When I first saw ef - a fairy tale of the two, I was blown away by how beautiful it was, how stunning it is. The game had the visuals of a Makoto Shinkai film, and I heard almost nothing but praise regarding the story of it, but impressions rarely tell you what your experience will be. Welcome to Rockmandash Reviews, and today, we have a review of what is one of the most beautiful games I’ve had the chance to experience: ef - a fairy tale of the two, developed by Minori, which is a VN spinoff of Makoto Shinkai’s animation studio CoMixWave.
Even though Makoto Shinkai’s only direct influence on the VN is OP, his style is all over it... for better or for worse. The messages that the story tries to tell in ef - a fairy tale of the two is surprisingly similar to Shinkai films; they have similar themes, style, writing, etc... and if I had just jumped into it blindly, I would have assumed he had some part in the story, even though he was only involved with the OP.
The execution of the story, however, is very different: It’s similar to Kara no Kyoukai in execution (but less confusing) by having stories that are only partially related to each other being blended together to make a seamless story. The chapters in ef - a fairy tale of the two all run different themes, yet when put together, there’s a feeling of cohesiveness in the story as a whole. I really admire how interconnected the game feels, and the further you go along, the feeling of the world grows.
Ef is an absolutely beautiful story with good pacing and solid character interactions, but for everything it does right, it does something wrong. In ef, the writing is always pretty decent, but it leaves the feeling that it’s supposed to be so much more, and sometimes it feels like it’s actively shooting itself in the foot (similar to Akame ga Kill).
DISCLAIMER - There may be spoilers. I tried to avoid spoiling the bigger topics, but you may run into an important spoiler, or some light spoilers.
Ef - a fairy tale of the two is actually a compilation of 2 separate VN’s: ef - the first tale & ef - the latter tale, which are comprised of 7 chapters in total. It’s hard to give a plot summary really because every chapter has their own separate story and telling you all of that would spoil the game and only give a partial look at the game, but I’ll try my best to give you the gist of it. It’s really split into two separate stories that converge: Prologue, and 5-7 is one story surrounding the tragic relationship between Amamiya Yuuko, a mysterious girl dressed like a nun, and Himura Yuu, a mysterious gentleman who is somehow attached to the church where Yuuko first appears while 1-4 are romances focused on high schoolers in the town, each kinda relating to each other. I’m going to talk about them in the order they are told for the sake of convenience, then do an overview of my thoughts.
Ef - the first tale is the first half of the game (Prologue, Ch1 & Ch2), and it’s pretty much nothing but a fairy tale. While it has a nice romance that shows hints of something deeper happening, it’s just that... a nice romance. It’s a beautiful story, but it’s a type of story that we’ve seen before. It will intrigue and entertain you but a lot of it is very cliche, and kinda generic.
Besides the really enjoyable Prologue (which was extremely out of place because they essentially drop the plot they started there for something totally different, something much less enjoyable), The game is generic, with a generic love triangle in a generic love story. There were aspects that I liked, but lack of originality lingers and makes the themes feel a bit more dull than it really should. While it’s entertaining, it’s not really memorable, and it could have done better.
If ef - the first tale was just a simple fairy tale, ef - the latter tale (Ch3-7) steps that up a notch but stumbles: it’s better written and has a brilliant subversion... but it also has issues that inhibit the whole story.
Ef - the latter tale starts strong with Chapter 3, which is a beautiful tale of memories and troubled relationships. I don’t want to discuss the plot too much because that’s spoiler territory, but the situation that the writers put in place is very interesting, and the writing in general is improved because of it. Immediately, you see a stream of improvements: the characters, dialogue, and situations are more interesting and I genuinely enjoyed it. The reactions of the characters and the struggles to deal with the event were amazing, and watching what was essentially a mental breakdown was great. It made these characters feel real, not just a cliche, and this is something I wish they did more of.
