Review: Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark – Final Fantasy Tactics for a New Generation

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is a brand new Tactical RPG from 6 Eyes Studio. Going off of gameplay alone, Fell Seal could be in the ring with some of the best games in the genre. In my initial impression piece (which you can read here) I hit just shy of the 15 hour mark, and felt I’d only scratched the surface of what Fell Seal‘s gameplay had to offer. Turns out, I was right. I never stopped learning about new ways to own the battlefield up to the end of my playthrough. Though it never lets you forget it’s an indie game and ultimately overstays its welcome, Fell Seal is not a game to miss for any fans of the TRPGs of yore.

Fell Seal’s gameplay is layered and engaging, just as you’d expect in an homage to the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Soon after you take in the smattering of information on how to play at the beginning, you quickly learn that every decision you make can change the outcome of a battle. Fell Seal’s grid-based combat is about as slow and methodical as it gets. Preparing your squad by acquiring new skills, keeping equipment updated and using the correct combination of classes are essential to success. This means micro-management is its own meta-game. After every battle, you’ll be flipping through menus so much that it’ll eventually become muscle memory. Luckily, the user-interface is intuitive enough that it isn’t too much of a hassle. 

Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark
Looks a little familiar, eh?

As your characters gain experience points and unlock new skills, new classes begin to open up. You can change a character’s class at any given time, assuming they meet the prerequisite. For example: once a character unlocks three skills as a Mercenary, you can change to the Knight. After gaining four skills in the Knight skill tree, the Templar opens up, and so on. When moving a character to a new class, you don’t have to leave that previous one behind; you can simply make it your secondary class. This can make for an effective (and sometimes deadly) 1-2-punch on the battlefield. If you ever feel like you’re in need of certain skills and have the extra gold, you can recruit a new troop from the Guild in any town.

Early classes like the Mercenary are built around getting up close and personal, doling out big melee damage, while later ones like the Sorcerer can take over the screen with massive spells that damage the entire enemy squad. Some classes are built around casting debuffs on enemies, while others deal more damage the more debuffs an enemy has. Toward the end of my playthrough, my most used strategy was using the Fellblade and Gambler classes to cast debuffs, while my Gunner used “Focus” to buff to double damage for the next turn. I’d then have her use “Opportunistic Bullet” which deals more damage for every debuff on an enemy, often resulting in a one-hit kill. It was satisfying every time, especially on those more troublesome enemies.

On the flip side, enemies can do exactly the same to you, which is why it’s important to keep your squad updated with the best armor and gear. Not only will it keep your stats as high as possible, some equipment can negate certain debuffs altogether, saving your Mender from wasting a turn on curing status ailments. The most important step in battle preparation, however, is during the “Placing Units” phase right before the battle starts. It’s at this time that you can use the cursor to freely examine enemies and their abilities. It’s important to assess the enemy squad’s capabilities so you an adjust your own squad accordingly. You have complete agency over your troops up until you hit the “Start Battle” button.

Fell Seal: Arbiters Mark
You can almost see the brush strokes.

The combat is immensely satisfying, and even toward the end of my time with Fell Seal, it still had plenty of classes and strategies to discover. The combat is so refined, that it makes everything else around it stick out like a sore thumb. The aesthetics of Fell Seal consistently remind you it’s an indie game. While the notably diverse number of hand-drawn environments and monster designs are unique and even gorgeous to look at sometimes, things like character portraits and character models feel inconsistent or even contradictory to the rest of the artstyle. Character animations are rudimentary at best, and the sound design ranges from fine all the way to outright laughable. The overworld map feels completely detached from some of the battlefields that you find yourself on. To be fair, Fell Seal is never a game that takes itself too seriously, but a tad more polish in these areas would have went a long way.

Where Fell Seal excels aesthetically is in its music. Developer 6 Eyes Studio outsourced the music to an experienced producer, and for the most part, it pays off. Music has its own identity here, with unique battle, shop and overworld themes. I still get the “Troops” screen music stuck in my head. The pool of songs on this epic orchestral soundtrack is very small however, which can be fatiguing with a game this long. I would find myself often turning down the music and playing my own after a while.

Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark,Overworld
The overworld and battlefields feel like two different worlds.

When it comes to story, Fell Seal isn’t doing anything new. But what’s there is interesting enough to move players forward. The overarching narrative is one of political unrest: The land of Teora is ruled by the Immortals, a council of higher beings who came into power after they’d sealed away a great evil. After they began to oversee the land, they recruited Arbiters to enforce the law and keep peace. Years pass and many of the Arbiters become corrupt, pillaging towns and taking as they see fit. After witnessing a murder on the streets of Gelligh, a lawful Arbiter by the name of Kyrie along with her trusted companions are thrust into a journey that would change the way they see the world forever. As you continue through the story, it’s made clear that not all is well within the council of Immortals.

Each of the main cast of characters have their own personality. There’s Kyrie, the leader of the group who is chosen to become the next immortal early on; Reiner, Kyrie’s close friend since childhood who’s a skilled rogue; and Anadine, an Arbiter in training who Kyrie has takes under her wing. Fell Seal gives just enough detail to fill out each character’s motivation, but I never felt I knew enough about them to be truly invested. There were many missed opportunities to expand on the relationships between these characters and the extended cast, which left the characters feeling like tools to win a battle rather than meaningful parts of a story. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting. That is, before it eventually turns into the typical “save the world” RPG plot, which left me feeling underwhelmed.

Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark,Combat grid
Attacking enemies from the side or back deals much more damage than the front.

One of my biggest complaints with Fell Seal is the amount of mandatory interstitial battles. For every battle that had some consequence to the story, there were two or three more that didn’t. They were just there to fill time. I would’ve taken no issue if these had been optional, but it makes it all the more difficult for those wanting to mainline through the story. Some of these battles can even be exceedingly difficult, requiring multiple attempts with different strategies to win. Thankfully, Fell Seal allows you to change the difficulty at any time should you get truly stuck. On the other hand, this means you can tailor the game to be as tough as you like, which is great for novices and veterans of the genre alike.

After clocking in just over 60 hours to complete the story, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to see the credits. However, I ultimately enjoyed my time with Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark. It may be rough around the edges, but it gets the important things right with its deep and satisfying combat. If you need another Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre in your life, this is the game for you.

Collin reviewed Fell Seal on PC with a code provided by the publisher. The game is also out on Xbox One, and it’s coming out on Nintendo Switch on Aug. 14.

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