If I had to pick a game type I’ve spent most of my life playing, it would be RPGs. Specifically though, I would say the Tactical RPG subset is the one I have played most. Games like Fire Emblem (especially Sacred Stones), Advance Wars (I liked AW 2 better), Onimusha Tactics, Hoshigami Remix (if you wanted an obscure pull), Pokemon Conquest (holy damn what a game) and most importantly, Final Fantasy Tactics (I played FFT Advanced before War of the Lions) shaped my appreciation of the Tactical subset of RPGs, making it one of my top favorite genres. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was such an amazing game that even today many Tactical RPGs fail to live up to it’s shining example. It is the quintessential game, one that it would take a powerhouse game to beat.
Enter Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is an indie game developed by 6 Eye Studios and published by 1C Publishing. I was lucky enough to get a review copy of this game for the Nintendo Switch, and let me tell you, it is right at home here. I was also lucky enough to be able to chat with one of the devs, Pierre Leclerc (game producer), to chat about Fell Seal and the team! Questions and answers will be sprinkled throughout.
There is no game on the console doing quite what Fell Seal is doing by way of Tactical RPGs (here on out TRPG), and yeah, I see Fire Emblem and choose to ignore it.
Q: My first question: Why tactical RPG for gameplay?
A: First and foremost, it’s a genre we immensely enjoy. We became indie devs to have the freedom to work on what we enjoy after all
The next reason would be that we felt it was a genre that has been under-served for a long time now, in terms of JRPG style tactical RPGS. There are a fair amount of titles in the “tactical RPG” sphere, with some very big players, like Xcom, Fire Emblem, Divinity, Disgaea, etc. But these titles don’t really convey the same feeling as classics like Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. We also think the few indie titles we know in that sphere usually tend not to be ambitious enough, with often simplistic battle systems and a small amount of classes and abilities. And so we figured it was time for us to bring our dream game to life!
Q: How heavily is the game influenced by Final Fantasy Tactics (it’s obvious in play, but I’m thinking more like was it a game the team enjoyed or saw was underrepresented in the current market (or some other reason))? Are you influenced by games like Divinity: Original Sin that take the tactics off the grid?
A: I guess this ties to the previous question a lot for us! Final Fantasy Tactics was absolutely the game that inspired us the most while making Fell Seal, and our goal was to recreate an experience similar to it. We enjoyed FFT immensely and we certainly feel like this precise segment of the tactical RPG market has been underrepresented for more than a decade, which is a big reason for why we stepped in.
As for other influences, there were certainly many. We probably couldn’t list all of them either: we play a lot of RPGs in general and I’m sure we’ve been influenced by many of these, consciously or unconsciously. We’ve played all the “Divinity: Original Sin” games and we’ve certainly enjoyed them a lot, although I admit I don’t think they’ve been a big source of inspiration for Fell Seal specifically. The same could probably be said about most of the other larger titles: we’ve played them, but their influence on Fell Seal was probably marginal. In the end, we set out to recreate the “old school” experience that games like FFT, Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts, Kartia, etc. brought to the table, and it’s a genre that we’ve not seen around in decades, so our core inspirations are bound to be a little older.
Fell Seal is a loveletter to Final Fantasy Tactics in the greatest way possible, but also does an excellent job carving its own spot, making slight changes and adjustments to improve overall experience.
I’ll start first with the look of the game because wow is it an upgrade over FFT. Blasphemy for me to even say, yes, but just take a look and disagree with me. This is a hand drawn masterpiece. You have the same type of portraits that show up when dialogue is onscreen, but it’s during battle where the characters really shine. They wear the weapons you have equipped them and the armor you choose at the Guild, making your choices feel more than just stat-based. The enhanced power of the Switch (and PC ans this games is also on Steam) lets the game handle the graphics, and it is one of the many charming qualities Fell Seal has to offer.
Q: I’m a sucker for the graphic style. Was the hand-drawn aspect something you were deadset on from the beginning? And is it an extra pain/hassle to do so (as opposed to more pixel-art based) for environments and characters?
A: The first thing we decided from the start was to go with 2D, since our artist specializes in 2D art exclusively. From there, we thought the hand-drawn style would look better and be more detailed than a tiled map. It was also very easy to create a map-editor for hand-drawn maps, and when we started the project, our programmer was still working full-time at a big studio in the area, so his time was limited. Finally, our artist really enjoys hand-drawing, so it was the best choice all around.
As for the difficulty of it, our artist thinks there are easier/harder aspects to either hand-drawn or pixel-art approaches, and that things would probably have been roughly as much trouble going the other route.
Just for clarity, only our environments are hand-drawn though, all sprites, including spells, characters and UI elements are pixel-art.
Characters are another thing the game does well, something predecessor games have done well too. War of the Lions has a pretty deep and twisting story, while Advanced has a simpler but still interesting one. I like to think of Fell Seal as a happy medium between the two. Not as high as War of the Lions wars and kingdoms, but still a tale of intrigue and deception. Each character has their own agendas and goals outside of the task at hand (aside from the recruitable party members, who are essentially just mannequins to deck out with weapons and classes). They are along for the ride, as good hired hands should be, taking backseat to the handful of main characters who do the talking. There are multiple facets to the characters too (some of them), so the story twists feel right. and I won’t ruin any of it here, as it’s worth a playthrough to see for yourself.
