Ara Fell first landed in 2016, claimed to be a fusion of numerous role-playing sub genres and provided an experience (albeit a flawed one) that was overall greater than the sum of its parts. Now in 2020 the new and improved Enhanced Edition lands on numerous platforms, including Xbox One. Despite notable advertised improvements to the battle system, UI, and other nooks and crannies, this hybrid retro style RPG by Stegosoft Games still just misses the mark, but much like the original edition the experience is far greater than the sum of its many moving parts.
To nitpick a little, Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition has the most amateurish key artwork, and if you judged the game simply by the underwhelming cover artwork on the Microsoft storefront then you’d miss out on the brilliant pixel art which brings the game to life. This is a gorgeously crafted game, every nook and cranny lovingly crafted pixel for pixel. It’s colourful, vibrant, and doesn’t ever look dated given the range of visual effects and filters. Even the character portraits shine through, where even most NPCs have their own portrait artwork. The attention to detail pulls no punches here, and the Enhanced Edition takes the visual presentation of the original base game to a higher standard. Needless to say, this game looks rather charming on your 4K HDR television.
The vibrant and detailed pixel art lends itself to the game world that brings the characters and the premise to life. Like most RPGs from yesteryear, Ara Fell follows the journey of a hero, from humble beginnings to grandeur destinies. Lita is a likeable protagonist for the most part, and her banter with other characters is usually quite fun thanks to the witty and comedic writing. Of course, the story does get serious when it needs to and so Lita finds herself navigating all sorts of twists and turns as she reluctantly finds herself in a situation far greater than anything she could imagine as an aspiring archer. It may borrow many RPG tropes, but it brings these tried and tested plot devices together to deliver a tale that still manages to keep you interested and guessing.
While the sprite art and setting may be fascinating, Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition unfortunately suffers greatly from absolutely poor map design of its game world. Some of these maps feel like they were created using a randomiser tool in some RPG Maker software, because there is no real rhyme or reason to the layout of each of the many confusing locations you have to traverse. It’s a real pain and slog to navigate because there are so many pointless dead ends and so much space is wasted for nothing. The map design and layout definitely needs a lot more refining and foresight.
This all makes exploration needlessly tiresome, and the issues are further amplified by the way objects interact with the player character. You’re able to walk over water buckets and certain objects like they are invisible but for some reason you bump into pebbles and a bit of grass, and so if the map design wasn’t bad enough the inconsistent behaviour of objects makes each step a rather bumpy affair. Even more jarring is how the game can’t distinguish between a puddle of water from a deep pond, because even parts which should be treated as a bit of puddle end up being spots the player can dive right into. This also becomes a nuisance during exploration. The game’s navigation map is certainly no help either – sure, it looks interesting from an artistic standpoint, but it isn’t very practical especially when it’s almost never clear where the exits are when there are so many invisible walls to bump into. Thankfully, the ability to fast travel later in the game eases the pain of exploration.
The combat system is nothing special, and in fact flows in a rather sluggish manner. Thankfully, Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition features a “Story Mode” difficulty which allows you to bypass all battles with the press of a button. There are other little systems here and there such as the numerous upgrades and being able to craft things, but all these little ideas end up feeling a bit disjointed and superficial in the grand scheme of things.
It’s a shame that Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition gets hampered by so many flaws in its design and execution, because its heart is certainly in the right place. In so many ways it has the charm and magic of a Game Arts RPG from yesteryear, where it at times has the same feel of something like Lunar: Silver Star Story. The characters, the whimsical dialogue, and the utterly enchanting music (which is heavy on the xylophone by the way) certainly impress in ways that are unlike most indie RPGs.
Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition on Xbox One could have stood out from the many retro style indie RPG efforts, with a beautiful setting, charming characters, and excellent pixel art to complement a genuinely interesting narrative. Unfortunately, the utterly messy map design and cumbersome gameplay hold it back from realising its true potential.