Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark Review (Switch)
I’m not the biggest fan of tactics games. I’ve played through several installments in the Fire Emblem series, but the most fun I’ve had with the genre were titles like Enter the Breach and SteamWorld Quest, which condense the strategy gameplay to fewer turns and celebrate optimization over the broadness of their campaign. When I first ventured into Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, there were several gameplay elements that felt unexpected and engaging, but the nature of strategy- to me, anyway- is always that of resource management over a period of time. If you don’t need to worry about expending resources early on because a battle won’t be drawn out, then you can implement strategies that reward aggressive play.
In short, I’m an aggressive strategist. How does aggressive strategy work in Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark? Pretty well, as long as you know what you’re doing. So, this review may contain spoilers regarding the nature of tactics in this strategy title. Consider, however, that the effectiveness of my tactics is most definitely an aspect worth appreciating, as the best strategy games allow for multiple approaches. But every game is worth evaluating based upon the sum of its parts, and that’s where Fell Seal manages to fall in a few areas.
Fell Seal is a turn-based strategy RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem: the player selects a number of units from their collective party and engages in “my-turn, their turn” skirmishes on admittedly impressive hand-drawn maps, divided into a grid-like format. The standard strategy elements are all on display, here- stats factor into how hard units tank or take damage, positioning will also account for how much damage a character receives and can even bolster the skills of some units should they execute an opportunistic strikes, and buffs provide necessary benefits to characters who might not be best-suited for the job, yet need to be present due to the collective injuries present in the party.
While the strategy in Fell Seal should come as no surprise to veterans of the genre, the density of tactical choices may prove overwhelming to a newcomer. This is most certainly not “my first strategy RPG,” as it takes many of the Fire Emblem standards (minus weapon triangles) and layers even more atop that. You’ll need to factor in the height of an enemy that you want to attack, and also be sure that certain area-of-effect attacks will strike adjacent enemies- or allies. The ability to push other enemies into a certain square and deal combat damage to those who collide with one another further complicates things, though the puzzle is never so complex that it belies the opportunistic or carefully measured player. An individual who plans certain solutions will be rewarded just as much as one who stumbles into a volatile reaction.
It’s the meta-growth elements, which further complicate matters, that set Fell Seal apart from its contemporaries. Defeating enemies, especially with certain skills, is what nets currency in the game, a resource arguably just as valuable as experience. With currency, you can buy certain mercenaries of a certain level, recruit-able allies that you can summon to battle. While having a number of these at the start, each with their own job path, can be beneficial, spreading your currency (and thereby experience) too thin can result in underpowered teammates, or worse, those unequipped for the job.
While class-specific buffs can negate these deficiencies, there are certain class types that are just better-suited for the skirmishes that appear in the early-game. This becomes painfully evident (literally and figuratively) with Fell Seal’s wounded system, where characters that have been knocked out of previous skirmishes receive a stat debuff in a single subsequent battle. Because of the nature of the narrative and the progression of skirmishes, dire circumstances such as these frequently arise.
Fell Seal is not without a bit of leniency, however. The player is free to grind or wait out their injuries during one of the non-canon, optional side-missions placed throughout the map. Though these serve as a way to avoid the debuffs of injuries, they’re much more viable as grind skirmishes due to their continual usage, which enables the player the opportunity to gather currency for later usage, as well as map exploration. Most maps in Fell Seal possess one or two treasure chests, which grant additional consumable items or equipment for the party’s use later on. You can then use these resources at the number of towns present throughout the map, which are interlinked by specific skirmishes that, once completed, are free to grind upon.
Narrative and Aesthetics
As mentioned prior, Fell Seal possesses some impressive hand-drawn environments, which are lush with color and detail. Though the character sprites are similarly impressively detailed, they are pixelated in nature and clash with the environment aesthetics. What cheapens the effect a bit further are the generic, class-based sprite sheets for hired mercenaries, whose appearance can be modified at any town. While the customization options are initially expansive, a sensible player will realize that the pixel art combinations are a result of exchanging the different outfit types of each of the game’s job classes. While this doesn’t necessarily cheapen the effect of the unit customization system, it does dispel the illusion of strong character variety and personality.
In terms of character art and unit animations, things don’t fare much better. Only the characters whose involvement is crucial to the narrative possess unique, cutscene-based animations, as well as specific, scenario-based reactions. The best aspect of Fell Seal’s character portraits are their unique, somewhat western-styled aesthetic, in which characters appear in paintbrush, European presentation, which tends to change subtly depending on their reaction to certain plot developments. And speaking of narrative… this is where these subtle differences tend to hit- or miss- their mark.
