Fairy Tale About Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya review
I took a class in college on the history of fairy tales. Not only did this give my parents the perfect opportunity to complain about the misuse of their hard-earned tuition money, it also forced me to read The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm—all 250 of them. I learned from these dear brothers that life was pretty depressing in the nineteenth century. Mothers died in childbirth, paving the way for those infamous evil stepmothers. Children who misbehaved were left in the woods to be clobbered by bandits or eaten by bears. And a girl's best hope in life was to marry a man of good stock so she, too, could die in childbirth.
Although Fairy Tale about Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya is derived from Russian folklore, it bears many similarities to these old German tales. If you've never heard of this game, that's no surprise—this 2001 release, developed by Czech studios Bohemia Interactive and Centauri Production, came out with little fanfare in Europe and never made it across the pond. At its core, Fairy Tale tells the story of Nastya, an almost-too-good-to-be-true daughter with a very long braid, who yearns for a husband. Unfortunately, she's too busy scrambling to satisfy her obnoxious stepmother and bratty stepsister to go looking for one. Enter Ivan, the would-be hero who wins her heart. This love story is Fairy Tale's main thread, but it stays very much in the background in a game that subsists mainly as a hodgepodge of fables and folklore. Some of the source material is easily recognizable, such as the Cinderella-style family structure and Baba Yaga in her chicken-foot hut. Other references may be more foreign to some players, such as the Eastern European icon Father Frost (who plays a very minor role in the game, in spite of his top billing).
Fairy Tale may have its basis in children's stories, but it's intended for children and adults alike. The gameplay alternates between good, meek Nastya, and haughty-turned-humble Ivan (who is sometimes referred to as Vanya). Nastya is so sweet I frequently wanted to grab her by the braid and talk some sense into her wide-eyed little head. Ivan, in contrast, starts out as a thoroughly unlikable jerk that needs to be taken down a peg or two. The cast is rounded out by a number of predictable supporting characters, including Nastya's wicked stepmother (who's fond of calling our heroine "You wicked witch, you viper's venom" for no apparent reason), lazy stepsister, and cowering, henpecked father. These characters are exceedingly one-dimensional—just the way fairy tale characters are supposed to be.
The game opens with a ridiculous task: Nastya must knit a sock, in the middle of the night, and she must do it outdoors so as not to wake her sleeping stepsister with the clicking of her needles. Getting the supplies she needs involves a lot of going back and forth between screens, picking up items, and figuring out where and how to use them. The tedium would be annoying in another game, but the simplistic tasks and old world feel make this opening challenge rather charming. This is only one of the game's many "go fetch" puzzles. In fact, the majority of Fairy Tale's gameplay revolves around finding items for various characters and trading them for other items. As the game wears on, this becomes less charming and a bit repetitive. Nastya needs to learn to say "no" when people ask her for favors! But her willingness to run errands for others fits with her gentle, good nature, so at least the gameplay is consistent with her character. (To get a taste of this, try the demo, which takes place while Nastya is performing chores around the house for her demanding stepmother.)
Although you play two sections each as Nastya and Ivan, Nastya's parts seemed longer to me. This is a good thing, because Ivan's personality, particularly in the beginning of his first playable section, is so annoying you'll want to smack him upside the head. The game is apparently based on a famous Russian fairy tale, so stop me if you've heard this one, but early in his quest for a wife, Ivan crosses Old Man Mushroom, who has the power (and inclination) to turn our cantankerous hero into a—well, I won't ruin the surprise. Fortunately, Ivan is given the chance to reverse some of the nasty things he did and regain his human form. But even before he's redeemed himself, and having known him for less than five minutes, Nastya takes the ring he offers and goes around sighing about how much she misses her dear fiancé Vanya. Apparently nineteenth century life really was that bleak. This love story (if you can even call it that) is superficial and extremely simplistic. Because it's a fairy tale, I was almost willing to take it at face value... but not quite. I would have liked just a smidgen more realism and dramatic tension.
Ivan is supposed to be conceited, so it's not surprising that every time you try to do something that doesn't work, instead of offering a polite response like Nastya does, he shouts "Nonsense!" or "That's garbage!" It's a little worse that he shouts these things even when you try actions that do make sense, such as putting a fishing net in a lake, but such incongruity is not uncommon in today's adventure games. During one segment that I had particular trouble figuring out, his repeated barbs made me so frustrated I turned the game off. The worst thing about Ivan, though, is that even after he's supposedly seen the error of his ways and decided to be nicer to people, he still shouts "Nonsense!" if you try to use an item wrong or to talk to someone when he doesn't feel like it. This may seem like a small gripe, but it detracts from the story and could very easily have been avoided. Since his transformation from pompous jerk to humbled hero is a key part of the game, Ivan's responses in the second half should have been consistent with his (supposedly) reformed character. The added attention to detail would have made Ivan more sympathetic and Fairy Tale that much more believable.
