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Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark Review — A Highly Polished Tactical Adventure

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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.  

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark

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.

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark

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

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.

OnlySP Review Score 4 Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Review

Stranger Things 3: The Game Review — Mindflayingly Average

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Stranger Things 3: The Game logo

The Stranger Things series has been a big success for Netflix. A love letter to ‘80s pop culture, with a focus on the science fiction and horror movies of the time, the show has been hugely popular, with the latest season screened on over 40 million accounts in its first four days. Accompanying the launch of the television season is Stranger Things 3: The Game. Developed by BonusXP Inc, which previously created Stranger Things: The Game for mobile devices, the game is an isometric brawler which competently retells the story of Stranger Things 3, but has little of its own to say. Mild spoilers for Stranger Things 3 ahead.  

The game opens one year after the events of Stranger Things season two. While trying to contact his camp girlfriend with a high-tech ham radio, Dustin overhears a strange recording spoken in Russian. Determined to figure out what it means, he teams up with Steve and his coworker Robin to try and decode the message. Meanwhile, strange occurrences have been happening around Hawkins, with rats devouring fertiliser and chemicals. Max’s brother Billy is looking decidedly unwell, thickly wrapped in jumpers while he works as a lifeguard. A tingle at the back of Will’s neck tells him the mindflayer’s presence still lingers around the town. As events progress, a group of average kids must save the world from an otherworldly monstrous threat once again.  

Stranger Things 3: The Game takes place in a semi-open world, with more locations unlocked as players progress. The player starts out in control of Mike and Lucas, who wield a bat and slingshot respectively. Two characters are always on screen, with the other person controlled by AI. Local co-op is available and seems to be the intended way to play—the AI for the second player is not very smart. When in single-player mode, the player can switch between the two characters on the fly, and any unlocked characters can be swapped to as well. The other characters unlock over the course of the story, with a total of 12 to choose from. Each character can attack and block and has a unique special move, such as Max’s healing hearts or Jonathan’s stunning camera flash. Special moves cost energy, which can be replenished by drinking New Coke or picked up from defeated enemies. With each character playing so differently, the game would benefit from restricting which characters can be used in each scenario, as finding a favourite combination and sticking to it is far too easy. This lack of restriction also caused some weird story occurrences, like Nancy wandering around the void or Hopper hanging out with Mike while he mopes about breaking up with Eleven.

Exploring Hawkins involves lots of switch puzzles, and using characters’ special abilities, like Dustin hacking into a locked door or Joyce cutting the lock off of a gate with her bolt cutters. The puzzles are generally straightforward, with the Russians inexplicably leaving clues in English for the player to find, but more complicated riddles can be found by wandering off the beaten track. The creepy deserted pizza place has some based on pi, and exploring optional rooms in the Russian base will reward the player with rare crafting items.

Crafting in Stranger Things 3: The Game is poorly implemented. Items can only be made at workbenches, which makes sense for complicated contraptions, but is annoying at other times (for example, having to retreat out of the pool area because Eleven needs to put duct tape on her swimming goggles). When looking in a store, no indication appears on what items are already in the player’s inventory. Apart from plot items, the player can also make trinkets, which improve the party’s statistics. A wide variety of trinkets are available, from improving a single character’s attack to increasing the health of the whole party. Finding the missing items to create a trinket is tricky due to the poor shopping interface, and the sparse placement of workbenches gives the player few chances to actually craft the items. Fortunately, fighting enemies is easy enough that crafting can mostly go ignored.

Combat is simple, for the most part, with the player smashing everything on screen to progress. Hawkins is absolutely infested with rats and Russians, with even the library packed to the brim with bad guys. Though the excessive numbers of similar enemies is normal in the brawling genre, more variety would have been appreciated. The late game Russians become more interesting, with knife throwers, chemical spills, and grenades, but the first three-quarters of the game consists of the same baddies over and over.

An exception to this repetition is the challenging boss battles, which are far tougher than the average gameplay. Bosses will need extra conditions to be met before they can be damaged, like switching lights on, dodging charge attacks, or keeping several baddies away from each other. Some work better than others—for example, one battle relied on keeping two boss creatures apart to prevent them from healing each other, which simply did not work in single player since the AI fighter closely follows the main character. Instead, defeating the boss required exploiting Nancy’s critical hit ability to do enough damage to kill the monsters before they could heal, a strategy that required some luck to succeed. Other boss encounters fared better, with the trial of constantly repairing Hopper’s cottage as slimy creatures crawl through the windows proving tough and intense.  A dodge button would be a useful addition to the movement options, since the bosses run so much faster than the player does. The game is also a bit stingy on providing a place to stock up before a boss battle, which should be included considering the spike in difficulty they represent. Still, these battles are where the game shines brightest, showing creativity and variety that is sorely lacking in other areas.

Stranger Things 3: The Game is faithful to a fault, feeling like a very detailed recap of the season. A few sidequests tell their own story, like doing chores for the creepy Granny Perkins or exploring the abandoned electronics store, but for the most part, the player will be re-enacting scenes from the television series, with a bit of extra rat murder and crafting thrown in. Clinging so closely means the story has nowhere exciting to go since the player has presumably already watched the season. If the player has not seen the show, that would be even worse, as it is a non-scary adaptation of a horror show that completely loses the tone. The occasional dialogue choice is thrown in, but the response makes no difference either way. Adding in some choices alongside possibilities of events going differently would make things far more engaging. 

A highlight of Stranger Things 3: The Game is the art direction, with some beautiful 16-bit recreations of the cast and environments. With the exception of Jonathan, who looks like his pointy-chinned cousin, the sprites are a good resemblance of the cast. The monsters are appropriately fleshy and gross, with the final boss, in particular, looking foreboding. Environments can get a bit repetitive, with one sprite for all the beds, one for all the cupboards, etcetera. Sprite laying issues do occur on occasion—the ashtrays all hover in front of the characters, for example. The chiptune recreation of the show’s music, however, is spot on, and converting the title theme into a Zelda-like solved puzzle jingle is impressive indeed.    

Stranger Things 3: The Game gameplay

Stranger Things 3: The Game is only for really big fans of the show. Even then, the title is hard to recommend since it is an inferior version of the television season. While the gameplay is not bad, it is too repetitive to be enjoyable on its own. The game would perhaps be best played just before season four comes out, as a novel way of recapping the previous season.   

OnlySP Review Score 2 Pass

Reviewed on PC. Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS and Android devices.

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