Folklore, developed by Game Republic and released in the fall of 2007, is a true hidden gem in every sense of the word. This fantastical murder mystery, built upon a combination of action-oriented combat, RPG elements and grand sense of adventure, was likely dwarfed in resources by the world's triple A blockbusters, but still managed to create a cohesive world within these restrictions, one full of gorgeous visuals, smooth and varied combat, and an intriguing narrative delivered in many ways. Folklore also achieved gem status by being largely overlooked when it was released in the notoriously competitive holiday release season.
Folklore tells the story of Ellen, a young student, and Keats, a journalist - two people drawn to the small, Irish village of Doolin by a mysterious women, allegedly Ellen's long-lost mother. Ellen hopes the trip will reveal portions of her clouded past, and possibly result in a reunion with her mother. Keats, on the other hand, is interested in writing a story on Doolin's mythical association with spiritual realms. A series of unexplained murders in town draw both protagonists into the Netherworld, a realm spawned by the memories of the dead, in search for clues.
This dark fantasy tale is told through a variety of methods - everything from conventional RPG conservation trees to scenes inspired by graphic novel presentation, and even CG cutscenes are used rather effectively. The CG and in-engine cutscenes, while painfully infrequent, are quite impressive. Traditional conversation trees don't veer far off the established path, but allow the game's creators to easily convey the more subtle, mundane plot points and thereby make the world much more believable. The stylized comic-book scenes give Folklore additional personality, and help reenforce the overarching novel approach to storytelling. Unfortunately, the game's limited resources mean that only the cutscenes feature voice-acting. It's not nearly enough to significantly detract from the story, but makes me wish BioWare had picked up on this idea.
Players split their time switching between the interconnected stories of Ellen and Keats, periodically exploring Doolin and the surrounding countryside for information, then delving into the Netherworld to battle the various folk spirits and advance the plot. By defeating a folk, Ellen/Keats are able to conjure up that folk's unique ability in future combat - it's basically just like the mechanics seen in Pokémon, but with a more mature polish. The dozens of folks to find throughout each realm really adds to the strategic element of Folklore, as certain combinations of folks are more effective than others and some enemies can only be defeated by using a handful of abilities. The often awe-inspiring animations that accompany new spirit abilities provides additional motivation to explore. In short: Folklore's combat is incredibly smooth, stunning and provides a satisfying amount of strategy.
As mentioned above, Folklore is a beautiful game. While its presentation was never considered cutting-edge from a technical perspective, the brilliant art direction makes its aesthetic timeless. For the most part, the environments, characters and spirit animations are colourful, detailed and generally a marvel to behold. More frequent voice-acting would've further developed the characters, and there are occasionally awkward pauses when navigating menu screens, but these are minor drawback to an otherwise fantastic package. All things considered, it's the kind of visual presentation that easily brings up timeless memories of Tim Burton films.
Folklore is a unique experience, one absolutely worth your time if you can find a copy these days. The story is intriguing and well delivered, the combat offers surprising depth, and the presentation will immediately grab your attention. It's a thoughtful mix of exploration, action and strategy. While very unlikely, I'm holding out hope that someone will feel compelled to revisit this universe one day.