Micro Cabin’s 1989 hit Xak: The Art of Visual Stage is perhaps most politely described as being “heavily inspired by” those early genre-defining Ys-es, with their own brand of blue-haired wandering hero Latok serving as a very capable stand-in for Adol’s bright red bonce. Back in those days more than a few games would borrow their own mix of elements from Falcom’s successful template to varying degrees of success, and while Xak never did quite break free from the long shadow cast by its more popular originator it remains a great game that deservedly spawned several equally-good sequels and ports across the usual range of computer and console formats of the era in the years that followed, the most unusual of which is the one I’m going to focus on today: Fray CD: Xak Gaiden. As with the other games in the series and many similar titles from the early nineties there are many small but significant differences between Fray’s original computer releases, the later and greatly pared-down Game Gear port, and this final 1994 PC Engine version: They aren’t so different that the games share nothing more than a name and their heroine, but they aren’t so similar that it would be safe to assume everything I blather on about below applies equally to all versions either. Because this could all get incredibly confusing and I’d also like to have a flimsy excuse to play through the PC-98 version of the game I bought forever ago from Project EGG at some point in the future, from here on in this post and all the screenshots within it are about the PC Engine game Fray CD: Xak Gaiden and absolutely nothing else.
Fray is an unusual combination of platform-shmupping stages interspersed with small RPG-like towns for you to amble around, allowing you to stock up on healing items and upgrade your equipment using gold taken from treasure chests in the previous shmuppy bits, awarded in bulk after magic-ing an area’s boss into submission, or painfully scraped together from the tiny amounts earned by defeating regular enemies. The shmup-ish segments are all vertically orientated but don’t feature the traditional forced scrolling expected of the genre outside of the flying and surfing (yes, I know what I said) levels which auto-scroll in the usual way. What’s especially lovely about Fray’s use of these thin corridors of standard fantasy flying castle/volcano/forest/water landscapes is how they’re not just a pretty backdrop included for the sake of adding some superficial variety but inform the gameplay as well: Crabs will snip the ends of rope bridges on battered shipwrecks if you’re not quick enough to get across, exploding bugs threaten to destroy vital sections of minecart track unless you shoot them first, and giant plants block the way ahead in verdant forests. Destroying the ground underneath Fray’s feet isn’t the life-ending hazard it could have been seeing as she can perform a springy leap at the press of a button, allowing her to effortlessly hop over pitfalls and across moving platforms… most of the time. When these sections work her centred blob of a shadow is a practical tool that really helps with her positioning and you’re bouncing between reasonably sized platforms that move around in a predictable manner, but there are a few spots where even with the game generously placing Fray back to the start of a jumping section should she fall (this act will remove a good chunk of her health until she’s down to her last half of a heart but never kill her) the precision asked of the player is just a bit too much, and the pang of worry that this next moving platform is going to be “one of those” tedious gauntlets never quite leaves you. Jumping also serves another purpose, enabling Fray to hop over enemy bullets with relative ease – anything from standard blobs to screen-wide boss attacks – and as the timing’s within the realms of common sense reactions rather than pixel-perfect memorisation it doesn’t feel like a punishing gamble reserved for advanced players but a useful technique that exists for everyone’s benefit – huzzah! On the technical side of things there’s some single-plane parallax scrolling in there to help give a few stages a bit of visual depth – trees or clouds infinitely scrolling by far below, that sort of thing – and although it does a fair job of conveying that sense of distance it can’t help but feel a little underwhelming on a system that can do so much better.
As expected of any shmup-like, Fray’s stages always end with a boss battle against some sort of weird and wonderful nasty of impressive size determined to stop the game’s adorable magician in her tracks. They all tend to hit quite hard if you get caught out by them so they feel pretty dangerous when first encountered (luckily you can restart a boss battle at maximum health – regardless of how much or little you entered with – for as many times as you’ve got the patience to try) but once you get used to their attack patterns they tend to fall quite quickly. You will come across a few unpleasant exceptions to this rule along the way – in particular there’s an aggressive airship later on that that manages to overstay its welcome in both of its overly-long phases – but in all honesty these snags stand out so much only because the rest of the game usually flows so well. Continuing Fray’s design-by-tradition philosophy are the game’s shot types which will feel instantly familiar to genre fans with the standard straight ahead/multi-directional/homing attacks repackaged as magical rods of a set power level that can be cycled between at will, and powerful single-use spells replacing more conventional screen-devastating bomb attacks. Unfortunately the limited number of buttons on a standard PC Engine pad mean your shot (tap until your finger falls off), charge shot (hold), and kill-em-all one-off magic attack (hold until the charge bar hits the top) all share the same button, making it quite hard in the heat of the moment to keep an eye on the charge bar and find the sweet spot that allows you to perform a powered-up shot without wasting a precious spell on a few generic goons.
