This Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark Review will help you decide if the strategy RPG, Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark, is an indie game worth purchasing.
Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark is a strategy RPG that takes a lot of influence from the Yasumi Matsuno strategy RPGs from Square, such as Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. The reason I mention the whole lineup of games is that while a lot of people are rightly noting the influence from Final Fantasy Tactics, this game is clearly aware of the greater landscape of these types of strategy RPGs and probably take a lot more influence from those games than FFT itself.
In fact, for the sake of the Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark review, I’d say the game feels more similar to Final Fantasy Tactics Advance in terms of gameplay and more similar to Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis in terms of tone than it does to Final Fantasy Tactics. It lacks Final Fantasy Tactics’ charming animations and rich Game of Thrones-esque plot, opting instead for an art style much more in line stylistically with the Gameboy Advance era Tactics Ogre and a competent but generic fantasy RPG plot.
Graphics – Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark Review
Graphically, the game leaves a little to be desired. I mentioned that it’s tonally and stylistically similar to Tactics Ogre, although the sprites are not the bizarre, chubby, Fisher Price sprites of Tactics Ogre and instead have more human proportions. I can’t fault them for that, because the Tactics Ogre sprites looked horrible, but I don’t particularly like these sprites either. The character sprites are a big part of what makes the game feel “indie”. They get the job done, but they just don’t add a whole lot of character to the game.
What is kind of cool, though, is how customizable the sprites are. They can be customized a lot like sprites from the original Ragnarok Online. You can change their hair, their outfit, their hat, give them glasses or beards. There are a shocking amount of customization options and that was a pretty cool element of the game that I had no idea would be available when I bought it.
The graphics of the levels themselves are a bit more memorable than the sprites. They’re still nothing to write home about graphically, and they’re very stylistically similar to the levels in Tactics Ogre or FFTA, but they have a fair amount of variety. Every level has an interesting layout. They don’t seem to reuse tilesets, so every map is unique. I was pretty impressed with the maps in the game overall.
Graphics-wise, the whole game could stand to use just a fresh coat of paint. It’s definitely one of the weakpoints of the game overall. It really feels like playing a GBA era game. Compare the graphics of Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark to the graphics of the upcoming Fae Tactics, which is an indie sRPG in exactly the same category as Fell Seal:
The designs are solid in Fell Seal. Class designs are cool, level designs are nice, the spell animations have cool concepts and look pretty neat. It just overall feels a little dated, bland and generic. It needs a little more pizzazz, a little more wow factor, a little more dynamism and maybe a little more fidelity. It’s taking a lot of visual cues from Tactics Ogre and FFTA for probably the nostalgia factor, but nostalgia factor aside, those were not visually appealing games.
I don’t know if I’d recommend taking influence from the anime-centric sRPGs like Disgaea, which seems to have influenced Fae Tactics pretty heavily, but comparing what Fell Seal executes to the original FFT even, the FFT animations are smoother, they’re more stylistic, they’re more clear, they’re more evocative. FFT sprites had a robust array of story animations that helped engage the plot. Fell Seal really would have been well served by getting to that level.
The graphics were a significant factor in giving me pause over buying the game in the first place. They created a mental barrier that I had to push through, instead of attracting me to the game.
Gameplay – Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark Review
Fell Seal does shine with regard to gameplay. When it comes to this particular genealogy of strategy RPG, it fits right in and it does pretty well. There are a lot of classes, and the classes themselves are pretty well designed. The feature of making class-specific passive abilities innate when using that class adds a fresh update to this class system. I feel it’s better than Tactics Ogre, maybe slightly better than FFTA2 and not as good as the original Final Fantasy Tactics.
The ability designs are cool, but they do suffer from what I’m going to call useless inventiveness, which is sort of a balance issue. Let me give you an example. There are probably 20 skills in the game that are “regular attack + a status”, but there are also skills that are more damage than a regular attack. So those first 20 skills provide the illusion of variety, but in practical application, none of them exist because A) they’re all the same skill and B) you’ll never use any of them since you’ll use a better skill.
It’s the ability design version of a reskin. It’s not that bad, since there are a fair amount of genuinely unique and useful abilities, but it’s definitely there. It’s not rare to have an arsenal of like 10 abilities available to you, and doing a normal physical attack is still the best option your character has on any given turn.
Out of the 32 classes in the game, maybe 10 are memorable and useful. A lot of them feel like remixes of other class’s abilities, especially the special classes.
Speaking of special classes, that brings me to another point, which is this game has a bizarre problem that’s sort of the opposite of what games in this category normally have. The special characters you get are all fundamentally weaker than generics you can recruit. Generic units have 6 special classes they can acquire, which are all unique and fairly strong. Meanwhile, special characters can’t access any of those classes, but they, instead, have unique classes which tend to be weaker remixes of the special classes’ abilities.
Gameplay-wise, it’s really more similar to FFTA2 than anything else. The way magic looks and functions, the way MP works, the class ability designs, the pacing of the animations — playing this game just feels similar to playing FFTA2.
