Sunday, November 10, 2013

Folklore: Such a Folking Disappointment

Folklore hails from the early days of PS3 exclusives -- back when the console cost $600, was the size of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and sported that slick, stylish stupid-looking Spider-Man 3 font -- back before trophies even existed. Good exclusives were a little hard to come by back then, and when Folklore was released back in 2007 it seemed to fly largely under the radar. Given its relatively obscure status, interesting premise, and promising beginning, I was ready to feature Folklore as the next entry in my "Great Games You Never Played" series, but the more I played it the more I became disappointed with it.

Folklore stars two playable protagonists, both of whom arrive at the quaint town of Doolin at the behest of mysterious messengers. Ellen, a young college student, receives a letter from her supposedly dead mother urging her to meet at a cliffside in Doolin; Keats, a journalist for an occult magazine, receives a phone call from a woman in fear of being murdered by magical creatures called faeries. Unable to find their respective contacts when they arrive in Doolin, they witness an apparent murder and become key figures in uncovering the mystery of a few deaths that have been looming over the towns' surviving residents for 17 years.

As they begin to investigate the murders, they discover magical properties within Doolin; notably, that it serves as a link between the real world and the netherworld -- a realm host to magical creatures and souls of the dead. Venturing into the pub at night, they meet with an assortment of strange, otherworldly characters -- a talking rat, a two-headed tin man, a banshee bartender, an animated scarecrow, a saxophone-playing skeleton, and so on. They each make their own allies and soon gain the ability to communicate with the dead by seeking out their memories within five separate realms of the netherworld.

The game's subject matter plays with Celtic folklore and Irish mythology, walking the line between maintaining its sense of grounded realism and embodying the more fantastical side of folklore. Throughout the game, your investigation alternates between basic detective work in Doolin and fighting the spirits of the netherworld, a contrast that works so well in bringing out the distinct elements in both the real world and the netherworld. The game's visual design is playfully imaginative yet dark and creepy, and its music creates a very somber, melancholy atmosphere, making it feel like a very unique take on dark fantasy.

From the very beginning, Folklore establishes itself as a very surreal experience. This surrealism, encapsulated by its story and aesthetic design, is perhaps the most compelling reason to play the game. The story is an intriguing mystery that has you learning about Doolin's residents and uncovering the history of past events, piecing the puzzle together as you go. It does a good job of keeping the mystery thick and suspenseful while providing enough twists to keep you interested (even if at least one of them was totally predictable). Part way through, a killer starts going around murdering townsfolk, and the mystery becomes doubly compelling.

But as enjoyable as the game's atmosphere and story can be, the actual gameplay fluctuates between boring mediocrity and tedious repetition. Gameplay alternates between two primary game "modes" -- adventure-style story segments in Doolin and action-style combat segments in the netherworld. Literally all of the storytelling happens within the adventure segments, which makes these sequences interesting enough, but there's a disappointing lack of actual gameplay.

In the story sections you perform basic detective work -- talking to characters, collecting evidence, and connecting the dots -- as you try to find mementos of the deceased in order to locate their memories within the netherworld. This type of gameplay can be pretty satisfying, but there are absolutely no puzzles and there's zero problem solving to be had; it's entirely straightforward. When you start out you can't even explore off the main "path" of the story because all of the doors are inexplicably locked and the protagonists refuse to go down certain roads; the game forcibly drags you along and never lets you figure things out for yourself.

Most of the time you're in Doolin, you basically just walk from point A to point B, watch a cutscene, then walk from point B to point C and press the action button. What makes matters worse is that the game is sometimes apt to wrestle all control from you and automatically move you to the next location, only to put you in control as you walk forward five steps to trigger another cutscene. At other times, awkward transitions between dialogue or cutscenes leave you absolutely clueless as to where to go or what to do next (in stark contrast to all the times the game explicitly tells you exactly what to do), leaving you to aimlessly wander around without any sense of purpose until triggering the next scene.

On paper, combat is Folklore's best selling point. While in the netherworlds, you fight magical creatures known as folk. Each successful hit causes a blue silhouette of their spirit to project from their body; once weakened, the silhouette turns red, allowing you to press R1 to grapple the spirit and use various sixaxis motions to capture its spirit. Captured folk can then be assigned to all four of the face buttons and used as active attacks. When used, each folk consumes a certain amount of the protagonist's spiritual energy, which quickly regenerates. The fun in this system is collecting as many folk as possible and playing with the different combinations and even leveling those folk up by collecting more of the same ones.

Where the combat begins to suffer is in the fact that there are simply too many folk to acquire. The back of the box proclaims that there are over 100 in total to capture, meaning there are 100 different attacks to be unlocked. This is just too many; it devalues each individual folk since you're constantly unlocking new ones and exchanging out your old ones. Further complicating matters is that certain enemies are only vulnerable to one particular folk, or one particular type of folk, thus requiring you to assign your attacks a certain way. When you encounter a new enemy, it can therefore be incredibly tedious going back into your long list of folk of trying to figure out which one actually works.

It doesn't help, either, that so many of the folk feel basically the same. Except for their different "properties" (if they have a certain element, for example), most of them function the same or very similarly to multiple other folk. It makes the whole system feel needlessly bloated when you have so many options available to you, and when the main difference in attacks seems to be how it looks. And when the game demands frequent swapping, on account of the various enemies that are only vulnerable to certain folk, the few seconds of lag that it takes to load a new active folk gets to be especially annoying.

