"A truly magnificent game."
Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark is a strategy RPG by a small independent developer called 6 Eyes Studio, 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 back in 2009. Although I enjoyed Black Sigil, I concede that it was buggy in spots, had an obnoxious encounter rate, and lacked several quality-of-life elements that players look for in modern retro-style games. I am thrilled to say that the folks at 6 Eyes have grown more skilled in their craft since the Black Sigil days. Fell Seal is a lovingly crafted and smooth-playing strategy RPG that genre fans will love.
The crisply detailed sprites are large 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 the game's environments and even the management menus. Sprite animations are a little bit stiff, but that's a minor nitpick that 98% of players won't even notice as they battle their way to victory while enjoying artfully crafted spell and summon effects. The aforementioned large sprites occupy manageable yet dynamic battlefields, which make battles feel more like skirmishes than an all-out war. I prefer this more personal-level approach to SRPGs, otherwise I often feel like I'm spending most of my time just getting my troops across the battlefield before I even get to engage. I would compare the scope of the battlefields to those of Final Fantasy Tactics. The major caveat is that the pre-rendered environments don't allow you to pan the camera around the battlefield, but the angles are such that you can usually monitor your surroundings to strategize your moves without much difficulty. The game should run well on any modern PC, though there are options to adjust graphic quality if you're playing on an older computer and experience slowdown.
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.
Gameplay during battles is very intuitive, and those of you who've played games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre, or Fire Emblem will happily slide into Fell Seal like it's your favorite pair of jeans. Outside of battles, I happily spent copious amounts of time in menus crafting items and learning/setting characters' abilities and classes. I also cheerily spent time in the guild recruiting generic units whose sprite appearances have a smorgasbord of customization options, making them feel more like people and less like paper doll cutouts. Players who like tinkering with 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 some other SRPGs.
Not only do battle participants earn EXP, but each character can gain bonus points throughout the battle by using class-specific combat or support abilities. Only active party members earn EXP, but all troops, including those who are benched, can vicariously gain AP (Ability Points) to level up class skills. There are tons of unique classes, each with their own skill trees, which I spent an inordinate amount of time exploring. It is also possible to assign your characters a main class and sub-class to bring versatile skill sets into battle. And if passive abilities have been learned, a couple of those can be equipped too, regardless of your chosen classes. Smart Casting was my most preferred passive skill because without it, area spells would hurt my allies as well as my foes.
Fell Seal features multiple difficulty levels to choose from that can be changed on the fly, along with the ability to adjust various parameters and create customized difficulty settings. One example is in choosing the severity of the game's Injury system. The default is that when 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 the next battle with significant stat decreases, letting them sit out a battle or two allows them to recover fully. The easiest setting takes away injuries entirely, whereas the most difficult setting allows for perma-death as in Fire Emblem. However, even when the difficulty parameters are skewed easy, Fell Seal is still a strategy RPG through and through. This means that, like any good game of chess, it's important to think several moves ahead of your opponent or you will be in trouble.
As wonderful as the gameplay is, it is not flawless. For starters, there are a few sharp difficulty spikes here and there throughout the game that require a bit of grinding to get through. Another thing I noticed is that some enemies/enemy types had noticeably high evasion; I found myself shouting, "Oh, come on!" at the screen when some of my point-blank back attacks missed at the most inopportune times. I will admit that plenty of bigger and higher profile games fall into these traps as well, oftentimes worse than what I saw in Fell Seal, but it's still something players will notice.
I spent so much time engrossed by Fell Seal's gameplay that I sometimes forgot there was a solid story to follow as well. It may not be the most original tale out there, but the storytelling and cool characters kept me intrigued and motivated me to push through the occasional grindy bits. Heroine Kyrie is an Arbiter, whose job description entails law enforcement and peacekeeping. Kyrie has a strong sense of integrity and views her partner, Reiner, and trainee, Anadine, like family. During a routine patrol with Anadine, Kyrie witnesses an arrogant scumbag wantonly kill a random person because he feels like his aristocratic station as a nobleman places him above the law. Thinking he can use his wealth and status to weasel his way out of the situation, the rich dirtball experiences a rude awakening because Kyrie is a clean Arbiter who values justice more than money and will never take a bribe. Despite being arrested and brought to tribunal, our wealthy lowlife puts up quite a fuss and vehemently insists that he will exact revenge on Kyrie. From those humble beginnings, the story opens up into a grand adventure beyond anything Kyrie could ever imagine. Although Kyrie fights vindictive individuals, secret cabals, eldritch abominations, and ghosts of her past, her mettle is most brutally tested by the societal corruption that tries to browbeat her idealistic righteousness into submission.
Outside of the main plot, optional event cutscenes occasionally pop up on the map, and these are worth viewing to see the characters hanging out and just being themselves. Anything that gives characters a little extra depth and dimension is A-okay in my book. Some of these scenes spawn sidequests and secrets, including a massive bonus dungeon. Fell Seal may not have a Las Vegas buffet's worth of side content, and the most desirable secrets require copious brainpower and effort to uncover, but what is there is worth doing to glean insight and resources for getting the optimal ending. I got the default ending and thought it was nicely done. It answered some long-standing questions but also left the narrative door open for DLC or perhaps a full-blown sequel that I want to play right now! The game also allowed me to save a "Cleared" file right before the final battle so I could do unfinished side content and try for the best ending.
The soundtrack consists of exquisitely composed, classical-inspired music befitting an epic fantasy. That being said, although the music is good on a technical level and would make for a stirring film score, I did not hear the kind of memorable hooks or catchy themes that make my favorite video game soundtracks stay with me long after the credits have rolled. On the other hand, Fell Seal's myriad sound effects are absolutely inspired. Not only is there a wide variety of unique sound effects used for attacks, spells, creature cries, and everything else, but each one sounds like it was painstakingly crafted and custom selected for its context. Sounds effects are like bass players; you usually notice them when they're either absent or lousy. But in Fell Seal, the vibrant sound effects begged for my attention for all the right reasons.
It's no secret that I simply could not get enough of Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark. I must have sunk over 80 wonderful hours into the game, most of which were spent building up class levels to earn skills and see which classes I liked best for my play style. I tend to play games rather slowly and take ludicrous amounts of time to stop and smell the roses, so I believe that typical SRPG players could probably finish the game in 40-60 hours. Since it entered Early Access back in 2018, 6 Eyes Studio has been continuously improving the Fell Seal's aesthetics, balance, dialogue scripting, and various other minutiae up until release and beyond. They have also been extremely responsive to player feedback — a strong indicator of how much they care. Their exhaustive efforts have yielded a truly magnificent game that SRPG aficionados simply must play.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.