"...its simplicity is evocative of the 16 and 32-bit eras of gaming."
Everyone has something they've been working on for years; passion projects we've been trying to perfect over time. Ara Fell is just one of many examples which have made it off the drawing board. The game was created in RPGMaker 2003, and originally one chapter existed as a popular free demo on the Internet. Unfortunately, production was cancelled shortly after, disappointing many. Luckily, with a little push from Stegosoft Games, Ara Fell has made it to PCs, and while it's not a shining beacon of JRPG goodness, is a solid example of what a good game created in RPGMaker can achieve.
Ara Fell is a floating continent in the sky. Thousands of years ago, Elves populated the lands and lived prosperously, but after a war many lost their lives and others turned to stone. Now humans live in fear of vampires who have spent years hunting down the ancient artefacts which will break a hidden curse on them. The young and capricious Lita LeCotta and her best friend Adrian Omani are drawn into the vampire's struggle as they are tasked to retrieve a ring. Along the way, they join forces with the mysterious bard Doren Indiel and the powerful sorceress Seri Kesu, and the four of them are thrust into a battle tied with the fate of the world itself.
The game is every bit your typical JRPG plot. Its by the numbers approach is by no means a bad thing in this case. If anything, its simplicity is evocative of the 16 and 32-bit eras of gaming. The main party makes for a motley crew who, while stereotypical, are at least fun to travel with. The conflict between the vampires, elves and humans feels like a real threat, and I constantly felt as though I was carrying the weight of an entire continent on my shoulders as the pressure built to save the world. The plot doesn't try to overcomplicate things, so even though I could predict every little twist and turn, I was able to stay invested.
What jerked me out of the story multiple times was the quality of the game's script. With such simple storyline, Ara Fell needed some sharp writing to keep things consistently entertaining, and instead I was given a story that had been written for children. The speech is peppered with modern-day colloquialisms, awkward phrasing and repetitive idioms that made me cringe. What this affected most was Lita's characterisation — the game touches on her vulnerability and self-doubt numerous times, but her lack of confidence comes across as irritating because she spends so much time whining. It's a shame as this weighs down an otherwise enjoyable story.
Fortunately, Ara Fell's combat provides the perfect remedy to its clunky script. Taking a cue from the classics, battles are strictly turn-based a-la Final Fantasy. Each character has a set of skills which use up skill points, which can be regained during battle. Every attack replenishes a certain number of skill points, and defending restores even more. This allows for a great deal of variation and strategy as you wipe out enemies in the most effective way. The game's bosses are also a welcome challenge, and I found myself fervently forming strategies in order to take down each one.
But perhaps the real star of Ara Fell is the very world it's set on. As I explored the land, I felt a Secret of Mana vibe bursting from the screen. The island is covered in lush greenery and crystal clear waters which filled me with a nostalgic warmth. I did all this while accompanied by a soothing and simple soundtrack which complemented each area perfectly. I swam in every lake possible and stood at every cliff face and ravine I could, and spent hours wandering around Ara Fell simply taking in the sights and absorbing the life and colour it had to offer.
One pitfall of exploring the floating continent shows how easy it is to get lost. Many of the sidequests and missions you'll pick up provide very vague directions and locations, and when coupled with treacherous and twisting roads leads to aimlessly scrambling around the fields. Unfortunately, the map was often useless and will probably try your patience as it did mine. As luck might have it, you do unlock warp crystals as you progress through the game, but if the world hadn't been as vibrant as it was I might've been less forgiving for its navigation flaws.
Adding to this slight niggle are the controls. At times I found controlling Lita cumbersome and loose. I would go to move her a few steps and would accidentally send her flying into an enemy. This problem extended into battles too, as I would sometimes accidentally defend rather than heal the right ally. Although some controller issues have been ironed out by the developer, these feel like a frustrating hindrance to the player.
Ara Fell won't blow anyone away, but overall it's a well-thought-out title which will put a smile on most people's faces. While it relies on many tried-and-tested formulas, the whole experience does just enough to bring a smile to my face. Its beautiful world, along with a solid combat system, gave me more than enough incentive to play it through to the end. It's not far from being a great game, and with the cliffhanger ending, I can see an opportunity for Stegosoft Games to iron out some of the bugs and make their next installment worthy of the world it's set in.