Review: Fairy Tail brings a beloved anime to life in a classic JRPG

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I’ve never been able to get into Fairy Tail, despite giving both the manga and anime a few goes over the years. On paper, it seems like my kind of thing, but the characters and storylines never grabbed me, and there’s something about the art style—I still can’t quite put my finger on what—that feels off, somehow. Every time I try watching it, I get a couple of episodes deep before pivoting to something else.

But I do love a good JRPG, especially one from the people behind the likes of Atelier and Blue Reflection. If anyone could change my mind about Fairy Tail, it’s Gust. Sure enough, after playing the Fairy Tail game, I have a newfound appreciation for this series.

In some ways, that’s an odd outcome—Gust’s Fairy Tail is very made for existing fans, to the point that it follows a story arc that, in the anime, starts about 100 episodes deep. It doesn’t give you so much as giving you an introduction to the ensemble cast you’re about to spend the next 30 hours with (there are character profiles, but they’re tucked away in the menu), making the opening couple of hours a little disorienting for someone entirely new to the world of Fairy Tail.

A screenshot from Fairy Tail, showing two characters clashing swords.

And yet, I think that’s part of why the game clicked with me even though the anime and manga never have. Fairy Tail‘s cast is at its most interesting when it’s in full bloom, with all the players on set and the dynamics of those relationships playing out. Even if it means being dropped in the deep end a little bit, I think meeting these characters in a context that’s been built up over a hundred episodes worth of television is an effective way to get a feel for who they are and how you relate to them.

Related: Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness is a perfect place to jump into Gust’s best-known series. Here’s our review.

That helps when the Fairy Tail games gets more personal with its cast, too. Plenty of quests and story beats focus on particular individuals or pairs; these moments are a chance to explore what makes those characters and one-on-one relationships tick without the noise that comes with those bigger setpieces where everyone’s on deck. But they still benefit from, and build upon, those existing relationships, and that impact of that history is apparent even if not explicitly laid out.

I also think the Fairy Tail game works simply because the basic structure of premise neatly fits the JRPG format. In short, it’s the story of Fairy Tail, a guild of mercenary wizards who take on all manner of jobs for the promise of prestige and cold, hard cash. There’s an abundance of such guilds in the kingdom of Fiore, but the Fairy Tail is noted for being a rowdy bunch of misfits—and also, the strongest guild in the kingdom.

A screenshot from Fairy Tail, showing a character charging up a special move with her bow

Or at least, they were the strongest, until an encounter with an evil dragon resulted in the guild’s most powerful mages being frozen in time for seven years. Without them, Fairy Tail dropped to the bottom of the guild rankings, and was all but forgotten about.

It’s here that the Fairy Tail game kicks off. A long-term goal of regaining that number one position and the general mercenary status that guilds have in this universe anyway translate nicely into a simple, effective game loop: taking on quests lets you build up Fairy Tail’s prestige, while also earning more tangible rewards, with guild rank being one of the key factors in progressing through the main storyline. It’s simple, it’s effective, and it mostly works: even the most basic “kill X monsters”-type requests become part of the bigger picture and add to the sense of progress.

But I say “mostly” because the specific goals of those quests tend to be rather uninspiring. Outside of the main story tasks, requests show up semi-randomly on the guild quest board; for every one that has a bit more of a character or narrative element, there’ll be five generic fetch quests. Again, the way they fit into the context of the rest of the game mean those still feel worthwhile, but not really on their own merits—they’re jobs to be done for the paycheck at the end. (I guess you could argue that that’s the point, but Fairy Tail doesn’t exactly come across like it’s looking to make some bold statement about the gig economy.)

A screenshot from Fairy Tail, showing a close up of the villain Hades' face, with a dialogue box that reads "Behold, the Abyss of Sorcery. Here extends an endless realm that surpasses your feeble imaginations."

On the other hand, Fairy Tail‘s battle system is a neat spin on the classic turn-based setup that keeps even the simplest regular encounters interesting. Enemies appear within a 3×3 grid, and each of your party’s attacks has a particular arrangement of those cells. The key, then, is to try select and position your spells to get the best coverage across a group of foes—a task greatly helped when you start learning attacks that push and pull enemies around the battlefield. 

In a game where everyone is a spellcaster, managing MP becomes crucial—especially since running out of MP will make a character faint. Everyone has a standard attack to fall back on, but they’re particularly flimsy, and even they cost a nominal amount of MP. Fortunately, there are a few different ways to recover MP, so you don’t have to rely solely on a stacked bag of recovery items (though that doesn’t hurt). Fairy Tale‘s approach to resource management is about encouraging tactical use of the tools available to you and spending MP smartly, rather than just hoarding everything for the next boss fight. 

This battle system keeps the moment-to-moment action of Fairy Tail interesting, even when the quest objectives leave something to be desired. That, in turn, feeds the bigger goal of rebuilding the Fairy Tail guild—not just in terms of prestige, but also when it comes to deepening the bonds between the eccentric crew. The Fairy Tail franchise is classic shōnen manga stuff—over-the-top action, underdogs fighting for their seat at the table, the power of friendship—and the game captures that beautifully. I didn’t think I’d ever be a Fairy Tail convert, but Gust made it happen.

Score: 4 stars

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Fairy Tail is developed by Gust Co Ltd and published by Koei Tecmo. It’s available now for Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.

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About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.