Tactics RPG Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark shows tons of promise, even in Early Access

The new world map is instantly more impressive than its predecessor.

I picked up Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark right where I left off at the end of the Kickstarter Backers’ build, guiding my team of fantasy sheriffs on a globetrotting adventure to root out the corruption in their order of peacekeepers. Now, in Early Access, I’m hunting down a cure for one of my suddenly indisposed party members (the cliffhanger from the Kickstarter build) and kicking a party of amateur temple crashers in the pants.

I don’t want to spoil the details of what's happening in Fell Seal, because its story has so far been inventive, and its characters as serious and interesting as the ones in Final Fantasy Tactics, its main inspiration. So far it's perfectly playable in Early Access—but I don't think you should play it yet. I've had no issues with crashing or game-stopping bugs, but playing Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark now, with its story unfinished, would feel a little bit like peeking at your presents.

Brave new world map 

Since the build released to Kickstarter backers in March, Fell Seal has been expanded significantly. The campaign has doubled in length, with yet more to come. New animations and sound effects have made it feel far more complete. My favorite addition is the new world map, which doubles down on the painterly look of the previous version—so much so that I had to flip back through my older screenshots to remind myself what the map had looked like before. Not that different, it turns out, but the animated props and sketchier style give it so much more personality. I’ve rarely had such strong feelings about a map, but here we are.

There are more story missions, which means there's also higher level equipment and new classes with new skills. I eagerly dumped my cash into new gear for my favorite characters. There aren’t a plethora of available options yet, but just enough to get my imagination working.

My wizard who’s invulnerable to fire laughs while standing in the middle of his own spell.

The best investment I’ve made so far is a cape for my wizard (his name is Barrow, thank you for asking) that boosts his fire resistance to 100 percent. It’s likely overpowered, but it allowed me to take Barrow into a crowd of enemies and have him drop a Fire II spell on his own head. He’s immune, but the bandits around him were boiled in their boots.

I haven't tried the same play with other elements, but there are also capes for 100% resistance to water, earth, and lightning damage, and I imagine they’ll work the same. It’s a move that I’ve used to get into plenty of trouble. I've yet to perfect the part where I get back out again.

The “in” crowd

I now have a mixture of story characters and custom units that I like to take into battle. My wizard Barrow, for instance, and my knight Thane are both custom characters that I’ve taken a shine to for no reason other than that I made them myself. They have no involvement in the story, though you can see their sprites hanging about camp during cutscenes as if they might have some hidden personality of their own, if only they had the chance to speak up.

With so many classes to try out, it feels like I’ll fall into bad habits unless all party members, present in the fight or not, earn the same experience.

I ended up neglecting about half of my troops throughout the new round of missions. Characters only earn experience by participating in fights, so I now inevitably have a handful of level four and five characters hanging about with my otherwise level eight to twelve crew. I’m supposed to be encouraged to spread my attention evenly by leaving injured characters, those who were downed in the previous encounter, at camp. I can jog around to map to take on random encounters and rack up experience, which also kills time and lets a character recover from an injury. The further back my neglected units fall from the main party though, the less likely it is I’ll bother taking them on a non-story mission to catch them up.

Characters being injured and forced to sit out a fight (or suffer a penalty) is a welcome alternative to the permadeath of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, but it's also caused this big gap between by A team and B team fighters. One of the main three protagonists, the mercenary Reiner, has even begun to fall behind my other characters in level. It’s now difficult to bring him along without saddling him with another injury and thus another missed fight and more unclaimed experience.

With so many classes to try out, it feels like I’ll fall into bad habits unless all party members, present in the fight or not, earn the same experience. Otherwise, I imagine any new class I’d like to try I’ll need to spend the gold to recruit a high level custom character.

The higher level you want to recruit, the more gold you’ll spend, and that's not even including the gear you'll want to buy for them. It’s a pricey venture, but I’ve never been one to tolerate random battle grinding without story beats to prop it up. In the significantly shorter Kickstarter demo, it was easy to sweep level disparity under the rug. Now it looks like the power imbalance will only grow as I play more.

A brand new boss fight. Click to animate.

Don’t spoil your supper 

Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark has grown significantly since the first time I played, but its developers plan to add many more missions before its story is finished. Pleasantly, they have added mod support, which is great for those who’d like to tweak skills and classes. But unless you’re an avid modder with a thirst for tactical RPGs, or an absolute devotee to the genre who wants to have their voice heard during the planned six months of Early Access, you’re better off giving it a few more months. There’s plenty of polish yet to be done, as with any game in Early Access.

Fell Seal is a singleplayer game with a story you may only want to play through once. And because that story so far has been enjoyable, my gut says hold off playing until the final version. Fell Seal is planned for release in early 2019, which isn’t too long a wait to see the game at its best.