Folklore is a strange title that is hard to put into a set genre. Whether it’s a JRPG with action game style fighting or an action game with RPG elements is fairly difficult to define. The storyline follows the story of two individuals (Keats and Ellen) who are lead for different reasons to a town in Ireland known as Doolin “the land of the dead”. Keats is a writer for a magazine on the occult called Unknown Realms. While sitting in his office trying to figure out his next story, he gets a call from an unknown woman telling him that faeries are trying to kill her, and that he needs to come to Doolin. His natural journalistic curiosity finds the call too interesting to ignore. On the other hand, Ellen is a young lady who is on the search for her long lost mother and is lead to Doolin by a letter addressed to her from her mother asking to meet her in Doolin on the Cliff of Sidhe. On arrival, both Keats and Ellen come upon an unknown woman on the cliff in Doolin and quickly discover that she has been murdered.
To solve the mystery of Ellen’s past as well as the murder mystery around them, Keats and Ellen must venture under the ruins in Doolin to the Netherworld. The Netherworld is made up of an uncountable number of separate worlds, which are created by different views of life after death prevalent in the living world. These worlds vary from the realm of Faeries, a paradise after death envisioned by many cultures, and a war torn world that comes from the modern man’s vision of death. Inhabiting these realms are the Folks, souls that have been changed into other forms upon death. The Folks you will see depend on which world you are in. By going through each realm with either Keats or Ellen, and defeating the boss (Folklore) at the end, you will be able to talk to deceased citizens of Doolin to help unravel the mysteries surrounding it.
The battle system in Folklore revolves around capturing and then using Folks, but it isn’t quite the Pokémon like experience it seems to resemble at first glance. Folks are captured by damaging them to a point where they are stunned and their soul shows up as a red image around them. By pressing and holding the R1 button you can take hold of the soul, and then a simple flip upwards with the Six Axis will pull the soul into you. It isn’t always quite as easy as just holding R1 and flipping up the controller, some Folks will take a bit more work than that. For stronger Folks, there are minigames which all use the Six Axis that you’ll have to do to weaken their soul enough for reaping. These minigames range from leaning the controller left and right to smash the soul against the ground and shaking the controller at certain times like a Shinigami’s idea of Red Light Green Light.
Once you have captured a Folk’s soul, you now use that Folk to perform an attack or some other battle related action. Pressing L2 gives you a menu of all of the Folks you have captured thus far and allows you to assign each one to any of the face buttons on the controller. When you press the button assigned to any given Folk, your mana decreases by a certain amount, and that Folk will appear for a certain amount of time, perform a single action, and then disappear. Folks are used for every action in battle, and their attacks range from different elements, to Folks that can put up a temporary shield to keep you from harm. It is always important to gather up as many Folks as you can in each realm, since the boss of the realm has certain weaknesses and usually requires specific Folks to take him down. You discover these weaknesses by collecting pages of a picture book, which illustrates what works against certain Folks with unusual immunities and always ends with a two page spread of the weaknesses of the final boss. Each realm has its own picture book, and it’s a creative way to address giving the player the necessary information to take these bosses down.
Based on what I’ve written so far about the battle system, you would probably be more inclined to describe Folklore as a Beat ‘em Up title akin to the recent Madworld over a JRPG, but there are some definite RPG elements that come into play as well. Every Folk you obtain can be upgraded by performing certain actions given to you with the background information of the Folk. These can range from collecting 25 souls from that same Folk, defeating specific enemies using that Folk, and collecting and using specific items. Completing these tasks will upgrade the Folk’s attack by increasing its strength, decreasing its mana cost, or increasing the number of consecutive hits you can do with that Folk. These are nice things to do if you want to beef up a specific Folk, but they never felt necessary, so throughout my entire playthrough I only completed the tasks that happened without me having to try. Each soul that you collect will give your character some experience. After gaining enough experience you can rank up, but this only serves to increase your maximum health. Your attacks and defense moves are only dependent on the Folks that you have equipped, so leveling up doesn’t really have the impact that it does in your average JRPG.