After that amazing Chapter 3, you would expect Chapter 4 to be great, right? Well, this chapter was more in the style of ef - the first tale: another nice romance... but plain and generic. That being said, the age gap between the main characters of this bothered me (Shuichi Kuze, an older man with Mizuki Hayama, a middle schooler....), and I was surprised that they never pointed it out, considering how much this game tries to be realistic.
Remember that prologue that I said was really enjoyable? Well, in Ch5 and 6, they FINALLY continue the story from the prologue... and it makes the rest of the chapters feel pointless because of how boring they are in comparison.
If the other chapters were fairy tales, chapter 5 and 6 was reality coming out of nowhere and running you over. The bleak and morbid view on reality that it shows due to the horrible events that occur is shocking, engaging, and a genuine surprise, given how generic some of the chapters were. I generally state that shows that try to to be dark usually aren’t, as most edgy shows don’t have anything to back up the edgy tone thematically. Ef is the opposite of that; it gives off a lighthearted vibe, but it has dark and bleak themes that whack you when you least expect it. The way it’s issues is executed gloriously.. but bleakly, making it something that blew my mind while screaming how horrible it was.
The way the story elements was executed and flowed, however... not so great. It has good character interactions and writing that is actually entertaining in comparison to the other chapters, but it’s ef, and it wouldn’t be ef without writing issues. The style of storytelling they went with in was extremely short sub-chapters. The transition between the sub-chapters was extremely rough; instead of being a continuous story, they would suddenly stop what was happening, thus breaking the pace, atmosphere, and mood. While it was still enjoyable due to the excellent character development, interesting writing, dark themes and the absolutely great presentation, it could have been so much more if they kept the flow. They shot some moments in the foot, and it felt.. anticlimactic.
Chapter 7 serves to wrap the story up, but it felt very anticlimactic in general, even when you take into account the random plot twist at the end. Everything starts to come full circle as the story and reader starts to piece together all of the events and that realization was great, but the ending was bittersweet, which I felt was unfitting.
Ef - a fairy tale of the two is interesting to talk about when it comes to the writing. It’s solid overall, and absolutely fantastic at points, but it always shot itself in the foot. From the generic-ness of the story, to something like flow that gets in the way... it has these tragic flaws that keep it from being so much more.
Writing - 7.5/10
I’m the type of person who prefers a good design over technological prowess. As such, I’ll say this: This is one of the most beautiful Visual Novels (and one of the most beautiful games) I’ve ever seen, even though it is dated in some technological aspects. Due to the stunning art style, ef - a fairy tale of the two has aged gracefully, impressing me nearly a decade after it’s release.
In comparison to the static nature of most Visual Novels, ef is very dynamic when it comes to visuals. It has more than the typical sprite and a background for a good majority of the game: almost every scene has unique CG. The CG looks great, and because it’s not just the normal fixed viewpoint, it leads to well framed scenes and it builds an atmosphere that many VN’s just don’t. Also, STUFF MOVES! Blinking eyes, moving mouths, people actually making motions like they are walking when they are walking next to you, etc. It’s no anime, but it’s the little things like this that count and I really appreciate it.
Really, I cannot state this enough: ef - a fairy tale of the two has great art, with all the Scenery Porn that you’d expect from a work associated with Makoto Shinkai. The character art is just as great too; while they give off the typical anime look, they look great, and they fit in extremely well with the world around them. It’s a VN that’s full of really great art, and everything is pleasing to the eye. The best word that can describe the visuals of this game (and the whole work as a whole) is beautiful... it’s seriously beautiful. There is one notable thing that isn’t really a positive: it’s an eroge, so CUE THE OBLIGITORY EROGE WARNING HERE, but you can turn it on and off so it’s not a deterrent from playing. When it skips an H-scene, the game give a description of what happens, so you aren’t missing anything, and I wish more games had that.
