Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark PC Review
I remember playing World of Goo on the Nintendo Wii and wondering if this was going to be a next evolution for video game development. While not quite as hyperbole as that statement, there is no denying that the flourish of independent developers (indies) since then has been strong, the quality reaching new heights with what can be produce by small teams, but there was doubt if this could keep up the momentum as time progressed. Thankfully for the medium, it did, as indies haven’t just brought us amazing original games, but also allowed us to revisit places in our gaming history to play modern games that are inspirations from titles we loved all those years ago. 6 Eyes Studios, mainly a two team developer (with some contractual work involved from others) has thrown us back to the 32-bit era of tactical RPGs with Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, a new game that isn’t shy in showing love for the greats, such as Final Fantasy Tactics, and using that as a building block in 2019.
A short video introduces the world by explaining that centuries ago, a monster known as the Beast of Destruction caused huge damage to the world. Luckily, the first Immortals showed up, and with their godlike powers, destroyed the beast and saved the land. These Immortals formed a council to make sure such damage could be prevented by enforcing peace and stability in the world. Since Immortals are only made up of seven members, they use the help of mortal people to cover small scale dangers – things like robbers, murders, etc. These people are known as the Arbiters, acting as the law of the Immortals for the world.
Introduced as the protagonist of the story is Kyrie, a by-the-book Arbiter, who walks by a murder scene between a peasant and a Lord. Doing justice, Kyrie arrests this person and takes him in, only to see him released, causing her to question if there is some corruption going on. This, combined with her investigation into one of the recently picked candidates who is to take on the Pilgrimage to become a replacement for one of the Immortals, has lead her to believe there is some dishonesty inside this supposedly lawful council, so is asked to investigate and uncover the truth. It’s an enjoyable story with a great cast of characters, solid twists and overall, is one I found myself taking in as I progressed past each battle. Fell Seal also likes to flesh out the characterisation by using small optional events between battles, letting the player see the more fun side of each major hero.
All the story heroes have dialogue and are given fleshed out personalities, but similar to most tactical RPG games, Fell Seal is based around a class system that enables user created characters, and while those heroes remain silent, given no dialogue at all, not even generic lines for victories or kills, there are a few options for making them distinct from one another. There are over 30 classes – some rare and hidden away through side missions – that range from the stereotypical Mercenary, Knight and Ranger, to more refreshing ones like Vampire, Demon Knight and Spymaster.
When creating a new hero, the guild has options to change the visual look of the 2D sprites through hairstyle, faces, costumes and colours. Each character also requires a face portrait to pick from a wide selection, which is where the mismatch between sprite and portrait happens, as there is no link between them. The art style is very different, sprites are anime-esque, and the portraits are more Western looking. In theory, you could have a portrait that visually appeals like a healer, but the sprite on the screen might be dressed in huge armour or be a different colour. This does slightly take away some of the immersion, but the customisation is down to the player to decide if they want to limit their portrait picks to match a sprite or not. For people who just want to get on with it, then there is always the randomize option.
Team variety is important for battles. Following the typical grid-based format from games that inspired it, fights are turned-based per character based on speed, unlike say Disgaea, where multiple units can be moved to perform combos. Fell Seal keeps its fights simpler in that regards. Still, there are attributes here that have an impact on combat. Height and surfaces play a role in every map, along with the position a character faces, as they will take more damage from the side or back. After every move, the game gives the option to pick the current hero’s facing position. The further into the campaign one goes, the more vital making use of class debuffs, resistances and abusing enemy weaknesses becomes. Making use of the class system, being able to have multiple classes at once or equip skills/abilities from various ones enables characters that can cover a multitude of roles. A class isn’t always going to suit a person’s play style, so to overcome the issue, maps can be replayed to grind experience and ability points to unlock more classes and their bonuses.
Every action offers experience points and ability points, with the former levelling up and the latter used to unlock more abilities in the classes. By the end of the game, I had units that were masters for six or so classes. Mastering the classes adds permanent buffs, while enabling more options between a hero’s primary and secondary classes and using passive abilities from others to give the unit a wide palette of passive and active moves. While battles don’t offer the craziness like Disgaea, it’s still brings an engaging combat due to the expensive class system. It’s fun and challenging combat, and that’s all the game needed to do well to be great.
There are some genuinely good ideas here that might upset a few people, but I found the difference gave the game something unique compared to other tactical RPGs. I am talking about its use of consumables. Shops exist to buy new gear and accessories, but items, for example, revive or health potions, are limited to a few per fight, but return to their maximum capacity at the end of battle. This allows players to not worry about running out of key items and stockpiling them. There is still the tactical element of when to use them, since these are limited.
Tactical RPGs aren’t for everyone, since their difficulty can often get in the way of people who might not be able to quickly grasp the game’s mechanics compared to others. Fell Seal is one such title that can bring a decent challenge, but this challenge is all down to the player. Now, I’m not one of those people who are invested in the whole “Dark Souls needs an easy mode” mentality – it should be up to the developer on how their game should be presented – but the developers of this game obviously want to offer a tactical RPG to people who rarely touch the genre, so there are options a plenty to tweak to someone’s acquired taste. There are the default difficulty presets, but going deeper allows one to positively or negatively adjust raw stats of enemies, enemy count, counter rates, enemy items, their usage and if they use revive.
The final difficulty option is one worth giving its own paragraph for, since it’s adjusting a familiar system for tactical RPGs – what happens when a friendly unit is killed in battle. The default option is that if anyone is killed in battle, they are classed as injured and must miss the next fight to have time to recover back to full health, otherwise they will have a penalty in battle until they skip a fight to rest. If you want to go the Fire Emblem route, feel free to turn on permadeath, where death means death and the character is killed off and becomes unavailable. If none of those options sound appealing, then turning off the injury system means death translates to losing out on experience, with that member of the team fighting fit for the next battle. A neat feature with all these difficulty settings is that they can be changed at any point outside of battle, giving incredible freedom to adjust the game to fit how challenging you want it to be, even if it means just turning down the challenge for one fight and putting it back after for the next. It certainly helps for people who give up on a hard battle.
I did find myself having a couple of hiccups with the game, mainly due to the camera and the map design. It might be due to the way the developers have created their maps and sprites, but there is no option to rotate or zoom the map out. This can cause issues when trying to determine height and position of units in maps that feature vertical sections, as these block the viewpoint. Maybe it’s more work required for such a small team, but there is no denying that it would have made some battles easier if the option to rotate the camera was available.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is an easy recommendation for anyone who loves playing Japanese tactical role-playing games. It has no shame in displaying its inspiration on its sleeve, mainly because it takes that inspiration and wears it proud, refining the gameplay with its own spin on it. With many difficulty options featured here that opens up the genre to many people, there really is no reason to not check out Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, and with a lovely 32-bit throwback presentation, there is a tasty meal here that is full of heart and love for the genre.