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Neopets: The Darkest Faerie

Finally, the third PS2 game where fantasy collides with game development reality. Neopets: The Darkest Faerie is unassuming, unfinished, and sneakily compelling.

It's reminiscent of the period when computer games were only games. You know, for kids. The future was interactive entertainment, where you were grudgingly allowed to solve tiny puzzles between grainy video clips.

Cynical developers made perfunctory rubbish because children didn't matter. Others used that indifference as an opportunity to make what they liked: under-resourced, but relatively free from creative interference.

Neopets was big business in 2005, but this game is quite intimate. It feels like something that people wanted to make. Overcome some accidentally horrific cutscenes, and you'll soon discover if you're on their wavelength.

The opening gives the dream of heroism with extra cheese, then lets the inquisitive explore a little. Like the mandatory chores, there's nothing spectacular, but the gentle fun is in harmony with the story.

It's a cartoon of uncluttered consistency, symbolic objects and elementary concepts. Follow the path between the trees to the flowers, take the fork to the barn, climb the ladder, then see the mountains. Restrained details make focusing on what matters simple.

Early cutscenes are populated by the nightmarish puppets of an incompetent taxidermist. Things improve considerably with shiny characters, who merely resemble action figures come to life with their stiff movements. The direction and writing picks up too, with neat emphasis on implied menace rather than PG-rated fighting.

The game itself moves almost as smoothly as possible. The animation, free of tedious photorealistic pretensions, snaps to attention. Simply moving around is immersive, finer texturing would be a shimmering distraction. There are subtle details, like leaves and petals, while backgrounds that are more than set dressing give a grand sense of scale.

After the lecture about using weapons responsibly, I instinctively blitzed all the domestic breakables to see what happened. Nothing, and friendly characters can't be damaged, so there's no chance of cutting a deal with the Darkest Faerie. You monster.

However, another instruction is to run away if threatened. Returning home after the first fight, rather than continuing to your destination, gives first the clue that this game thinks beyond set pieces. The early promise is never quite realised, with an increasing sense of development burdened by the options of an open world. Still, doing the unexpected works often enough to make the world feel alive, ticking over regardless of your actions.

Meridell is spicy relish on the earlier cheese. You are mugged on arrival, and the residents range from gracious to rude in their treatment of a nobody. The characterisation is delightfully consistent, with fresh rounds of encouragement and abuse as you progress.

There's an undertone of becoming an adult, not through car-jacking or magic bullet wounds, but persistence and responsibility. Tor, the first controllable character, must brave bureaucracy, harsh training, and the worst jobs for a whiff of the dream.

Which stinks of the old guard shirking, but it's convincing when fate steps in to guide him. There's enough nastiness, and mere cranks or eccentrics, to make the nice believable. Writing builds this world far more effectively than a few borrowed film clips.

Between talking, there's lots of exploration and some fighting. Death is possible enough to add tension, but not neurosis. Healing plants, which grow in believable places, can also be bought affordably, so there's scope for thrifty caution or extravagant boldness. The magical attacks are mostly superfluous, but the elemental alignment system works well enough.

Like conversations, the environments do not always revolve around the protagonists. Diversions can deplete supplies alarmingly fast, and running is sometimes the best option. The blend of treasure caches and emptiness makes places feel more than an obstacle course, though there are a couple of those thrown in too.

You will get lost without referring to maps, including one in the instruction book. Most require some interpretation, but playfully teasing asides soothe frustration. It feels smart rather than smug, almost collaborative. Occasional difficulties are consistent with the story, and mostly satisfying to overcome.

The first act has a strong finish, smashing the building blocks of comfort in swift succession. A bold change of scene and character, to Roberta in Faerieland, briefly masks the sense that bumpiness is increasingly due to poor maintenance. Doors are blocked without explanation, characters spread more thinly, and tasks break away from the story.

For example, one cutscene shows the Darkest Faerie preparing to extract information, with disturbing delight. The plot demands an emergency distraction, but the only solution is illogically elaborate. Finding it depends on checking the quest marker, rather than working from what you already know.

