Verticality in video games is usually a good thing. Different levels and planes make for a more interesting and enticing landscape, right? But it can also open up a gateway to a world of frustration, and unfortunately that’s exactly what I encountered with Zoink!’s latest release, Fe.
There’s no denying how beautiful Fe is. An understated world of dark lines and dramatic landscapes, coloured with a subdued palette of mood-setting hues. Its cast of woodland creatures, headed up by the fox-like ‘fe’, make for a charming and whimsical adventure — or they would, if the world wasn’t so damn difficult to make your way around.
For a fairly short game — it took me around six hours to complete, but others have apparently done it in three — Fe’s world is big. You’ll backtrack through the same bits at times, but there are lots of new areas that’ll open up to you as you progress through the game. A lot of those new areas, though, are up high. The first skill your wee fe learns is an ability to climb trees, which is handy considering most of your time with the game will be spent climbing trees in an attempt to make your way up mountains.
It doesn’t sound like much of a problem on paper — what’s so hard about climbing trees? — but Fe’s minimap and navigation system are pretty necessary to finding your way around, and neither are useful in helping you get up high. The map, being a flat image, gives you no idea of verticality and so a waypoint that looks to be right in front of you can actually be way up above your head. Aside from making sure you’re pointing in the right direction, it doesn’t offer much benefit. And considering you often have to backtrack to find a way to start climbing up, pointing in the right direction isn’t always helpful, either.
The other form of navigation assistance that Fe offers is a little bird-friend who, at the press of a button, will rush to your aid and guide you to your destination, leaving a white trail of squiggles and loop-de-loops in the air for you to follow. Aww, how cute. Well, it would be, if the bird wasn’t dumb as a post. Mine frequently flew into walls, had trouble going up, refused to leave my side, or would prat about making pretty patterns in the air that eventually led me to a dead end. Unless I was running in a straight line on mostly-flat ground, this bird was absolutely useless at doing what it's supposed to do.
The game's also bad at giving you the right guidance. On one particular occasion, I was meant to communicate with a newly-acquired animal friend who’d escort me from one area to another. The game didn’t shepherd me towards him, though. Instead the prattish bird-guide showed me where I ultimately needed to go, but it was a dead-end and a jump I was unable to make. No matter how many times I summoned the bird, it would try to guide me to the same place. After at least half an hour of aimless wandering, trying to find a pathway upwards, and shouting at the game for being STUPID AND IMPOSSIBLE, I surrendered and looked up a walkthrough on YouTube. Without that, I’d have had no idea that I was meant to communicate with an animal way back where I came from.
Which leaves one option — the only way to successfully get from A to B in Fe is to damn well work for it, walking around in circles and parading the same areas looking for little shortcuts you might have missed or other means to ascend. The game is clearly designed to be explored — after all, the lack of a HUD forces you to push your shoulder button in order to bring up your map, which is irritating given its utility — but frankly it ends up as an often aimless and frustrating affair.
I don’t want a pathway or solution handed to me on a platter, and there are plenty of games where I've enjoyed the experience of discovering a new world without necessarily knowing where I was heading. But I want a game to respect my time enough to make it easy for me to enjoy what it offers. Indeed, when you're simply climbing trees, jumping from treetop to treetop and gliding over cliffside ravines Fe is great fun. But doing that again and again to no avail, trying to find which way you’re actually meant to go, with no in-game guidance to rely on... it's tedious.
Fe’s world is gorgeous, I'll give it that. But the annoyance of trying to traverse this place means that, sadly, such beauty soon fades.