Review: Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark17 May 2019 0
Review: Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark
Released 30 Apr 2019
Throughout my years as a fan of JRPGs and strategy games, I have seen countless attempts to capture the essence of old-school titles and bring them into a new era. Most modern interpretations make admirable attempts, but end up failing to include what made the original titles so beloved in the first place. Likewise, I have witnessed newer homages being too close to the source material, to the point where nothing original of note ends up being added. If this sounds like an impossibly thin line to walk, that’s because it often is.
Gamers can be a fickle bunch, myself included, when it comes to our expectations, especially on a project that is trying to emulate Final Fantasy: Tactics. There’s just no way you’re going to please everyone when you try to pull off a herculean task like that. That way lies madness, and failed Kickstarters. Yet, somehow despite all of these caveats and prior failures, Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark has managed to do just that.
Honestly, I was baffled. How on earth had an indie developer I had never heard of prior, 6 Eyes Studio, accomplished what seemingly no one else on the planet has managed to do since 1997? Fell Seal manages to hit all of the right beats. It perfectly encapsulates the core battle and job system from Final Fantasy: Tactics. As a player, you’ve got to be concerned about differences in terrain and height, various enemy resistances and weaknesses, area of effect abilities and potential friendly-fire, turn order, buffs and debuffs, positioning of units, and yet none of that feels like a chore at all. Battles, for the most part, keep a steady flow of progression to where they never quite feel like a slog, but they aren’t a straight breeze either. Playing on Veteran difficulty I have certainly encountered a few fights that put me in a tight spot, but I never felt like the game was being unfair. More often than not, I would only lose units due to my own mistakes, rather than some rubbish arbitrary difficulty spike or a clear onset disadvantage.
Speaking of losing units, this game has modernized the idea of character perma-death in a way I’m quite a fan of: temporary statistic loss. Characters that die in combat are considered “wounded”, and as such will have a lower overall stat distribution until they have a chance to rest. In order to rest, you must choose to not deploy them during an encounter. As someone who dreads the idea of losing units forever due to a mistake here or there, this implementation manages the best of both worlds. On one hand, there’s still gravity towards losing a unit, as no matter what if I want to fully heal them up, I will have to give up using them on a mission. On the other hand, this “loss” is only temporary, and furthermore it encourages me to have an alternative bench of units on standby to fill those primary roles. As such, I inevitably experimented with different class combinations and overall unit strategies.
To that end, the class system contains all of the perks and customization options of old, with some new ideas added in. As you battle, units will gain ability points that can be spent on new active and passive abilities for their class. As you level up and unlock abilities in the initial classes, you will eventually unlock more advanced options. Units have a main class, which also contains two unlockable passive abilities, and then a sub-class. In addition to that however, you can also choose two additional passive abilities and a counter-ability from any other class that character has unlocked, not just your primary or secondary class. This allows for a very wide array of options, as honestly more often than not you will experience multiple intriguing combinations of abilities to choose from. It makes experimentation fun, and given the non-perma death battle system, if a fight doesn’t go well while you’re trying new things out, it’s not the end of the world. Notably, there is also a fairly robust character creator for your non-story units, containing everything from standard fantasy faire to absolutely ridiculous attire.
Now, all of that said, there are a few minor nitpicks. Notably, you cannot rotate the camera, and some maps will unfortunately end up with awkward situations where you can’t see a unit because they are hidden from your camera angle. While this was rare overall, it didn’t help that this happened to me on the very first mission of the game. The trade-off to this is that optional treasure chests are also sometimes hidden in interesting places, so that’s a silver-lining at least. Past that, unsurprisingly, more advanced classes tended to completely outmatch initial options, so there will be some grinding involved if you want your A and B teams to be up to snuff. This is a JRPG after all! With that said, there are enough unique positive design decisions in this game that I quickly got over any initial transgressions.
Item management is no longer a major hassle, as any items used during battle are refunded at the end. The restriction being the number of each item you can use per battle, like three potions or one phoenix ashes. This too however, had been given a modern spin via a simple crafting system based on items you can gather during combat from designated nodes, or loot from enemies. Unlike most crafting systems, this one is rather straight-forward, and doesn’t impede progress of the main story. Items can be buffed up, or expanded upon to allow more uses in combat. Likewise, you can craft gear that gives better movement or jumping capabilities for example. The system really felt like more of an extra tool in my pocket for building advantages in combat, and not something I had to constantly check in on if I wanted to succeed. For me, that’s the perfect alignment of what a crafting system should be: utility, not annoyance.
Outside of the combat and class systems, Fell Seal actually holds up surprisingly well. The story didn’t necessarily have me on the edge of my seat by any means, but I did enjoy the small moments of character interaction and growth throughout the game. There’s some fun dialogue and banter, and cheeky moments of levity between otherwise serious civilization-upending mystery plot. It has a fair bit of obvious foreshadowing, but nothing that seriously detracts from an otherwise fine narrative with a few twists. For those who enjoy secrets and optional side missions, Fell Seal actually has quite a bit going for it.
There are hidden classes, which are very strong with unique mechanics, and some secret b-plot narratives. Unlocking these optional additional bits of gameplay felt rewarding, especially given most are based off of context-clues from character dialogue and hints. Something as simple as killing an enemy with a particular ability, based on a passing remark from a unit before combat, lead me down a rabbit-hole of hidden cut-scenes and battles to a genuinely satisfying bonus class. It involves cheeky teleport abilities and makes one particular character a lot more interesting to play with. I’d go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil your potential secret adventure.
Needless to say, I am extremely impressed with this little indie gem, and wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of strategy JRPGs. Especially, dare I say, to those of you who are looking for a true successor to Final Fantasy: Tactics. I am well aware of how ostentatious that may sound, but the praise is well earned here. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark has earned my respect and admiration, and it deserves your time and attention. Go purchase this game, and support an indie developer who has seemingly done the impossible.