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A loving tribute to a lost era, but games need more than just love.

I went into Ara Fell knowing very little about it. I picked it up for research originally, as a developer myself I take a keen interest in other games that have a good reputation, especially those made with similar tools, theres always more to learn and what better way to learn then to experience the work of others. All I knew about the game was that it was supposed to be a throwback to the 16 bit glory days of the turn based RPG era, and that was enough for me.

Initial impressions were pretty good, Ara Fell managed to avoid a lot of the traps so much other indie media in the Fantasy genre fall into. There were no long unpronounceable character or kingdom names, there was no massive exposition dump at the beginning, it all felt rather tight and well considered (if not inoffensively bland and generic) narratively speaking. The main cast had pretty standard archetypes to them with little deviation, but thats okay sometimes, its like comfort food. The writing was simple, feeling like something I would had written myself when I was a teen and first getting into anime, cute and easily digestible. The character portraits felt like something I would find on Deviantart in the early 2000s which gave it a very specific sort of nostalgia that I wasn’t expecting. Dungeons had fun little hidden away secret rooms that had satisfying little animations as they opened when discovered. Items have easy to understand names and a level system which makes working out what new gear you should buy super easy. It was super polished with an impressive world visually that managed feel alive. The games music and sound effects were of a really high standard. The first vampire dungeon had a really nice pace (even if the layout of the maps was a little awkward) to it with some well telegraphed puzzles. Most surprising of all it had some real quality of life features, characters slowly heal outside of battle, the game prompts you to save before big events and boss fights (which are also generally all pretty fun and interesting), it even has a story mode that allows you to skip battles (something I will get into later). Early impressions of Ara Fell really did make it seem like it was going to be a real diamond in the rough, one that was made with a tonne of passion and love... sadly though early impressions don’t last forever and it didn’t take long before some rather large cracks started showing.

The first issue that I really started to notice was the mapping which surprised me a lot. I took the time to read other reviews on this website when I was about half way through the game to see if it was something anyone else had brought up but it seems im alone with my thoughts on the games environments. Yes, they do look great, but I found a lot of the maps so dense with details that they were difficult to actually navigate. Areas don’t link up the way you would expect them too based on layouts (or the games map item which is absolutely useless for actual navigation), most maps share the exact same assets as well so each distinct "zone" in the game ends up looking virtually identical compounding the confusion (the title card as you enter each zone is a nice touch but doesn’t alleviate the issue) when trying to make your way around the world. I get the feeling they were designed this way to help create some sort of feeling of exploration but for me personally it felt like I could only ever find where I needed to go through trial and error. The same tileset is also used for roughly 3/4 of the games exterior environments, I hope you like forests and apple trees because they aren’t just where you start the game, but they are also in the home of the dwarves AND the holy land. I was especially disappointed with the Holy Land (there was a very pretty church tileset used earlier in the game used as far as I could find exclusively in one absolutely awful side quest, im not sure why it couldn’t have been incorporated into the Holy Land to make it more visually cohesive with its title) but I was expecting it to at least look interesting or to have a unique color palette but in the end it looks exactly the same as the opening area. A game can be beautiful, but that doesn’t mean it wont get visually exhausting. Thankfully the dungeons break things up a bit and are generally a bit different from each other which was appreciated, its just a shame they make up so little of the overall experience.

That said, to make matters worse the games floors (inside and out) are littered with tiny rocks and other bits of debris that in any other game would be walked strait over, but in Ara Fell the screen is so dense with visual information and noise you don’t realise you have an obstacle in your way until your character has stopped dead in their tracks, I didn’t think an 2D RPG could ever have fiddly character controls, but here we are.