When judged purely by its shmup-ness Fray is… it’s OK. There are a few nifty ideas in there but by and large it gathers up all the stock ingredients of the genre and then goes and implements them in very much the same way you’ve seen them done many times before in any number of games – even before Fray’s early nineties release date – on any format you care to mention. If Fray was just a shmup this would be a real problem, but luckily for us this game is elevated above those broadly comparable titles by its irrepressible desire to be a comedic and light-hearted adventure even though both of its biggest influences – shmups and RPGs – are genres that tend to fall on the side of the serious and the melodramatic when given half a chance. The easiest way for a CD-based PC Engine game to aim for laughs would be to shove a goofy cutscene in every time someone dares to do anything more than sneeze and hope players are so enthralled by these pixel art slideshows that they don’t pay too much attention to the very plain spritework and unremarkable tiled backgrounds they’re forced to endure when they’re actually in control of the action, so it’s surprising to see how remarkably restrained Micro Cabin were with their use of special event artwork, reserving such eye-catching pixelled glories exclusively for the game’s opening and ending sequences. Even as someone who could quite happily stare at 16-bit cutscene art all day I still have to admit this was definitely the best way to go about things as Fray’s breezy pacing wouldn’t benefit from being chopped up by extra art or given a deep backstory the game simply doesn’t need, and far from looking like an afterthought the sprites here are pleasantly detailed, chunky, and perfectly expressive at all times – often going so far as to use unique animations for specific events. You’d think this visually conservative approach might feel disappointing but the knock-on effect of giving everything a little bit of polish instead of reserving all of the showy graphical humour for those big CD-accessing moments is a game where it feels like every moment might be funny, instead of one that keeps the laughs strictly fenced off from the parts that have anything to do with your personal input.
Fray may be light on cutscenes but as it was gaming law back in the early nineties for CD games to include either poor quality FMV or questionable voice acting Fray goes big on the latter of the two, vocalising the opening few lines of all key events before reverting back to good old storage-saving text. All of the voice work here suffers in the exact same ways as every other similar game of the era: This bold spoken future has no place in it for “old fashioned” subtitles and the audio quality of the lines themselves varies wildly even when two actors talking to each other in the same scene: this is unfortunately most noticeable with Fray’s voice actor – the person you hear speak far more than anyone else – who often (but not always) sounds like she’s had to record her lines using a poor phone connection while sitting at the bottom of a well. Both of these problems are exacerbated by a permanent imbalance between the music and the dialogue, presenting players with an unenviable choice between normal music but straining-to-hear speech or too-loud tunes booming out in exchange for audible conversations.
As I said, while those issues may be real they’re far from unique to Fray and on the whole do little to damage the effervescent and silly mood – the game remains a pleasant tonic to all those earnest RPG quests for justice against cruelly indifferent ancient prophecies or deep-space shmup missions against faceless configurations of brushed metal and lasers we’ve seen so many times before, and Fray’s quest to find Xak’s hero Latok before stumbling upon a similar-but-not man called Lutok while bashing the forces of darkness along the way may be a comparatively low stakes adventure but there’s no denying it’s an enjoyable one that’s easily digested over the course of a lazy weekend. I was a little concerned her game-long chase after her oblivious guy-friend would come across a bit… Amy Rose… if it wasn’t handled well but luckily for me Fray’s enough of a character in her own right – brave, dedicated to her craft, funny, kind – that she never feels sidelined in her own adventure even if she doesn’t come close to fitting the expected “righteous hero on a brave quest” mold. She just charges on through, insulting anyone or anything that dares to get in her way and never backing down from a fight against man, demon, or sentient tree: “For a little girl you’ve certainly got a big mouth” says the enormous guardian waiting deep inside a volcano before the player unleashes a large dose of Fray’s magic to his face. A plot this slight would be of some concern in a more serious game but here it doesn’t matter – Fray never once pretends you’re off on a dark, desperate, “fate of the universe” style journey – this isn’t a game you don’t take seriously because it’s using strong bright colours and cute sprites to string along a paper-thin plot, it’s a game you don’t take seriously because it’s not meant to be taken seriously. This is a magical fantasy game where you fight a brain armed with flying boxing gloves while riding a surfboard – a surfboard! A game where the title sequence shows the brave heroine tripping on pancake-flat terrain and smacking her face on the ground for laughs. A game where shopkeepers burst out of otherwise empty giant treasure chests and our heroic lead tries to style out a misjudged teleportation spell even though she’s soaked to the bone.
It’s fair to say that when compared to a vertical shmup of any type (and there really is no other genre Fray’s gameplay is closest to) there’s no denying how many better examples are out there already, or how easy those better games are to buy and play: even within the niche of a niche land-based fantasy shmup field (is there a proper term for that sort of thing?) it’s soundly outdone by Undeadline, Guwange, KiKi KaiKai, and even Tenjin Kaisen – games that are either more readily available, better shmups, or both. When judged on the strength of its RPG elements the game’s left standing in the shadows of even the simplest of stat-based adventures, beyond “Talk to this one person in a town with three people in it” and “Buy the Lvl3 version of your Lvl2 rod” there’s really nothing else to it at all. But even though there’s no pretending Fray’s the best at anything it tries to do when these individual elements are smooshed together in this way and given a charming coat of paint it really does become a game that feels like more than the sum of its parts – and a game that’s well worth experiencing for yourself. This is a game that’s short enough to squeeze in to your free time without having to cause any major upset to your regular schedule, and for all the game’s focus on player-friendly unlimited restarts and drive to keep things moving forward this cute looking quest does still have some bite to it and you will have to put some effort in if you want to reach the end. Yes, it’s all carried by that gorgeous presentation and the daft humour – but you can’t help but smile as you’re carried along by it too.