My plan was to open with an easy joke about how characters in Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark walk infinitely in place like it's the newest exercise craze (as you can see in the trailer above), but unfortunately I missed my chance. The developers at 6 Eyes Studio listened to player feedback and in the latest build characters have new, less goofy idle animations.
Those perpetually strolling characters showed how closely 6 Eyes are emulating Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, their two main inspirations. Maybe it's for the best, but I'm sorry I took the moonwalking for granted. Yet even without endlessly marching NPCs, there are a lot of elements of Fell Seal lifted directly from Final Fantasy: Tactics.
Fell Seal's turn-based, tactical combat takes place on maps marking story points in the characters' journey, each locale painted in vibrant style with an emphasis on vertical movement and environmental hazards. During battle each character earns experience points which automatically increase their stats (attack, defense, speed, etc). After each battle, they also receive ability points to spend on active and passive abilities. Each unit has a main class but can level up several side classes as well. Both main and secondary classes can be swapped and tweaked between battles.
It sounds exactly like the jobs system in Final Fantasy: Tactics because that's precisely what 6 Eyes Studio is going for. "We think FFT's class system is probably the best one out there", it said in a developer's log during the Kickstarter campaign (which raised $45,289). "It's also very popular and we think a lot of people are going to be happy to get an improved/revamped version of it."
A standard deviation
Fell Seal does veer away from the source material in a couple areas. In most RPGs, players find themselves hoarding consumables—I know I've always been prone to having x99 unused health potions when the credits roll.
In Fell Seal, the party has a set number of each item per fight and that number resets, removing the fear of waste. Sure enough, over the course of the demo I found myself chugging potions by the second or third turn as needed.
Fell Seal gently nudges you into a different playstyle with its injury system as well. 6 Eyes cite XCOM's infirmary as the inspiration for that. Rather than units dying permanently in combat like in the nail-biting encounters of classic Fire Emblem, downed characters receive an injury that deals a -10% hit to their stats. A unit can recover from an injury by being left at camp for an entire fight but you can also keep bringing them along, accepting the injury debuff, and risking the chance they'll suffer a second injury and be forced into eventual bedrest for even longer.
The goal with the injury system is to encourage players to invest in custom units rather than just sticking with a main party of six preferred characters. 6 Eyes wants to see players experiment with all the 20 classes available instead of endlessly deploying the same favorites. The injury system gives you an incentive to trade in your second-string combatants while the starting lineup is benched, but without being so punitive that you'll consider loading a save to rescue your star unit.
Despite knowing its goals, I was still skeptical and expected to save-scum my way out of letting my main characters fall. When push came to shove, though, I found losing 20 minutes to restart a fight a less attractive option than sitting out my strongest melee unit for just one encounter. Even at my most desperate, I took the opportunity to level up in a random patrol battle while I waited for two key characters to rest before heading on to the next story mission.
A tale as old as time
Fell Seal's current demo includes 11 story missions and the option to replay most of the maps as random encounters. In true JRPG style, it also features fantasy monsters, bumbling henchmen, and a haughty antagonist with a terrible haircut. The protagonists, by way of contrast, stray a good deal from the plucky heroes of the coming-of-age tale I expected to find.
The Arbiters are independent peacekeeping agents who mete out justice and intervene in disputes on behalf of godlike being called the Immortals. Three of the main characters thus far in the demo, and one companion, are all Arbiters about to become embroiled in some good old-fashioned intrigue because one of the seven Immortals has just stepped down from his post, freeing up a spot. Apparently matters of succession involve a globe-trotting, anything-goes quest where each contestant is conveniently above the law.
I can't say for sure, but I don't get the feeling that Fell Seal is going to dip into cliches like "the hero was destined all along" or "the villain wants to turn the entire world into a hellscape." Nothing is for certain, but I've so far enjoyed the story of these three stalwart Arbiters who find themselves the center of attention not due to supernatural ability or conveniently royal blood, but by pure unfortunate circumstance.
Fell Seal's current demo is only available to backers who pledged during their Kickstarter campaign but you can play an earlier version of the demo on itch.io or check its Steam page for info in the meantime.