For many gamers of a certain age, Final Fantasy Tactics on the PlayStation was their introduction to the tactical RPG genre. Featuring bright, colourful graphics and a charmingly melodramatic story in the style Square Enix does so well, the game proved to be a hit. Despite the popularity of the game, few follow-ups to the original were created—the most recent being a spin-off for the Nintendo DS back in 2007. Tired of this dearth of tactics experiences, two-person developer 6 Eyes Studio has created a cheerful new strategy adventure with Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark. Featuring a diverse cast, intriguing story, and deep gameplay, Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark provides a satisfying strategy experience for both new and old fans of the genre.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark’s world of Teora is steeped in political intrigue. Centuries ago, a group of heroes defeated an ancient evil intent on destroying the world, developing otherworldly powers in the process. To prevent such a threat from rising again, the heroes formed the council of Immortals, almighty rulers of the land. While the Immortal Council is extremely powerful, it is few in numbers and, as such, has recruited the mercenary-like Arbiters to police the lands of Teora. Many years later, an Arbiter captain named Kyrie notices that something is amiss in the world. Bandit attacks are becoming increasingly frequent, murders are being ignored, and many so-called peacekeepers are turning a blind eye to heinous crimes. With her recruits in tow, Kyrie explores the world, determined to discover the source of this corruption.
The narrative in Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is told with in-engine cutscenes between missions and does a good job weaving in the large quantities of game-specific terms without being overwhelming. Many of the story beats will be familiar to fans of role-playing games, but the plot contains enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. Plot events link back into gameplay as well: an abducted character will not be available for a particular battle, and a map early on requires the player to survive waves of enemies while trying to convince a character inside a house to let them in.
Combat begins when Kyrie enters a node on the overworld map. Battles are turn-based, with most maps allowing a maximum of six units to participate. Units can move and attack in any order and have special abilities they can use depending on their character class. More so than most other games of this genre, character placement is vital: an attack to the side or the back of a unit will do much more damage than the front, and the smart move is to protect a character’s back over greedily sneaking in an extra hit of damage. The conditions for victory vary from map to map; defeating all enemies is the most common mission type, but others include protecting a civilian, surviving waves of monsters, gathering ingredients, or defeating enemy leaders. If a player’s unit dies on a map, they will sustain an injury, giving them a sharp decrease in stats until the injury is healed. On the standard difficulty, the unit will recover from injury by skipping the next battle, while, for harder difficulties, the injuries can be permanent or even lead to death. This system works well to encourage the player to try different units and build a balanced party.
A great deal of the player’s time will be spent in troop management. New units can be recruited at any city and can start in any class the player has unlocked. With 20 different job types, the player has a lot to consider, and within each class is a branching tree of different abilities to learn. All the standard fantasy staples one would expect are here—mercenaries, wizards, menders, rogues—but some more unusual roles are available too, such as the Gambler with luck-based abilities or the trap-laying Peddler. Each unit can use two jobs at any one time, and, as the character levels up, they learn new abilities for both. A character’s class determines what equipment they can use, and weapons and armour will often be shuffled from unit to unit as their abilities change. Managing equipment is a little unwieldy, with separate screens for purchasing new equipment and managing the items already bought. The optimise button does not take accessories into account, so the player will be juggling items themselves each time. This issue is a minor irritation, but, with the need to outfit units after nearly every battle, a more streamlined system would serve the game better.
Enemy units are intelligent in Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, often possessing the same skills and abilities as the player. They will protect their backs, use items, fall back when injured, and have a variety of unit types to cover their weaknesses. While the campaign has a generally smooth difficulty curve, a few spikes occur when the enemy gains access to new character classes and abilities. Such roadblocks can be overcome by experimenting with the player’s party makeup, and each character class has an important role to play. Once the enemy gained the ability to poison units, for example, the status effect-based healing role of the plague doctor was suddenly more useful. The difficulty settings can be adjusted at any time during the campaign. Furthermore, with five preset options along with tweaking individual stats such numbers of enemies, enemy behaviours, and level scaling, all players should be able to find a setting that suits them.
Developer 6 Eyes Studio contracted a veritable army of 18 artists to assist with the art and music of Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, and their combined efforts have paid off admirably. The portraits of the characters are beautifully realised, reminiscent of Baldur’s Gate‘s classic painterly style. The isometric world is clear and readable, sprites are full of character, and the epic fantasy soundtrack perfectly fits the world. Animations are simple, but scale nicely with the attack they are depicting; a first level water spell is a tiny splash, but a maxed out water attack depicts an enormous shark devouring the enemy.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark features a sizeable campaign, with 40 hand-crafted maps along with an optional endgame dungeon. With most maps taking 30 minutes or more to complete, along with the ability to revisit them for extra experience or treasure, this adventure will last at least 30 hours for most players. With such long maps, a quick-save function in the middle of a mission would be appreciated. An auto-save before the beginning of a map would also be helpful and allow the player to quickly retry a failed mission.
The most impressive aspect of Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is how accessible the game is without sacrificing the in-depth complexity the tactical RPG is loved for. Specific terminology is explained with a press of the touchpad, and new enemy types are introduced at an even pace. The smoothly interwoven story and addictive combat can make entire afternoons disappear.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark embodies the heart of an epic adventure. A spiritual sequel to one of the most beloved titles in gaming, the game holds its own as a clever tactical experience that anyone can enjoy.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.