Visuals - 10/10
Continuing the trend of emphasizing how beautiful this game is, we have the absolutely amazing and unbelievably beautiful score done by Tenmon, the composer for most of the Shinkai works. It’s really amazing, and one of the most beautiful soundtracks in a game. It’s so good that you could leave running in background and not realize it’s a soundtrack for a game, with almost every song in the soundtrack being pleasing to the ear. It’s the type of soundtrack that you chuck into your iPod/phone without hesitation. Even though it has a clear bias for classical music, there is a surprisingly large range of variety here with everything from happy go lucky generic VN music to some really amazing violin. Everything is well composed, leading to some really beautiful tracks and some amazing songs that will blow you away.
The implementation of this soundtrack is superb as well, with the tracks supplementing the story throughout the game, and when it needed to, solidifying the mood, creating an amazing atmosphere and intensifying the feelings you have during the scene. Ef has some very intense tracks that fit perfectly with their respective scenes which really goes a far way in improving the storytelling, and it’s not every day you will find a soundtrack that’s this well executed in a story.
As for the voice acting, I’m not an expert, but it’s once again... fantastic. The voice actors did a great job portraying the characters, no matter how difficult the situation was... I was especially impressed by Yuuko’s voice actor, as she did a stellar job with that role no matter the situation, and it was a joy to listen to.
Sound - 10/10
When I started up ef - a fairy tale of two, I hoped this would be the opportunity to get the Shinkai presentation that I love without his writing style. I have always appreciated his movies, but I’ve never really “got into” any of his films and truly enjoyed/loved them like many have. Even with my favorite Shinkai film, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, I didn’t enjoy it for the events going on; I enjoyed it because of the scenario of alternate-history Japan, instead of the Shinkai’s typical romance writing with the themes of distance.
This would not be that opportunity. It’s a different writing style, but it felt very similar. Due to the writing style in the game, I couldn’t shake this feeling off after playing it: I felt like I’ve been trolled by the writer. I came in expecting something amazing due to fans, but I didn’t think it was nearly as good as everyone was saying. I started the game expecting a light romance, and came out having my soul crushed... I hated what they did at the end of Chapter 6, but I thought it was brilliant... this feeling was aggravating and annoying, and I wish they didn’t successfully troll me as well as they did.
I didn’t really enjoy most of ef - a fairy tale of the two. I guess the best way to describe how I feel about ef is that it felt like a Muv-Luv Unlimited, when it could have been an Alternative. The writing and character interactions were enjoyable and there is no point in the story that’s written really poorly... but it’s just the feeling of wasted potential, and like Unlimited, there is absolutely no sense of tension because the light hearted tone counteracts that.
Throughout ef, my anticipation rose for something that would eventually crash, and this is an experience that I don’t really appreciate. The Prologue built it up, then Ch1-2 made it fall. Chapter 3 built it up, then Chapter 4 made it fall. Chapter 5 did that to itself, consistently shooting itself in the foot, etc.This is one of my personal gripes in a story: a good part of a story doesn’t completely justify a poor execution in other parts, because you still had to experience the poor execution... and by doing this constantly, it just made me feel very lukewarm about the game in general.
Enjoyment - 6/10
When I wrapped up the VN and heard that there was a 2 season anime adaptation of ef - a fairy tale of two known as ef - a tale of memories, and ef - a tale of melodies (respectively), I was nervous to watch it. Partly because I didn’t want to go back into that phase of being a nervous wreck, but also because the people doing the adaptation: Studio Shaft with Akiyuki Shinbo as the director. Those fears were unnecessary though; the anime is executed very well.
The reason? While the story is based on the Visual Novel, Shaft took some liberties with the adaptation and improved most of the problems I had with the story... but it’s ef, so the show still has some flaws. Most of the changes vary in quality on a scene by scene basis, but most of the story changes is for the better, especially for the first arcs. The best part about ef - a tale of memories is that doesn’t do nearly as much risk aversion as the game. While the VN always had everything go the best way possible (unless you went to a bad end), the anime decides to take risks, most of the changed scenes add more drama, intensity, passion, and enjoyment... and they feel truthful to the source material; like it’s something that could have happened. It really helps to improve the beginning as it doesn’t feel nearly as generic.