When you aren’t in the Netherworld fighting against Ice wielding elephants and living cannons you, will be running around Doolin trying to find clues that not only teach you a bit more about the mysteries surrounding the town but also give you access to the next realm Netherworld. It usually doesn’t take much time in town before you have things figured out, and although the area you’ll have to search is fairly small, it can still get frustrating when you aren’t certain what to do and have to search randomly around town until you happen upon the next person you are meant to talk to. Doolin is not only small in area, but there are surprisingly few people living in the town. All told, the town doesn’t even make it to double digits, which helps to make each person that you meet important in some way or another. There are only two town members that go largely ignored, but it didn’t feel like a major loss.
The variation of the visual presentation of Folklore is praiseworthy. Each of the realms of the Netherworld has its own distinct visual feel, and it is pretty much impossible to mistake one for another. The cut scenes in Folklore are split up between the usual computer generated animation that most people have become used to from Final Fantasy titles, and a strange comic book like presentation where character models stand in poses, say their piece and the screen switches from frame to frame. The comic book presentation doesn’t seem to fit very well, and often the character models will be stuck in awkward poses that seem unnatural for the situation. Folklore as a whole seems to have this aversion to animating scenes that is evident in the comic book style cut scenes. Whenever someone is finished talking and wants to leave the room, the screen will cut to black and then cut back in with the person gone. That said, the often colorful presentation does extremely well to set the mood of the gameno comma and is used for its betterment.
Folklore’s audio presentation is probably its best quality when it is utilized correctly. All of the characters are voice acted well and make sure to actually use the accent of the place they are meant to be from (something all too often forgotten in video games). The only issue is that there isn’t enough voice acting in the game, so you won’t get much chance to appreciate it. The music is very subdued, always staying in the background, and is repeated often enough to be noticeable. These aren’t songs that I am likely to buy a soundtrack for and listen to while I play some other game, but they do the job of strengthening the mood of the game surprisingly well.
The gameplay in Folklore seems to be amazingly complex and deep when you first glance at all of the possible Folks you can obtain and collect your first storybook to tell you how to take down the boss, but in the end it is mostly a shallow Beat ‘em Up style of gaming. There was enough variety in the Folks that I could always switch up attacks when I was getting tired of using the same one over and over again during a specific level, and getting new Folks and testing them out was always a treat. My issue with the battle system is that there didn’t seem like enough depth in the strategy for me. Most fights could be accomplished by mindlessly mashing one of the buttons until the Folk gave up and the souls were ready for reaping. This means that the battle system for fighting your average Folk can tend to become dull after eight or so hours of playing the game, but luckily it is broken up by interesting boss battles that really take some effort and thought, as well as other special Folk that take a bit more thinking to take down. This average battle system is made up for by an interesting story that really keeps you going with all of its twists and turns. Folklore pulls off the small town murder mystery to a T and you will find yourself compelled to continue playing just to see the next part of the storyline and who dies next.
Evaluating the value of Folklore is a conundrum. My first playthrough took 10 hours of time, which is horrifically low for a JRPG, but decently high for your average Beat ‘em Up. There are also side quests that you can obtain at the local bar at night or during the day, but these seemed only mildly interesting and didn’t do enough to keep my attention away from the main storyline even for a moment. For those who blast through all the side quests and are chomping at the bit for more, there are downloadable quests available online (most cost some amount of money). The real issue in Folklore’s value is that the game gets heavily repetitive. Each of the 5 realms has to be run through with Keats and Ellen, so you will be seeing each area twice and the boss for each realm remains the same regardless of which character you are playing with at the time. This means that the supposed 10 hours of content includes a large amount of backtracking that makes it feel like even less.
Folklore is an interesting experience that carves out its own little niche. The storyline is extremely unique, the visuals are exceptionally varied and well done, and the atmosphere of the game draws you into its world, but the strange choices for cut scene presentation, overly repetitive gameplay, and unfortunately underutilized voice acting keep it from being great. I recommend Folklore to those who want a unique game that has its own style, but it certainly isn’t for everyone and people looking at this game for a JRPG fix should probably just look elsewhere as the game's battle mechanics would make it much more suited for Beat em Up fans even if the story is more reminiscent of JRPG's.