Although it didn’t get the same amount of attention as big name games like Uncharted or Ratchet and Clank, Folklore stands out in the current crop of available PS3 titles as one of the most original action games on the platform thanks to a clever combat scheme, gorgeous artistic design and an engaging story.
Folklore tells the story of a young woman named Ellen and an occult reporter named Keats, as they explore a mysterious and isolated Irish coastal village by the name of Doolin. Once they arrive, Ellen and Keats discover that they have the ability to travel from Doolin into various realms in the Netherworld, which are inhabited by the souls of the dead, called folks. The plot centers around Ellen attempting to make contact with her dead mother, and the player will be able to play as both Ellen and Keats, as they unravel the mystery of her death 17 years ago.
Cutscenes are beautiful, but infrequent.
Each area of the Netherworld is headed by a boss, which, when defeated, will allow the player-characters to gain an audience with a dead person who offers clues as to Ellen’s mothers whereabouts. The sense of mystery is palpable throughout the experience, and players looking for a good story could do a lot worse than Folklore. Before they can get to the end of the level and face the boss in order to progress the plot, Keats and Ellen will have to defeat numerous folks, and use a specific combination of their abilities to bring down the head honcho. Luckily, there are story book pages detailing which folks are required to defeat a given boss scattered around the levels, greatly simplifying matters.
Lesser folks are all hostile to the player, and come in a wide variety of elemental forms, each with their own properties and unique attacks. Once defeated, the player can absorb the folk’s soul by jerking the Sixaxis controller skyward, which in practice works quite well. Some of the higher level folks have more complex variations on this basic jerking movement, which require a bit more timing, but all in all, the motion controls are extremely well implemented and easy to pull off.
Much like a European take on Pokemon, players collect different folks and use their powers in order to combat the remaining folks inhabiting the Netherworld. In fact, when in the land of the dead, neither Keats nor Ellen are capable of any other method of battling the hostile critters that populate the environment. Once the player absorbs a folk’s soul (called it’s ‘id’), the player can bring up a menu and assign the various folks they have collected to the four face buttons. Folk abilities are elemental in nature and range from projectile attacks, melee attacks, and defensive maneuvers, allowing players to choose a wide variety of strategies in any given situation. When certain conditions are met (for example, collecting a particular number of ids), these folks can be leveled up, allowing for greater damage, longer combos or reduced summoning costs. When absorbing ids, players get experience (with bonuses for nabbing more than one at a time) that gives Folklore some mild RPG elements, but since the player can only gain a larger health or magic meter, the real emphasis is on leveling up preferred folks. One could conceivably level up all of them, but since folk abilities overlap a great deal, it’s not really necessary.
Sadly, Keats and Ellen play almost identically. There are minor character-specific abilities, though. For example, while in the Netherworld, Keats can activate a temporary God-mode that is charged up via a meter, and Ellen can change cloaks late in the game allowing for mild stat adjustment. In the end, the two experiences are a bit too similar, and it would have been nice to see more differentiation in the two play-styles. In addition, by the end of the game players may also begin to tire of revisiting almost all the locations twice. Although the levels are laid out exactly the same for both characters, at the very least, Ellen and Keats don’t share the same folks in every realm, providing some variety from a game play perspective, but not enough to shake the ‘been there done that’ feel that starts to accumulate after delving deep into Folklore’s 10-20 hour campaign. And although both player-characters will fight the same end-bosses, the means in which they will defeat them will vary somewhat, which is better than no variety at all. While players don’t have to beat both Keats’ and Ellen’s campaign, this option won’t tell the entire story and reduce the game’s length significantly.
Despite the fact that all of Folklore’s action elements are limited to the Netherworld, in-between these combat intensive missions, Ellen and Keats return to the land of the living and talk with Doolin’s residents in order to recover a memento from the dead person with whom they wish to speak with next. This is all very basic stuff, and considering that Doolin is so tiny and locating the memento merely requires the player to talk to one of the NPCs, it barely constitutes exploration. Still, the mechanic of hopping from the real world to the Netherworld does allow for an interesting and unique story arc. For example, at one point in the game, an NPC in Doolin dies, and the player has to enter the Netherworld and complete the level in order to find out the circumstances of his death. There are some side quests given out by the local bartender, but none offer new realms to explore and feel a bit like filler. Still, the rewards can be used to level up the folks, which will help make the later missions a tiny bit easier.
It never pushes the PS3’s hardware, but Folklore still looks great thanks to its terrific art design.
From a visual perspective, Folklore is a highly stylized game that is lush and vibrant, despite the fact that it won’t exactly push the hardware to its limits. The various levels of the Netherworld are all rich with personality and style, and offer terrific use of particle effects (absorbing the ids is particularly cool looking), and allow for a fascinating visual take on what becomes of people when they pass away. The surround sound is similarly well implemented when in combat, and the cut scenes, while infrequent, are outstanding across the board.
However, these brief, albeit high quality cut scenes are lamentably the only time you will hear any in-game speech. This is a shame, because Doolin’s denizens all sport charming Irish brogues, which would have been wonderful to listen to for the largely story driven experience with a definite emphasis on dialogue. So while maybe 1% of the game’s story plays out like a big budget movie, another 80% of the story is told using the same tired text-based conventions that have existed since the NES days, when storage limitations prevented more audibly appealing alternatives.
The remainder of the game’s narrative takes place in story boards that are slightly animated and presented like a comic-book with text bubbles. While these segments are an improvement visually over the purely text based conversations that constitute the lion’s share of Folklore’s story, the lack of any sound effects or speech bring down the well written story’s presentation a great deal. In short, I couldn’t help but feel like Folklore would have benefited from more voice work. After all, what good is all that Blu-Ray storage if developers don’t use it? It probably won’t bother everyone, but if you don’t like reading lots and lots of text in your games, Folklore is definitely not for you. Thankfully the story is so surprisingly well constructed as to overshadow any technological missteps.
Folklore does have a modicum of replayability via a basic level creator that can be uploaded and shared, but the tools are so basic and reuse the already too-familiar assets to the point that very few players will dig into the feature in earnest. In addition, players can download additional side-quests from the PlayStation Network which are assigned to them by the resident bartender. Completing optional quests will occasionally unlock a new costume or folk, but considering that the handful of challenge oriented missions are derivative and pricey ($5 each) they are only recommendable to the most zealous of Folklore fans. At the time of this writing there is also a free expansion called the Holiday Pack that adds some new costumes for both characters and, when completed, unlocks a new folk.
In the end, Folklore is a bit of a mixed bag that leans towards being worthy of recommendation. On the one hand, it features a truly creative combat system that makes terrific use of the Sixaxis controls. On the other hand, its dated conversation system used to parse out the otherwise intriguing story is trapped in the past, providing gamers with a textbook example of how budget and time constraints can diminish an otherwise excellent game’s overall presentation. Nevertheless, Folklore’s shortcomings are relatively minor compared to its strengths, and certainly don’t detract from its interesting story or innovative game play. Folklore is certainly one of the most original PS3 exclusives on the market from a story and game play perspective, and should provide hours of unique entertainment for fans of action adventure games looking to try something off the beaten path.