There’s a comforting familiarity to Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition that lends the whole game a veneer of nostalgia. That’s not just in terms of its debt to classic JRPGs – which, naturally, it has in spades – but also in its character writing, which conjures up memories of old-school webcomics, fanfiction and English-translated manga. Each to their own whether or not you take that as a negative point, but the fusion of earnest JRPG aesthetics with enthusiastic characterisation gave us pleasant flashbacks to the era of webrings and Tokyopop.
From the get-go, we were drawn into Ara Fell’s world. It’s a beautiful-looking thing, with a striking landscape of floating islands in bright blue skies. The locations are busy with wildlife and well-populated with NPCs. Even the underground environments glitter with mineral deposits and are enlivened by rushing water and beautiful vistas viewed through the cracks in the cavern walls. Of course, it’s nothing that you haven’t seen before, but we came to understand that really isn’t the point. Ara Fell deals in clichés and familiar scenarios, yes, but it uses them gracefully to create an experience that’s downright pleasant; a soothing balm in these extraordinarily troubled times.
It would be churlish to ignore the negative side of this kind of familiarity – repetition certainly rears its ugly head, with the combat a particular offender. It’s very standard turn-based JRPG battling and never really amps up any kind of tension or sense of threat. Even on harder difficulties where a party wipe is a legitimate risk, you won’t feel any particular excitement. That said, the combat is certainly friendly, seeming to take a cue from Zeboyd’s (Cosmic Star Heroine, et al) titles with your health and mana recharging after each battle. Even on easier modes, though, even basic enemies from the beginning of the game can take up to three turns to defeat, which makes the combat drag even more. There’s an option to play for the story only, which allows you to skip all the combat. We’d be tempted to recommend this, but if the aim of Ara Fell was to tell a story without intrusive pugilism, why include such lengthy battle sequences at all?
The storytelling, thankfully, works well. The characters are interesting examples of the archetypes they embody (protagonist Lita is your scrappy tomboy archer, Adrian your stoic tank swordsman, and so on) and their relationships are convincing in a way that a lot of games don’t bother to portray. Lena’s brittle impatience is a lot of fun and you really get a sense of immersion from the way she interacts with the world that’s so familiar to her. There’s plenty of lore and extraneous information to gather, but very little in the way of droning exposition. Exploration and investigating are rewarded with amusing interactions or interesting tidbits. A lot of care and attention has gone into the world and it shows very clearly that the developers truly cared about these characters.
The pixel art is terrific, adding another good reason to search every nook and cranny of the large and surprisingly open map. Every new area looks great and the character sprites are well-drawn and defined. There’s also plenty of unnecessary, flavour-enhancing detail, such as the way Lita clambers in and out of water. It’s only little things, but most RPGs we’ve played don’t bother with these flourishes, so they stand out. Also rather outstanding is the music; it’s stirring to the point of being downright emotional at times. Maybe we’ve all gone insane from self-isolation, but some of the tunes here put a lump in our throats. It’s a terrific combination of atmospheric, rousing symphonies and joyously hummable melodies that’s just a treat to listen to throughout.
Quests are taken on in a manner more reminiscent of western RPGs, small missions being picked up from NPCs who’ll task Lita to acquire objects or play small minigames with them; these are of limited interest from a gameplay perspective, mostly taking the form of relatively generic fetch-quests, but they provide another incentive to interact with the populace, accruing new items and crafting materials as your prizes for helping out your townsfolk. Yes, indeed, there is a crafting system. But don’t groan – it’s pretty much harmless and materials are found in the field, keeping grinding to a minimum.
Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition is a difficult game to wholeheartedly recommend. JRPG veterans will likely fall into one of two camps – scornful of the game’s simplistic mechanics, or appreciative of its polished take on very familiar genre tropes. For newcomers to this sort of game, it’s a similar problem; the lack of complexity will either make the game pleasingly accessible or simply bore them. It’s therefore best to consider whether or not you feel a JRPG can sustain itself on strong worldbuilding and characters, or if you feel that gameplay is king and without a meaty combat system there’s just not enough to get your teeth into. For us, while Ara Fell is profoundly lovely in every aspect besides its gameplay; it is still a game, and it wouldn’t have taken much more combat polish to turn this into an unequivocal recommendation. If you don’t care about the combat, then it’s easier to recommend.