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.Continued on the next page...