Loading up Steam one day and seeing the two ef games was quite a surprise. I mean, these are visual novels that have been out for thirteen years in Japan and have been available in English for over seven years, so seeing them come to Steam was definitely some good news. Having never played the game or seen its anime adaptation, it was about time to check it out. And of course, given the significance of Christmas in the game, it only felt right to do this review on Christmas day.

Pros:

Slow and thoughtful story. What immediately sets ef apart from similar visual novels is how its story plays out. This is not a story full of random comedy bits or the usual VN tropes. It is also not a story that constantly bombards you with drama. Instead, ef takes a slower and more thoughtful approach to storytelling. The events that unfold do so naturally, in a way that doesn’t feel rushed like many other VNs tend to do. It’s pacing is very slow as a result, but it is at least consistent throughout the entire experience. And, if anything, it gives the story a nice sense of realism.

It is very comparable to the Makoto Shinkai film 5 Centimeters per Second. In fact, it’s so similar in style that it’s almost criminal. Given that Makoto Shinkai was involved with ef as its opening movie director, perhaps this game was a source of inspiration for that film. Whatever the case may be, this kind of storytelling is something we don’t often see in the medium and really shines here in ef.

Well-written characters. Having a slower-paced story does have its benefits, one being that it gives time for characters to be properly developed. This is something that ef does really well, providing a number of characters across its five chapters that actually feel human. There’s no cookie-cutter characters to fill specific tropes, no characters introduced solely for one role only to then be forgotten, and no rushed character development. As with the overall story, the characters develop naturally and their actions actually make sense.

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Sure, some are better at it than others, but there was never an outright badly written character. This works wonders for the type of story told here, as having such realistic characters make its much easier to relate to them, to get invested in their stories. And of course, when the story throws an emotional moment at you, it’s that much more effective. It’s a deadly combo and one that ef knows how to use.

High quality dynamic art. Coming from studio minori, this shouldn’t come as too much a surprise, but ef has some really good art. From its well-done character designs, to its massive assortment of detailed backgrounds, it’s got pretty much everything on lock in the art department. However, what’s really cool about the art isn’t that it just looks good on its own, but that it’s so dynamic. By this, I mean that characters, backgrounds, and CGs are constantly changing, never really sitting still for too long.

In fact, I’m pretty sure ef has the highest number of unique CGs I have ever seen in a visual novel. It felt like it was throwing out new ones every few minutes, which, given the length of the game, is actually quite impressive. In chapter one alone, for example, there’s 19 pages of unique CGs, with 12 per page. A couple later chapters even exceed 20 pages of unique CGs. Given the high quality nature of the art itself, this must have been an immense workload for the game’s artists, but the end result is something quite unlike any VN I’ve played before.

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Excellent soundtrack. And as if the art wasn’t enough already, ef also has an excellent soundtrack to match. The composers are TENMON and Eiichiro Yanagi, the former of which has worked on several of the earlier Makoto Shinkai films (including 5cm per Second, which is one of my favorite soundtracks).

The ef soundtrack makes use of a variety of styles, but the majority of the tracks are slower, more mellow piano tracks. This not only matches the slow nature of the game’s storytelling, but also helps in establishing its winter aesthetic. However, there’s also some upbeat daytime tracks, as well as several excellent violin solos that actually serve a purpose in the story. It’s got some variety to it and is good to listen to both in-game and out.

Cons:

Lack of direction in the first tale. For everything the game does right regarding its story, it does still have some issues. The most notable of these would be the clear contrast between the first tale and the latter tale. First, a bit of explanation is needed. ef – a fairy tale of the two. is the name of the whole game, but it is sold in two parts as ef – the first tale. and ef – the latter tale., with the first containing a prologue and chapters 1 and 2 and the second containing chapters 3-5. Although these chapters do build on each other, it isn’t really apparent when you’re actually playing the first tale.

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By that, I mean that the first couple chapters felt like their own thing. Some hints were dropped with regards to the overall story, but for the most part, they were pretty much self-contained love dramas. Not to say that they were bad love dramas, but rather that the latter tale is just much better by comparison, as it does the whole love drama thing and more. It felt like the first tale just kinda served as a stepping stone for the latter tale, which is evident in the fact that the opening theme does not even play until the end of the first tale.

Technical issues. Given that the game has been out for so long, I honestly did not expect to run into as many issues as I did. Although I didn’t get anything like full game crashes or fps issues, I did run into a number of smaller, yet still annoying issues. Among these were the fullscreen mode not working properly (instead showing the game in both windowed and fullscreen at the same time on top of each other), the mouse cursor reappearing and disappearing at random without any input, and the first opening theme displaying a black screen while the audio played.

Additionally, I also ran into a few small typos and grammar issues, which again, is a surprise given how long this translation has been out for. Unfortunately, I don’t see these issues getting patched given the game’s age, so it looks like you’ll just have to deal with them if you do run into them.

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Not only does ef have some high production values with regards to its art and music, but it does this while also having a slow, yet thoughtful storyline full of well-written characters, quite unlike what we usually see in this medium. It does have some story issues more towards the beginning and some technical issues overall, but it is a solid visual novel all things considered and definitely one I would recommend, especially for the holiday season.

Score: 8/10

You can buy ef – the first tale. on Steam here and on MangaGamer here.

You can buy ef – the latter tale. on Steam here and on MangaGamer here.

I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.