I also found the idea of the world being on a series of floating islands to be completely wasted with many maps simply just ending with grass or trees as the boundaries. Maybe its just me but I would have thought the best way to make it really feel like you were on a series of floating islands would be to actually have the edge of the islands as the maps boundaries, I just don’t understand the use of trees and bushes to hide the edges instead of the plummet to the world below, it just seems to make so much more sense from a visual standpoint and a world building one. If each map was a single island (or a series of small ones) then bridges would work as choke points to transition from one island to the next keeping all navigation simple and easy to understand, no false exits fixing one of my earlier complaints. The core concept of a world of floating islands is great, its just a shame that in the end it ends up feeling more like one big island that has a couple of holes in it. Its an idea I hope someone can go back to sometime and fully realise.

My issues with exploration really started to become taxing when I realised most areas in the overworld, doesn’t matter if your in town, in the forest or in the snow, they all use the exact same musical track. Its a great track to be sure but because it gets used so often it doesn’t actually mean anything, its not a town theme, an exploration theme, a snow or forest theme, its just "the track" that plays. Its a damn shame because it not only makes you want to mute your game eventually, but it also robs each unique location of its own personality, something they definitely could have used considering how visually samey everywhere is.

The tedium continues with the battles in the game which on a surface level are fine, but as the game progresses they become increasingly spammy and drawn out. Maps tend to get more and more narrow as the game progresses making these battles almost unavoidable (I would have chosen story mode at the beginning had I of known just how bad they would get). At no point did they ever feel challenging or interesting, they were only ever time consuming and they never seemed to hand out as much exp as you would expect for battles of their length, especially in the late game where if you want to grind you are better off going to areas much earlier in the game then you are grinding against late game enemies. The actual battle sprites themselves are fantastic across the board, but that does little to mitigate the issues of having so many long repetitive battles. Late game I actually found myself save scumming to avoid battles because it was quicker to accidentally get into a battle and restart the game then it was to actually fight and earn a meaningless amount of exp.

This also had a negative knock on effect, as I stated earlier I really liked the idea of my characters healing over time outside of battle, but that was only until I reached the late game areas and enemies were in such great numbers I would often have to just leave my game running for a good 30 - 50 seconds while I waited for my characters to heal just so I could move on. I don’t understand why this choice was made instead of having characters instantly heal after every battle OR making players rely on health potions, it just seems like a middle ground was settled on that does nothing but waste the players time, you can especially feel it if you feel the need to grind, its often feels like you spend as much time waiting to heal to fight as you actually do fighting.

The game also has a lot of side quests, theres a lot of go here and kill x number of enemies, most I found required me to kill 10 groups. These were painfully boring but I did a few thinking I would get some interesting rewards. Had I of known most of the time rewards for these sometimes 20 - 30 minute mind numbing quests give nothing but money I would have avoided all of them. It would be nice if the NPCs did a better job explaining what they would reward you with before you commit to a sidequest.

My last criticism isn’t a gameplay one at all, but rather a story telling one. Im not a fan of the way Ara Fell cuts away from the core characters to show you what the villains are up too. I know its a common storytelling tool but I feel like following Lita on her journey and only ever knowing what she knows would have made the narrative more interesting, a mystery you slowly solve through exploring the world of Ara Fell. Everytime the game cuts away I felt like I was being robbed of the satisfaction of discovering information myself and that made me a bit sad.

So really... why am I here writing this review of a game that came out years ago? If Stegosoft wasnt working on their new game Rise of the Third Power (a super bland name for a game I do feel falls into a lot the traps a lot of other indie fantasy games do unlike Ara Fell from what i’ve seen)I don’t think I would have bothered. I think I have some legitimate complaints, some personal and some what I would consider pretty game design, but they are all things I would like to see them take on board for their next project. Im sure the team are already well aware of a lot of my issues just due to the passage of time and from growing as developers.

Ara Fell is not an Ara Fail, but its no classic either. Its a game made with countless hours of love and passion and in many ways is a title that most of us could only dream of achieving. I certainly can see why the game is as beloved as it is even if it didnt do much for me personally. I certainly don’t regret my time with it even if a lot of it was spent frustrated, I just wish it had some unique gameplay or story twist that could have justified the time I put into it...

