I’m a sucker for a turn-based strategy game, so a new entry into the market always gets me excited. I loved the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars games back when I had my Gameboy Advance, so seeing that 6 Eyes Studio has taken Fire Emblem as one of the inspirations for their new game had the old gaming juices flowing before I even turned it on. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark ticks a lot of my boxes in theory then, but how does it play?
Kyrie, the hero of our game, is an Arbiter. Arbiters enforce the law of the land, and can act as judge, jury and executioner as required. Their power comes down from The Immortals, a group of seven heroes who defeated a monstrous evil being back in the mists of time, and gained almost unlimited power and eternal life in the process. Having saved the world, they used their powers to reshape society into the way it is today. The Arbiters were recruited to act as enforcers of The Immortals’ will, and for a time, all was well.
Of course, nothing stays perfect forever, and there wouldn’t really be much of a story if everything was working well. See, just lately rumours have reached Kyrie’s ears about corruption creeping in to the Arbiters’ ranks, and there are question marks over the actions of some of The Immortals, as well. As our story opens, Primus, the first of the Immortals (the rest all have names relating to numbers – Tertius, Septimus and so on) has announced his retirement. Now obviously he will need to be replaced, and each Immortal can nominate a successor. These candidates become Marked, both in name and physically. A miscreant that Kyrie is chasing is nominated as a Marked, and as such are no longer bound by the laws of the land; Arbiters can no longer do anything to impede the progress of any Marked on their pilgrimage. The Marked have to visit four temples and commune with a relic in each, thus gaining the wisdom to take their place on the Immortals Council. Of course, Marked can interfere with each other – if you’ll pardon the expression – so what usually happens is the strongest candidate is the only one left. Just to keep things interesting, Primus chooses Kyrie as his Marked, and so the scene is set for a clash between the forces of corruption, shadowy figures who keep themselves in the dark, the forces of good in the shape of Kyrie and her companions, and finally the forces of Sigil, a group dedicated to the overthrow of the Immortals.
What happens from here on out is entirely down to you – the future of Kyrie, her band of Arbiters and the state of the world are all in your hands.
What this translates into is a series of encounters, with an isometric viewpoint and a battlefield made up of a grid of squares. The usual tropes of a strategy game are all here: each character can move a certain number of squares, then perform an action, or vice versa. These can be be regular physical attacks, which get more powerful as you earn money and buy better gear, or they can be magic attacks, which again have a certain range. What makes the game interesting is the class system, which adds twist to the gameplay. You see, each character can have a main class and a subclass, so a pretty cool set of mix and match powers can be set up. I’ve found Fell Seal to be so hard and unforgiving, even on beginner difficulty, that I have set every character to have a Mender subclass, giving every person access to healing magic, keeping the team upright and breathing! I’ve also found it pays to have a mix of talents, as certain classes perform better against certain enemies, and finding out what each baddie is weak to is part of the fun of experimenting.
The game plays a lot like those that have inspired it. You start on a world map, and each time you complete a section, new locations open up that allow you to advance the story. There are also events that can be viewed, that reveal more of the back story of the characters. With all of this, and tournaments to take part in as well, in addition to being able to return to any previously completed node in order to patrol and grind levels, there’s no shortage of things to do. And a little grinding will certainly pay dividends; going into a level half cocked and under prepared will see you looking at the defeat screen more often than you’d like. Figuring out what enemy can move where, what attacks they have, and more importantly the range of those attacks, will pay handsome dividends. The depth of combat here is breathtaking; classes, subclasses, positioning on the map, height advantage and positioning when the attack finally comes, all have a role to play.
Graphically and Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark on Xbox One is a homage to the Fire Emblem style; less anime and more European looking, but retro styled and oozing charm. The characters manage to all have distinct personalities, even with the conversations being conducted by text boxes, and you rapidly start to care about their fate. When a team member falls in battle, they are injured, and have to sit out the next battle in order to be healed. This can lead to situations where it is more tactical to go and patrol an early level, getting the A team healed, before attempting the next story mission. Another layer of tactical play successfully added! The audio is pretty much as you would hope too – whizzing arrows and spells, thumping hammers and swishing swords, and some lovely music to listen to in the menus. With new weapons to be bought and crafted, the armour to be equipped and classes to be levelled up, giving access to more and more powerful attacks, the urge to keep playing is incredibly strong.
In conclusion then and I have no issues with saying that Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark is a truly great game. One of the problems that I always face is finding the time to play all the games that are currently on my list. Having a game like this – one that demands that I keep playing just to see what happens – makes the balancing act even more difficult. The hook, the draw, the sheer bloody difficulty of the game and the strong, strong urge to see what becomes of Kyrie almost refused to let me play anything else until this review and my overall thoughts were complete.
As a tactical strategy game, this is very close to the old Fire Emblem games, and praise doesn’t come any higher than that.