Title: Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord
Developer: Compile Heart, Sting
Release Date: April 25, 2023
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Genre: Tactical JRPG
Despite their niche nature, even within JRPG crowds, Compile Heart has an ill-reputation for often developing games of middling to poor quality. Yet, one series that I felt was the team at its best was Fairy Fencer. This PlayStation 3 JRPG boasted swift, addictive battles coupled with charming characters. And its follow-up, Fairy Fencer F: Dark Advent Force, capitalized on those strengths tenfold. Now, this IP has returned in Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord, except with a notable twist. Instead of the traditional turn-based fare we’ve all grown used to, this entry is a grid-based tactical JRPG akin to cultural mammoths like Fire Emblem.
As an already established fan, especially as one not particularly adept at this genre, the change was puzzling, and the game’s announcement made me wary. However, after experiencing Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord, I was left feeling unexpectedly impressed and fulfilled by this ambitious outing.
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord follows protagonist Fang and his entourage of allies as they search for Furies, scattered weapons used for a war between the mighty Goddess and Vile God eons ago. Wielders of these Furies are known as Fencers, and the main cast is determined to gather as many as possible to prevent a potential revival of the Vile God, which the outwardly philanthropic Dorfa company seemingly seeks to do.
If you played either or both of the previous Fairy Fencer titles, then this premise likely sounds familiar because it’s identical. Admittedly, this choice initially turned me off since Dark Advent Force already tackled this approach, albeit to wildly different results.
Thankfully, Refrain Chord does go in inherently fresh directions in its early hours. While the majority of the cast is returning individuals from the previous entries, there are significant new characters that pave the new narrative forward; two of which are Fleur and Al.
The former is a special being known as a Muse whose songs can empower and heal herself and her allies. She stands in direct opposition to another Muse, Glace, who simultaneously works with Dorfa and serves a mysterious master of her own. As for Al, he’s a bit of an enigma. He’s Fleur’s father figure and quite a kindhearted mechanical whiz, though he occasionally appears as if he’s suppressing a semblance of crucial darkness.
The plot throughout Refrain Chord is genuinely engaging, easily rivaling the best events of Dark Advent Force, though with its own distinct flair. Of course, it’s not like this is at the apex of the genre or anything, but the many motivations and rippling effects are captivating, with the central weakness being the overly gradual pacing.
But I should note that while this entry is standalone, not requiring any prior knowledge, I found the game ideal for those who are already series fans. This is because the returning characters are given incredibly brief introductions, and most of them are already together at the start.
In fact, several of the beginning hours highly benefit from you knowing who everyone is. To reiterate, you don’t have to know anything; it’s just that certain elements may not be evident to some players. The best way I can put it is that particular facets from the other Fairy Fencer F games are sidelined so new aspects can be emphasized, which, at least as a non-newcomer, delighted me.
Character relationships are a consistent highlight, with everyone’s bonds at the forefront, amplifying the stakes and critical developments. In fact, at the hub, you can sometimes view a high number of slice-of-life scenes that just show the party members talking with each other and hanging out while enduring various forms of hijinks, so you’ll most definitely find yourself invested.
Gameplay-wise, Refrain Chord’s actual combat is not particularly unique in the seas of tactical JRPGs. Battles play out as you’d expect them to, with each Fencer out on the field, utilizing the Furies you obtain as equippable gear altering one’s stats, and providing unique skills. On that same token, the Furies themselves gain experience redeemed in their respective menus, and some potent Furies can even grant new weapon options to the Fencers if unlocked. Traditional equipment can also be purchased and equipped, though that’s pretty elementary and secondary to adequate Fury management.
While simple, the gameplay systems are intuitive and easy to pick up for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the tactics genre. Fights have players needing to eliminate most, if not all, of the enemy units on a map, and there isn’t much else to say here that you wouldn’t be able to gather after a few bouts. Terrain can occasionally play an impact, and certain skills expectedly benefit in specific contexts. The difficulty was always tame, at least on Normal, making this title readily approachable regardless of your genre familiarity, though fans of the said genre may feel unfulfilled.
Moreover, a returning element from the previous games, Fairize, is back. These transformations between Fencers and Furies can be initiated once its associated gauge is full, enhancing stats all-around. Avalanche Attacks have returned, too, enabling powerful multi-character strikes for everyone in range.
The most prominent factor that may be overlooked is how positioning matters quite a bit. Units’ fronts are their most sturdy, with their sides taking extra damage and their backs resulting in considerably greater damage output. This is a basic incorporation in tactics games, yet it still deserves emphasis. Moving on, the gameplay mechanic that most strongly ties into this title’s identity is the Muse Songs. Fleur can sing, causing beneficial party effects that can be chosen to receive raised intensity or range as turns pass.
Interestingly, if the opposing Muse sings and the two songs’ ranges overlap, Dramatic Resonance occurs, amplifying all of the instilled effects for every combatant. While this sounds conceptually cool, perhaps giving fights more glass-cannon-like properties, I rarely found it to ever actually matter. You’ll likely never consciously address Dramatic Resonance, as it’ll remain a loose tangential advantage or disadvantage that won’t fundamentally alter your combative approaches.
Location Shaping is probably the most unique mechanic you’ll engage with. After making a bit of story progress, you’ll gain access to a grid-like presentation of the world map. On this screen, you can stab Furies into any of these tiles to gain treasure, with each space having a special treasure to uncover. Of course, the number of times you can perform this action is limited, with opportunities restocking after battles and such.
Although progress can be sped up by achieving chains. While transparently random, stabbing a tile can let you choose another tile to stab at no extra cost. The possible rewards here are substantial, as even entire dungeons can be discovered.
As a result, Location Shaping is a crucial practice that must be taken into account. As strange as this may sound, this is the gameplay facet I enjoyed the most since it was a neat change of pace from the strategy bouts that occasionally overstayed their welcome. The uncovering of rewards and their accompanying sound design made it all rather addictive.
This following point has no bearing on our scoring, though I find it noteworthy enough to acknowledge. Unfortunately, Refrain Chord lacks an English dub, which quite saddens me. Like the Neptunia games, the English dubs for Fairy Fencer have always been terrific. I’m not entirely certain, but its absence is probably due to the abundant usage of Japanese vocal tracks. Still, I would’ve liked its implementation regardless.
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is a solid tactical adventure with an endearing cast that delivers a charming narrative. The simple yet robust gameplay systems provide a satisfying experience where character growth and customization are at the forefront. For tactical diehards, Refrain Chord may not scratch that itch, but Fairy Fencer fans or those simply wanting to play an intro to the genre should give this a shot.
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