Folklore - Review  

The Underworld: As Big as the Local Denny's
by Ryan "Balphon" Mack

Very Easy
20 hours
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   Fantastic animals are a video game staple. Ranging from anthropomorphic talking hedgehogs to dragons of massive size and wisdom, they have come in a huge variety of forms and played an equally diverse set of roles in the history of gaming, though one thing always remains constant. That is, the oftentimes mythological real-world origins of these creatures tend to be suppressed in order to create an independent mystique unique to the title. Games which eschew this convention totally have been rare in coming; nevertheless, Game Republic's PlayStation 3 offering Folklore does exactly that, fleshing out its focus upon mythological Celtic beasts and faery realms with its unique art style and setting of an Irish small town. This leads to an end result which, despite its unusual beauty and interesting approach to storytelling, nonetheless falls flat when it comes to gameplay and overall cohesion.

   Integral to the overall aesthetic is the game's narrative architecture. Set in modern-day Ireland, Folklore begins with the introduction of its two protagonists, Ellen and Keats, both of whom are summoned to the small hamlet of Doolin by strange communications. Upon arrival, they encounter a woman dead upon the cliffs, a discovery which sparks a genuine murder mystery in the town which the heroes work to solve independently of one another. General sleuthing only takes them so far, however, and before long both find themselves venturing into the areas of the Underworld and battling the denizens thereof, called "folks," in order to converse with the dead. In a larger sense, this only serves to complicate matters, as the nether realms have their own problems and politics which need to be dealt with.

Ah, the bear hug strategy. Ah, the bear hug strategy.

   Unfortunately, the intricacy implied by the plot isn't reflected in the gameplay. Folklore, in a nutshell, is a straightforward brawler, whereby the player guides his or her earthly avatar along a bounded path with few branches, smacking things around on the way to the boss. There are caveats to this, of course, the most notable of which is the fact that, rather than simply killing a folk, Ellen and Keats can instead force its spirit (or "id") out of its body and absorb it through the use of a psychic tether manipulated via the motion controls of the PS3's Sixaxis pad. Absorbed folks are then used as the protagonists' only method of attack, resulting in a dull, Pokémon-esque situation which is only dragged down by the fact that players only ever need use a few of the folks except in very sparing situations. Moreover, there is a quasi-multiplayer Dungeon Trial mode which falls outside the main game which, though it attempts to add more breadth to the experience, ends up being so clunky and awkward that it does little to help the overall game.

   Even this might be forgivable if not for the interface, which is too simplistic to disguise the straightforwardness of the game. The player uses one menu to map each of the four primary buttons to an individual folk and another to chart their development and keep track of his or her items and that's it. There is literally nothing else available to the player beyond the obligatory and unimpressive maps and dialogue trees; moreover, even these pieces appear clunky and unfinished due to omnipresent slowdown. Literally every menu hangs as it is scrolled through, and there are points when one must wait several seconds for options to even appear in the first place. As a result, the overall experience is not only frustrating, but ultimately limited and uninvolved, constantly reminding the player of his or her relative confinement.

   To say that Folklore has absolutely nothing to offer would be to do it a disservice, however. The game has amazing visuals, particularly with regards to the character and enemy models, all of which are detailed, well-defined, and, most surprisingly, varied, with only a few beasts bearing a passing resemblance to one another. These are then placed in an equally diverse set of ethereal locales, all of which are odd and just colorful enough to appear genuinely intriguing and, moreover, are saved from seeming excessively flat by the fluid and believable manner in which Ellen, Keats, and the folks move about in them. The cutscenes are a different animal, with fully animated video appearing only rarely. Instead, during events, cropped images and text bubbles rush by in a manner resembling an ambulatory comic book. It's a bit jarring at first, but meshes well with the overall visual aesthetic of flat but not too flat. The only real issue is that the text can be quite difficult to read, particularly at SD resolutions.

Where everyone knows your name. Where everyone knows your name.

   The player will probably notice this issue due to another peculiar quality of these scenes: they're not voice acted. Nothing beyond the occasional video cutscene is, in fact. This is unfortunate, as the bits of voice work which are present are quite good, begging the question as to why it was effectively abandoned in a game so focused on creating visceral appeal. Perhaps the sound department's budget was cut in the middle of production, for the music and effects, despite fitting the overall mood, are nonetheless short and overused.

   Such feelings will likely be common for the player of Folklore for more reasons than one. In following the stories of Ellen and Keats independently, the game deigns to divide the first five chapters into his and hers before bringing them together for the penultimate and final chapters. However, since both are isolated to the small village of Doolin and the same slightly larger strata of the Netherworld, once one chapter is completed with one character, the other will simply be retreading the same ground and encountering most of the same experiences. Though there are a few differences in terms of who each character is able to talk to and which folks they encounter, everything else, including the bosses and plot events, is identical in both Ellen and Keats' versions of the chapter. This only adds to the generally limited and repetitive nature of the rest of the game, qualities which are further exacerbated by its relative ease. Most players will simply blow through this content and then be made to do it over again to finish the story, an activity which is just as miserable as it sounds.

   At the end of the day, Folklore is like that 24 ounce steak ordered against one's better judgment. Sure, it looks great, and it's a nice change of pace, but after about twenty minutes of beef, beef, and more beef with no end in sight, it loses its allure. It does have an unorthodox charm all its own and a visual appeal that's nothing to sneeze at, but those alone do not guarantee a quality title. Sadly, Folklore could have been much better if there was just a bit more substance to back up the spectacle and whimsy.

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