Version tested: PlayStation 3
Once upon a time, in a studio not too far away, a developer had an idea. "Why," said the developer, "don't we take the rich, well-established, hugely varied and copyright-free world of popular fairytales and retell them for a new generation? We could even use these traditional characters in a subversive way, making them all edgy and post-modern and stuff."
"I'm not so sure," replied another hypothetical member of staff. "Sounds like hard work. Fairytales are old and moralistic. Nobody cares what pigs do with their houses these days. If we want to attract the kids why don't we just knock out something with loads of blood in it?"
"Why," said a third little imaginary developer, "don't we do both?"
Meanwhile, in a completely unrelated place and time with totally different people, someone thought up Fairytale Fights.
Initially I was cautiously optimistic about Playlogic's blood-soaked beat-'em-up. It's built on a quirky premise, has stylish, well-defined art direction, and for the first few levels even boasts gameplay that stumbles forward proudly, pregnant with potential. A good start. Some of the issues from last month's preview code have even been fixed. Controls are no longer as slippery, death is less tooth-grittingly regular.
Two hours later my optimism had sublimed into a gassy rage.
The thing about beat-'em-ups, or at least the scrolling variety, is that they can be fairly unvaried. Walk, punch, kick, boss. Repeat until world/universe/girl saved. Because they don't usually have the move catalogue available in one-on-one fighters, side-scrollers need to get their variety kicks in different ways. Interesting enemies, environments and bosses play a huge part, as do story and a well-judged difficulty curve. Fairytale Fights doesn't really try for any of these. Instead it relies on a huge list of weaponry and buckets of well-rendered and physically interesting gore.
"Weapons?" you might say. "We like weapons." Well, yes, weapons sometimes add spice. They can add variety, forcing players to concoct new tactics and playstyles. Specific weapon types can be made more effective against certain enemies, their effects can be interesting, amusing or even useful.
On the whole, Fairytale Fights' are not. Despite the massive list of available weapons, everything boils down to ranged or melee, and the only discernible difference is that some are more powerful than others and one or two will freeze enemies or deal damage over time. For a game which is so arsenally fixated, the lack of variety in the actual execution of executions is a terrible blight.
But the real letdown is the control system. Instead of using buttons to attack, Fairytale Fights maps all the offensive moves to the right analogue stick. Tapping the stick snaps out an attack. Tapping it out again moves into a combo, which can be extended a few times. Holding it in a direction charges up a more powerful blow. And that's it.
Flicking the stick around rather than mashing buttons is initially intriguing (although not that new - Rise to Honour represent), but it quickly becomes so dull that the play experience is entirely disconnected. There's no subtlety and no challenge. Stand near some guys. Waggle. Over. Once in a while an enemy shoots upwards, and once I even juggled him up there with some follow-up blows, but it all seems to happen by accident. You don't need to do it - flailing wildly is easily as effective. Button-mashing without the buttons.
Enemies are recycled with depressing regularity. After six hours or so I had only really met eight or nine different types, some of which were just reskins with different weapons and the same attacks. These enemies are also the feed-bag for Fairytale's one-trick pony: all the game does is put the player in an area with a closed door or magical barrier and pour enemies into it until you've wiped them all out. Then it chucks a few more in to make sure.
The lack of challenge is the final nail in the coffin of fun. Killing enemies and opening chests produces treasure. Getting killed loses it, but this is the only penalty for dying - a few of your precious baubles scattered around the tombstone where you immediately respawn.
Except they're not precious. There's no need to care about how much treasure you accumulate. Occasionally you come across a wishing well, which, for a fixed amount of treasure, will spew out weaponry, but said weaponry is rarely better than what's lying on the battlefield anyway. You can also spend money on improving the statue of yourself in the hub town that no-one will ever see or care about. No penalty for dying, no reward for surviving. No challenge. No variety.
Then there's the dips in frame-rate, the peculiar perspective which makes precision jumping impossible, the way that the camera abandons a player left behind in local co-op, the way the over-cluttered and yet innert levels obscure more than they decorate, the weapons you can't pick up (or which float spookily skywards for no reason), the tedious bosses or the incredibly grating repeated instant-death sections. These are faults, of course, but compared to the grinding mediocrity of the rest they're just the equivalent of having your radio stuck on Heart FM in a really long traffic jam.
It's telling that Fairytale Fights attracted a lot of attention in the office. Grabbed by the garish colour scheme and arresting art, three or four people sat down for co-op. None of them lasted 10 minutes, and nobody came back. There are clearly some talented people at Playlogic - notably whoever did the endearing cut-scenes, which play out like Hanna-Barbera doing The Matrix. How something so colourful and quirky became so bland is a mystery of the creative process.
4 / 10