What really kills the combat, though, is the repetition. The game features two playable characters, and each one must be played in order to beat the game. You can do this either by playing one character all the way through the fifth chapter and then switching to the other, or by alternating characters every chapter. There's some good potential in this kind of system for each character to see different sides of the story and to experience different content, but the two characters see many of the exact same cutscenes and fight through literally the exact same levels each chapter.

In each chapter, the two characters play through the exact same levels, fighting and collecting most of the exact same folk, and even battling the same final boss. Each character gets a couple of unique folk that the other doesn't, and the ones that overlap function a little differently between the two characters, but these minor differences aren't nearly substantial enough to offset the monotony of having to repeat the exact same level all over again with another character. As you advance to later levels, you even see many of the same enemy models recycled with a slight color change and a slightly-different-but-functionally-the-same attack.

There's quite a bit of needless repetition within levels, too. Oftentimes you'll clear a room of enemies only for more to spawn from nowhere. If you're exploring and come to a dead end, when you return to a previous room all of the enemies will have completely respawned. It gets to a point where fighting them just isn't worth it -- having the exact same fight over and over again isn't very fun anyway, but there's hardly any benefit in doing so. You can level-up your folk by capturing more of the same type and by using dropped items on them, but this is largely unnecessary to complete the game since ordinary combat isn't all that challenging and since you'll be swapping out folk for newer ones all the time.

Combat boils down to a fairly simple, repetitive button-mashing rock-paper-scissors type of affair. For the most part, you figure out what attacks an enemy is vulnerable to, and then you just spam those attacks while dodging occasionally. The only time the combat gets challenging is when an enemy seems impervious to all of your attacks and you have to figure out what works. To make this a little less tedious, you can collect storybook pages within each level that show illustrations of how to defeat different enemies. As helpful as this can be to mitigate some of the tedium of trial-and-error, it undermines the challenge of facing tough enemies and bosses when the game literally shows you exactly how to defeat it, so it would be nice if those illustrations were a little more vague.

As an early PS3 exclusive, the developers worked hard to implement the PS3's sixaxis motion control into the gameplay. When an enemy has been weakened, you press R1 to sort of lasso it, then lift up on the controller to capture it. Against larger enemies you have to perform more elaborate controller-waggling quick-time-events that, while interesting at first, become tedious after a while. Some of these include swinging it left and right in the proper rhythm, balancing an on-screen icon, and shaking it like crazy at the right moments. That last one left a lasting physical strain in my elbows whenever I had to do it. This whole gameplay mechanic becomes especially frustrating later in the game when they have you fighting multiple larger enemies at once, each requiring a controller-waggling QTE that leaves you totally vulnerable to other enemies (whom you can't defeat without an equally prolonged QTE), whom attack and interrupt the QTE.

By the time I reached the third chapter, I was bored and annoyed with the combat and ready for it to be done; I still had six more levels to complete, roughly half the game. Much like the first Assassin's Creed, Folklore decides near its finale to ramp up the stakes and make things seem more epic and exciting by having you fight a ton of enemies. You watch cutscenes and they drop you into literally the exact same room over and over again to fight waves of irrelevant, pointless reprisals of past enemies. By that point I'd forgotten what each enemy was weak to, which then required me to spend a bunch of time flipping through storybooks looking for the cheat-sheets, or trying individual folk one at a time until one worked.

And there's nothing else to do in the levels besides fight. There are no puzzles to be solved or things in the environment to interact with, no complex navigation. You just move through rooms sequentially clearing enemies until you reach the boss chamber. In fact, each level is functionally no different from any other -- the only difference is what enemies it has and how it looks. The only one that's mechanically any different is the "Endless Corridor" in the fourth chapter, but this one's unique difference proves to be a repetitive, tedious pain in the ass that has you going through the exact same rooms over and over again trying to find a pattern like navigating the Lost Woods in the original Legend of Zelda.

When you're exploring Doolin between levels, you can pick-up sidequests from the local bartender, but these feel equally shallow. You can only do one sidequest at a time; once you accept one, you're transported into an instanced version of one of the levels to fight more enemies with some arbitrary, straightforward objective to get some kind of typically worthless reward. After a while I stopped doing them because I was so sick of the repetitive combat and levels; sidequests are just another missed opportunity to give the player something different and interesting to do.

I ultimately would've preferred much less combat and more adventure gameplay. The story and atmosphere are the two most enjoyable elements in Folklore; every time I went into a level I wanted to return to Doolin to get away from the tedious, repetitive combat and to experience more of the story. I might have found the combat more bearable if they had scaled back on the number of obtainable folk, if they didn't force you to play each level twice (once as each character), and if there were more to do in the game than just fight stuff. Some Zelda-style problem-solving would alleviate some of that tedium, and some more adventure-style puzzles or RPG-style sidequests to work on in Doolin would've been nice, too.

Is Folklore worth playing? Copies are becoming something of a rarity these days, so if you can find it cheaply at GameStop (or online for <$20) it might be worth the money, but the real question is whether or not it's worth your time. I would say probably not, which is a shame because it's an absolutely beautiful-looking game that shows a lot of creative imagination and captures a very special feeling in its atmosphere and presentation. The combat is interesting on paper, but its execution, the game's tedious repetition, and its overall shallow, straightforward design made the experience much more annoying and disappointing than enjoyable; it kind of felt like a chore to play. 

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