The tale surrounding Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition is an fascinating one. Although its journey has just begun on Switch, it has existed – in some form or another – for nearly two decades, dating back to the early 2000s as a simple “hobby” project. Today, the indie scene is bigger than ever and widely accepted by the masses, but many games still suffer from certain stigmas, no matter how great they might be underneath the hood. From its humble beginnings as an RPG Maker project – a statement alone that, if following the herd mentality, does not make a good first impression – to its current Unity backbone, the dedication and perseverance involved in this game speaks volumes. Is it the best retro JRPG ever? Of course not, but it still has a heart big enough to match many of the 16-bit classics from which it draws such heavy inspiration.
Ara Fell tells a familiar tale of the cyclical nature of war. Ages ago, war erupted among the powers that be – an act so devastating that it spelled certain doom for the world itself. Seeing the writing on the wall, the sun goddess acted swiftly in order to provide her followers – the elves – sanctuary from the conflict. Through the concerted efforts of the goddess and her devotees, an entire continent was suspended in air – Ara Fell – in an attempt to shelter what little was left untainted by the global war. While Ara Fell would enjoy a moment of peace thereafter, relying on the physical manifestation of the sun goddess – the sunstone – to maintain their home in the clouds, the world below would die out, and later become known as the “Abyss.”
Peace rarely lasts, and before long, there was one among the populace of Ara Fell who desired that which was forbidden: ultimate power. While god-like stature wasn’t attained, the end result led to an outbreak of vampires that would soon overwhelm the unsuspecting, long-peaceful elves. With their sights set on the sunstone, the vampires would push the elves to their limit, who then enacted the stone curse; a last ditch effort to protect the endangered elves, as well as the sunstone itself. This “stone curse” would prove somewhat successful, as it would rob the vampires of their most beneficial means of sustenance, but also lead to a truly unfortunate side effect – not to be discussed here, because spoilers.
Regardless, the stone curse would prove to do little in the long run with the rise of man and dwarf in place of elves, extending the life of vampires while bringing about a potentially destructive side effect. Unbeknownst to them at the the time, a duo of treasure hunters happen upon an ancient elven ring; an artifact of power said to be key in freeing the elves of their curse, ending the war with the vampires, and ultimately saving Ara Fell from suffering the same fate as the Abyss.
Though Ara Fell treads little new ground in regards to its subject matter, the writing is done quite well for a small indie project. The main character is your staple teenage protagonist with an adventuring heart, who is inadvertently thrust into a situation which will decide the fate of the world itself. Though standard fare, she handles the task through a palette of emotions: seriousness, sarcasm, sass, and sadness – all of which are appropriate for any coming of age youth ripe with “raging hormones.” The supporting cast is equally engaging, with each character having their own personalities, quirks, and tastes to discover. Each party member has their moments of recollection, realization, and shining situations. None of them feel one-note or monotonous, instead adhering to their personality throughout while throwing in a few moments of unique reaction/emotion that may surprise the player – or at least provide some lighthearted moments to the narrative.
I did struggle to connect (or care) on the same level with the key players on the opposite faction, however. There were some I did find sympathetic, like the subsect of vampires that desired a more “human” side rather than simply being a monster – they were still monsters by their actions, of course, but you felt their plight. While Ara Fell has positive qualities abound, the narrative is arguably its weakest point, despite being above average in the realm of budget-tiered JRPGs. Either way, it remains a far better vampire-filled love story than Twilight.
Ara Fell combines the best parts of what you’d expect from JRPGs of the 16-bit era – exceptional pixel art, an emotionally-stirring soundtrack, a varied cast, and lots of turn-based battles – with more contemporary components, such as open-world exploration, questing, gathering, and crafting. The enhanced version features a brand-new turn-based combat system that feels far superior to the rather mediocre ATB-esque one used previously. It uses a “turn order timeline” akin to Final Fantasy 10, which acts as a compass that can change dynamically based on combat decisions made. Each party member has access to a small set of useful abilities, which can be enhanced multiple times with specific consumables as you progress the adventure.
Health and mana are restored at the end of each fight, and a portion of mana is regenerated each round, encouraging the player to go “all-in” with every encounter without having to worry about the fallout normally associated with using your strongest attacks at will in other RPGs. The “full-speed ahead” approach is necessary, as many encounters can push the limits of your party if you are under-leveled or unprepared. Boss fights are always exciting thanks to the variety of unique mechanics they utilize and their usually larger-than-life designs. A total of four difficulties are available, one being a “story mode” that allows players to experience the game without worrying about strenuous combat. On the opposite end lies expert mode, which will test the limits of how you build out your characters and juggle your resources.
Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition encourages players to build out their party as they see fit. Each character receives 10 stat points upon level up, which can then be distributed between four different statistics: strength, defense, agility, and wisdom. The nitty gritty of each stat is provided in-game, so there’s never really a guessing game with how your proposed stat distribution will affect the character in question. Best of all, if buyer’s remorse sets in, you can always reset your stat points- for a modest fee.
A more permanent progression choice – also new in the enhanced version of Ara Fell – are class specializations. Upon completing short side quests for each party member, the player can choose from one of two specializations that further hone in on the strengths of any given character, or create new ones entirely. For example, the group’s tank can choose from Paladin or Berserker. Player choice is always a good thing, and the additional lore provided through these short endeavors makes the entire process quite satisfying.
Gearing is handled a bit differently than your traditional retro JRPG, but it goes hand-in-hand with the other two major aspects of world exploration, gathering and crafting. The ongoing conflict between mankind and vampires on Ara Fell has made traditional equipment purchases all-but nonexistent – after all, there’s war to be had. Instead, focus is placed on gathering (or purchasing) finite resources on your own in order to upgrade existing gear up to four total times. These upgrades are massive, often doubling the potency of the items each tier, and the scarcity of materials required early on makes upgrade distribution a whole mini-game in itself. Will you first focus on defense, or will you risk it for improved offensive prowess? Though there is no reason to panic in the long run – plenty of materials for each tier will become available…eventually – these are definitely questions one must consider whenever starting to upgrade a new tier.
Alchemy and enchanting further supplement the already robust crafting system – all of which can be performed at any time from the main menu. And if you’re worried about the whole gathering and crafting process becoming tedious, worry not – it is seamlessly integrated into the experience, making the entire system feel like a completely natural part of progression. You have a massive, beautiful open world to explore with lots of quests, treasures, and secrets to uncover; gathering along the way will quickly become second nature.
One of the strongest points of Ara Fell are its aesthetics – it will awe pixel art fans from start to finish. The portrayal of the stunning, floating world of Ara Fell is spot on, also frequently showcasing the highly emotive nature of the world’s inhabitants – mankind and otherwise – that call it home. Asset fatigue never sets in due to spectacular world design and object placement, making every new zone feel fresh despite occasionally relying on a similar coat of paint. Greenery and foliage, no doubt, make up most of Ara Fell, but there are still lava-filled caves, frigid wastelands, and ominous ruins aplenty to explore. The dungeons are superb, combining a healthy mix of combat – often easily avoidable, if the player desires – puzzle solving, treasures, and secrets throughout. These vary in length, but even the longer ones never wear out their welcome thanks to the inclusion of player-friendly loops and/or teleports that make getting back to previous areas a cinch. On the same token, global fast travel, once unlocked for each zone, solidifies the player-friendly mantra of the game.
As many high remarks, and appropriately so, that Ara Fell achieves in the aesthetic department, it may also lead to its downfall in the eyes of some. The game features the works of multiple artists, and although it looks and feels consistent throughout, a chunk of the assets have been used in other indie RPGs. Ara Fell hasn’t broken any rules, mind you, for any shared assets were signed off by the original designers before use, but this fact still may not sit well with everyone. That said, any Joe Bob can plop down some tiles, or make an entire game for that matter – it is what you do with the assets that makes the real difference.
When it comes to Ara Fell and its presentation, there should be no question about how much love and care the team putting into bringing this world to life. The introduction of the game’s starting village alone is likely enough to put any unease to rest. In short, the game is gorgeous and speaks for itself. This concept also applies to the soundtrack, which was pieced together via multiple composers, but somehow still feels like a single, cohesive vision. I also appreciate how the ambient zone themes persisted through combat, meaning no actual battle themes are used outside of a few scenarios. If zone-specific tracks are really good, there’s not necessarily a need to pull you out of that experience with a different combat track, at least when it comes to more trivial encounters. It is something I wish more games utilized – Xenoblade Chronicles 2, for example, would have benefited from a similar toggle, considering how well done the ambient music was there. Regardless, outside of a couple of very minor graphical and audio glitches, there is very little to complain about here.
Who doesn’t like an underdog story? Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition has all the charm that you’d expect from the 16-bit classics, with some integrated modern sensibilities that collectively bring out the best of both worlds, resulting in an essential, budget-friendly experience. What I love most here is that it proves that a game with genuine heart behind it can overcome any hurdles or preconceived notions that might come its way, regardless of its origins or upbringing. Simply put, Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition is one of the best in its class on Switch – and it’s cheap!