Where would we be without Kickstarter? At this point, millions-upon-millions of dollars have been raised to fund independent game development. In many cases, these were titles that would’ve never seen the light of day at a traditional publisher. But for every runaway success title that fetches millions, there are numerous others that manage to squeak by securing far more modest fundraising goals. One such title is the recently released Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark. Though it had far less of a budget, it certainly appears to have more ambitious production values than their meager funding should’ve allowed. Fortunately, that wasn’t the only surprise that the game has up its sleeve.
The World’s Gone Crazy
Before you’ve even gotten the chance to take a step into the world of Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, it becomes very obvious that the subject matter will be pulling no punches, narratively speaking. As a member of some law enforcement body, the player witnesses a coldblooded slaying first-hand. Upon taking the killer into custody the guilty party is freed damn near immediately, which points to things going horribly awry amongst the members of the country’s legal system.
The plot thickens further when additional signs of corruption within the world’s leadership council becomes readily apparently. The lead character, Kyrie, was recently appointed to the titular rank of Arbiter, granting seemingly limitless investigative power. Following the mandate of her superior, she is tasked with getting to the bottom of what exactly is going on and how deep the corruption goes. Luckily, she is far from alone in this quest for truth.
Kyrie is joined by a cavalcade of randomly generated characters, all eagerly awaiting the chance to follow her into battle. The character creator provides a deep well of unique customization opportunities. Thankfully I am not the anal-retentive type, because if you’re particular about your team’s appearance, the party member design screens could devour countless hours of your existence. Remember: they put the “randomize” button there for a reason! All you need to do is select the desired character class and level, then keep clicking until you land on a compelling character design.
Customization Gone Wild
As long as there is gold in the satchel, new combatants can be added to the party. Only a handful of these units can actually be used in a given encounter, but it’s reassuring to know that fresh bodies are only a few clicks away. Part of the reason why this is so important is the title’s injury mechanics. If a party member bites the dust in battle, they are returned to camp to await their next assignment. For each injury they’ve incurred, the less effective their stats become. The nerfing of abilities will continue to stack, should a soldier fall in consecutive missions. Sitting out a battle will expunge a single defeat from the tally, hence the need to constantly have fresh units on hand.
Hopefully you’re a fan of micromanagement, because units possess an embarrassing wealth of customization options. Numerous sub-classes further this complexity, with each sub-class having its own ability tree that unlocks over time. These constantly-unlocking active and ambient abilities make each and every character play differently in combat. The only snag is that all units need to be touched after damn-near any mission in order to update the active buffs being utilized. And the customization opportunities don’t end there. Between weapons, fresh gear, and the baked-in crafting system, there are over 200 other ways to make a combatant stand out from the crowd.
When you publicly state that classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre were the inspiration for your game, you’re either extremely talented or straight-up “off your meds” levels of crazy. If you then go a step further and refer to your title as a spiritual successor to those greats, then you’ve also likely announced your candidacy for mayor of crazy town. Yet however unlikely this may have seemed at the time, the skeleton crew over at 6 Eyes Studio have somehow managed to damn near pull it off.
Borrowing liberally from the aforementioned titles, Arbiter’s Mark does a fantastic job of modernizing the look and feel, while not straying too far from the inspirational source material. The slowly-plodding, methodical pace is still very much present, along with a deeply rewarding combat system that generously offers up experience points after each move. This constant gratification loop can help drive the action forward, even when the combat itself begins to drag.
Personally, the fact that Fell Seal is in no hurry is one of the things I appreciate about it most. It takes its damn sweet time when working through the story, and does a solid job offering up an interesting narrative arch. The hybrid of fantasy and technology is a fun juxtaposition that I wasn’t sure would work, but actually plays perfectly into the storyline.
Another amazing aspect of the design is the art direction. Aside from the insanely detailed Banner Saga series, this has to be the best-looking tactics game available on PlayStation. It manages to look retro, while simultaneously still feeling like it fits in with the current generation of console games. The fact that all of this was achieved with such a small staff is astounding.
For all of the things that the game does well, the one thing that drove me crazy was the confusing navigational controls. All character movement is locked to the D-pad. The tactical grid is actually laid out on-screen diagonally. It’s necessary to remap your brain to get used to the up arrow actually moving a character at a forty-five-degree rotation. Now if only a controller actually had a way to allow for move detection at angles. Oh, wait… can’t the analog sticks do that? For whatever reason, using the sticks are actually disabled by default and buried in the options menu. Why it would’ve hurt to just leave them activated by default is beyond me, especially when they’re otherwise never getting used to begin with.
My other main takeaway was that despite the dirge-like pace that the gameplay processed, the experience still felt like it wasn’t long enough. Sure, I’m more than willing to admit that this feeling may have been the byproduct of enjoying the game so much that I simply didn’t want it to end. However, I felt that there was far more depth in the world that was waiting to be explored. We had simply scratched the surface of a much bigger universe, which despite delivering a great experience, still left me slightly unfulfilled.
One of the staples of an awesome game is the fact that it leaves you jonesing for more. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark accomplishes this with a style and grace of a bygone era of game design. Here’s to hoping there is more content on the way, because I can’t wait for my next dose of tactical action.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark review code provided by publisher. Version 1.03 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.