The fact that Ivan starts out as "all bad," just as Nastya is "all good," is perfectly consistent with the fairy tale framework, but the point of an unlikable character in a fairy tale is just that—you're not supposed to like him. This makes it tough to be in his shoes, even for a little while. Even though he ultimately changes his tune, I still never really warmed up to Ivan. Nastya, on the other hand, is fun to play. By making her so good, even in the shadow of her extremely obnoxious stepmother and stepsister, the developers ran the risk of making the player hate her for being such a wimp. I certainly wouldn't have the patience to do some of the things her stepmother forces her to do. (Knit a sock outdoors at night? Hello?!) But the fact that she completes these chores, without any hint of spite, is just what you'd expect from a fairy tale princess. Like Cinderella or Snow White, Nastya is a pure girl with a good heart, who is treated far worse than she deserves. With all of the crap her family throws at her, I couldn't help but want her to find happiness.
The puzzles tend to be practical, using inventory items in ways they're realistically intended, but the game does have occasional lapses in logic. In one example, a character asks for food. Ivan happens to have some berries in his inventory, but when you try to give them to the hungry character Ivan bursts out "Nonsense!" rather than bothering to explain that he needs a different type of food. This is a design flaw that's very common in adventure games, so I wasn't really surprised by it, but I wish the developers had been a little more thorough. Even if they're common, the little flaws add up.
Fairy Tale is not a long game. I finished it in three or four evenings and probably didn't play for more than two hours at a time. The game has a simple interface with a smart cursor, an inventory bar at the top of the screen, and conversation topics at the bottom. The Esc key brings up the menu for saving, loading, quitting, and changing game options. Most of the time, left clicking is all you have to do to examine, pick up, or use an item. But sometimes you get a different response from right clicking, and at least once you need to do this to move forward. Since left clicking had worked everywhere else and Ivan's generic responses didn't give any kind of clue that the item I was trying to use was accessible, I had no idea right clicking was even an option, and wound up checking a walkthrough. Poor design, but only a problem once that I noticed. (It turns out the difference between left and right clicking is described in the manual—but who reads manuals?!)
The dialogue has a strange mix of old-fashioned language, amusing mistranslations, and modern slang (such as Ivan's repeated response of "Okeydoke!" during a conversation with his mother). There are a few exchanges that don't quite make sense—for example, a merchant says she doesn't know where Nastya can buy an item she needs and Nastya responds, "Thanks, I'll try that"—but overall the translation and subtitles are decent. Some of the voices are grating (if I had to hear Nastya's stepsister whine "Mammaaa!" once more I would have slit my wrists), but these belong to characters who are unlikable to begin with. The majority of the voice acting is not bad, and the more annoying characters are ones you don't spend much time with.
Fairy Tale's music is nice, with a traditional Russian flare. The catchy melodies change as the moods of the scenes shift, with several variations on the main theme cropping up as the game progresses. The graphics and animation, however, are every bit as flat as the characters. The backgrounds are nicely rendered, if simple, but the characters tend to be rough and somewhat clunky. In a few scenes the outlines of the characters' bodies even have jagged pixilated edges, but this is not a consistent problem. The game box boasts that "The characters are vividly animated and their motion is quite realistic." In actuality, it's very low-budget. The playable characters move jerkily and the NPCs tend to stand around in one place. There are a few cinematic cutscenes of decent quality, but for the most part the animation is nothing to write home about. Still, this very plain style is not that different than what was used in low-budget television cartoons in the 70s and 80s—in other words, the game has huge nostalgia value. Although it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny, Fairy Tale has some slapstick humor that's consistent with the campy cartoon style. It gets funnier as the game unfolds, and closes with a comical ending that ties up the game's various loose ends better than most other average (and even above-average) adventure games manage to.
The game's landscape is made up of a number of locations, including Nastya's family farm, a small town, a monastery, and several screens worth of countryside stretching between Nastya's home and Ivan's. The bad news is, you're often required to plod through these to fetch some item or another, and in some cases you can't pick something up until it's needed, which leads to backtracking. On the other hand, the game does a nice job with atmosphere, showing scenes at different times of day and in various climates. I especially liked the rainstorm that occurs in the middle of the game and the winter scenes that take place near the end.
So how does Fairy Tale measure up? With its humor and happy ending, it may be more Disney than Grimm, but the game is hardly a masterpiece. Still, there's something about its simplicity that makes it stand out. In an era when new games are expected to trump the ones that came before with dazzling graphics and the newest technology, Fairy Tale has a basic charm that most games rarely achieve. Its challenges and story aren't groundbreaking, but the game is a fun diversion. Had the developers used a little imagination with the puzzles and paid a bit more attention to gameplay, they could have had a real winner. If you like a good old-fashioned bedtime story, though, you'll probably enjoy Fairy Tale About Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya too. It won't be the best game you've ever played, but it's bound to make you smile.
Fairy Tale About Father Frost, Ivan and Nastya will be enjoyed most by those who recognize the source material and have nostalgia for these characters, but anyone who enjoys a good fairy tale should give this game a try.