Music is another big part of any game, one that can make or break it at times. Fell Seal knocks it out with Jan Morgenstern’s immaculate score accentuating the grandness of the world. Morgenstern is an award-winning composer and sound designer in the game, film, and TV world. In his own words, he “wrote a sweeping orchestral score that’s rich on melody and captivating rhythms.” A better one-sentence description could not be given, as it really lends itself well to the game. And, if you’re interested after checking the game out, be sure to grab the Fell Seal soundtrack in it’s entirety from his Bandcamp page.
Now to get into the meat of Fell Seal, the game and how it plays. I’ve said before it’s a loveletter to FFT, and jumping into the first battle, it is overtly evident the devs loved them some FFT. Not to say that the game is a carbon copy, though, as there are a few main differences I’ll list here that set Fell Seal apart enough to feel like a different experience.
Firstly, the class system is totally revamped. I cannot tell you how frustrated the job system in Final Fantasy Tactics made me. I understood it and accepted it at the time, but after playing Fell Seal, I’ll be mad to go back. That’s because instead of abilities being tied to certain pieces of equipment you had to keep equipped on the character until they learned the ability or skill you were looking for, Fell Seal replaces that with an experience point system whereby you spend points in one of the classes you have active in order to learn new skills on a progressing skill tree (which has branches but is by no means excessive).
Boy do I love being able to change my class, and this game rewards you for experimenting (just as FFT did before it) without keeping your characters tied down to one specific weapon until they learn the skill you want. This also means that each character has a chance to be well rounded with different starting abilities. Above all else, it makes the Class and ability system much easier to master, something I think is welcoming in a previous world of equipment micromanagement.
Second is the way that items work. It’s interesting that in a game with magic and special abilities that items would be so common in FFT. Phoenix Downs were always good for a battle, but I didn’t usually find myself picking through items, usually because I’d be saving money for equipment. Fell Seal gives you more of an incentive to use items because they recover after each battle, and any player can use them if they choose (unlike FFT, where it was a skill to use them for some strange reason). Tossing a potion or using it when you’re waiting for mana to regen is critical, even if there is only a set number of items you can use per battle.
Last is the replayability. Part of this is being able to go back and challenge previous areas again. As far as I can remember, returning to previous areas to encounter enemies again (instead of progressing the main story) could only be done when an enemy was present on the space you were traveling to, or for a quest. Fell Seal gives you the ability to return to previous spaces and challenge a new arrangement of enemies, which become stronger on repeated visits. The ranges of levels the enemies could be is displayed when selecting a location, meaning no surprises, but also you can pick lower level areas if you need to train up the scrub in the group.
The second part of this, though, is New Game+ mode. After completing FFT, the last save of the game is right before the final boss, so unless you had multiple saves of the same playthrough, you’d actually be locked into a neverending loop of fighting the final battle. Fell Seal solves this problem by introducing New Game+, taking you, with all your equipment and abilities, back into the fray to start all over again, with harder challenges and enemies to face. This will especially be handy for players when the DLC comes to the game (mentioned later), as many have presumably already had a run through the story.
I would never say I was disappointed in this game, however, there were one or two things I felt made the game imperfect. The first of these is the lack of quests. Final Fantasy Tactics, for me, was all about the world and wordbuilding (especially in Advanced). This was done extremely well with the jobs and quests, which took you to different areas to interact with one-off NPCs, creating a feeling that the world was doing other things while you were following your quest. Little touches like this really round out an experience for me, and I feel like I would have been drawn into the world of Fell Seal more if this aspect was included. This is something the devs are addressing, however.
Q: Can you share anything about the upcoming DLC for Fell Seal? I remember reading something about monster taming (one of my favorite parts of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (and sorry to keep referencing it)) and wanted to know how that was going.
A: We’re still pretty early in the whole process at this point and still wrapping up the designs, so I don’t have too many specifics I can share yet. But we have two main systems we’re planning for the game: Monsters and Missions. We’re adding a system to recruit monsters, as well as a special class system to monsters. We’re also working on a Missions system, that will involve giving guild tasks to benched units for various rewards, as well as a system to upgrade the Arbiter’s Guilds throughout the land.
I can’t give much more details than that at this point, but we’ll have some more information soon!
Q: Any future endeavors? Will this game occupy most of your time for the foreseeable future or is there something else brewing for the team?
A: Our current plan is to wrap up the Fell Seal DLC and then focus on updates from the DLC-release feedback. When we feel things are in a good enough spot, we’ll start working on our next project most likely. I don’t have anything concrete on that front yet as we’re still brainstorming, but you can count on the game having some big RPG elements and being in 2D, as that’s what we truly love!
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is a fantastic treasure among games today. Revamping a classic idea with fresh looks and feel, it really stands on it’s own as a TRPG worth playing.
I give Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark (played on Nintendo Switch) a 9/10 (10/10 when the DLC comes out)
Fell Seal can be found here! (as well as on consoles)