The biggest issue for me with Ara Fell as a tribute to the games of years past is that it doesn’t bring anything new of its own to give it its a real identity. Ara Fell could have taken some creative risks being an indie game with nothing to lose, but instead it plays it safe, safe to a fault, and while I have my fair share of complaints listed above, none of those compare to the feeling of spending so many hours in what in the end felt like little more than a really well made missed opportunity.

Posts

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Frogge
"nothing can beat the power of gay"?
10597
I don't wanna step into the place of the people who actually worked on the game, but there's two points on this I wanted to discuss.

I also found the idea of the world being on a series of floating islands to be completely wasted with many maps simply just ending with grass or trees as the boundaries. Maybe its just me but I would have thought the best way to make it really feel like you were on a series of floating islands would be to actually have the edge of the islands as the maps boundaries, I just don’t understand the use of trees and bushes to hide the edges instead of the plummet to the world below, it just seems to make so much more sense from a visual standpoint and a world building one.


I think using trees for boundaries is a better idea, personally. It implies that there is more wildlife and blocked off areas outside of view that the players don't get to explore, making the island appear bigger, and more realistic too if you ask me. Having edges at the end of each map would make Ara Fell appear more like a series of large rocks rather than a floating continent.

(I would have chosen story mode at the beginning had I of known just how bad they would get).


Pretty sure you have the option to enable it while playing if you didn't do it at the start? It's been a while since I played the game, but I 100% remember using an instant kill skill on the more grindy sidequests.

Then again I know picking these two points may make it sound like I'm strawmanning your negative criticisms, which is not the intention. I think this was a fair opposing view on the game (though I am a bit surprised at how low the score is considered the positives you mentioned felt much more significant than the negatives)
author=Frogge
I don't wanna step into the place of the people who actually worked on the game, but there's two points on this I wanted to discuss.

I also found the idea of the world being on a series of floating islands to be completely wasted with many maps simply just ending with grass or trees as the boundaries. Maybe its just me but I would have thought the best way to make it really feel like you were on a series of floating islands would be to actually have the edge of the islands as the maps boundaries, I just don’t understand the use of trees and bushes to hide the edges instead of the plummet to the world below, it just seems to make so much more sense from a visual standpoint and a world building one.


I think using trees for boundaries is a better idea, personally. It implies that there is more wildlife and blocked off areas outside of view that the players don't get to explore, making the island appear bigger, and more realistic too if you ask me. Having edges at the end of each map would make Ara Fell appear more like a series of large rocks rather than a floating continent.


I can understand feeling that way about the edge of the maps, its just not how my brain interprets the information provided by their design. As someone that would never look for, let alone expect attempts at realism in a 16bit RPG im personally much more interested in how they work mechanically and unfortunately for me it had a negative effect on my ability to navigate those particular spaces at worst and made the many maps feel artifically cramped at best.

author=Frogge
(I would have chosen story mode at the beginning had I of known just how bad they would get).


Pretty sure you have the option to enable it while playing if you didn't do it at the start? It's been a while since I played the game, but I 100% remember using an instant kill skill on the more grindy sidequests.


This is entirely possible, and if this is indeed the case by the time the encounters became an issue for me I had forgotten all about the existence of that feature. I am not sure if thats something you can pin on me as a player or on the game itself, maybe its a bit of both.

author=Frogge
I know picking these two points may make it sound like I'm strawmanning your negative criticisms, which is not the intention. I think this was a fair opposing view on the game (though I am a bit surprised at how low the score is considered the positives you mentioned felt much more significant than the negatives)


In the end I found the positives and the negatives of the game balanced out to be quite equal, a 50/50 split, hence a 2.5. I think the idea that the communities of sites like IGN pushed of anything less than a 7.5 is a bad has had a really negative affect on the way games are critiqued. I dont want people to see this score and think that it means the game is bad, because its not, its perfectly serviceable, but I guess thats probably how people will take it, so thank you for bringing that up.
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