Fairy Elements Review (Switch)
When you pump out as many releases as KEMCO and its various developers do, it’s easy to slip into a habitual design routine. While many of their games do offer some subtle differences in terms of mechanics and gameplay, they generally all share a similar core. Nothing particularly wrong with that, though it’s also good to further break the mold every once in a while.
Although the latest Switch RPG release from KEMCO and EXE Create, Fairy Elements, isn’t as drastically different as, say, Final Fantasy II is to Final Fantasy I, it certainly turns a lot of the team’s design staples on their head. But unfortunately, it’s not always for the better.
Fairy Elements opens up with one final assault on the Demonius Castle, where the Humelia clan have the opposing Demonius clan up against the ropes. Yamato and his right-hand lady, Orka, make short work of the Demonius King, but little do they know that the demon has one final ace up their sleeve. Thanks to the powerful crystal known as the Time Material, which the Demonius King draws their strength from, an impending explosion is absorbed by Orka and Yamato is thrust 200 years into the future.
It isn’t long, however, before Yamato meets a young lady in the future, whose mentor is also named Orka. With whatever chance that this could be the same Orka from years ago, Yamato decides to help Tsubasa find her mentor alongside Rick, the obligatory furry, and Harleck, an arrogant prick whose past may very well intertwine with others. What Yamato soon discovers is that the war he thought ended with the defeat of the Demonius King 200 years ago is still ongoing.
Besides Rick being an absolute useless character, Fairy Elements is narratively strong out of the gate. Watching the “final battle” unfold in the prologue and then the hopes that this Orka from 200 years in the future is the same as the one in the past is intriguing. Coming to understand that certain sects of the Demonius tribe abhor fighting and wish for peace, not so unlike the Humelia tribe, also reminds us that while war may be necessary at times, a distaste for unnecessary bloodshed is often a shared belief. Unfortunately, the game suffers from one-note, mediocre main characters that really don’t build upon the foundations they set at the very beginning.
What’s worse, color-coded legendary crystals are introduced about halfway through that really don’t add anything to the experience – if anything, they are a detriment. This applies to everything but the Time Material held by the Demonius King, which plays a primary role in the plot and does have some interesting story bits attached to it. But then there’s the Material itself – color-coded gems that can be fitted into slots on weapons. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? While it’s okay to borrow ideas from other games, some meaningful nuance is required to make it stand out – or at least serviceable – compared to its inspiration (more on this later).
Fairy Elements is undoubtedly on the lower end of the KEMCO narrative quality spectrum, but it’s not without some positives. Besides the couple of aforementioned pros, the game also features some village conversation development based on current events. What impressed me the most was when a major character reveal was made, and even random NPCs in the very first village halfway across the world map acknowledged the same revelation. Some of the sidequests also have decent narrative content attached to them; nothing earth shattering, but at least some decent resolutions and/or lessons learned from certain situations. There’s also one particular antagonist whose mischievous antics and rise(?) to power are fairly entertaining and reminiscent of a certain clown from a popular JRPG series.
Fairy Elements is a turn-based JRPG that follows Yamato and his companions across the globe as they search for Orka and ultimately aim to acquire legendary Material Crystals. While the formula to achieve these goals is standard KEMCO fare – visit a village then explore its associated dungeon – the actual inner workings of the game are anything but, mostly notably with how enemies are engaged on the field and how weapons and armor are upgraded.
Rather than running into invisible random battles, Fairy Elements displays enemies on the field, each of which has a randomized aggro radius that will occasionally shift directions. If Yamato gets within an enemy’s aggro range, a battle ensues, meaning the majority of enemies are completely and easily avoidable whenever you want to just get through the next area. What’s more, enemies struck from behind will increase the chances of a preemptive strike, though the same applies to Yamato if an enemy faces him whilst his back is turned away.
On top of that, enemy levels are denoted by the color of their aggro radius – lower level in blue, same or similar level in green, and higher level in red – making gauging the party’s overall strength in any given location quite simple to determine. Individual enemies can also spawn with beneficial boons, such as increased experience or gold gains, and improved chances of loot drops, which collectively make the grinding process feel really satisfying. That is, until you discover just how grindy the game can be.
Most KEMCO RPGs allow you to purchase weapons in shops, and enhance their strength by combining unnecessary weapons into the base item. The process is similar in Fairy Elements, though a vast array of individual enemy materials replace the previously mentioned weapon combining system. Provided you have the proper materials, almost every weapon can be upgraded multiple times with a tiered system that will up the damage, material slots, and passive bonuses of the weapon. Once a weapon has reached its final upgrade level, it can be combined with a transmigration ore that reverts it back to the base form of the weapon (with all upgrades intact), allowing a character to move it through the tiered upgrade system once more. Armor upgrades are handled in the same way, but are far less common and complex than their weapon counterparts.
