Today, on the 28th February, Finns celebrate Kalevala day. Kalevala is Finland’s national epic, a collection of oral folklore and mythology compiled into epic poetry by Elias Lönnrot after his numerous journeys in the early 19th century through Northern Finland and its bordering lands. Terra Feminarum, released on Kalevala day, may not be as important in the cultural scale but it’s an uncanny marriage between Kalevala mythology and Japanese danmaku shoot ’em up (bullet hell shooter). The end result is as attractive and mystical as Aurora Borealis lighting up the northern skies.
Three shamans of the Land of Women (titular Terra Feminarum) take up the road to fabled Pohjola to find out why the northern lights are waning in the sky. Warrior woman Talvikki takes care of her younger sisters Aino and Lempo. Impregnated under northern lights, Aino is weakening due to them dying out, while mischievous little sister Lempo seeks out for Land of the Dead because of her dark origins. It’s up to players which shaman woman they take through a seven-chapter trip to Pohjola. Each girl’s stories are a bit different and dependent on their personal motives, but the levels are the same altogether. The story mode can be played chapter at a time, and whenever the play is resumed, the lives are reset. The arcade mode has the same narrative, but with only a set number of lives, like in the good old days in local arcades. Completing a chapter rewards with different upgrades to select from an extra life to abilities like dash. I advise to stock up extra lives first and then go for the upgrades to match the challenge of later levers.
The journey itself is a vertically scrolling top-down bullet hell madness where the girls fly over Finnish landscapes of forests, meadows and lakes, with a widescreen full of beautifully expanding projectile patterns to avoid. Fantastic as they look, just don’t stop to admire them! Usually, the bullet hell shooters mimic a narrow monitor of old arcade cabinets but here the whole widescreen is taken up with enemy patterns of elves, petals, dead leaves and other natural whatnot spitting out ever so insane projectile designs. Luckily, the hitbox of the player character can be made visible through a precision movement, showing a tiny red dot on the lower back. It’s heaven-sent ability when you try to slither through hundreds of things flying all over the screen.
Terra Feminarum is designed to be as accessible as possible. The tutorial is excellent; a mini-chapter in its own right, it not only gives a breakdown of controls but also teaches newcomers how to play bullet hell shooters. The game can be fully played with a keyboard. Because of that, the controller uses only d-pad for movement instead of analogue stick. Xbox 360 controller I use for PC games has a notoriously slippery d-pad so it took a bit time to get used to the movement. The controls are customizable, and the first thing I did was to map shooting to the right trigger instead of a face button (A on Xbox controller). This way I could keep up shooting while using precision movement (X on controller). It’s crucial in the boss fights where you want to dish out as much damage as possible, all the time maneuvering between projectiles. Special attacks and shield to repel bullets with are activated through mana which you collect from the downed foes. Some boss fights require tactical timing of using the shield. You may want to save the mana to flick on shields rather than waste it on a special attack.
Talvikki, Aino and Lempo each handle a bit differently. Talvikki has the widest bullet spread and Lempo the narrowest, with Aino sitting in-between. The shaman girls are illustrated as lovely manga characters on the character select screen and narrative segments. Naughty Lempo was to my liking, and coincidentally she’s toughest to play as. The difficulty sure is up there, with even normal setting giving a stiff challenge. Many retries and memorized projectile patterns are needed to eventually overcome the story chapters. When you get in the zone, though, you’re hardly notice anything on the screen but are actually moving on an instinct. That’s when Terra Feminarum is at its best.
The biggest selling point of the game is definitely the charming presentation and the landscape rooted deep in a Finnish folklore. As much as the settings are intimate by default to me as a Finn, I can imagine them being equally exciting and exotic to the people of the world. The backdrops for the girls’ journey are digitally painted vistas, giving the game a warm hand-woven feel. The music takes influence from folk songs and is arranged to a wide range of musical styles from waltz to heavy metal. The score remains wisely in the background, never bursting too much into the awareness but its melodic riffs lull to the mind almost unnoticed. Each of the girl’s stories are written in a sharp and poetic style, feeding from rich Kalevala legends and rolling up female characters (this is Land of Women, after all) from its pages, all whimsically illustrated.
Terra Feminarum is like a handwork. A unique take on a well-worn concept and turned into a piece of art, quite like no other. It takes some nerve, though. It can be frustrating to lose a life to a momentary lapse of concentration but rarely it’s the game’s fault. On higher difficulty levels, the enemies’ projectile patterns can seem almost impossible to avoid but resilience (read: dozens of retries) is the key factor. Luckily, the chapters are kept short, so rinse and repeating them don’t make the journey intolerable. Also, the game tempo is more tranquil than hectic, at times almost meditative. That’s only appropriate for the value and ambience of Finnish nature. I hope that Polar Night Games is eventually able to convert Terra Feminarum to the consoles. Indie game market is considerably less-crowded there, giving a unique game like this more visibility. Basically, I’m saying; buy Terra Feminarum for that itching arcade shooter fix! I might be biased but I have all the reasons to be so.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.