As one of Compile Heart’s ”Galapagos RPG Evolve” brand of games, Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord has been aiming to deliver its brand goal of creating “role-playing games specifically targeted at a Japanese audience” following the previous two outings of the series; Fairy Fencer and Fairy Fencer F: Dark Advent Force.
Switching from a turn-based action game to a strategic tactical RPG, Refrain Chord attempts to tackle a brand-new combat system while continuing the stories of Fang and the rest of the cast from the previous games. Even with some obvious flaws and a predictable fantasy story, the entry manages to bring a musical twist to an otherwise simple SRPG experience.
▍A Familiar Premise
If you’ve played the previous Fairy Fencer F games, you’ll be no strangers to the worldview of Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord. Ancient weapons called Furies lay scattered in a world blessed by the Goddess. Those who have the ability to wield these weapons imbued with Furirs are known as the Fencer.
The protagonist Fang is one such Fencer who, together with his weapon-bound amnesiac Fairy Eryn, seeks to locate the many Furies across the realm of Zelwind. It turns out that raising the goddess from her slumber would bring back Eryn’s memories and grant a single wish for the one who would wake her. Joined by his rag-tag group of like-minded Fencer friends, Fang must contend with an opposing force called the Dorfa Corporation that wishes to collect the Furies for their own devious goals.
While the premise itself doesn’t exactly scream original, the game’s plot is extremely straightforward, especially when compared to Idea Factory/Compile Heart’s other endeavors under the Galapagos RPG brand. Fans of the developer’s other works, especially the Neptunia franchise will feel very familiar with the more light-hearted moments of the game (which the game will keep reminding you of) with a helping of ridiculous humor and raunchy titillation sprinkled in relatively often.
Character writing in the game can be polarizing, with Fang and his buddies (outside of a few exceptions) never really breaking away from their archetypes. The slow-plodding narrative that’s seemingly necessitated to add combat encounters in the main story all result in a band of heroes that, while certainly charming and full of chemistry, could rub some uninitiated players the wrong way.
The fact of the matter is, Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord’s character and overarching plot don’t exactly try to rock the boat too hard. If you don’t mind a relatively light-hearted story and can appreciate some hilarity thrown in for good measure, you’ll certainly get a kick out of the story that unfolds.
▍A Cold Opening That Perplexes First-timers
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord makes very little clear to newcomers to the series from the get-go, with the game immediately throwing you into a tutorial battle with minimal context. After finishing said combat tutorial, players are immediately flung into a more light-hearted introduction of Fang and his friends, which also curiously mirrors what happened in the previous games.
The lack of a proper introduction for its side characters makes Refrain Chord a rather perplexing experience if it’s your first entry into the series. While the decision to discard the original game’s admittedly lengthy introduction of its dozens of characters has its merits of getting the plot rolling early on, the lack of writing around what are, established character relationships makes for a confusing first hour.
Though the game certainly doesn’t technically require any foreknowledge, series fans will get a lot more out of the first few hours of the game. This, of course, comes with the cost of having new players feel like the odd one out of a friend group tossing around in-jokes that are flying over their heads.
▍Methodical Strategy Spiced Up by Mechanics Old and New
The obvious elephant in the room when talking about Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is its eschewing of the more traditional turn-based combat system seen in the original title for a strategy-based RPG akin to Final Fantasy Tactics/Tactics Ogre.
One such standout feature is the game’s emphasis on unit positioning. After taking a turn, each unit gets to change its orientation. The game explains that there are three different directional states in combat: Hit an enemy from the front and you’ll deal average damage. But if you happen to flank or get behind your foes before striking them, you’ll deal extra damage.
The positional system makes for an interesting way to incentivize aggressive or strategic play as you try to figure out how to position your characters to maximize damage and mitigate enemy hits, as the system goes both ways.
Frustratingly, the map layouts in Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Code rarely let you take advantage of this feature. The game doesn’t seem to give players enough opportunities to sneak behind enemy lines, and you’re often funneled into chokepoints where you and your opponents are stuck trading damage head-on.
While Refrain Code regales players with the proposition of skills and magic abilities, the game’s high enemy count proportion to the number of teammates (maximum of 6 on-field) means abilities that deal AOE damage regardless of orientations are almost always preferred due to how the enemies tend to dogpile on units.
Height is also a mechanic introduced relatively early as a component that influences movement and attacks dependent on the altitude between units. Though from playing through a dozen chapters, not many stages seem to utilize this mechanic outside of some skills that have different effects when activated from elevations.
The Fairize action also makes a return from the original Fairy Fencer F. Outside of unlocking specific abilities exclusive to the Fairize state, transforming allows units to move further across the map. Due to how most encounters end up being messy brawls against 5+ enemies, Fairizing and flanking enemies or simply moving away from threats was a valuable power boost in many situations.
▍Robust Character Builder With Tons of Choices
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord also adds an interesting spin on the EXP system with characters gaining a unique currency called Fairy Points (FP) upon defeating enemies and using specific actions on the battlefield. Racking up FP is arguably more important than mere level-ups in Refrain Chord, as they are essential in learning new abilities and skills for your characters.