Sidenote here: Even the logo’s been messed around. Shaft changed pretty much everything with this adaptation...
Chapter 6 in ef - a tale of melodies takes a massive hit because of this though; Shaft’s changes make it much less impactful. While they fixed the pacing for chapter 5 and led it to chapter 6 better, the changes they made in chapter 6 were pretty bad... they got rid of some of the best scenes entirely and tweaked all of those around them... making the story less interesting, less memorable, and more messy. I was not a fan of these changes.
The story structure was changed and I’m not too sure about what to think about it. Instead of the one story at a time that the VN did, they ran the stories simultaneously; Chapters 1-3 were in tale of memories, 4-7 in tale of melodies, and the prologue was axed. It has an ensemble cast feel this way, which makes it feel more connected and more consistent as a story. While its more consistent in quality, I think that the individual stories took a hit, and it felt unfocused. It still captures the essence of the VN with this story structure, but it doesn’t have the right atmosphere; it’s story structure, ensemble-castness, and scene by scene nature keep ef - a tale of memories and melodies from being great. It’s hard to get absorbed into the anime of ef, and it doesn’t do a lot to be entertaining, so it’s hard to keep interested.
The biggest change that Shaft made was the presentation. Shaft’s experimental and sharp art style is passable, but in comparison, they are nowhere near the quality of the original. At times, the visuals can be very distracting, taking away from the experience, which is a total failure to me. At other times it’s more tame, but there are things that prevent it from being as nice as Midori’s visuals. The story was written for a very smooth feel, and the harsh lines and colors of the adaptation dampens the experience in my eyes. The atmosphere is shattered which it gets rid of that feeling of a seamless transition between arcs, breaks the flow and emotion of a story, and makes the scenes less memorable and impactful. Besides... The original VN was extremely beautiful already, why change it? It’s almost like change for the sake of change, which kinda is the theme of this whole adaptation; lots of change that isn’t for better or for the worse, just different.
One thing that didn’t change was the music. Tenmon still does the music, and lots are straight from the VN. It’s just as powerful as it was there, but due to the changes in, it creates a dissonance between the sound and visuals, which was something that bothered me, but never was a big deal in the end; it’s still great music. The voice actors are also the same, and they did a great job here as well.
The anime is a totally different beast than the visual novel. There are a lot of changes for the sake of change, and what makes these great are very different than the others. You are pretty much trading flaws.
Anime - 8/10
Ef - a fairy tale of the two is extremely beautiful, yet extremely flawed. Its production values are something to be admired, but like everything related to Makoto Shinkai, its writing is half-baked. The anime improves on the writing, but sacrifices visuals and a few other things to get there, so it’s pretty much a wash. Ef is ok, but it could have been so much better.
Keep in mind that this is my opinion, and this is one where I’m a minority. It’s a good series and many have enjoyed it much more than I did. I’ll recommend it to most people, but there are flaws that may inhibit your enjoyment of the series, so be aware of that.
Overall - 7.5/10, Polarization +2,-1
Copyright Disclaimer: Under Title 17, Section 107 of United States Copyright law, reviews are protected under fair use. This is a review, and as such, all media used in this review is used for the sole purpose of review and commentary under the terms of fair use. All footage, music and images belong to the respective companies.
This game is available from Mangagamer, but digital only at the moment, and it’s split into first tale and latter tale. However, they just announced a physical release with both combined into ef - a fairy tale of the two coming later this winter. If you want to see the anime, both seasons are available on Crunchyroll for Free & Legal streaming.
Once again, thanks to Protonstorm for helping with this review. I really appreciate everything you do to help. :D
Edit - 2/5/15 to cut down the writing section so it’s less ramble-y. 8/16/15, Aesthetic edits.