Fellowship Review – With Friends Like These

Roguelikes are all the rage and arguably, from a development standpoint, there’s a certain appeal to them. Lots of RNG and procedural generation can save a ton of time. Mashed up with bullet hell-type shooters, they theoretically can provide plenty of entertainment. That might very well have been the premise behind Fellowship. If so, the theory needs a lot of refinement.

Fellowship puts you in a whimsical looking fantasy land where you and your comrades face down endless hordes of enemies. Mobs will drop crystals which provide you with the experience (or mana; it’s never clearly explained) to unlock skills and refine them to a deadly edge. As you grow stronger, you’ll have the opportunity to bring in reinforcements from anthropomorphic rangers to chibi barbarian queens, depending on the luck of the draw. With a full party of five, you can slash, shoot, smash, and stab your way through the neverending onslaught, taking out boss monsters as they appear periodically and grabbing the loot they drop. All sounds nice and fun, doesn’t it?

“Just because you’re all facing the enemy doesn’t mean you’re all guaranteed to hit the enemy.”

Visually, Fellowship gets some things right while completely dropping the ball on a lot more. The character designs are clean, brightly colored, and well animated. Gear isn’t reflected on the characters as you’re going through, but they’re recognizable as being class specific and easily slotted into the paper doll layout in the character management screen. Visual effects are nicely done, particularly the Synergy “ultimate” moves. The environments fit the aesthetic pretty well.

But the user interface suffers badly. Each combatant’s skills or attacks are on a timer, and that timer is so ridiculously small (even on a modestly sized laptop) that it’s almost impossible to tell when a given attack or move procs. And considering you’ve got hordes of enemies on your screen at any given time, it’s a serious impediment to properly planning your movement through the battlefield. A lesser but no less irritating issue occurs with resurrection shrines. When one of your party members dies, they can be brought back, but it requires fighting your way through to a resurrection shrine. Unfortunately, you only get a pointer icon concerning the direction of the shrine, and not anything like how far you have to traverse. Given that the map seems to infinitely scroll in any direction, it’s a significant detriment.

I’d bet 50 gold pieces he doesn’t last five minutes. But I’m skint.

Sound is decent enough. Each zone seems to have their own unique theme (though it can get highly repetitive after a while) as well as a “final boss” theme. Sound effects are minimalist, maybe a little too much so. Weapon and special attack sounds are prevalent, but very little in the way of enemies or allies making any noise. Different chimes occur when you pick up crystals, gold, food, or item drops, cleanly done, but perhaps having to shoulder too much of the work generating Fellowship‘s soundscape.

The gameplay in Fellowship is its own worst enemy. I don’t necessarily begrudge the roguelike elements like picking between getting a skill or adding a party member. But there are picks which don’t feel like they’re adding significantly to your combat power or survivability. Movement speed picks don’t appreciably increase your speed. Pickup radius picks don’t seem to make it that much easier to sweep the battlefield. If those were the only two problems, it would be bad enough. Yet the problems go much deeper. Challenge scaling is basically non-existent. You’re going to fail a lot and very little of it will be your fault. That’s to be expected to some extent in roguelikes, but there’s an implication you have at least some chance (or failing that, you gather up some means to improve your next run). With Fellowship, it feels all too much like contempt for the player. I was only able to advance to the second zone after a number of playthroughs, and that zone made short work of me. Within a couple of minutes, the only viable method of gameplay involves perpetually falling back, a tactic even Fabius Maximus would decry as too timid. And even then, you’re going to be swarmed.

Truly, a formidable champion.

Worse, the swarm makes it a practical impossibility to grab the drops you need to improve your characters because you’re constantly falling back, and “circle strafing” a certain spot on the field ceases to become viable after about the second miniboss. The different formations aren’t nearly as helpful as one would think, making the standard “rosette” pretty much your default until the final boss comes out and you’ve swept away most of the mobs. And even then, you’ll have to drop back into it periodically. Being able to rotate the formation is also not quite as helpful as it should be. Yes, it gets heavy damage dealers lined up against targets, but combined with the almost-impossible to see cooldown timers, you’re likely to miss using those attacks to best effect. And when your characters are still hampered by low levels of gear and skills, the only realistic formation tightness you should be keeping is “close as possible.”

Character progression is supposed to be a major element of Fellowship, and building them up is a painful grinding slog. Gold coins drop occasionally from enemies and from random destructible objects. The coins are used to improve the power of character attack skills, so that when you get the pick card to unlock a character’s skill, it starts at an elevated level. The problem is that the costs involved grow increasingly ridiculous, and the amount of gold you’re able to recover is only a tithe of what drops because of the endless waves of enemies. The same issue occurs with gear items. They reliably drop from the minibosses and the final boss of a zone, and occasionally from random destructibles. You can try running through a swarm of enemies to grab it, but you’ll likely lose at least one or two party members in the process. And after your ignominious death, you can look to see what you picked up, and it’s going to be disappointing. Which means the only way to get better gear and gold to grind away on zones you’ve mastered (which is to say, one you can beat consistently), and hope you get enough drops to build up. It’s a gameplay loop which discourages multiple repeated attempts in a single sitting, and one which makes the notion of “progress” almost a cruel joke.

You might be able to unlock this much of the map…if you’re willing to shutter yourself and forsake all human contact for the next couple of years.

The Workshop function doesn’t help nearly as much as you might think, mainly because the sparsity of drops precludes you from trying to upgrade them through the “three item fusion” method. Your characters need the gear for whatever meager upgrades to their effectiveness they can get, so of course you can’t strip the gear to serve as fusion materials.  As for the Synergy ultimate moves, if there’s a way for you to prioritize which ones populate, it’s undocumented, like pretty much everything else.  There’s a point where the lack of control over what you can and cannot do in a game reaches a level of being intolerable, and Fellowship runs straight past that point with nary a glance back.

Fellowship feels like it was meant for a different platform than PC, and it feels like it was intended for a different sort of player than myself. I don’t mind a challenge, but a game that conspires to actively shut me out with a difficulty curve that can be described as “The Cliffs of Insanity” is not one I’d want to play, nor could recommend. A demo is currently available, so you’ve got an opportunity to test it out for yourself to see if it’s your cup of tea. But unless you enjoy glacial progress and constant failure, you might want to give this one a miss.

Axel reviewed Fellowship on PC with a review code.

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