What is Folklore? Well it's hard to explain. It starts off a bit like a murder mystery RPG. Half an hour in it evolves into a Devil May Cry-esque hack n slash adventure, all the while incorporating Pokemon "Gotta-catch-em-all" elements and the odd Sixaxis wave the controller about like a mad man/girl mini-game thrown in for good measure. Then, after that, it all slows down again and you go back to the RPG bit. Phew.
Let's backtrack. Folklore is set in Ireland - the West Coast village of Doolin to be exact. Doolin is beautifully realised, and looks just like it should. Having lived in Dublin myself I can confirm that Folklore's Doolin looks just like any small village by the cliffs in the Emerald Isle - cloudy, windy and with attractive young women running around trying to find their long lost mothers and pointy-nosed occult journalists trying to solve mysterious murders. Oh yeah, did we mention? In Doolin you can talk to the dead.
You play as either Ellen, a young blonde Irish woman who arrives in Doolin in search of her long lost mother, or Keats, a sarcastic, cynical journalist who works for Unknown Realm magazine and has very pretty hair. Both have been brought to Doolin under mysterious circumstances - Ellen receives a letter supposedly from her mother, and Keats receives a call from someone screaming about how the "Faerys will kill me". So off you both trot.
When in Doolin you move with the left analogue stick and talk to NPCs, enter houses and interact with things with X. It's very simple, and that's because when you're in the village you're more or less concentrating on moving the story forward, which is delivered in three ways - your standard CG cut-scene, in-game cut-scenes and a dynamic comic mechanic which initially grates but becomes tolerable as you go on. We're not sure why Japanese developer Game Republic has chosen to move the narrative along in three separate ways, but we suspect it's because the story isn't so strong, and mixing things up helps keep you interested.
At the beginning of the game, Ellen arrives at the Cliff of Sidhe, where she sees what she thinks is her mother's corpse fall off the cliff and into the sea below. Suitably traumatised, you collapse. Keats brings you to an abandoned shed where you sleep it off. You wake up at night and hear a mysterious voice telling you to go to the pub. This is where things start to get a bit weird. You meet half lives - things between the living and the dead, who are banging on about a place called the Netherworld, where you should go to find the dead woman who fell off the cliff. You meet up with the Scarecrow, who leads you to a portal, and the magical Cloak of Sidhe. You put it on and undergo a transformation - you turn into this super sexy gothic vixen with special powers. Very nice.
So off you go through the portal and into the Netherworld, which is divided up into seven realms. The first is the Faery Realm, which is full, as you'd expect, of faerys. Scarecrow tells you about the Folks - beings made up of the souls of the dead - who will kill you on sight. But it's these very Folk which you use to attack. Folklore's combat has had a lot of hype for the way it uses the motion tech of the Sixaxis controller. While the combat is an interesting take on the typical hack n slash, it's not revolutionary. But it does incorporate tilting very well.
The Folk have an Id, which you reveal by softening them up a bit. When it's on show and flashes red, you hold down R1 and flick the pad up to "reel it in" fisherman style. Once you've captured the Folk's Id, you can use that Folk to attack by mapping it to one out of X, circle, triangle and square. Different Folk require different Folk to kill them, especially the tougher mini-bosses. When you get to a realm's end boss - the Folklore itself - you'll need to use a combination of Folks on different parts of the boss to bring it down. There are also variations in the "reeling in" bits. Some enemies will require you to flick the pad from side to side to expose the red Id, other times you have to wait till it flashes red to flick the pad up. As you get further into the game, some enemies will require combinations of the two and more elaborate movements.
So is the combat fun? Yeah it is. Some of the Folk are pretty cool to use, ranging from small wasp-like status-changing folk to very powerful tank-like Folk. There are tactics to it too. If you're faced with a mob of small Folk, you'll want a forward-facing attacking Folk which will do damage to multiple enemies all at the same time. If you're facing one or two large powerful Folk, you might want to assign a shield Folk and use evade (R2) to get in behind. But the combat is let down by some design flaws. You need to change your equipped Folk on the fly to cope with the different Folk that attack you. But when you do so, (by pressing L2) the game pauses while it loads them up, resulting in a very annoying stutter. There's also some frame rate issues when you get boxed in and there are a lot of Folk in the area. Everything respawns as soon as you leave and return, too, which can be very tiresome if you've just cleared out an area or moved into a new area by mistake. The combat is linear as well - the areas that make up the realms are small and suffer from invisible barrier syndrome. You enter an area, there's an annoyingly long load, clear out the Folk and move onwards and upwards to the Folklore. There's not much else to it.
So why do it at all? There's the odd collect-em-all motivation at play. Each realm has a number of Folk to capture, and you just feel the need to find them all. It's probably because they're so well designed and beautifully realised. While some are quite similar and have basically the same model, there are some Folk, like Bug-a-Boo, which you'll wish you could tear out of the game and make a cuddly toy out of.
Once you finish the Faery Realm with Ellen, you return to Doolin and talk to some people and move the search for your mother narrative on a bit. Then the chapter ends and you have the option of continuing with Ellen or doing it all again with Keats. Sadly, while playing as Keats all you get is a different narrative (the two will often meet up or follow each other as they try to unravel the secrets of Doolin's past), and some different Folk. I understand that Keat's Folk are more powerful than Ellen's, who relies on strategy, but I thundered through the realms with Keats without much variation. If anything, it's easier with Keats, because when he fills up his Transcension Point gauge he can become a white-haired demon that's invincible and bashes the crap out of everything. But it's essentially the same experience. We lost our motivation to keep both characters trudging through the chapters at the same pace pretty quickly, and only story completists will want to do so for much longer.
So if the game has only above average combat, a middle-of-the road story and repetitive, linear gameplay, why is it one of the best games to come out on the PS3 so far? It's because of Folklore's art direction, which is nothing short of stunning. While the graphics won't blow your socks-off the overall look of the various realms and Doolin, both during the day and at night, slowly creeps up on you before whispering in your ear: "this game is gorgeous", like a voice from the dead. The village has this subtle menace about it by day which just makes you think something bad went down here long ago. By night, it transforms into this creepy ghost-town. The Netherworld is full of little touches that help make it feel like some fantastic dream - from steps that laugh like children as you walk on them to beautiful flower-filled areas. Each realm has its own distinct style, and you'll be thinking about the environments more than the combat when you finally put the controller down.
In fact, the whole feel reminds us of cult Spanish fantasy film Pan's Labyrinth. We're sure Game Republic took inspiration from it for Folklore. The real world parts of the game could be compared to the Spanish Civil War bits of the film, and for the Netherworld parts look to the Labyrinth itself. Both are juxtaposed excellently and have different pacing - just as you tire of the combat, you can portal out into the real world and explore a bit more of Doolin's secret past. Then, when you've had enough of that, you can return to the Netherworld and hunt for some more Folk.
So despite the obvious flaws that have as much to do with poor design than anything else, we love the look and feel of Folklore. It might not be for everyone, but right now PS3 owners have a hard time being picky. Folklore is a beautifully realised faery-filled fantasy which is let down by some poor design and repetitive combat. Time to go fishing for those Ids.