Reviews

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark – Early Access review

Boldly billed as a tactical RPG to be likened to the old Squaresoft heavyweights Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Orge, Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is quietly building towards full release within Steam’s Early Access programme so how does it stack up? Let’s find out.

With a development team of just two people, the ambition on display is commendable. However, it’s not uncommon for small studios to aim so high that their games get stuck in Early Access indefinitely. This isn’t the case for Fell Seal, with the game feeling whole as it stands. This is a very polished game with hours upon hours of complex tactical battling to offer players.

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Immortality Isn’t all it’s Cracked up to Be

There’s a distinct power hierarchy in which protagonist, Kyrie; an Arbiter, is very much in the middle of. An Arbiter’s task is effectively law keeping and your journey begins during one of your occupational tasks involving a run-in with a rat-natured noble and some thugs. There’s a whiff of the corruption brewing in The Immortal Council (you know the sort; wealthy/powerful, top of the food chain) and, while Kyrie would rather not be embroiled in their out-of-touch politics, she’s not only duty-bound but her own nature demands she does whatever she can for the greater good, leading her to becoming Marked; a title that’s more than simple prestige, as it unlocks additional powers. In need of some extra energy Kyrie is tasked with a quest to visit the four temples, which only the Marked can enter, from here your adventure kicks off.

All the build-up sits in nicely with the game’s aesthetical direction. In a practical sense, this opens up a game in which customisation is king.

The build opportunities and level of customisation available to players in forming a party is astounding. From your multi-stat equipment to the roles of each class and their sub-roles within sub-roles, to the open-ended manner in which skill trees and abilities can be managed, there’s so much to love about the systems in play here. You can randomise character appearance and concentrate on their role or you can opt to spend time tweaking the outfit colours and styles to your liking. However, it’s combat where things get really interesting.

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Making Your Mark

A grid-based SRPG system is deployed in which you can move your troops like the chess pieces they are. Like any decent SRPG, the positioning of your varied classes while taking range and movement stats in account, giving consideration to terrain and figuring out the order in which to dispatch your foes offers a lot of opportunity for diversity in tactics. There’s nothing ground-breaking in terms of the options but the way in which you are forced to consider several moves at a time screams of fantastic balancing.

And Fell Seal is punishing. Situational experimentation is entirely necessary as the AI does little by way of wasted turns. You could have a distinct numbers advantage but your opponent’s ability to heal their final long-range archer who’s slowly been whittling your mercenaries’ health down with rooting shots that remove the mobility advantage, might be happening on one end, meanwhile their knight keeps knocking your frontline back while waiting to pounce on any opportunity to wriggle round to your rear and jab their sword up your backside (damage bonuses are granted for rear attacks, naturally).

Fell Seal demands your attention and I appreciated the need for concentration over grinding, though grinding is always an option for those trickier encounters, if inclined, the good ol’ buff-and-heal-in-a-corner-for-a-few-rounds trick I utilise in Disgaea games holds. Experience is gained on the fly and you can level up stats during battle, also amassing points to learn and upgrade your abilities via skill trees post-battle.

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Fate Sealed

The portraits pictures used for dialogue scenes have an impressive painterly look to them. The character models are nicely proportioned, with a high level of detail and offer strong, flexible base models to work with the customisable looks. The background artwork is sublime and has a hand-coloured texture and feel, which is actually my favourite aspect of the presentation.

Where Fell Seal fails to impress is in the melding of these three types of artwork, which are frequently on display together during most scenes. Characters look like they’re sat within game development software ready to be dragged by a mouse cursor before they’re dropped and snap into place. The portrait pictures, punctuated with realistic facial features and proportions, look so jarringly different to the big-eyed slender character models, even though they look great apart. I don’t know if this is an area for consideration for the team but, in my view, it’s the only aspect of the visuals that throws exertion off, somewhat.

Animation is limited and straightforward but par for the SRPG course, there’s nothing elaborate. Spell casting and abilities carry enough design differences to remain interesting. Your second fire spell takes a different form to your first, rather than just being a bit bigger or adding a flash and so on. Littles touches like these are appreciated and help to hold interest in progression.

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Background music sufficiently carries the air of fantasy in that afternoon table-top kind of way (you know, the fun kind), aiming for thematic pairing as opposed to catchy tunes, and sound design works just fine with heavier blows like hammer strikes carrying a decent feeling of weight behind them.

The writing is solid but there’s an unshakeable feeling that none of the characters have really developed beyond their surface personality. The main characters are likeable enough, if a little unimaginative and the formalised banter only feels forced in the same way fantasy novel writing often does. That said, Fell Seal does enough to feel charming in its own way and never strays into boredom.

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Verdict:

Artwork identity flaws aside, Fell Seal delivers on what it set out to do, even in Early Access. The diverse approach to tactical choices is remarkable given the scale of the project. It’s an absolute beast of an SRPG and I’ll be keeping a close eye on developments from here but honestly, for the price of entry, the game is worth your money as it is.

At Reggie Reviews we opt not provide scores for games still in Early Access or beta, acknowledging that the developers may make significant adjustments up to the final release date. We will revisit Fell Seal’s verdict once released.

Format: PC/Mac/Linux, PS4, Xbox One
Price: £15.99 (Steam Early Access)
Publisher: 1C Entertainment
Developer: 6 Eyes Studio
Age Rating: PEGI

Release Date: Q1 2019

Review copy provided by publisher

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