Game Review: Folklore (PS3)

Authored March 2008, Originally appeared at GameSpot

Initial reviews of this game were middling while later reviews steadily grew in appreciation. This may point up an issue with mechanics of reviews in general: people that speed through games to meet a deadline often don’t get the best impression of them. This game does take a while to truly savor.

A Mystery Unfolds

The story revolves around Ellen, a young girl with no knowledge of her past.  She receives a mysterious letter offering her information if she comes to Doolin, a small Irish village with a reputation for the supernatural. At the same time Keats, a world-weary reporter for a third-rate paranormal investigation magazine is called to the same village.  They arrive to find that the person who apparently called them both has been murdered. They both decide to stay and investigate further. Throughout the game you can switch between Keats and Ellen (although not at will, you must wait for chapter breaks).

Doolin forms the hub of activities. It’s small area to explore (less than a dozen locations featuring perhaps eight residents with whom you’ll be getting very familiar) but personable. Luckily the residents don’t seem that worried about the murder (and soon, murders) that are taking place so you have time to enjoy the scenery.

Soon, however, both Ellen and Keats discover that, when night falls, they can enter various magical “netherworlds” where they become involved in an ancient conflict which (of course!) has implications for Ellen’s missing memories. The fundamental parts of the game take place in these worlds, six in total and each with completely unique designs and characters. The worlds are, we’re told, physical manifestations of humankinds thoughts about death and the many creatures, or “folks”, which inhabit them are created from the dying energies of mankind.

Folks are Good People

To advance you must traverse these worlds and defeat the many folks which populate them. When a folk is weakened sufficiently their “Id” (or “souls” in the Japanese game, which had the more appropriate title “Folksoul”) will appear: a ghostly red shadow of themselves which you can capture. Capturing Ids allows you to use that folk for attack (or, in some cases, defense). The motion controls of the SIXAXIS is used for capturing ids: a quick flick up will capture the ids of most rank and file folks while for larger foes and bosses use one (or more) motion mini-games.

None of these motion control segments take very long (although some must be done while under attack from other enemies adding an additional element of strategy to some encounters) and most are very satisfying. You may have to “slam” the id back and forth or jerk on the controller when the id changes color or shake it when the id shakes. The motion controls never feel overdone or tacked on and make for a nice break from the normally clenched gameplay.

After capturing an id that folk will be available for use. There are dozens and dozens of creatures and a huge amount of strategy in their use. There’s basic elemental concerns (water creatures work best against fire creatures for example) and more esoteric properties (some creatures “slash” while others “destroy” and still others can “Charm” or cause sleep and, of course, certain foes are more susceptible to different forms of attack). There are also speed and positional concerns (some creatures only attack to the front, others attack low or high, some at a distance, etc). In some cases there are tricks to capture a creature’s Id since creatures can just be destroyed outright as well.

Different Styles Keep Things Fresh

Further although Keats and Ellen travel in the same worlds they feature very different gameplay styles. Folks are used differently by each. For example the clockwork folk “Habetrot”, for Ellen, causes other folk to fall asleep while, for Keats, drops a large pendulum weight on enemies causing a small earth quake.

The basic gameplay between characters is also markedly differently as Ellen appears to “summon” her folk: they appear on screen, make their attack and then disappear. While in existence they are solid and Ellen can evade other attacks by interposing them between herself and enemies. Ellen’s folk, in general, are also more cerebral with several “sleep” and “charm” folks (classes which Keats lacks) and she has many more long distance attacks at her disposal.

Keats, on the other hand, is a classic video game badass. When he uses folk they appear as ghostly apparitions overlaid on his own body. Where Ellen summons the folk Keats becomes the folk. In addition Keats has an “overdrive” meter of sorts that gives him several seconds of invulnerability and awesome hand-to-hand attacks when activated.

Folks can all be upgraded (to use less magic or increase in strength) but each upgrade requirement is different. You might have to absorb a number of ids from the same creature or from others. You might have to defeat (destroy the creature without absorbing its id) some number of other folk or offer a number of items. Items are dropped by certain folk, given as rewards and found in gems throughout the worlds.

Few Criticisms

In general the combat is well-done, but there are definitely some wonky camera issues – especially in the tighter spaces. But the game is rarely difficult enough for it to become an issue.

A few of the folk are simply palette swapped versions of others but the vast majority are completely unique and wonderfully designed for their worlds of origin. Creatures from the Fairy Realm are whimsical and based on Celtic lore; the modern, war torn world of Warcadia features military-inspired denizens and so forth.

Gathering and upgrading all of the folk can become a very time consuming (but only sometimes frustrating) endeavor. Even if you like the game (as I did) you’ll probably give up before you collect everything.

The story weaves between Doolin and the netherworlds where, if you have cherished memento from the recently dead you may be able to speak to them before their energies dissipate into folks. As you advance the story gets charmingly convoluted (imagine the story of your average Japanese role-playing game with a thick Irish accent). The writing is often laughably weak, but not so regularly poor as to distract.

Final Thoghts

Folklore is well supported with DLC having received two free and three paid download packs featuring new sidequests, folks, costumes and background information. There’s also a rudimentary user-generated content system which allows you to construct basic dungeons, populate them with folks and upload them for others to play.

The production values of “Folklore” are almost uniformly excellent. The orchestral music ranges wonderfully from whimsical to melancholy. The art direction and character design is amazing and engaging: you’ll become genuinely attached to certain folk. The rare instances of voice acting are well done, if not particularly memorable.

Although the game was somewhat overlooked on release and it takes a while to grow on you, it definitely DOES grow on you in the end. If you’re willing to put up with the occasional control and story issues you’ll find a truly charming adventure here.

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