Feist review: trial and error

Feist's smart design ideas are hampered by its difficulty

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform Win, Mac, Linux
Publisher Finji
Developer Bits & Beasts
Release Date Jul 23, 2015

Feist is a game of unmitigated beauty and maddening repetition.

Its high-contrast aesthetic is gorgeous. Tomek Kolczynski's atmospheric soundtrack glides into crescendos and, like the quill-filled critter you control in developer Bits & Beasts' platformer, always adapts to its surroundings.

Feist is marred, however, by a design created to confuse. Successfully navigating through the side-scrolling platformer's flat black landscape is often dependent on trial, error and luck, forcing slow loads and monotonous repetition. Worse, its final encounter is so unnecessarily, tremendously difficult that it reinforced the problems I encountered in getting there.

Feist is marred by a design created to confuse
Feist screenshot 09 1920

Feist sort of tells the story of an unnamed, unexplained orange-clawed little ball of spikes. Its opening cinematic showed me, as the spike ball, imprisoned in a tiny crate. A group of burly mole men left me suspended in the wilderness, presumably to rot. As they trudged off the right side of the screen, I escaped and entered a hellish landscape of vicious enemies whose contrast with Feist's gorgeous minimalist aesthetic couldn't have been more jarring.

Feist delivers a few more brief glimpses of story between levels, but unless you're paying close attention, you won't find the love story at its core. My character's motivation, I understand only from restarting the game, was a rescue mission. Knowing that makes the confrontation with deadly enemies, traps and supernatural elements more worthwhile, but it would have been better to understand that in the moment, rather than in hindsight.

Feist's early levels eased me into the forest, layering simple abilities like floaty jumping with more complex and accurate mechanics like chucking pine cones at the monstrous caterpillar creatures that dot the landscape. Feist's best and most interesting slices appear here, as the developers combine their creations with a smart brand of creativity.

Feist downhill death (GIF) 354
get lucky or die trying

In that pine cone-flinging area, the fly is a particularly dangerous brand of enemy. Like all enemies in Feist, they react to your actions, and they had a preternatural ability to zero in on my location and spear me with projectiles. I would have been satisfied with killing them, but I was thrilled to learn that I could beat them into becoming my unwitting allies. Swat a fly with a stick, and it will fall dazed to the ground, where I could pick it up and tap a button to shoot its projectiles at enemies.

The flies don't last long, though. Bits & Beasts shows an admirable willingness to jettison mechanics and scenarios in favor of new experiences hiding just beyond the right of the players' screens. However, none of them regain Feist's early-game glory.

There are countless situations in which there are only two ways to progress in Feist: Get lucky or die trying, and the latter is far more frequent. The most grating example is in its obfuscated platforming. Jumping off of cliffs was often a leap of faith that ended with my impalement in a spiky grave. That loop — guess, leap, die, reload — is ever-present.

This would have been bearable if Feist reloaded more quickly, but returning to generously placed checkpoints is a 15-second affair. That felt like an eternity, and it turned what could otherwise have been a quick opportunity to learn into minutes-long slogs. In Feist, I dreaded death not out of pride but out of inconvenience.

These situations were at least tolerable when they were my fault — when I should have known better but mistimed jumps, for example. They were infuriating when they weren't my fault, which was too often the case. Death through no fault of my own felt cheap. Layered upon Feist's leading times, they felt like squandered potential. But they start with a very clever idea.

Feist twisted many of its platforming puzzles by ensuring that AI-controlled enemies had to perform an action before I could continue. Late in the game, for example, deadly glowing balls of light fly through the levels, homing in on you. Touch them, and you'll take damage. But I enlisted them as allies like the fly, standing still until they contacted ropes and cleared paths that allowed me to continue.

To my everlasting chagrin, it was as likely for that to happen as it was for the AI to fail and force my death. Worse, it highlighted the most annoying part of Feist's battles. Again, through no fault of my own, I often found myself bouncing between enemies, taking damage with each hit and powerless to do anything but watch and die.

Unless I'm playing a pinball game, I do not want to bounce helplessly between deadly obstacles or enemies.

To compound matters, I found it impossible to grok where my health stood at any given time because Feist offers no visual indicator. I figured out pretty quickly that it took four hits for my character to die and that jumping through the fireflies scattered throughout levels would restore some portion of my health. The glowing bugs are scattered in groups of three, and I still have little sense of how much health each individual bug restores.

Feist leap bug crop right 480

Based on that, gauging my health seemed like it would be relatively simple. It is not. Avoiding enemies and traps, keeping track of the fireflies I'd eaten, all while actually playing the game and trying to progress was far too much for me to keep in my head reliably.

There is a reason bars and other visual indicators of your health exist. I use them to tailor the aggressiveness of my play style. Feist makes a mistake by eliminating them altogether. It is far too confusing, and death was often a surprise. Whether it was confusion or miscalculation is academic.

Feist's worst aspects congeal at the end of the game. My Steam timer says I played five hours of Feist. I have to believe at least 20 percent of that was on a final boss of such staggering difficulty that I actually began considering if I'd somehow missed something that would help me beat him. I had to walk away for a day just to get away from the frustration.

I had to walk away for a day just to get away from the frustration
Feist screenshot 06 1920

Interpreting difficulty is, well, difficult. In a series like Dark Souls, it's a hallmark feature, lauded by fans. But all games are not Dark Souls, and extreme difficulty isn't usually a back-of-the-box feature. Beyond that, since I was a kid, I've never been sure how to evaluate whether a game is difficult or I'm underskilled.

Feist misses the the first criterion because its difficulty isn't constant. It's spiky, typically reserved for scripted sections overflowing with enemies. Feist fails at the second criterion because it ratchets the challenge to an absurd degree and doesn't prepare you for what you have to face.

Wrap Up:

Feist's smart design ideas are hampered by its difficulty

Feist is, at best, uneven. It is presented with rarefied beauty. In parts, it displays admirable creativity — twists and turns that I'd love to see other games learn from. But as a whole, it lacks cohesion. It is built on masochism but lacks the attendant pleasure that's supposed to follow in pain's wake.

Feist was reviewed on Mac and Windows using a Steam key provided by Finji. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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