Fairy Tail is a turn-based Japanese RPG published by Koei Tecmo and developed by Gust (of the Atelier series). It’s based on a manga (and anime) property of the same name, which ran in Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen from 2011 to 2016. This is the first game based on the series to be localized, as well as Gust’s first major release based on a non-original IP. While this isn’t Gust’s most impressive work, it’s a fascinating adaptation of the source material’s themes to game play, and a fun (albeit breezy) JRPG romp that tastes a bit like Diet Atelier.
It’s easy to joke about “the power of friendship” in Japanese media like anime and RPGs, but it’s a thematic pillar for a reason. Comradery so strong you’re willing to die for each other is a compelling, relatable storytelling hook. And it’s also important to encourage young people to foster relationships with other people and be honest with their feelings. But while companionship is a great pairing for saving the world, sometimes the world isn’t that easy.
You have to work too, and share that space with people you may not like much. Getting along with someone when you hate their guts isn’t easy, to say the least, but in an environment in which everyone’s efforts put food on the table, a form of comradery still grows. These relationships are murkier, more complicated, but sometimes they can be powerful in their own right. That’s what Fairy Tail is all about.
In Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail, the world is run by witches and wizards, masters of magic who have their own self-governing bodies and organize into Guilds. Guilds are multifaceted communities, workplaces doubling as a military barracks doubling as dojos doubling as families. Rather than the conservative, nerdy fantasy of something like Harry Potter, magic Guilds in Fairy Tale have more in common with the grog pub in Monkey Island.
The anime adaptation’s pirate rock soundtrack is proof enough I’m not the only one who feels that way. The titular Fairy Tail is one of the most notoriously dysfunctional Guilds around, its members violently working out their neuroses in their own HQ’s lobby while simultaneously housing some of the most infamously powerful wizards around. The core cast’s adventures are framed by a videogame-like job request board, which is perfect considering the context here. But the game adaptation goes a step further by adapting a specific, ultra-relevant part of the series.
Despite the singular title, Fairy Tail isn’t a full adaptation of, well, Fairy Tale. It actually starts several story arcs into the source material, at a point right before a major “time skip.” After a series of events with greater implications nearly kills the main cast, they find themselves waking up seven years later to familiar surroundings, but a world that didn’t wait for them to catch up. Fairy Tail is in tatters after nearly a decade of its heavy hitters and leadership MIA, and our heroes have to pay seven years’ back rent. It’s time to take some jobs, build back that rep, and restore Fairy Tail to its former glory.
In a very Atelier-like form, the bulk of Fairy Tail is spent taking missions from the request board, hopping out for brief runs in sequestered slices of environmental pie, then returning home and cashing in. You’ll find quests involving beating up monsters, finding specific items, and beating up monsters to find their specific items. Things get more complicated when the story parts kick in, but the connective tissue is an all you can eat JRPG grinding buffet. It’s rote, but it’s neat how Gust chose a specific portion of the story to fit its JRPG house style into. It can get repetitive at times, but a lot of the extra fluff is optional. Unless you’re a completionist, you can engage with the systems as little or as much as you want.
While there isn’t much to the tasks you complete, finishing them off is often fun thanks to Fairy Tail’s strange combat. At first it seems pretty straightforward; characters and enemies take turns wailing on each other for the most part. But there’s a hidden layer of nuance that the developers added in an attempt to help make the characters stand out more. When all the magical maneuvers are big and explosive, sometimes you need more than elemental properties to get the brain juice flowing. To that end, a grid system is employed to add an extra hint of strategy.
Each character has a list of moves, most of them with similar magical effects. Natsu, for example, makes big fire go boom. But which fire you make go boom depends on the most efficient area of effect you need. Each attack hits a specific arrangement of squares, and enemies will be placed in specific ways on the battlefield. Some moves will also manipulate enemy placement, providing opportunities to create your own openings for, again, efficiency. MP is a precious resource in Fairy Tail (it’s literally life and death!), but I never felt like the costs outweighed what I was able to get back to a stressful degree. But it always felt good to win fights fast and painless because of smart attack choices.
You can also expect the traditional anime game flourishes, especially activating a huge attack at the press of a button. There are a few meters that fill up as a fight goes on, and those meters can be traded for things like a buffed-up “awakened” state for a few turns, or follow-up combo attacks. The big bang comes from orchestrating a magic chain, which lets you string together your team’s moves and has a random chance of activating a guest character appearance for extra damage and fan service. The fancy stuff is fun, but I always preferred to play with the regular tile-based attacks.
Supplementing combat is the simple party system, a cornerstone of the genre here but something that adds a little more weight in Fairy Tail’s context. Your party is almost always flexible - regardless of the original story’s plot - but there are some situations or missions that lock one or more characters in. And as characters work together, they develop individual bonds that lead to small, silly skits.Fairy Tail is a big group with a lot of characters, and you’ll inevitably have your favorites. But ultimately Fairy Tail is a group effort, and everyone has to pitch in.
As neat as Fairy Tail can be, sometimes it feels a little undercooked. I mean this relative to Gust’s other work, such as the absolutely gorgeous Atelier Ryza. The character models are sharp and detailed in a way that faithfully adapts Mishima’s art style. But the environments are often barren and blurry, the monsters look like bootleg PS2 Digimon game assets, and the game’s performance can’t settle on a stable frame rate. I’m no frame rate cop, but it’s weird the way it leaps from jittery to a clear 60 fps depending on where you’re standing. Over the course of my review access there was a small update that made things a bit better, so hopefully that part of the paragraph will be outdated soon.
It’s hard to recommend Fairy Tail to anyone new to the series, considering how little it cares if you aren’t familiar with the story. At the same time, the characters have such loud personalities it’s easy enough to get to know them, and the story’s framework only pokes and prods at the greater Fairy Tail plot on occasion. If you stumble into this as a fan of Gust’s other work but not Fairy Tail, you aren’t going to be fully abreast of what’s going on, but you don’t necessarily need to be. An Atelier-like experience this is not (outside of some basic elements), but it’s a colorful, entertaining bit of JRPG fluff that’s enhanced if you’re into Fairy Tail in the first place. And if you are, you’ll appreciate the thoughtful ways Gust adapted themes into game play. I just hope it gets a little more post-launch patch love.
Fairy Tail is available for the PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.