by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
If you are looking for an old-school JRPG, look no further. Drawing heavily from Final Fantasy Tactics, Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is the epitome of the classic JRPG in every imaginable way.
The story follows the adventures of Kyrie, an arbiter of the Immortal Council. Formed centuries prior, a savage beast threatened to destroy the world. Only the Immortals stood strong enough to defeat it. After their hard won victory, the Immortals formed the Council to promote stability throughout the lands. As Kyrie, your learn that corruption lurks within the Council’s organisation. It is up to you to get to the heart of the corruption and stop it before it becomes too difficult to control. The world is already edging towards chaos and you can sense a grand event is at hand. Speed, then, is of the essence.
A battle that may never come
During our Gamescom interview, developer couple Pierre and Christina Leclerc emphasized their attention to detail and their commitment to the JRPG genre. Story, combat, progression, characters, weapons and items - it’s all exactly as you’d expect. “We only make changes where we can improve or modernize so that the game does not feel dated.” Pierre explained as I watched him demonstrate their game. True to his words, I could not find much that I’d consider straying from the formula.
Inventory and item management was one area where the team has made changes. There’s a shared inventory (which is not unique) in which common usable items refresh before every battle. If you have found a Strength + 3 potion, you can use it once every battle, and it will be available for your next. “Many RPG players end up finishing their game with inventories filled to the brim with potions and other usable items. They save them, thinking they’ll use it for a tough battle ahead that may never come.”
Sink or Swim
One idea I particularly liked was that of secret classes. Every character has the ability to branch out into subclasses and while most are fixed, some are only available if you find the equivalent badge to unlock. There’s usually more than one in a game, but some are rare enough that you won’t find them each playthrough. As you would expect, you can customise your characters through skills, weapon and accessory slots. For this, Fell Seal takes player choice very seriously, as illustrated by the dual wield shields ability “If you want, you can put two shields on a single character, making him easy to hit but extremely hard to damage” Pierre said laughing.
There’s no permadeath in the game at this stage, but there may be. For now, the developers have opted for an injury system not unlike that of XCOM. Wounded characters will have their stats reduced significantly and you’ll have to bench them for a while to recoup. The idea behind this is that it motivates people to develop a few additional characters that they can rotate on and off, and experiment with varied character builds.
Before combat starts, you’ll be able to have a peek at which enemies will be joining the battle so that you can place your party on the map at predetermined spots in the most optimal way. Once engaged, there are a couple of fun little twists that are sure to make the mind of any decent tactician purr in delight. What to think of the initiative trait that allows a character to take an additional turn each round? How about stealing items from enemies while in combat? And then there is my personal favourite - the ability to push an enemy off a cliff. You’ll either do a good bit of damage from hitting the ground, or take them out of the battle completely if they hit water. Did I mention there is a swim trait? It suddenly sounds very useful!
From the time I spent with them, it was obvious that Pierre and Christina have spent many, many hours playing old-school JRPGs. They could talk for hours what made some games great, and others not so much. Moreover, they have their hearts set on delivering a classic experience with just enough touch-ups to make it feel modern, and enough genre-appropriate twists to make combat interesting for veterans and newcomers alike. If you’re keen to give it go, you can. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is already out on Steam Early Access and the team is eager to receive input and feedback - you may just help shape the game into being better than it already is.