Make no mistake, Fell Seal’s narrative has depth. There’s a great deal of backstory and lore to be found here, from interpersonal politics and world-devastating monstrosities to the nuanced relationships between specific characters. It is the quality of the writing, however, that feels somewhat stiff and impersonal, largely due to the primarily text-based, simplistic dialogue that the characters share. Each of the three primary protagonists seem a bit two-dimensional, boiling down to righteous justice, questionable morals, and plucky enthusiasm, respectively.
Their interactions with the various other members of Fell Seal’s world feel basic, despite their seasoned nature, and it’s rare that their character traits feel impactful towards the narrative, outside of a select few scenarios. There are a number of optional dialogue sequences that exist primarily to flesh out the backstory of the protagonists and their relationships with the other major characters, though these can only be accessed at certain points in the narrative. The presence of these scenes doesn’t mean, however, that many characters don’t come across as cliche.
In short, the narrative barely reaches the same heights as the games that it draws inspiration from. As a self-proclaimed spiritual successor to Final Fantasy Tactics, the potential to deliver a narrative as compelling as those titles is present, but the execution falters. The music is serviceable, but offers few memorable tracks, instead performing the admirable duty of meshing with gameplay very well. It would be one thing if the game attempted to surpass its predecessors, but the production values (save for the environments) and the bland dialogue don’t mesh quite as well as the solid combat mechanics. The results is a work that does pay honest homage, yet still feels more like an imitation.
Impressions and Conclusion
When boiling down Fell Seal to its core elements, you’ll either be sitting in overly-long, dense dialogue sequences between missions, painstakingly preparing for your next battle at the shops in towns, or engaged in combat. The preparation phase is somewhat odd, as players can recruit mercenaries of their own custom aesthetic design in specific classes, or equip any of their units with the extensive amount of equipment options featured in the game. Players will be awarded with money after each battle, but specific classes, like the scoundrel and its subsequent extensions, are able to steal more items and equipment from enemies during skirmishes. This is crucial, as the amount of money to hire mercenaries increases as you try to keep them in pace with your current party, but also because of how expensive equipment can be. Nabbing some off of another character is a great way to keep your cash reserves at a reasonable level.
The way inventory management functions is a bit convoluted, in that you need to select an individual character in order to buy or equip items upon them. This simply means there are a number of menus to dive and retreat from for relatively basic tasks, and the process becomes further involved when you want to customize a specific unit. Based on their current class, a unit can accrue experience points towards new skills and even fulfilling certain prerequisites to unlock new classes. The game’s customization does allow for a bit of mixing and matching, as players can adopt a subclass to keep their valued skills, but attempting to do so in the campsite menus is a process I’d rather not try to explain via text.
When it comes to battles, Fell Seal does a very good job of emphasizing the optimization of the player’s own resources, mainly by having enemies utilize many of these abilities, themselves. There are some unique enemy types- wild beasts who possess higher HP and attack power than normal humans, for example- but players will often find themselves pitted against enemies utilizing the same class skills and abilities. While this does mean that the preparation phase can be useful in helping the player evaluate which units will cause the most trouble, it also turns these strategic battles into a vicious game of cat and mouse whenever a mage or healer is on the field.
Because of the game’s MP system, which allows magic users to perform spells more or less indefinitely, a healer on the opposing side can extend the lives of units and even revive their comrades. When factoring in terrain, you’ll often find yourself scrambling to take out these units before focusing your attention on anything else. While this does create the feelings that the player and AI factions are on equal footing, it can become infuriating when the player must contend with late-game healers by prioritizing negating or wiping their abilities off of the field. Multiple approaches can be taken to do so, but it does require a concerted effort to align your sensibilities with the game’s mechanics.
Still, the complexity of Fell Seal’s mechanics and the extensive campaign (clocking in around 30 or so hours) is nothing to scoff at. Its class system is extremely diverse, allowing for a squad of incredibly varied units to lay waste on the field. If the game’s narrative could hold the weight of its tactical ambition, it would easily receive a strong recommendation as one of the finest strategy titles on the Switch. Because it stands toe-to-toe in its mechanical depth with the big name franchises on the console, its lower price point offers a strong and enjoyable romp for fans of the Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre crowd, but if you’re looking for a truly standout experience from every angle, you might find Fell Seal’s narrative a bit lackluster.