Farabel furnishes fun – but it’s faulty and fleeting.
Farabel, the most recent release from developer/publisher FroGames, is the game that almost wasn’t. The turn-based, hexgrid strategy game markets itself as “the game where you start at the end of the story,” but the game itself nearly ended at the start. Development for the game kicked off about a year and a half ago with a sleeper Kickstarter campaign. Launching in May 2015 and closing one month later, FroGames artist and co-founder Christophe Rene Canon described the fundraising effort as having “failed miserably.” The financial flop did not stanch development efforts, however, and Christophe, and his “Personal Butler” Mathieu, shouldered on with persistence and passion.
While Farabel never seems to pass up the opportunity to mention its unique slant of a reverse-campaign, it does not appear that the game was ever intended to adopt this angle. In stark contrast to the current chorus of “start at the end(!)”, the original Kickstarter makes no mention of it. In fact, early press releases of the title stated that you would level up, specifically, that you would “Level your 3 characters from lvl 1 to lvl 4.” Somewhere along the way, the leveling scheme flipped and the poor third wheel was cut from the final production – now you only play as Cendor, Lord of Farabel, and his High-Priestess wife. Outside of the reverse chronology of the campaign, FroGames concedes that “Farabel has no killer feature”, in part due to the limited budget and the consequently limited development capabilities. While gamers should not fire up this indie title expecting stunning cinematics, professional voice acting, dazzling effects, or the like, some aspects of Farabel are not so contingent on funding, yet fall short nonetheless.
For the ruthlessly logical among us, the time-travelling gimmick induces some troubling questions. For starters, the reverse time traveling begins when the main duo judge, incorrectly, that they will lose the final battle. Just when victory over the goblin army is finally secured, the time travel spell is accidentally unleashed, forcing them to re-fight old battles. Well, why don’t they simply time travel back (or forward, rather) to the end of the war? And if this is not an option, why don’t the characters have strategic aces up their sleeves? After all, having already fought these battles, they should already know how to head-off the enemy. Egregiously, during one mission, you time travel out of a collapsing cave… and leave your fellow soldiers behind. What fate, pray tell, befell these guiltless infantrymen? However, FroGames can get a slight pass with these issues; time travel is an inherently complex subject, ranging from intriguingly confusing to downright perplexing. (For some very rich, pulpy time-travel tales, check out this anthology. Or if reading is not your scene, you can treat yourself to a naughtier take on temporal manipulation [NSFW, to be sure].
But FroGames does not seem to muster the effort to address these questions.
The narrative is thin, and does not even spare a perfunctory lampshade or hand wave. Character development is sparse and certainly not endearing; the high priestess’s constant failure to travel through time was more irritating than amusing, and the husband-and-wife chemistry is uninspired. The player is not compelled to see through the campaign, an apathy furthered by the fact that, well, you know how it ends: by beginning. FroGames may do well to return to its passion of high-stakes activism. The studio’s 2008 release, Penguins Arena: Sedna’s World involved the “very real threat of mass extinction due to global warming and pollution”, and was a well-received title, perhaps in part due to the personal mission of the piece, and how that ethos resonated in the final game.
As for the reverse leveling-up device, despite the intrigue elicited during OPN’s Monthly DevLounge (wherein Farabel was ranked the #10 most anticipated release of 2016), the actual execution is not groundbreaking. Although game critics describe the struggle of determining “which skill to nerf,” the practical result is no different than the traditional level-up model. To defend this assertion, we must turn to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, specifically, his Equivalence Principle. If you were in an elevator in space and you were experiencing a “g-force”, you could not determine whether the force you feel is due to gravitational pull or the elevator itself accelerating at 9.86m/s2. Likewise, when you “level-down” between levels, the difficulty you experience during the next level is effectively indistinguishable from a standard RPG: while you level up, your opponents also become progressively harder. In the same vein, when you distribute skill points normally, you implicitly decide which skills to “nerf” by forgoing the opportunity to buff other skills. While FroGames keeps it interesting by introducing new spells and characters throughout the campaign, you are sometimes left confused; e.g., when Cendor levels down, he suddenly acquires a lightning sword with a radius shock spell. Why would he have suddenly relinquished this power-up as he leveled up? Finally, there is an argument to be made that the overall psychological effect of essentially being punished for your victory is taxing.
But returning to the subject of difficulty, Farabel could use a boost.
Cosmic Reviews sums it up succinctly: “I wouldn’t say that it was hard core by any standard.” The excitement of a real challenge was raised when battling the Lesser Ancient Gods – only to be quickly dashed. (Not that I am not advocating for a rompecabezas or bloodthirsty AI. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break and not need to tap try-hard mode) When difficulty does come into play, it stems chiefly from the inability to undo accidental moves – not attacks or new turns, but simply misclicks, which are a real possibility given the clunky handling. To FroGames credit, there are nifty mechanics with which the gamer is treated: the micro-time travel spell Cendor can cast adds a fun and interesting level to strategizing, and the game’s helpful highlighting of attackable enemies were you to move a unit to a particular tile cuts out some of the otherwise requisite tedious tile-counting. A big BUG ALERT however: the game can sometimes lock on a character, disabling end the ‘end turn’ button, or ability to click anywhere really, leaving you with no option other than to surrender and restart the level. When this occurs while you are decidedly beating a level after 15 turns and 20 minutes, you are aggrieved, for sure.
A quick note on music: John Leonard French, alumnus of Canterbury University, really pulls through with this title, and certainly delivers solid orchestral music which keeps good on his promise to draw on his film and game experience to “[bring] game worlds to life with audio.” Game developers looking for your next composer: contact this man.
Farabel is a fair effort by FroGames. While the release was not completely successful conveying the uncommon angle it adopted, I’m not convinced the twist is doable. To the extent that it can be done, Farabel succeeded, though the gambit did not suffice of itself to excuse some of the weaknesses of the release. The experience is an interesting playthrough, though unlike the time travelling protagonists, you likely won’t travel back and spend the time to replay the story.