One thing I have to commend Fell Seal for in the Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark review is its level design, which I think is actually top notch in comparison to a lot of other games in this category. It has some very unique and cool boss fights. Every level has a very distinct visual look and level design. There are hidden treasures and elements found in the maps that add a little bit of a puzzle aspect to the levels. It makes good use of interesting height layouts and hazards. Level design is definitely one of the strongest points of the game.
Story – Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark Review
The story is not… particularly good. It’s just very standard. Exists in a pretty generic fantasy setting, has a pretty generic fantasy story. It does have kind of this interesting take on it, where you’re essentially a cop who’s doing an investigation, so execution-wise, it’s got that going for it to help make it stand out and to keep it fresh, but there’s nothing particularly special about it.
The characters are all pretty standard fantasy RPG tropes. The story is about mysterious occurrences that trace back to a corrupt authority that has involvement with a demon intent on destroying the world. Very, very standard fantasy stuff. There’s not really any there there. If this story wasn’t a side-dish in the gameplay systems of this game, used as a sort of reward system to denote forward progress, it would have no reason to exist. I often wonder why the stories in games like this are so bad.
A lot of people say it has something to do with the way story is used in the context of a gameplay system. I totally disagree. I think it’s because the people who make games have bad taste in stories, don’t have writing talent, don’t value storytelling, don’t respect real writers or the craft of writing, and don’t have original or thought-provoking ideas. Gameplay systems don’t constrain stories to being unoriginal, derivative, banal and thematically bankrupt, and yet they so often are. To top it off, what they’re derivative of is usually also unoriginal, derivative and several other forms of bad, which is where the bad taste criticism comes into play.
You know what the story really reminded me of? Bright, on Netflix. Aside from the modern day setting or just generally more inventive world, it’s kind of similar in the sense that it’s a fantasy cop drama where authority figures are revealed to be corrupt and involved in much bigger forces. Remember Bright and how terrible critics generally agreed that it was? I actually thought Bright was ok. The story here is like a much, much worse and more generic version of Bright.
What I’m saying here in my Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark review, is that if they really stepped up their game, the story could have been on par with a movie that one audience member called “Painful to watch. One of the worst films I’ve ever seen.”
Anyway, it’s sort of a disappointment in this game since FFT and Tactics Ogre actually had pretty good stories for a video game. FFT, especially, had a story that was decent enough to carry an anime or a novel. For a video game story, Fell Seal’s story is probably a C. Serviceable as background context for the gameplay to exist. A competently executed pointless, generic video game story. But that’s kind of a special olympics award. If this story had to survive on its own merits, it would be a rock bottom F- that could never escape the dregs of obscure fan fiction websites, like so many video game stories.
Part of the problem, aside from the plot and the script, is the lack of stakes and the lack of dramatic, powerful moments, which are usually enhanced by music and what I’m going to call sprite acting. The limited character animations can’t facilitate emotional expression in this game, and that definitely hurts it, as does the lack of dramatic tension and the lack of music that reinforces the story.
Remember poignant moments in game storytelling like the sadness of Nanami’s death in Suikoden 2 or the mysterious tension of the massacre at Riovanes in FFT? I feel a big part of that, aside from the plot and script, was owed to sprites capable of emoting through their animations and expressing emotions in their portraits, combined with cinematic tone and music. This game doesn’t really accomplish, or attempt to accomplish, any of that stuff.
When it comes to story in the Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark review, it doesn’t really feel like this game was attempting to tell a good story, and it successfully did not.
Music – Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark Review
The music in Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark is pretty forgettable, which is a bit of a disappointment. It’s not memorably bad, so that’s a positive, but if I try my very best to recall anything about it, it feels like a composer was asked to make music that sounds like video game music. It might as well be royalty free music. Maybe it is, who knows.
I usually talk about the music in my game reviews, because game soundtracks are often such a treat, but I just have nothing to say in my Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark review. Did the game have music? I barely noticed it.
Overall – Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark Review
Despite its shortcomings in the graphics and storytelling department, Fell Seal is a surprisingly robust experience, mostly on the strength of its gameplay and its level design. I got 40+ hours out of it, and I enjoyed it, for the most part. The real shame of Fell Seal is how much better it could have been. If its graphics were one or two generations better, its story was at least a B+, and some of its design elements were a little more polished, it could have been a real contender to compete in the same big leagues as FFT. A title that even people who aren’t fans of the genre niche would have to play.
As it stands now, though, it’s in sort of the same category as FFTA2 and Tactics Ogre. If you like this sRPG genre enough to not have to google what Wild Arms XF is, Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark is a fantastic game, and definitely among the better entrants. If you have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention FFTA2 or Tactics Ogre, you’re not going to ‘get’ Fell Seal. The nostalgia and derivation that it’s so reliant on will be completely lost on you.
Holistically, I’d say Fell Seal Arbiter’s Mark is a C+ in general and a B+ for sRPG fans (like me) craving a new game. I will be looking forward to future releases from this studio. Between this game and Black Sigil, their first game, I’m convinced that they’re really big jRPG fans and they get what makes a jRPG a jRPG. I hope they’ll come into their own a little more, though.