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Skipmore Retrospective

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I've had death on the mind quite a bit, lately. Apologies for the morbid subject matter, but I'd rather get it out of the way first. Death in video games is tricky- it usually serves as a punishment for not playing the game "correctly," although it is more often used as a save-state reload. Essentially, if you are doing something wrong, death is a way of resetting your crappy play and allowing you the chance to approach from another angle.

How does this factor into Fairune and Fairune 2, two Circle-published action-RPGs on the 3DS eShop? The better question to ask is, "how does Fairune approach death differently from other games?"

Fairune: Overview of Fundamentals
The first Fairune is a fascinating (and cheap!) love-letter to the classic "bump-and-grind" combat style of old RPGs like Ys Book I and II, featuring a suitably cute version of the ornate golden border around the screen, as well as the angels holding the health and EXP bar. While Fairune's combat and presentation are meant to evoke the classic, its locale does a similar job- there's a big old tower out there, and someone's gotta climb it! However, Fairune takes a turn when it comes to core gameplay, focusing instead on environmental puzzles and chaining together key items for use.

Fairune exhibits its progression in simplistic terms- the top screen displays experience, level, health points, and most importantly, the map of the overworld, a tool that helps guide the player and reveal both where they have and have not reached. The map is thorough despite its small size- rivers and forests are displayed, as well as distinct pathways and landmarks of interest. These visual cues can help the player gain their bearings as they attempt to plot their next route, which will happen frequently.

Death in Fairune: Restarting the Adventure
The most interesting core mechanic of Fairune requires its own discussion, and that is how the game handles death, of course. See, there's very few places to heal in Fairune, and in order to keep one step ahead of (or even in step with) the dense enemy placements spawning around the world, you'll have to bash into them in order to gain experience. Enemies that are stronger might go down, but they'll also take a larger chunk out of your own hit points, as well. This also presents an interesting method of increasing the speed of your playthrough, however- when your hit points run out in Fairune, you are transferred to a sort of "underworld" filled with static, and forced to run a short, spiraling path in order to re-emerge next to the starting cave of the game.

Why is this important? Well, for a cheap and relatively straightforward game, Fairune's replayability and mastery become its greatest strength upon unlocking its achievements screen. While the initial adventure is amusing enough, presenting interesting and logical puzzles that rely heavily on environmental cues, Fairune is designed with speed-running in mind, as evidenced by its speed-running achievements, in addition to some other exploratory unlockables. The delicate balance of healing spots and its death mechanic can allow players a method of subverting backtracking in order to restart at the center of the map, offering speed-runners a chance to plan their routes of exploration in a highly economic fashion. However, one can only "die" successfully if they are in an area with monsters that are stronger than them, which means the player must balance their experience effectively in order to take advantage of this fast-traveling system. Do you avoid battles by waiting in a certain spot, allowing the seconds to pass by as you wait for an optimal path to reveal itself? Or, do you take the time to gain experience needed to cut through a particularly dense segment, watching your health closely all the while? It is an interesting usage of a death state within a game because it gives death a purpose, using it as an obstacle and and asset.

Arise, Fairune 2: Not just twice the Fairune
Unfortunately, the beautiful world of Fairune speed-runs is admittedly small, but the cute Ys-alike managed to sell well enough to warrant a sequel. While Fairune 2 retains the same gameplay as its predecessor, its length is essentially quadrupled. Where the first title excelled in its relatively basic presentation of environmental cues and simplistic puzzle-solving, Fairune 2 is more complex, and the first playthrough might prove challenging even to a keen eye. With the sequel, there are far more interactive elements at play, and specific environmental cues are hinted and then executed much further apart because of the much larger world size. While Fairune 2 adds more to the "lore" of the series, it is very much more of the same, with a few additions for ease of access- while the death mechanic returns, the ability to drop healing spots more frequently in different locales becomes a method of prolonging your life so that you do not have to fast travel. Equipment that allows for easier traversal is a central mechanic in the sequel, and although it contributes to the puzzle design at first, it is rare that the player must reverse a puzzle mechanic in order to backtrack.

The main difference in Fairune 2 (apart from the numerous "complications" introduced as loot/puzzle cycles) is that the maps "stack" upon one another. Whereas Fairune features a comprehensive world map that serves as a progress indicator for the player, Fairune 2 takes it to the extreme with four times the amount of maps, though the player only starts with one and gradually adds each new "layer" as they climb the central tower. Interestingly enough, death returns the player to the static "underworld," but this place is located on the "base" map of the game. The ability to warp from the center of each map to the next is possible, but it does add a significant amount of backtracking time to the playthrough, which can be a challenge for speed-running. Players must be very conscientious of the routes in Fairune 2, which can be twisting if certain terrain-equipment has not-yet been obtained. In many ways, Fairune 2 seeks to challenge and punish the player a bit more with its death mechanic- however, the simultaneous saving grace and greatest challenge of Fairune 2 is that its four maps serve as a comprehensive progress tracker- it is not necessary or even possible to completely fill a map before moving on to the next one. This provides a reason, once again, for death fast-travel at times, as well as an important and extremely difficult challenge for optimal routes in terms of speed-runs.

Conclusions: Is is all that important...?
What was an interesting and fascinating aspect of the first Fairune is somewhat downplayed in its sequel- the ability to fast travel between the different maps without dying is also present, and healing is much more prevalent. This doesn't diminish the effectiveness of dying as a tool, however, and treating the mechanic as such offers a completely different perspective towards the game. During the first playthrough of Fairune, it is likely that you will not hit the target speed-running achievement times- that is okay, though, because Fairune and Fairune 2 are both very interesting games with a lot of neat tricks and ideas hidden in their environments.

One of the reasons a similarly cheap game, Gunman Clive, surpassed its original potential as a somewhat-decent Mega Man clone was because of its unlockable, post-game mode. If you do not yet have Gunman Clive, don't read the spoiler: the surprise and joy of replaying Gunman Clive in Duck Mode offers the player something completely different from their first and maybe even second run, and it's a surprise worth not-knowing. In the same way, both Fairune titles unlock their achievement screens after the player has completed the game, offering new approaches to how their second runthrough should play out. However, while Gunman Clive offers a silly alternative to the core gameplay that is still easily accessible, Fairune demands much more of the player should they attempt a speed-run, or even a hunt for secret items and enemies. First, you must understand how the mechanics of the game function, and then use them to your advantage. In some ways, this appeals to a very niche set of gamers who aim for completion- in other ways, I imagine Fairune would be a very interesting game to develop a speed-running community. However, as it stands, Fairune does not have a large- or dedicated-enough fanbase to justify such a community, and I am not sure it ever will. It has one mechanic that makes it very much different from other games and sets it in a strange position as an action-RPG, but it is more likely to be treated as a decent Zelda/Ys crossover with two spectacularly odd final boss sequences.

However, I think Fairune's success is that it presents the player with a variety of objectives that they can choose to achieve, something that many games with console-based achievements fail to do. To me, that is worth noting.

As I mentioned prior, Fairune has a small speed-running scene. Very small. But it does exist. Here's an example of a dedicated run:

Thoughts about death?


Sort of update: apparently Skipmore, the developer of these two games, is releasing Kamiko for Switch. As they are partnered with Circle, I assume the game will come west in some form. While it seems to share many thematic elements with the Fairune series, including some enemy types, visual presentation has been improved significantly, and the three playable characters imply variation in attack style. I will likely review the game at some point, though I'll hold off on a review until it is localized. I hope to highlight the chances made from the Fairune series.


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