Sound glitches, previously confined to occasional loss of music, become more noticeable. There are sharp edges to catch when moving around in the gardens, and a corridor where you can accidentally pop up to an inescapable room.

It's not a total loss. The observant will find the genial dead, and some fittingly concerned reactions to dangerous magic lessons. However, Roberta's diplomatic background is a missed opportunity. Despite frustration at being a figurehead, it's still far cushier than Tor's station in life, and consequently less interesting.

There's also little friction between the kingdoms that would require diplomacy. Faerieland runs too smoothly for character development, though that might be part of the subtle feminine commentary. You know, the quietly in charge who don't rise to noisy pretenders.

Once the characters meet, you can generally flick between them at will. Fate bestows magic gubbins which, disappointingly, make them both immune to the Darkest Faerie's influence. The concept of her channelling nightmares is demonstrated in how places and people react, but the heroes are lessened without fear of being lured down the wrong path. Still, the antagonists are well defined, including the nemesis who mixes business and pleasure.

There are good bits, like ransacking a library. Moving shelves around to access key texts is standard platforming fare, with the twist being increasingly disturbed patrons as you break the filing system. There's a large, entirely optional area which features a great view across the coastline and some excellent gravestone gags.

Unfortunately, the flow soon becomes turbulent with batches of mandatory quests. The most efficient sequence doesn't match the narrative, so you'll probably end up wearing a groove in the front of your left stick. At least speed potions take the edge off excessive wandering, and the skyline is a constant reminder of where the bad influence lingers.

The nadir is Eyestrain Swamp. After setting the brightness and contrast to eleven, you will still fall victim to what the most comprehensive guide refers to as “Death Water”. Fail to distinguish two dark shades of green, or mistime a critical jump, and it's Game Over.

It appears that development time ran out. There's evidence of triage, such as a standard respawn point after the boss fight, but this sections saps so much goodwill that you might give up right there. The Golden Compass was rubbish, but at least you could see what was happening.

Areas under excessively dark influence is a recurring problem. This seems like another symptom of crunch time, reduced brightness the quickest way to denote cursing. Some spots even have unaltered daylight filtering through windows, rather than a purple haze.

The ruined castle is blatantly unfinished. The map is frustratingly misaligned, and what should be the best view in the land is stunningly poor. Market Town, down below, is a heartbreaking waste of potential.

Commerce is refreshingly unusual territory for a fantasy game, but glaring little mistakes shatter involvement. The shopkeeper, spawning in his fireplace, and the pleasant report from Meridell, oblivious to it now being apocalypse central. Half-finished discoveries kill the enthusiasm to explore.

Pressing on is just about worth it. There's a strong sense of being under siege, so progress feels earned rather than a formality. Revisiting areas helps to establish a consistent world, and the tainted versions have fresh twists to catch the complacent. Though it becomes too dungeon-heavy, most are good fun. I kicked myself for taking the habitual brute force approach to one switch puzzle, rather than observing their effects.

The economy feels right, with the desirable always marginally affordable, and treasure maps for long-term investors. There are simple, visual equipment upgrades, rather than piles of statistics. A few useless collectables aside, it's nicely balanced. Tor is generally more fun than Roberta, close combat demanding greater timing and precision, but either character can handle most situations with the right equipment.

When it appears to be over, there's more. Glitches included, though I couldn't trigger the only reported save-breaking bug. Dungeons are now themed by character traits, which like the ending, kind of works. It's unsatisfying, winning more through magic than wit, but the sense of persistence and a team effort comes through.

I haven't completed Okami. It looks wonderful, but is disconnectedly expansive, and the combat options are overwhelming. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time feels restrictive with Sat Navi's interruptions, and dungeons that are almost too neat in their cleverness. The polished Chronicles of Narnia feels like an overblown dead-end.

The Darkest Faerie is rough, but there's a subtle touch in the writing and design that teases curiosity. It's free of pretension, happy to joke and play, while quietly bringing characters to life. The developers suffered for their art, and you will too, but this is by far the most interesting of the three adventures.

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Uploaded 09-02-2018.