Back in 2009, an RPG that flew under the radar for many was Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled for the Nintendo DS, developed by now defunct Studio Archcraft. A sequel had begone soon after, but was cancelled as it went under along with the company. The heart and passion never faded, however, as two key members went on to form and are the only two members (Pierre Leclerc and Christina Leclerc) of 6 Eyes Studio, responsible for creating Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark. With many contributors, this turn-based strategy RPG got to see the light of day in today’s market. As with all good RPG’s, its soundtrack is a strong element to the core experience. The composer Jan Morgenstern who previously worked on Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled a decade ago returns to work with the same members. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is a great Tactics-like RPG that has fantastic art, crazy good music, and tons of customization that makes the 40+ hour experience worth scratching the itch for, especially if you’re a fan of games like Final Fantasy Tactics.
What is an Arbiter’s Mark? It’s an important next step and huge undertaking for an Arbiter. The game opens by explaining how the land of Teora has been and is currently ruled. In ancient times, a beast known as The Maw terrorized Teora until seven heroes slayed and took it down. From there, the heroes named themselves Council of Immortals and ensured peace over Teora to make sure a catastrophe won’t strike again. In order to spread their message of their overall ruling, they formed the Order of Arbiter’s to spread that message to everyone else. The Arbiter’s act as the one governing police over all. While justice for all is the ideal strategy, things may not seem as they are.
Your first bit of tutorial begins with a battle, but not before finding out the main protagonist Kyrie (and Arbiter) and one of her soldiers Anadine become witness to a crime committed by a local nobleman in an alleyway. It isn’t soon until Kyrie’s dear and close Reiner joins up with them. Upon defeat, the group of three decide to take the nobleman, Alphonse, with them and let the council decide the punishment for his crime. While the journey is underway, things take a turn. After one twist or another, the pilgrimage around the world map you’re meant to take has a different meaning altogether and the motives of others becomes somewhat clearer.
Battles and story sequences take place on the colored nodes on the world map. New trails to new locations form as you progress. At specific plot points and events that can be missed, more story can be seen. Making camp is something you’ll be doing a lot as here you’ll set up your character’s classes, skills, formation and more. Camping is merely done by pressing X on the world map and a menu of options of what you can do next will appear. Among them, are Crafting done by pressing Y. Through completing battles, stealing from enemies, getting their drops or just by finding items from chests or gatherings spots during a battle map, players can craft rare and unique items. These can be anything from gear that allows a unit to move more spaces or give them elemental resistance, for example. However, before going into battle. It’s a good idea to recruit new members to join you by going to the Guild which can be accessed through towns.
Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark has a wealth of customization options that you can tailor to your liking. For non-story characters, these members whom you recruit, can be customized any number of ways and there’s no limit to how many times you can choose to edit their appearance. From choosing their sex to the color of their skin and hair color, hairstyle, their character portrait, and overall attire, it’s easy to buy into a character that fits your team or you feel more attached to. You may recruit them to be in any class you’ve already unlocked. You may let them wear their class outfit, or you can decide to mix and match from others. It’s entirely up to you. Recruiting a Level 1 will be 500GP, but you’ll need to pony up more if you want them to be at your current level. Goes up in 500GP increments per level, but it’s very manageable.
In fact, flexibility is in your favor. Even before starting a playthrough different difficulty settings can be chosen for what the game recommends as what difficulty setting is currently selected, but players may adjust individual settings to play on their own custom difficulty. Players may want to focus more on story, but still want to battle with some challenge, so enemy health and item usage can be lowered. Or, players may choose permadeath for recruits. It’s an interesting mechanic when it comes to the latter, as allies who fall in battle can be revived in battle as far as the default setting is concerned. But instead of playing by hardcore Fire Emblem rules where your character is gone forever, any ally who falls in battle can be used for any following battle with a penalty. This penalty is known as Injury, where allies suffer lower stats. It’s a smart mechanic that encourages hiring new and/or several recruits as when one gets an injury, another can step in. Injuries aren’t permanent, however. An ally with Injury x1 will need to sit the next battle out before fully recovering. Injuries do stack. An ally falling several times in battle will need to sit that many times out of battle. It never gets too bad. There are also some skills that can negate Injuries. Players can choose spots on the worldmap to grind for XP, gold, items, have allies recover from their injuries, etc. as many times as they’d like.
Grinding is also a great way to earn AP, or Ability Points. While XP is great for leveling up your individual characters for more HP and MP, AP is needed for leveling up classes for your individual characters. XP is generally earned by any successful action, be it healing (using a spell on someone who has full health doesn’t count) or attacking, for example. AP is earned by completing battles with those classes selected. So more time battling with specific classes, more AP to spend on skills. And those classes level up by unlocking said skills. The flexibility extends even here. Each character can choose a primary class and a secondary class.
