Of all of Sony's titles this year, Folklore may have received the least attention from the gaming community. That's a shame, considering it's one of the most original and fascinating games of the year. The team at Game Republic has crafted a game filled with ephemeral beauty, mystery and intrigue. Yes, it has its share of flaws. However, the thought-provoking story, unique combat system and fantastic art style combine for an experience that no PS3 owner should miss.
The game's protagonist, Ellen, finds herself in the town of Doolin to meet her long-lost mother. However, all she sees is her mother, dead, for a few seconds before her lifeless body is seemingly spirited away. Keats, an investigative reporter of the paranormal, joins Ellen in Doolin, and finds his destiny is closely tied with Ellen's. Unfortunately, the game's opening moments seem to do everything possible to dissuade players from pressing onward. The murder of Ellen's mom is certainly intriguing, but the decidedly drab palette of Doolin and uninspired music make the game feel lifeless. Navigating the town at first feels like a chore, and the confusing pace of the comic book-esque cinematics do little to help invigorate the player. But, the Netherworld beckons, and it's there that the game starts showing off its true potential.
Ellen (and Keats) can both see the dead and journey into the Netherworld. When the player first steps into the Faery Realm, they're greeted by a lush, vivid dream-like world that stands in stark contrast to Doolin. Ironically, the world of the dead is far more alive. Here, players will utilize Folklore's unique combat system.
You never directly attack enemies in Folklore. Rather, you summon creatures, called Folks, to do the work for you. At your disposal is a constantly regenerating supply of mana, and the various creatures you summon have different effects. Some will perform melee attacks, while others will cast magic spells. Some will have surprising effects. For example, in the second world you visit, you'll be able to acquire machine gunning Folks, an airship that drops bombs, and a mine-laying Folk (perfect for catching enemies off-guard!). The variety and creativity of the various creatures is what makes collecting and using them so much fun. Each Folk can also be aligned to a certain element, meaning players will have to constantly change which Folk they have at their immediate disposal. Thankfully, it's very easy to switch your Folk inventory: just press L2 and quickly change as you please. You can even save and load various palettes that contain favorite combinations of Folk.
The biggest "gimmick" to Folklore must be the way you capture the spirits of fallen Folk. Using the SIXAXIS controller, players will quickly jerk the controller upward in order to absorb the spirits of Folk. It's an interesting way of empowering players, and it works. Thankfully, this mechanic doesn't get old thanks to a surprising variety of capture motions players must use. You can tilt the controller left and right, as your character slams the Folk's spirit to the ground. You will shake the controller wildly, or balance it -- or do a combination of multiple techniques. The motion controls really add a lot of character to the title, and thanks to its spot-on recognition, it never feels cumbersome to use.
Each battle becomes an interesting experiment, as the player's growing inventory of Folks allows a wide assortment of tactics for each encounter. To contrast the open-ended nature of regular battle, bosses require using very specific tactics. Players will receive a picture book in every level and it's up to them to interpret the images on the pages to find each boss' weakness. Boss battles can be difficult, especially because of their multiple phases, but they're immensely satisfying. One feels like a detective in some ways, quickly turning to one's picture book to find a way to defeat each mammoth boss.
At the end of each battle, Ellen will be able to see the memories of the dead, and piece together events from her long-forgotten past. From the moment you see one, the story ramps up quite considerably, as the pieces of a very intricate puzzle start coming together. The story is far deeper than it presents itself initially, and goes into great depth about the connection between one's memories and the afterlife. Not only is the story intriguing to see unfold, but thinking about the complex themes the story addresses adds an appreciable layer of refinement to the tale.
The story is told from two viewpoints: from Ellen's and Keats', and they play off each other magically. Ellen is in the middle of a war that's plaguing the Netherworld, and is given a rather skewed perception of the events that transpire around her. Keats, on the other hand, is controlled by other equally mysterious forces. Ultimately, both characters will question the actions of the other, causing an interesting dynamic. Clues of Keats' actions can be found in Ellen's story, and hints of Ellen's horrible past can be found in Keats'. As the story progresses, the game's sinister side starts revealing itself, as a terrifying secret becomes unraveled.
Although players are free to go through the story as only one character at first, players will be forced to play as the other in order to complete the game. This means that players will have to play each level twice. However, there are differences between Ellen and Keats that makes the second trip worthwhile. Both characters will face different creatures, and therefore have access to a different set of abilities. Keats also has the added bonus of faster mana regeneration and a special mode that makes him invulnerable. Because they come across different creatures, the tactics used in battles (especially against the bosses) changes considerably.
There's a lot to love about Folklore, but there are a few flaws that take away from the overall experience. Although the story becomes much more engrossing later on, it does start off painfully slow. Navigating the town of Doolin simply isn't interesting due to the town's general lack of interactivity and drab music. Battles can be tedious, and repetitive, in spite of the numerous Folk players have access to. Finally, the lack of voice acting and full motion cutscenes during many of the story's most crucial events feels lazy and uninspired. The comic book scenes are certainly an acquired taste -- thankfully, the developers have included a Fast Forward function for the impatient (like yours truly).
The PS3 is starving for a great original adventure game, and Folklore nicely fits the bill. It certainly is a pretty game, more thanks to the fantastic art style than the technology behind it. Players have a rather lengthy adventure to partake in, especially if they want to complete the side quests, collect all the creatures, costumes and various power-ups along the way. If that isn't enough, there's also room for more content from the PS Network, thanks to downloadable quests and the dungeon creation mode. It's very primitive and contains only the most basic features, but players will be able to create and share their own dungeons through the Network.
In spite of some repetitive gameplay, confusing presentation choices, and some awkward pacing, Folklore remains one of the more compelling experiences to be found on PS3. The story is masterfully executed: the mystery behind Ellen's past, the multiple perspectives, and the complex themes the game addresses, come together in something that's captivating and truly satisfying. Yes, the game has an almost painfully slow start, but bear with it -- you'll experience something that'll definitely surprise you.
PS3 Fanboy Score: 8.0