The idea behind this system is sound, but the sheer amount of materials and random nature of their acquisition is where the problems arise. There’s not a great way to target specific materials unless you write down where certain items drop, as the built-in map scanning tool only shows what enemies in the current map hold and is not a proper substitution for a bestiary system. A feature known as Anywhere Battles allows the player to defeat swathes of enemies in succession for more materials, but that can also be hit or miss if you’re only after one or two specific materials.
There’s also an item exchange vendor in every town that helps convert excess materials into other ones, but later tiered materials are far too expensive for this system to really make a difference. There will be large gaps of time between upgrades as a result, and then you have to plan for the eventual transmigration after reaching maximum weapon level which will once again require low-tiered materials even though you’re certain to be towards the end of the game by that point.
Fairy Elements features a secondary enhancement system – cauldrons – that helps offset the need to really transmigrate max level weapons in the first place, though it comes with its own set of issues as well. Yamato has access to three cauldrons from the main menu that he can place weapons in for additional power. These cauldrons have three levels, with each allowing for even greater power enhancements on the weapons set in them. Thankfully there is no material requirement to use them – you’ll have a hard enough time fulfilling material requirements as is – but the cauldrons do utilize a timer system that will either increase the weapon’s strength a little bit or a lot, in exchange for one or six hours of real-world time respectively.
The issue with the cauldrons is that it cheapens the effects of the aforementioned material upgrade system, and it just feels, well, cheap in general. You could literally not play for a few days, only logging into put weapons in cauldrons, and come out with incredibly overpowered weapons. I ultimately stopped using cauldrons halfway through the game because Fairy Elements had already become extremely easy even on the hardest difficulty, though an immense spike in difficulty at the final dungeon really had me wishing I would have kept it going. Either way, character progression that requires literally nothing but empty time just feels awful.
Not so different from Final Fantasy VII, Fairy Elements allows for some character ability customization through its Material system. Various types of Materials can be fitted into weapon slots, which in turn provide passive bonuses and active abilities for the characters to use in combat. Not all material can fit in all slots, however, as individual slots can have both a material level and a material type depending on the weapon used and upgrades it has been given. These restrictions lead to a lot less flexibility in terms of customization, and the extreme MP requirements for higher level material often lead to characters just using the same few materials they’ve already been using for most of the adventure. When you consider how EXE Create has handled these types of systems more gracefully in the past – for example, the Rubix Cube in the Asdivine series and others – it’s a bit perplexing to say the least.
All in all, the extreme grinding requirements combined with restrictive customization systems makes Fairy Elements a bit of a drag. These systems at their core are good, but the execution is just lacking the finesse necessary to make them enjoyable long term.
Out of all of KEMCO’s developer counterparts, EXE Create is the one that has experienced the most change when it comes to presentation. From the RPG Maker-esque early designs of Antiquia Lost, 2D/3D hybrids like Revenant Saga, 8-bit-inspired aesthetics of Alvastia Chronicles and Dragon Sinker, to more polished toolkits found by the likes of Chroma Quaternion and Sword of Elpisia, EXE Create is no stranger to change. Although Fairy Elements is in some ways another feather in the visual cap, the “uniqueness” it brings to the table will not be for everyone.
Rather than opting for the jaggedy pixelated goodness found in some of the newer like Quaternion and Elpisia, Fairy Elements instead adds a “realistic sharpness” to sprites and assets that make it feel far more like the RPG Maker vibes of its notoriety rather than buying into the more imperfect approach that has seen a renaissance in modern retro RPGs all over. In the game’s defense, effort has at least been made to change the looks of party members in combat based on their currently equipped gear, which is a nice touch.
But hands down, the best part of the presentation is the music by Ryuji Sasai. While the standard KEMCO limitation of only a handful of tracks still applies here, the veteran composer undoubtedly helps set Fairy Elements apart from its peers in terms of quality. What he’s crafted here is surprisingly nostalgic, with the standard dungeon theme in particular being a standout among the rest. I couldn’t help but reminisce about the Fire Dungeon in Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as I heard it, which makes sense considering Sasai was responsible for that soundtrack as well. Neat!
Fairy Elements manages to breathe life into the age-old KEMCO/EXE Create JRPG formula, but at the cost of some perplexing design decisions. Experimentation is key to stimulating growth, interest, and potentially new systems and features that can carry over into other games, but they still need to make logical sense in order to be appreciated. Visible enemies on the map with color-coordinated levels, random additional perks, and positional tactics are good and all, but the lack of polish evident in the character progression systems really takes away from what could have easily been an above average KEMCO JRPG overall.
The story starts strong, but quickly becomes forgettable when the characters fail to develop over time and especially when the legendary crystals trope takes over later. I suppose it’s “back to the drawing board” until EXE Create graces us with another title on the Switch, and that will only be a matter of time.