Those wanting to earn the most AP must focus more on their primary class, while secondary classes handle a little differently. AP earned for secondary classes are earned through Vicarious Learning points. This mean if your secondary class is the primary class of another ally, you earn points for it regardless, albeit less. Though it all adds up in time and soon you’ll be unlocking new skills in classes you’ve barely touched or at all. AP is also earned for benched units as well (units not participating in battle). So while certain characters will be more proficient at one class sooner, everyone learning from each other allows everyone to sort of “catch up” evenly. Even though you prefer certain classes over others, Fell Seal never lets you experiment with what you like making it fun to be the type of player who wish to be.
Each class may use only the equipment they’re allowed to. A Gunner can’t use a sword, for example. So a Gunner can have their own equipment and set of skills, but have the addition of secondary skills as well if a secondary class is chosen. However, sometimes there’s just skills you enjoy from other classes that aren’t in either of the classes you’ve chosen. Each class has groups of the same skill types. There are Attack Abilities, Passive Abilities and Counter Ability types. Attack Abilities will always be the mainstay when choosing both primary and secondary classes. However, players may choose different Passive Abilities and Counter Abilities even from classes that aren’t currently selected, granted if they’ve unlocked them from those classes.
For instance, let’s say a Gunner/Mercenary is in battle. This Gunner has the most range, but should they find themselves close to an enemy, an up-close Attack Ability from the Mercenary class may be useful. One ability is Forceful Strike that moves the enemy one space over. If another enemy is adjacent to the one just attacked, both will receive damage. Verticality also plays a role in maps. If the enemy was on an edge, they will receive extra damage depending on the height of the tile differences and their own specific stats. So this Gunner/Mercenary who went in close for an attack probably found themselves closer to more enemies than they’d hoped and the healers in their party are not near.
What to do? This is where Passive Abilities do the trick. The Life Font ability from the Knight class allows a unit to recover health with each step they take. So a Gunner/Mercenary who has a skill from the Knight class can recover health as long as they keep moving. Just to reassure, skills need to be unlocked for each individual character in order for them to use them. This Gunner/Mercenary can recover health as a Passive ability and counter magic with non-elemental magic as a Counter ability. Mixing and matching can get interesting.
Units have their own physical and magical attack strengths, as well as defense and resistances to those types. Typical stuff. The evade and speed to which allies receive their turn are also all present here. Depending on the class type, traits like movement is affected. Maps contain different elements to them and can turn the tide in battles. Some classes can’t swim, so they’ll either have to walk around the water or hop over it. Equipping flippers could solve that issue. Jump height determines which vertical platforms can be accessed. It’s possible for a character to bypass walking up slopes and get to the top with ease. Jump height also reduces the damage taken from falls as well. Except for the amount of slots, there’s no limit to how many pieces of gear (and the same gear) you can wear. For instance, if you favor reaching higher areas, you can wear multiple Jump Boots to stack jump height. The downside to this is any buff or resistances you could receive from wearing pieces of gear.
You’ll sometimes see chests on battle maps. Often times you’ll wonder how to get to them and some can’t be reached in the moment. There’s incentive to craft and find new gear just as there is to replay previous maps, though it doesn’t always mean it’ll be any easier. There’s also gathering spots on specific maps where players can take up one action to harvest a plant and get materials. The way the maps are designed make it fun to get through. The beautiful artwork also makes it more enjoyable. From caverns, to deserts, to distinctive looking towns, hillsides, mountains and forests, there’s always fresh new painterly colors to see. Most objectives just need for you to clear out all the enemies, though it does change to having a particular member survive, only the boss defeated, or reaching a goal. The bosses are pretty great.
You’ll get your taste of voice acting in the very beginning, but the rest of the sequences are told through text boxes. Dialog is also displayed at once as opposed to slowly being typed out so be careful when tapping that A button! The artwork still exceeds in this department as character portraits also change for each character depending on their current emotion. Can’t help but love Reiner’s stoic smirk and Kyrie’s determined face. These characters all have their own personality and it’s further highlighted by the artwork. There’s plenty of character classes to unlock as well. Some are special and hidden. Many of which require certain items and/or other classes to already be unlocked. It’s easy to constantly shift classes around just to see everything. Should players need to be clear on anything the game does, there’s a compendium that explains everything in detail.
The entire experience is worthy on its own, but it’s even worth it just for the soundtrack alone. Jan Morgenstern really lays out the compositions here in full effect. Intense orchestral sounds for battle (also locale dependent), to eerie mischievous story sequences, to calm melodic downtime before the next storm. A great soundtrack will always be part of the story to me.