Frontier Hunter is the follow up to the enjoyable Tower Hunter, and like its forebear works as a cute anime-style Metroidvania game with a host of extras sprinkled on top of the usual formula to make the game more than the sum of its parts.
Erza is a top Hunter on a mission to explore beyond her Empire's frontier using an experimental airship. New worlds await, and while the majority of the game is the usual side-scrolling affair common to the genre, an early mission mounts you behind a cannon to shoot incoming boulders and clear a path for your vessel. The game is littered with these stylistic changes, and they help to keep things fresh and imaginative. There's certainly an element of Nier Automata here, though not quite up to the same lofty stylistic heights of Square's epic.
Our protagonist starts the game streaming to her fans, with messages from her followers scrolling across the screen. It's quite the fun vignette and gives us a clear "idol" feel for her character and her popularity in the world she inhabits. You'll start he game by wandering around the ship and learning the basic mechanics of the game, from movement to weaponry. One of the first side-quests has you finding three giant chickens for the ship's cook, all of which need to be defeated with your powerful sword and magic-based attacks. Learning the basics is plenty of fun, and a bit of exploring around the ship will earn you upgrades and even a new outfit.
You'll meet Ciara (left) very early on, and can switch between the two characters to maximise your attacks
It won't be long until you unlock the game's next fun feature - extra characters. You'll meet Ciara early on, whose attacks involve high powered kicks and a cannon for ranged attacks. Ciara is cute and obsessed with Erza, in the over-the-top way that only anime characters tend to act, but Frontier Hunters leans into such tropes with gusto, and manages to remain charming without crossing the line into being obnoxious.
A third character reveals themselves later in the game, their main benefit being a third energy bar which makes up for the lack up upgrades gained while you use the other two. You can switch characters at any time to suit the situation, and you can revive them when they fall if you have Angel Tears handy. This helps add an element of strategy to boss battles and you'll need to think carefully about who you revive and when.
The overall difficulty is pretty fair - there are a few interactive scenes with jump scares from bosses that can leave you a bit irritated, but nothing game-breaking. The flow of the game is enjoyable, and it's easy to get a pretty good groove going as you leap between platforms, explore and generally have a good time. The soundtrack certainly helps and it's worth turning up as there are some great tunes to encourage you through the levels.
Graphically the game is crisp and attractive, with some lovely character designs inhabiting some bright and lively environments. Animation is fluid, with some interesting monsters and bosses to face that keep you invested in Erza's world. Adding to the anime styling is actual Japanese dialogue, with Erza herself being voiced by Shizuka Ito (Byleth in Fire Emblem Three Houses and Yotsuyu goe Brutus in Final Fantasy 14). This adds to the feeling of authenticity, further augmented by some excellent promotional artwork. It certainly "feels" Japanese, even if the production studio is from Finland. It's a love-letter to anime and a pretty slick one at that.
Environments are pretty and nicely rendered, but not terribly unique or stylised.
In line with its heritage, the game rewards repeated exploration, with some items only accessible once you've gained the ability to reach them - this makes it worth jotting down any items you see and where to find them should you decide to come back. It's often worth the investment as some of these power-ups make a big difference to the difficulty level.
There are a few niggles, though one of these has been negated. Initially, resting didn't also save your progress, though this appears to have been rectified. Slightly more serious is the resolution on Steam Deck, wherein the screen doesn't quite fit and subsequently you can't see the map/menus properly. This is a massive shame as otherwise the game runs smoothly and looks superb on the handheld - given the popularity of the deck and the (presumably) easy fix, I'd really rather hoped they would have fixed this by the time of this review, but alas the last update on the 3rd Jan did nothing to rectify the issue.
However, the fact that the developers are taking a keen interest in updating the game based on player feedback is very commendable. It's a fun title with a lot of anime charm, as such it deserves to be the best version of itself in order to win over fans. Though it plays similarly to Deedlit's Wonder Labyrinth, a game I adored last year due to the tight design and beautiful retro style, Erza actually has more going for it in terms of gameplay styles, multiple characters, upgrades and outfits. The gameplay isn't quite as tight, but there's just loads to it for a very reasonable price, and if they keep adding improvements, then Frontier Hunters deserves much success. I'm certainly pleased to see that the feedback on Steam is so positive.