Whenever I see a 16-bit pixel JRPG on Steam I'm often hesitant to dig any further, knowing that every new edition of RPG Maker always brings with it a host of zero-budget games from well-meaning hobbyist developers that are looking for their start on the platform. The few exceptions tend to come from established developers like Zeboyd, who not only know how to modernize the genre but deliver on its strengths with some exceptional encounter design and many quality-of-life innovations, and now I can safely add Stegosoft Games to the same whitelist if Ara Fell is any indication.
Set on a picturesque floating island - recalling Baten Kaitos, Granstream Saga, Skies of Arcadia and many others - known as Ara Fell, the game follows teenage ranger Lita as she gets caught up in an ancient conflict for the beleagured aerial landmass between the vampires and the elves. She eventually acquires a party of allies and embarks on a world-encompassing journey to collect vitally important shiny trinkets, as per the usual, though the game's writing is at least capable enough of injecting some welcome humanity and wit into this otherwise clichéd plight. Lita herself reminds me of Trails in the Sky's Estelle Bright: an outgoing young woman who is quick to bring the hammer down on obnoxious behavior, but allows herself moments of vulnerability and immaturity befitting her age. The rest of the cast isn't quite as nuanced, but still likeable enough.
The true star of the game is just how meticulously designed it all is. That's immediately evident by the striking visuals of Ara Fell, which are full of detail and color and little animated flora and fauna everywhere you look. It's one of a few pixel-based games that managed to cause my PC to slow down just from the sheer number of objects on-screen. Each scenic area is full of resources to gather, secret entrances to uncover, treasures hidden behind every nook and crevice, and incidental side-quests around so many corners, even if broadly speaking the world itself isn't enormous. The battles, too, have undergone the Zeboyd treatment where so much rides on mastering the individual team-members' skills to control the battlefield; I almost wished I'd played on a higher difficulty setting just so I'd be forced to more carefully consider every move. All this said, the game isn't incredibly sophisticated or all that long in length from what I can tell; it is an Indie project, after all, so we're not talking the butt-numbing 50+ hour playthroughs of the SNES and PS1 eras it hearkens back to. Probably for the best, since I had other games to play this week.
I'm a sucker for good game design, and Ara Fell has it pouring out its pointy elf ears. Enemies all visibly wander the environment and won't actively attack you unless you prompt a battle, allowing you to easily skip past them if you feel you're already levelled up enough. Equipment isn't bought but instead upgraded from what you're wearing already: you can still shell out for the upgrade materials or simply come across them naturally while exploring or after combats, but most of these components won't be available until the game progression is ready for your team to power up. Skills all have alternative paths to suit the player's ideal team build and the special stones needed to power them up are rare on the ground, and often well hidden to boot if not prohibitively expensive, creating a distinct sense of value and necessitating tough decisions regarding what to prioritize. The gauge needed to cast spells and special abilities regenerates every round and starts at its maximum, so there's no need to hold back against regular mobs, and likewise your party replenishes all health after a battle (something I've noticed has become the norm rather than the exception in modern RPGs). Optional mini-boss encounters are everywhere and usually warn you first in case you haven't saved in a while (though there is an auto-save, of course), side-quests are as likely to drop valuables and XP in your lap as they are to unlock a character's higher class abilities, and there's a series of items called "Relics" that do nothing but sit in your inventory and provide permanent passive boosts to your party. It's been a joy just exploring each area of this highly-detailed world seeking out these treasures and making the next story boss encounter that little bit more manageable (though, as I said above, I may have been better off going for a higher challenge level given how much easier I've inadvertently made things).
I'm still only partway through the game, but I've finally gathered a full party and now feel more confident to take on some of the optional encounters I'd been passing up before. I've also acquired a new means of traversal, which should permit passage to some treasures I wasn't able to reach before, so now I'm eager to double-check the previously visited regions of the game's vaguely open-world setting before I press on to the next story destination. Ara Fell's definitely opened my eyes to how many smart developers there are out there who grew up loving these games as much as I did, and it has me wondering if I should stop turning my nose up at those Steam games with this overly familiar aesthetic.
: 5 out of 5.
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