"Although the game is far from completion, Fell Seal is a smooth-playing strategy RPG that should appeal to genre fans weaned on games like Final Fantasy Tactics."
Fell Seal: The Arbiter's Mark is an upcoming strategy RPG by a small independent studio called 6 Eyes, whose founding members were part of Studio Archcraft. You may remember Studio Archcraft as the ambitious indie developer that created Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled for the Nintendo DS. Although I enjoyed Black Sigil, I must concede that it had its share of flaws that were difficult to overlook. I am all about second chances, though, and having spent a good 25+ hours with an early access copy of Fell Seal: The Arbiter's Mark, I feel confident saying that the folks at 6 Eyes have grown more skilled in their craft since the Black Sigil days. Although the game is far from completion, Fell Seal is a smooth-playing strategy RPG that should appeal to genre fans weaned on games like Final Fantasy Tactics.
Protagonist Kyrie is an Arbiter, which is basically the game world's version of a police officer. She has a strong sense of integrity and inspires loyalty from the the unit she captains. While finishing up her rounds, Kyrie and her trainee stumble upon an arrogant nobleman named Alphonse who wantonly kills a random person because he believes his wealth and status give him carte blanche to be above the law. Thinking he can use his entitlements to weasel his way out of the situation, Alphonse receives a rude awakening because Kyrie values justice more than money and will never take a bribe. Alphonse is arrested and brought to tribunal, but he doesn't come quietly and vehemently insists that he will exact his vendetta on "that wench" Kyrie. The story hints at vindictive singular villains, secretive cabals, and the sinister supernatural, but it looks like Kyrie's most formidable foe will be the festering corruption plaguing society. Will her idealistic righteousness hold true or will this cruel world browbeat her into submission?
Sprites are large, detailed, and inhabit tile environments that utilize a vibrant color palette that is easy on the eyes. Everything looks smoothly drawn and lushly detailed. It is a pleasure simply hanging out in both the game's environs and even the menus. Sprite animations are a little bit stiff, but that's a minor nitpick that 95% of players won't even notice as they're battling their way to victory and marveling at the lush spell effects. The "painting meets CG animation" portrait art shown during dialogue provides a unique contrast to the more anime/comic book flair of the sprites. It's not bad art by any means, but it may not appeal to everyone's tastes. Speaking of dialogue boxes, I am happy to report that dialogue text is presented in a very large and legible font. Some submenus have smaller fonts, but the lettering is large and readable enough that I never had to get up close and personal with my computer screen to peruse anything. My aging eyes are grateful.
The large sprites occupy manageably sized yet very dynamic battlefields, which make battles feel more like skirmishes than an all-out wars. I prefer this more personal-level approach to SRPGs, and I would compare the scope of Fell Seal's battles to those of Final Fantasy Tactics. Gameplay during battles is very intuitive, and outside of battle, I happily spent tons of time in the menus crafting items and learning/setting characters' abilities and classes. I also happily spent time in the guild recruiting generic units whose sprite appearances have tons of customization options, making them feel more like people and less like paper doll cutouts. Players who like tweaking their characters will be happy with the variety of troop customization options in the game, but even more casual optimizers like myself should be pleased that party management feels smooth and rewarding, unlike the twiddly, overwrought, and needlessly arbitrary systems that plague other companies' SRPGs.
One notable character management aspect is Fell Seal's Injury system. If a character falls to 0 HP in battle, they get put on the injured list. While characters on the injured list can be used in subsequent battles with significant stat decreases, letting them sit out a battle or two (depending on the extent of their injuries) allows them to recover fully. As with many SRPGs, there is a need to grind. Previously cleared battle sites can be revisited to build levels. Grinding is a necessary evil in this game, but I didn't always mind, as doing some quickie battles built up lowbie troops' levels while getting folks off the injured list. So far, battles have been decently challenging yet never unfairly brutal. Even when I got Game Overs, I knew that with some strategic adjustments, I could emerge victorious.
I'm thoroughly enjoying my time with Fell Seal: The Arbiter's Mark so far. The game does not reinvent the wheel but instead presents a polished and engagingly fun slice of SRPG goodness. Fell Seal has been in Steam Early Access since August 2018, and 6 Eyes Studio is actively improving the game with enhanced sprite animations, balance adjustments, customizable difficulty levels, additional story content, and more. Genre fans should definitely keep an ear to the ground for the game's full release in 2019 because it's shaping up to be a winner.