(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

Developed by: Zoink Games
Published by: Electronic Arts
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

When I started playing “Fe,” I pinned my hopes on its colors, its minimalist design, and its abstractions. As yet another iteration on the old Metroidvania formula, “Fe” boasts a strong art style but apart from that I found the game less compelling than some of the works to which it alludes.

The spiky-eared, vaguely canine-looking hero of the title is a cub with a magical vocal range that can coax favors from its habitat. Both plants and animals are susceptible to the influence of Fe’s golden pipes. The critter’s different vocal tones or special abilities are acquired gradually. Progressing through the game involves collecting items and solving puzzles; anyone who has played a modern 3-D platformer should have little trouble picking it up.

At the start, Fe awakens in a shadowy glade. If that scenario reminds you of the opening of “Limbo,” then the colors of the environment — rich in blues and purples — may remind you of “Ori and the Blind Forest” which also begins with a small creature left to its own devices in a darkened forest. The use of colors and geometric planes gives the world a soft welcoming quality that I naturally took to. By “soft,” I mean that the aesthetic favors impressionistic detail over granular realism, offering a cartoon vision of the world.

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

Running through the forest, Fe encounters a deer-like creature. Singing to the creature introduces the game’s novel mechanic. By squeezing the trigger just so, Fe belts out a specific tone that allows him to exchange energy with the other animal. Fe is then able to call upon the beast to use its voice on a type of yellow flower scattered throughout the game. Doing so causes air to surge out of a plant like a spring, allowing Fe to ride such currents to new heights. Eventually, the little troubadour learns this ability himself after the deer is captured by alien-looking creatures known as the Silent Ones. These adversaries patrol the forest in groups casting searchlights from their heads. If their light falls upon Fe, they’ll give chase and fling a gooey substance in his direction which, if it connects, expands into a net resulting in a game-over moment.

Delving into the mystery of who the Silent Ones are and what their connection to the forest is requires Fe to journey through the land and recover special spherical objects which, when peered through, present little scenes from the perspective of the would-be antagonists. Later in the game Fe comes across carved monoliths that present a visual account of the forest’s recent history when they are sung to.

(Courtesy of Electronic Arts)

“Fe” is not an especially punitive game. Its autosave feature is generous enough that one rarely has to recover much ground after a goof-up. Another quality-of-life measure that I greatly appreciated is the game’s navigation system. By depressing one of the controller’s trigger all the way, Fe lets out his loudest vocal call, summoning a bird to his side that will guide him to the next point of interest.

Long before I finished the game, I was convinced that its laudable art direction was not enough to offset its rather generic progression. “Fe” rarely makes any special demands on a player’s skill level, unlike “Ori and the Blind Forest” which is also premised on traversing a forest to gain permanent power-ups that permit access to previously unreachable areas. Whereas “Ori” was precisely calculated to offer moments of immense challenge and welcomed respite, “Fe” chugs along in a fairly even-keeled manner.  Moreover, though I was initially intrigued by the fragmentary way the backstory is presented, I found the payoff at the end less than mesmerizing. And, in the game’s climactic sequence, which requires Fe to leverage all of his abilities, I turned off the game’s soaring string music because I found it too schmaltzy in relation to what I was doing. The only thing I thought when I finished the game was that visual aesthetics can, at times, only get you so far.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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