have when I finish a good visual novel: I have a good, solid understanding of all the characters, the situations in which they found themselves and the world which they inhabited. And, if the post-credits sequence in the Evil Goddess arc — clearly intended to be the “true” path — is anything to go by, then I have little doubt that we’re going to see more of these characters in the future. I certainly wouldn’t complain about more Fairy Fencer F games if it gives Compile Heart a chance to spread their wings and explore more ambitious narrative themes — particularly if the game itself is as good as Advent Dark Force ended up being.
I’ll say one more time for now: if you’re still ignoring (or worse, deriding) Compile Heart games and call yourself a fan of JRPGs, you’re missing out on some great experiences. Fairy Fencer F: Advent Dark Force is a good entry point to start exploring their work for yourself if you feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of Neptunia out there already; if you enjoy good, traditional JRPG stories, solid combat, wonderfully loathsome villains (one of them even does the ol’ “ohohohohohoho!” beloved of ’90s anime) and a colourful, immensely memorable cast of characters you can’t go wrong with this one.