There is something unquantifiably striking about Zoink Games’ indie project Fe — even the still images give an air of mystery about the game’s natural landscape covered in purple tint. The creatures that inhabit Fe‘s rich world manage to be both familiar and alien, strange yet natural. And, perhaps the most important element: the perplexing nature of Fe digs deeper past the surface-level music and visuals — into the roots of gameplay design and storytelling. The result is a game that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but takes risks that mostly pay off to create something serene.
Despite Fe‘s stylistic pretention, the game is ultimately a mascot platformer. Taking on the titular fox-like Fe, you aren’t briefed on anything substantive about the game — Fe begins with a cold open that avoids giving you any real hint on what is happening or how to interact with the world. I found my first few steps in the world were more slow-paced and explorative because of this; I stopped to take in the surroundings, soak up the world, and see where in-game context would lead me. In the distance I noticed a deer-like creature scurrying along his way. He dashed into the woods and I followed suit, eventually leading me to the first waypoints.
Fe is filled to the brim with these moments — the game is lined with subtle prodding by the developer to create direction without having to use a waypoint or tutorial. That’s not to say that those waypoints don’t exist — for instance, you have the option to open a map with objectives marked or summon birds that showcase the path to your next goal. However, Fe is at its best when you don’t have to use those methods. A sharp eye and patient observation will create a more meaningful and organic gameplay experience. And that speaks to the smart world design and scenario building that Zoink clearly aimed for with this game.
Stripped of the purple-tinted mystique and atmosphere, the bare-bones gameplay of Fe is standard 3D mascot platformer. Fe can climb up trees like Mario in Super Mario 64, glide like Kazooie in Banjo-Tooie, and incrementally unlock abilities that allow progression through the map. Without the other complimenting design choices of the game, Fe might otherwise feel pedestrian — similar to Yooka-Laylee, a game that narrowly tries to capture the memories of a genre’s past glory.
Thankfully the atmosphere of the game and other world-design elements elevate Fe to something better. Learning each new ability felt meaningful and like an integral plot point, not just a collection of new abilities. Gliding — despite being a staple in many platforming titles — feels almost magical in the game the first time you do it, and that is because Zoink does such a poignant job at creating an environment and mood that allows for that
Beyond the framework of a mascot platformer, the game revolves around a series of situational puzzle solving using the newly-acquired abilities and singing. With machine-like monsters — the Silent Ones — taking over the forest you inhabit, many woodland creatures are being enslaved in force-fields. A lot of Fe’s journey revolves around freeing the elder version of each animal, learning its language, and then using that language to communicate with other similar creatures, opening up new areas in the map. For instance, after rescuing the four kidnapped bird eggs for the elder bird, you learn bird-speak that lets you hitch rides with birds or open up bomb plants to destroy forcefields.
On top of that, you have the standard collectibles. Fe collects pink crystals hidden throughout the game, enough of which unlock new abilities. Or you collect eye-like crystals (“Silent Helmets”) left behind from the Silent Ones that give some introspection into their story. Provided I knew where to look for the collectibles, it was typically enjoyable to solve the quick puzzles to get them. But collecting them never felt like a driving force of progression so much as merely exploring did.
One of my favorite personal things about Fe is it shows significant growth — both with the EA Originals program and developer Zoink Games as a whole. The previous EA Original (the lovable Unravel showcasing Yarny’s adventures) feels like a remarkably safe platformer in comparison. In that same vein, Zoink Games took risks with Fe reaching outside their standard M.O. And while I’m not convinced that their experiments always pay off, the growth of the studio into something new and challenging is admirable.
But where don’t the experiments pay off? Compared to previous 2D platformers Zoink Games has created, Fe‘s controls are sometimes prone to failing. There were more than a few times where I found jumping from tree-to-tree too imprecise to the point of frustration. On top of that, the game will only cater to those willing to unravel the mysteries of the world and bask in its glow. There are many people out there who just don’t have the mindset to start titles entirely without direction or purpose, and discover meaning through gameplay. Not only that, other more-direct gamers can likely run through the main points of Fe in three hours or less. I easily spent double that poking and prodding the world to explore environments, but — as mentioned — I am one of those gamers that enjoy more open-ended stories and exploration.
The bottom line is a lot of what Fe does is going to appeal to a niche crowd — indie lovers, world explorers, and those who find joy in creating their own stories. Be wary of that, and reflect on the games you like before going in.
Following that up, the game is based in mystique. As you uncover more about the world, I’m not of the mind that the game pays off the initial mysterious tones and the story will end up largely confusing most people. This isn’t to say that Fe is boring, but it’s difficult coming to a satisfying conclusion when everything is based in whispers and flashbacks.
As a small sub-point, Fe could certainly use a bit more polish technically. While the Xbox One X version of the game was very stable, likely having some abbreviated slowdown every ten minutes or so, frame skips on the Nintendo Switch version felt nearly constant when undocked. It feels like errors that could be patched out over time, but at the moment I would grab Fe on whatever your most powerful console is, just to be safe.
And though I’ve lauded the visuals of the game, equally impressive to Fe is the sound design and soundtrack. Playing into the same concepts of minimalism that shape the game design, the sound and soundtrack are what you would imagine a twilight stroll in the forest would sound like. Primarily muted sounds outside of the forest animals and a beautiful piano and cello combination to fill the silence. My only complaint? The music isn’t readily available on Spotify.
Zoink Games’ Fe may be occasionally rough around the edges and gameplay derivative, but failure to look beyond that is missing the forest for the trees. The exquisite audio direction and artstyle help build on a world to create mystique across the board. Even better, a hands-off approach to gameplay allows those willing to invest the time an avenue to organically explore and fix the broken world left behind.