While leveling up and acquiring skills can feel especially substantial in the early game as you can pick up one or two skills after every battle, the FP economy and amount required substantially ramp up, with late-game abilities requiring FP in the 10,000 mark. While doing everything in your way to collect as much of the stuff during a map clear only gives you a fraction of what you need.
Ranging wildly in the distinct benefits they offer, Sub Fairies open up the potential for builds and player expression. Granting stat boosts, elemental strength/weaknesses of a character, and even granting them normally inaccessible skills.
Feel like you need more healers other than Tiara? Go ahead and attach the Sub Fairy Sylph on Galdo or Fang and now they too can cast Cure! Just by moving around the Sub Fairies equipped on each party member, players can give any teammate sub-class-like roles.
The added complexity that iterates on its predecessor’s system is a nice touch, as Refrain Chord gives players many ways to play around with the role of the character in the party, with each party member being malleable enough that they can fit and cover different roles, resembling something close to a job system.
Additionally, clearing the main story quests adds to the playable roster, with a total of 14 different characters all with unique abilities and stats that make them excel at different skills. While the game’s earlier chapters mostly feature Fang, Tiara, Galdo, and Fleur, chapters 4 and onward see the game open up with more characters joining the cause.
However, how Refrain Chord handles new party members as they join up isn’t so great. While the game offers a bunch of different units to play around with, newer allies still start at Fairy level 1, meaning grinding is necessary if you want to use them moving forward. The last recruitable character is the biggest offender, as they only stick around for so few levels that I didn’t bother touching them when I was already dozens of chapters in with competent characters.
▍Muse’s Strike the Right Notes
The newly introduced Muse named Fleur is a particular unit class that effectively fills the role of bard/dancer/minstrel role in other strategy RPG titles. The two Muses found in the game not only perform unique songs that override the soundtrack but have a special ability to empower all nearby allies in an AOE.
Outside of being the dedicated buffer of the team, Muses can also intensify the effect or increase the range of their song’s influence. Their songs add an interesting extra layer to combat, with smart use of them leading to a smoother victory as they become the rally point of your team’s offensive.
An interesting part about Muse’s songs is that Glace, one of the baddies, can also perform and rally her forces identically to Fleur. Called Dramatic Resonance in-game, squares that are influenced by both Muses bestow BOTH song effects onto ANY character standing in the area, regardless of their allegiance, further emphasizing the importance of positioning.
The vocal track that plays while the Muse performs also happens to overlap when both are singing, making for an interesting moment during a battle where any combination of tracks being played by either side results in a somewhat cohesive mashup song that spices up every encounter.
While their addition to the SRPG mechanics is welcome, Refrain Chord seems to fumble with its execution to some degree, especially around the balancing of the Muse characters and how they’re treated in battle.
In maps that ask players to take down every enemy on the field, Glace usually remains the last unit standing for obvious reasons, as she doesn’t pose much of a threat on her own. After taking out all the combatants on the field, what follows in these stages is a rather annoying cat-and-mouse game against Glace as you try to whittle her health down as she keeps scampering all over the map while casting pointless buffs on herself that waste your time.
While this isn’t always the case, the fact that the game doesn’t just conclude the fight is doubly odd, as some missions (mainly side-quest maps) state outright that the victory condition is to “Defeat every enemy except Glace”. This becomes especially annoying when you realize that almost every stage in the game features her in some form, due to how the game wants you to use the Dramatic Resonance mechanic, making for encounters that overstay their welcome.
Another gripe would be how on some map tiles and especially in larger maps that house a lot of enemies, performing a Dramatic Resonance can be visibly messy, due to the visual presentation of the effect being a clash of neon green vs neon pink. This often left me personally making easy misplays, such as misplacing units or not being able to recognize which unit moved and did what.
▍Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord Delivers a Solid SRPG Experience
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord, all in all, delivers a very satisfying SRPG experience that delivers a somewhat standalone story that may slightly befuddle newcomers at first glance.
While feeling slightly cookie-cutter, the cast is likable in presentation. It holds its own in delivering a classic feeling story that Compile Heart fans will have no problem getting into. Otherwise, what Refrain Chord offers when it comes to its narrative may, at points, feel bare-bones and at worst corny. Its trope-filled character interactions also have a habit of swerving off into humor and hijinks at odd moments, so your mileage may vary on that front.
The orientation/positioning of units plays a heavy role, especially with the added layer of Fleur and Glace’s song mechanics that necessitates careful positioning to maximize damage output. While their addition to the game can be rough around the edges at times, they are a welcome change of pace in spicing things up during the admittedly traditional combat mechanics that would otherwise be a slog.
Though the game has its shortcomings in its narrative, Refrain Chord offers an enjoyable strategy RPG experience that clocks in at around 50 hours or so with some grinding here and there. While the game may not scratch the itch of more adept tactical/strategy RPG enthusiasts, fans of the Fairy Fencer F series or just Compile Heart fans in general, can expect a game that may serve as a great entry point into the genre with its charming and simple game system.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord is now available on PC via Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation5, and PlayStation 4.
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Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord Review – Familar SRPG Formula with A Musical Twist
Fairy Fencer F: Refrain Chord, while generic in its premise, offers an engaging SRPG experience owing to its music-themed mechanics, all wrapped in a relatively cliched plot line.
Operating System: PC, Switch, PS5, PS4
Application Category: Game