Fairies. I'm playing a game about collecting fairies. I thought this job had hit a new low when I was installing Zanzarah, I mean, honestly... fairies for crying out loud. Luckily though the German-developed Zanzarah is much better than the subject matter might lead you to presume. Starting out in her house in London, our protagonist Amy ventures into her attic to discover a small chest (stop giggling at the back). Unable to contain her curiosity, she opens it and subsequently finds herself transported to a cave opening out onto a lush green garden, where she is approached by a friendly looking goblin who lets her know just what the hell is going on.
Ages ago the realms of the humans and fairies were in harmony but humans, being the monstrous oppressors that they are, waged a kind of ethnic cleansing against the magical fairy world. Not best pleased about this, the fairy guardians blocked the gates to and from the human world and severed all contact with us. However, the fairy world is now under siege from a mysterious and unknown evil, and an ancient prophecy tells of a great "fairy master" that will save the realm from the dark forces. That'll be you then. Heading off outside the cave to find your first fairy, the world of Zanzarah looks fantastic, with plants that sway when you brush past them, small babbling streams rippling as you step through, and the sun's rays lending a wonderfully effective aesthetic warmth. Other areas such as the swamps and forest are similarly realised in beautiful almost-realism, maintaining a storybook illustration kind of charm throughout.
Once you do find your first fairy, you're able to send it into battle against the variety of other fairies that will attack you on your travels. This is the game's major selling point, as you control your fairy in real time, flailing around attempting to avoid your adversary's mana blasts while charging up your own and trying to get them on target, gradually whittling down their energy. A win will gain that fairy strength and experience points, improving its ability to handle collectable spells and defeat stronger foes. To progress in the game though, it's necessary to collect and develop different types of fairy to combat different kinds of enemy. You can grab new fairies if you have a fairy sphere, which (in true Pokemon fashion) contains an enemy fairy you have weakened in battle and makes it available for your own use in combat. The story itself is progressed in typical RPG style, through exploration and speaking with various non-player characters who give away chunks of plot and clues as to where you should be heading next. You can spend as much time as you like just entering battles and building up your fairy collection though, going about the story at your own pace.
Zanzarah is a surprisingly entertaining and completely charming adventure, and the fairy combat sections lend a pleasant dynamic against the relatively slow pace of the adventuring. There's just enough variety and interest in the environments and storyline to keep you plodding through, and had the similarities to Pokemon not been so blindingly obvious it would be easy to hail this is an essential purchase.