Everyone knows that nothing can ever go wrong when walking into an adventure that so happens to be in a hidden cave that is apparently also haunted. Perfectly proving this point are Lita and Adrian who find all sorts of trouble once they open doors that may have been better left closed. Nah. Who we kidding? This is the stuff dreams are made of.
Ara Fell is the first title from Stegosoft Games that “brought RPG Maker 2003 kicking and screaming out of retirement!” (their own words) in order to put their project together. I feel like this is important to note because while it may use features that feel familiar to the RPG Maker Engine which emulates that amazing 16-bit era, it doesn't feel like one. After a couple hours of pondering and wondering I finally caved and asked Stegosoft about the engine because I needed to know if it was custom coding like Pixel Ferret’s Secrets of Grindea or very well customized work like Dancing Dragon Games with Echoes of Aetheria.
One of the largest features that stood out while exploring the realm of Ara Fell was how well it flows. Typical RPGs will block off most of the areas that the developers do not want your party to explore right away but Stegosoft took a different approach. Instead of having everything blocked off in regards to story progression there were still a good portion of areas to explore before getting down to business. Not all of these were properly explorable mind you due to a level difference between the party and the enemies but a very useful stone has been placed in order to tell you, the player, this information.
There are two types of stones that are scattered throughout the floating continent. The first of these is the above mentioned which will give the player information about the area they’ve just stepped into. The information provided is extremely useful as it provides the character level, the party size, and the equipment levels that should be in possession if things are to go even relatively smoothly. Even with the ability to save anywhere at anytime, knowing if an area should be explored right away was great information to have.
The second of the stones are teleportation stones that once activated allow the party to instantly come back later as long as they’ve found another of these stone in order to teleport from. Exploring for these both above and below ground is a lot of fun with ideas that generally aren’t seen. Jumping, swimming, and crawling through smaller places in order to explore were simply genius ideas and require more thought into exploring the party’s surroundings. Remembering that these actions can be done can take a bit of time to become natural but the enhancement that they bring to the overall experience is refreshing and new for something brought out of retirement.
As with any good exploration, characters are going to have to fight wild beasts and other crazy beings that lie between them and their goals. Leveling, like the exploration system, is something a bit different. Instead of simply receiving arbitrary amounts of points to stats as set out by an allocation table, Ara Fell uses a different approach to being given self placed “stat points”. Instead of being given two, three, four, or five points, characters are instead allowed to increase one attribute by ten. Attack, Defense which are self explanatory are followed by Intelligence and Magic in which the first makes skills more powerful while the second gives more skills points to use and instead of being raised by ten is the only one to be raised by only four. More than these though is Agility that not only raises a character’s dodge rate but also affects how fast their action bar is filled up.
A proper balance of these stats is going to be the difference between performing well in battle and continually having to back away in miserable defeat. Damned Mimics and Pirates… thankfully not Pirate Mimics. That would have been even more terrifying! The reason that a full concentration into Attack or Defense is a bad idea is that while hitting something hard and being able to take a hit are important, using skills and being able to have at least one action before the enemies is equally as important.
Combat in a manner plays out like a traditional RPG with an action bar that needs to be filled up but has a heavy emphasis on skill usage. Skills all have amounts of points that are required in order to use them but can easily be replenished by using a standard attack. This is what creates the emphasis for skill usage because it makes using them easy. More than that though, this is also the reason that proper stat points allocation is a better idea instead of putting everything into one category. Doing so makes characters get their turns faster which lets them use more skills and get more attacks in comparison to enemies and bosses. As stated earlier, just because you’re strong and can take a hit, doesn’t mean that you’ll actually have the chance to do it.
Visually combat isn't impressive per say but it's different and adds to the overall charm. Characters look like they do in exploration and in cutscenes which keep the overall look and feel unified as even the enemies seen on the field follow the same concept. Lita’s party will be lined up on the right side of the screen with enemies on the left. Characters will move around somewhat in order to launch an attack before moving back to their original space which is a nice touch. I would have liked to see the same thing with enemies as sometimes it could be a bit confusing as to who exactly just hit a member of your party.
Something that comes differently is that there is no battle music which can take some getting used to. Instead of this, music from the exploration carries right on through never missing a beat. This isn’t an issue for major fights as the track changes up to emphasize the importance but regardless it’s… weird. Not in a bad way but just in a getting used to it sort of way.
Ara Fell is a phenomenal RPG that I could only have wished to have back on the SNES. With brand new ideas in order to explore rich environments combined with a smooth and refined battle system, there’s no shortage of places for Lita and her party to see.
Article by Pierre-Yves