You’ve really got to feel sorry for developer releasing a traditional RPG on Nintendo Switch in the wake of Octopath Traveler. Square Enix’s throwback summer release may have had a few niggling issues, but it took all the things we loved from the glory days of Final Fantasy and made them feel fresh and new once more. Fernz Gate might not make such a grand impact on the genre, but beneath those retro visuals lies an adventure bubbling with role-playing potential.
You play Alex, a high school student with immaculate anime hair who awakes in a mysterious and predictably medieval-style new realm. Turns out he’s in Fernland, a 'world between worlds' full of travellers who have fallen out of their own reality and into this one. It’s a rather strange place, one where mana flows with wanton abandon and monsters lurk around every corner. Of course, there’s a big bad who’s causing all sorts of big bad things (who also happens to sport a costume that’s going to have Ganondorf’s lawyers throwing copyright claims around in no time) but isn’t there always?
With its pixel sprites, simple top-down levels and 16-bit visuals, Fernz Gate isn’t bringing anything new to the presentation department - in fact, if you’ve played any recent Kemco games such as Antiquia Lost (a title with which this game shares a lot of assets and systems) you definitely know what to expect - but it does make a concerted effort to offer something a little different when it comes to the meat and potatoes of your general questing and monster-slaying antics.
Combat is turn-based, but to mix things up you’re split into teams. Depending on the number of characters in your party, you’ll be divided into pairs. Some characters will be placed together, but for the rest, you’ll have Buddies. These are souls of former Fernland residents who have returned in cute character form, and are used to help support you in battle. Characters standing at the front of a team are Mains, and can use normal attacks and skills to hurt enemies (but can’t access items). The characters behind are Subs, and while they can’t use normal attacks, they can use skills and items.
It’s a neat system and one that requires you to get the composition of a team right and choose the correct pecking order, using your sub to bolster your chosen skill or special attack. With certain special skills possessing a cooldown period that locks it out for a given number of turns, you’re often thinking moves ahead of the current one. You’re also given one health bar based on each team’s collective stats, so it pays to head into the easy-to-navigate menus and find the right combo for each, as well as experimenting to find new effects that enhance attacks and skills.
There’s no overworld to explore; instead, you’ll use a simple map to visit key locations across Fernland and enter from multiple entrances. We’d rather have had a larger world to explore, but each of its locations has plenty of maze-like dungeons to navigate filled with treasure chests, sub-quests and battles to keep you busy. Since most locations aren’t exactly going to knock you for six when it comes to aesthetics, it comes down to Fernz Gate’s combat and story. And while that plot is as trope-filled as they come, the dialogue has a fun irreverence about it that never takes itself too seriously.
Curios are also another unique addition to Fernz Gate’s package, and it’s this element that makes committing to this RPG in the long-term a far more attractive prospect. Since grinding through random battles can often lead to abject tedium, Curios help give you back a little more control by enabling you to customise the kind of battles you’ll encounter in a given area, even enabling you to string encounters together into gauntlet-style groupings. Only monsters from that specific area will appear, but it provides an empowering means of reducing - or increasing - the rate at which you fight them, as well as offering the chance to boost the appearance of jars and blocks (a tough item that appears during battle, that if broken, always drops better gear).
It’s a great way to farm XP, and offers agency in an area where RPGs often don’t afford it, enabling you to bump up your party members and potentially farm items dropped at regular rates in battle. You can even pick up a portable Curio later in the game, which enables you to warp out of a dungeon and back to its entrance - perfect if you’ve become lost due to Fernz Gate’s ridiculously small and very unintuitive map and you need a quick way back to the main map screen.
While its core systems don’t rewrite the rules of the genre, Fernz Gate’s wholesome RPG mechanics will whisk you back to a 16-bit era where plucky little sprites and enchanting chiptunes were the order of the day. While it’s been launched a little too close to Octopath Traveler, don’t let its poor timing rob you of its enjoyable wares. If you’re looking for an RPG built to make grinding actively more enjoyable, this could be the next retro-style adventure for you.