Game review: Ara Fell

  • Title: Ara Fell: The Legend of Dirisetsu Hollow
  • Developer: Stephen Anthony
  • Platforms: Windows
  • Price: Free

[NOTE: This review is for an older, freeware version of this game. Ara Fell has since been remade and released as a commercial product; this review is likely to be unrepresentative of this more recent version.]

Ara Fell is a freeware jRPG produced in RPG Maker 2003 by Stephen Anthony (a.k.a. “Badluck”). The game is unfinished, which is a pity, because it’s really quite fun while it lasts.

To summarize the plot is to summarize the game: you are the one destined to obtain an ancient artifact of immense power and rid the world of evil. In other words, Ara Fell is a pretty conventional jRPG. To its credit, however, it is a good one, in spite of some missteps, and it really doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Ara Fell: The Legend of Dirisetsu Hollow takes place on a floating continent, Auradorne. The continent is for the most part freely explorable and teeming with movement and wildlife. In many places, it’s even quite beautiful. Mr. Anthony certainly did quite a nice job putting together this game’s maps, aesthetically speaking.

From a design standpoint, however, many non-dungeon areas feel unnecessarily claustrophobic due to the huge number of paths that unexpectedly (and needlessly) dead-end. In many cases, you will be set loose on a huge map with only a single way from Point A to Point B. This design choice might have been forgivable if more of those dead ends hid treasure chests or other secrets to encourage player exploration. But they almost never do. Ultimately, the whole thing feels like one giant, annoying (albeit quite pleasant-looking) maze where your only reward for trying out a new path is to have your time frittered away.

This is especially unfortunate because of the extra (presumably Zelda-inspired) options for both moving around and clearing obstacles that Ara Fell provides. Early on, you learn to swim, jump over gaps, and crawl under beds and into tunnels. Soon after that, you receive bombs that you can use to blow open blocked passages, and later, you’ll even learn to fly. But your use of each of these abilities throughout the game is fairly limited. With more care paid to map design, this game could have harnessed some of that feeling of adventure one gets traversing the overworld in Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Ara Fell uses a Secret of Mana-style “upgrade orb” system for your characters’ weapons. There are two basic classes of weapons your characters can use: melee and ranged. Melee weapons can’t hit flying creatures. Ranged weapons are typically weaker and use ammunition. Each character can have one melee and one ranged weapon equipped at a time. In combat, it takes a turn to switch between ranged and melee, which adds a certain degree of tactical decision-making to what are otherwise very straightforward jRPG battles.

Thankfully, Stephen Anthony has gone out of his way to keep battles in Ara Fell from being unduly annoying. For one thing, Ara Fell has no randomized battles. Every enemy is visible and moving around, and therefore eminently avoidable when approached with care. Additionally, your characters regain magic points over the course of combat, preventing the game from falling into that old jRPG curse, the battle-battle-sleep-in-an-inn cycle.

Perhaps best of all, Ara Fell contains a “story mode” in which one automatically wins all battles, and can simply focus on puzzles, exploration, and the story. It’s a nice feature, though the battles are simple and straightforward enough (with one extremely annoying exception) that I never felt the need to make use of it.

Unfortunately, Ara Fell is missing the thing that could make the most of this mode: an excellent story. To be fair, Ara Fell’s writing is serviceable, but it could be much, much better. There are a few turns of phrase that miss the mark so thoroughly that they become entertaining in a way the author clearly did not intend. Searching a pile of bones in the Blood Forest, for instance, the protagonist feels moved to remark (apparently in an Italian accent): “The bones of a some poor Vampire’s lunch.” Yes–that poor, poor vampire. He ate one spicy meat a-ball. Anyway, while I don’t mean to harp unduly on the writing, the game’s occasional typos can certainly cause immense frustration.

The main character herself is colorful and entertaining, though lacking in subtlety and a touch cliche. The plot is your standard mix of jRPG tropes, with vampires thrown in for good measure. Strangely enough, however, the vampires do help the old formula feel fresh here, particularly once you get past the game’s rather slow first hour or so.

There isn’t much to say about Ara Fell’s graphics, other than that it consists mostly of stock RPG Maker sprites, pixel work of the sort you’d find in an old SNES game. The music, from what I can tell, is mostly original work, though I caught a few stolen tracks here and there. (It’s a little hard not to laugh out loud when you first find a vampire temple and an instrumental version of Gangsta’s Paradise starts playing.)

This game was originally to contain 12 chapters, but Mr. Anthony stopped development after the second one. So unfortunately, while you can play through the game as far as it goes with no problems, this really isn’t a finished game.

The Verdict: 2/5. While not very deep or exceptional in most regards, Ara Fell is nonetheless a consistently enjoyable jRPG that would not have felt out of place on the SNES back in the early 90s. It loses points for being unfinished–if you can look past that, you’re in for a fun game.

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