I am instinctively put off by games that flaunt how they are ‘inspired by…’ or ‘a spiritual successor to…’ a handful of games that defined the relevant genre. While it is understandably a way for games to garner a quick audience, especially when they rely on crowdfunding, it can raise expectations to an unreachably high level or in some cases suggest the developers aren’t really sure of their own game’s creative direction. If your new third-person horror shooter is inspired by Resident Evil and Silent Hill, the two of which differ drastically in theme and playstyle from each other, what are you really saying about your game? Alternatively, when Fell Seal’s developers claim they are ‘following in the footsteps’ of strategy RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics, the comparison is fully warranted.
We open on a land once ravaged by the beastly Maw, before 7 heroes known as the ‘Immortals’ prevailed against it and established a council to oversee the land. To aid their work, they enlisted numerous Arbiters to survey the land and keep it protected. One such Arbiter begins an investigation into a murder incident which grows into a greater plot of corruption, going so far as to implicate even the Immortals. The Arbiter, our protagonist Kyrie, soon discovers that she is Marked to become a future Immortal herself. If you’ve been checking off your ‘RPG plot’ bingo card, prizes can be collected at the reception.
But Final Fantasy Tactics never got such high praise for its story. It already had a flawless battle system which Fell Seal does an excellent job at resurrecting here with some favorable upgrades. Primary gameplay moves between different maps, each with a ‘mission’ to complete. Normally this consists of defeating all enemies, although other objectives like surviving for a number of turns or procuring a special item on the map occur too. Unlike Tactics’ evasion system, in which an enemy has a lower chance of evading an attack if it comes from the side or behind them, here position in regard to the enemy effects how much damage is done instead. Outside of combat, you navigate a world map of shops, guilds, and arenas, alongside the ability to ‘patrol’ previous battle areas for grinding.
Inventory and character management has been improved greatly from the norm, which can make the game a lot easier to get into. As somebody with a tendency to be overwhelmed by shopping in RPGs and end up overstocking on potions that I never end up using, Fell Seal’s way of handling things really made my experience less stressful. Instead of purchasing healing and status items, you are given a finite supply to use each battle, the potency and quantity of which can be upgraded via crafting. As for weapons and gear, every shop has a ‘try and buy option’ where you can equip all of your units with shop equipment and view their stat benefits before purchasing, rather than facing a long list of hammers indistinguishable from each other on their own.
Equally as accessible is the class system, which hosts a broad selection of passive, active and counter abilities. Each unit has a primary class and a ‘custom’ class, both of which can be swapped out for whatever else the unit in question has unlocked. Oddly, however, the game essentially punishes the player for choosing the class combination they want for a unit at first, as post-battle experience is only earned for their primary class and any other classes not currently equipped at random. If you ever want to get anywhere with your kooky trickster/plague doctor unit, you’re going to have to spend some fights as a trickster/mercenary or a plague doctor/mender to begin with.
Optional character events occasionally found on the map can fill the hole left by the aforementioned storyline, with a couple of unintentionally amusing interactions between the deadpan Kyrie and some of her more…eccentric allies (one of whom may or may not be a human-bug hybrid whose name is a play on the word bizarre). Additionally, while the plot itself is rather vanilla, it opens up several interesting gameplay/story integrations. When Kyrie becomes Marked, a new exclusive class is unlocked for her granting special Immortal abilities. During a fight with the villain of the first act, himself also a Marked individual, you’ll find that these abilities do no damage to him and vice versa: you can’t fight fire with fire after all.
Despite all the faithful nods to its roots, Fell Seal shouldn’t only be treated as a decade-later installment in the Tactics series (although after about 5 name drops now, I wouldn’t blame you for doing so). Where the game truly shines in an original fashion is, well, the fashion. Customization options for units recruited through guilds are hugely diverse. The choice of hair, clothes, accessories and other features is unprecedented in tactical RPGs. You can lead an army of stylish OCs, or just see what unusual names the auto-generator comes up with (I’m especially fond of Mad Mardigan, my loyal knight). Every unit can be altered, sans plot-relevant characters, at any time for no charge by returning to a guild and letting your creative juices flow. Battles are made a lot more entertaining with the amount of personal aesthetic options granted by the game.
As for not so personal aesthetics, the art in this game is top notch, albeit rather jarring at times. The 2D sprites used in combat are beautiful and pair perfectly with the environments. By comparison, the map sprites share zero similarities and could easily be from a completely different game. The character portraits, while full of flair on their own, do not mesh with the rest of the art. Given the varied customization, it is unlikely that you’ll find a portrait to accurately represent any of your new units. Hence, my wizard Grandma who manages resembles Ganondorf and Dante simultaneously.
The music is a very standard ‘medieval fantasy with dragons’ affair, and the lack of battle themes can leave you with a ten-second loop of horns in your head for days after playing. It seems the game may have realized its audio isn’t the strongest as well, for every single action taken by either your troops or the enemy’s, the music is temporarily diminished. Whether the grating sound of a monster dog getting hit by a hammer is preferred over ye olde woodwinds, I’m still undecided. Regardless, these minor flaws in the visual and audio framework do little to distract from the well-polished and creative gameplay.
6 Eyes Studio had a clear goal with Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, and it’s safe to say they accomplished it. A few control nitpicks aside (there is no camera control for battles due to the maps being hand-drawn, meaning enemies and items can be fully obscured at times), it plays like a slick strategy RPG inspired by the classics for all the right reasons.