Have you ever read a review of an 8-bit video game? I'm not talking about one of those revisionist reviews written 20 years after the fact, either, but a game review written back in the '80s, when simple 8-bit titles were new. If you ever have the chance to read such a thing, do so. You'll notice that for any action game, the quality of the controls will receive more focus than almost anything else in the review. Sure, a reviewer might discuss new features or graphical tricks in a starry-eyed tone, but what clearly makes or breaks the game's score is what they called "play control" back then.
I bring this up because Fairytale Fights plays a lot like a simple 8-bit beat-'em-up. The only thing separating it from the likes of, say, River City Ransom is the play control. Specifically, River City Ransom had great controls and Fairytale Fights really doesn't. It may win the gold medal for possibly the worst controls I've ever encountered in any Xbox 360 title. Bear in mind that I've covered the console since launch and played virtually every stinker shoveled down the 360 pipe, from Vampire Rain to Bullet Witch. When it comes to game controls, Fairytale Fights manages to be worse than either.
Vampire Rain and Bullet Witch were early, Japanese-developed games that clearly ran out of money before they were finished. I'm not sure what Fairytale Fights' excuse for its lousy controls, as the game clearly had a good production budget and was even promoted aggressively. Regardless, Fairytale Fights is loose and floaty in a way that's totally undesirable in a fighter that's supposedly about building up big chain combos, raising your meter, and then unleashing super moves. The problem lies completely in which parts of the 360 controller were mapped to various functions.
For reasons unknown, Playlogic decided that they wanted you to attack by wiggling the right analog stick. The direction in which you wiggle the stick supposedly determines which direction you attack in, but in practice, you will flail the analog roughly in the direction you need and hope for the best. You can block attacks with LT, but half the time, you won't know you're suddenly open to being attacked due to somehow facing in a direction that makes you attack air. This can even happen when surrounded by enemies if you flick the stick in the wrong direction. You're supposed to be able to buff your attacks by tapping RB with correct timing, but the analog-wiggling is so imprecise that this rarely works. Ridiculously, you use RB to pick up the game's weapons (much like River City Ransom), and tapping it while you have a weapon in hand will lead to tossing the weapon away. So if you get in the habit of trying to buff up your attacks … well, get ready to fling your weapon away near-constantly. Movement is the left analog stick, perhaps the only sane decision the game made about controls.
I cannot adequately express how hard it is to play Fairytale Fights for any extended period of time while holding your fingers in the position the controls require. It results in a sort of curving, crab-clawed grip reminiscent of the contortions the original Xbox controller required. If that sort of thing didn't bother you five years ago, you may be OK with playing Fairytale Fights now. Myself, I think it's inexcusable that the game somehow got through QA with nobody saying, "Hey, maybe this would be more fun if we just let them mash a face button to attack? I mean we've got four and we're only really using one to jump and one for talking."
Much was made about the premise of Fairytale Fights when the game was being promoted. From the game itself, the story line is not entirely clear, but it seems to involve four disgruntled fairy tale characters deciding to build up their reputations by running around and killing people. Your play options are Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, the Naked Emperor or the infamous Jack. All characters control in basically an identical fashion and seem to have identical abilities. What mostly determines your fighting style is what weapon you're holding. Usually at any given point in a level, you can only pick from a range of weapons that are lying around.
The samey characters do seem to be the result of an actual design idea, in all fairness. They allow for casual multiplayer, local or online, where everyone is on basically equal footing. While online multiplayer couldn't be tested in our pre-release copy of the game, I found it impossible to convince anyone to play Fairytale Fights with me for very long. Usually after five or 10 minutes, my gaming partners suddenly found themselves wanting to play or do something else. Multiplayer does seem to be more fun if you turn off the "friendly fire" option, though.
Fairytale Fights may have had such appealing PR because the game actually has a very interesting sense of graphic design. All of the fairy tale characters are Jhonen Vasquez-esque cute little bobbleheads whose guts might come exploding out of their torsos at any moment. There's a good sense of humor behind the premise details of the game. For instance, you start off fighting a series of sinister woodcutters with names like Lumberbob and Lumberpete. The visuals are all rendered in a very creative use of Unreal Engine 3 that gives all of the fanciful fairy tale worlds you visit a compelling sense of weight and solidity. The worlds are appealing, if cartoony, designs, rife with wandering NPCs and trees as brightly green and solid as the ones you'd get with a new set of LEGO blocks.
The visuals could be considered Fairytale Fights' strength … if the game didn't immediately do something to screw up its presentation. The problem is specifically the camera, which the player has no control over whatsoever. It's static and set a long way back from the action, probably to make sure all four player characters could be seen on-screen at once in multiplayer. This creates a problem with those cute two-head-tall Vasquez-esque designs I mentioned earlier, namely that you can't really see what they're doing once a fight starts. In some stages, the camera is pulled back so far from the action that you can execute long combo chains into empty air, unable to realize you're not connecting until the combo finishes and nothing dies.
There are some other questionable visual flourishes in the game as well. As mentioned earlier, there's a jump button. You use it only when navigating the game's uneven terrain. There seems to be no way to make jumping play any role in combat, even though there is an Achievement for performing an aerial combo. The uneven terrain introduces all sorts of visual glitches with character movement, with frequently air-walking the least of them, and a lot of headaches in my brief multiplayer sessions. I have no idea why jumping was incorporated into gameplay at all, when smooth auto-scrolling levels would have looked and played better.
Fairytale Fights also sells itself in large part with the promise of subversive violence to go along with the humor (again echoing the work of Vasquez). You can hack apart the adorably waddling NPCs and enemies that menace you, and even basic combos will coat the landscape in thick red "blood" that has a consistency more like raspberry gelatin. The game also has a money-grabbing mechanic and a chest-opening mechanic, and of course, it's kind of hard to make sure you're even hitting enemies during frantic battles anyway. Once the blood is flying during a fight, all the "gore" does is make the game harder to play, especially since the camera is so far back. Enemies with any sort of reddish element to their design cease to stand out from the background, while dropped coins and gems become very easy to miss. Coins and gems also blink and then disappear if you leave them along too long, which makes the entire mechanic of gathering up riches more irritating than enhancing.
Fairytale Fights is amusing at first glance bit absolutely no fun to play. It's boring if you play it alone; it's boring if you play with friends. From interface to basic design, it's marred by numerous game design decisions that simply should not have made it to the finished product. While the look of each level is fun and distinct, the actual combat rapidly becomes tedious, repetitive and deeply frustrating due to the control problems. In many ways, Fairytale Fights is less fun to play than many 8-bit beat-'em-ups with better controls and level designs, such as the aforementioned River City Ransom. There's absolutely no excuse for this. Castle Crashers proved that the genre could be reinvented in wildly fun ways, and it was a mere XBLA title. Fairytale Fights is selling for $59.99 in some stores, rendering it both bad and ludicrously overpriced if you buy it new. It is my suggestion that you pass on this game and just play River City Ransom or Castle Crashers instead, perhaps watching some "Invader Zim" afterward. You will have an experience completely superior to anything you'd get out of Fairytale Fights.
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