Hello and welcome to my first indie game review for Vernacular Books! I decided to hit the ground running, and not just review one game, but two at the same time. That is, Ikenfell and Ara Fell, respectfully.
Consider this a compare and contrast of sorts. On one hand, the two games are not related at all, in that they’re not part of the same game franchise and done by two completely different indie game companies. On the other hand, they’re both indie JRPG’s, aiming to hit that sweet spot of golden age SNES RPG’s. Which is to say: heavy with linear plot, turn based combat, fantasy settings, and golden age style pixel art that would be too complicated for the 16-bit SNES. I guess the kids are calling that high bit art, but really it’s more akin to 32bit 2d pixel games, like those on the early Playstation, Saturn, or Gameboy Advance.
Personally, these are my favorite kind of indie games, and I’ll probably cover indie jrpg’s here more than any other kind of game. Certainly, I’ll dip my toes into the farming sims, the zeldalikes, the metriodvanies, the walking sims, and the adventure games. But the ones I’m going to return to over and over are my first loves when it came to gaming. A love that started with Ultima:Exodus on the NES, as well as the NES Dragon Warriors and Final Fantasies.
But these are just taxonomies, and tell us nothing about the games themselves. So let’s step away from the genre and subgenre similarity and see what each game is trying to do. Even though they are both pixel art focused, and even though both share a common snes style DNA in their art, they couldn’t be more different in how they look and feel.
Ara Fell is absolutely beautiful. The style of pixel art here reminds me of the SNES Dragon Quest games, most specifically the remake of DQ 3, and then Dragon Quest 6. You could also throw the 2d version of Dragon Quest 11 into the mix (which is available both the Nintendo DS and the Switch), and get a similar feel for how this game looks. In fact, you could say that the plot of the game and the setting also has a very Dragon Quest kind of feel to it, with the towns being very homelike, and very similar to how the Shire functions in Lord of the Rings.
Because of this there is a constant sense of awe with a lot of the art. You’re above the world in a landscape of floating islands, with clouds slowly rolling below. Lots of animals hop about, and in old ruins during the setting sun you find relics of elves and vampires. We’ll get to the plot stuff later, but for now, let’s just say that the pixel art here is very detailed, and full of moments where I stopped and paused the games and just admired how absolutely gorgeous it is.
So now let’s compare and contrast this with the art in Ikenfell, shall we? The art in this game is nice, and while not quite as show-offish and full of wonder as Ara Fell, that’s not the point. The pixel art in this game feels more cartoonish and that fits the vibe of the game. Some people may compare it to Earthbound or Mother franchise, I think this would be a mistake. The game feels more to me like Steven Universe, both in plot and in art.
That’s not to say there aren’t amazing points in time when the art gives me that sense of wonder, but that has more do with how it relates to the plot and story of the game itself. It also doesn’t use lighting effects quite as thoroughly as Ara Fell, in that there is simple light like a circle in the shadows representing a candle or a lantern, and that’s it. Ara Fell has complex light layers giving interesting and accurate lighting for windows, and holes in the ceiling, etc.
This isn’t a bad thing, just a difference in stylistic choices. Since this simplified lighting also adds to the whole feeling of it being like a cartoon.
Next up, let’s talk about combat. The most interesting thing about JRPG’s, esp indie ones that mock the style of the snes counterparts, is just how varied and interesting turn based combat can be when the game creators put their minds to it. I know, turn based combat gets a bad rap these days, and hey it sort of always did, even way back in the nineties. Not a lot of people grok the strategy and complexity of a good turn based smash. But I do, and these games both bring their own unique flair to the proceedings.
Let’s start with discussing how Ara Fell does its combat. Since it was originally created using RPRMaker as its engine (and not GameMaker, or a non-engine based framework like Rust or Love2d) it has to work within the confines of that system itself. I think the original version was done in RPGMaker 2000 or 20003, which uses a Final Fantasy style turn based active time battle. The new version of Ara Fell runs on Unity, so it can be ported to various systems like Nintendo Switch and Xbox with ease, but even still it contains that same core combat system that was used in the original game, and therefore based on RPGMaker.
Because of that, it is limited in how innovative it can be. There is nothing wrong with that, it brings some new tools to the table, including how skills are balanced and how you assign your points when you level up, rather than just a static attribute gain based on class. There are some tweaks adding in a simple strategy system, mostly based on the tried and true Final Fantasy style of combat. For example, one character can draw attacks to him using the usual taunt or defense tactics, another can make potions and cast healing spells in combat.
Because of this, the game is super easy to get into for any fans of Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. It’s a well oiled machine, the combat doesn’t get in the way of the plot, and it’s an enjoyable challenge without being too mentally taxing. The downside is that there is a completely unnecessary crafting system added on. Fans of this kind of thing will enjoy it, but I found it unnecessary and wish I could just not use it at all (much like how DQ 11 makes crafting completely optional).
Now, Ikenfell uses a completely unique spin on the classic turn based formula. It’s nice, I like games that try and create their own flavoured system, it gives their own franchise a unique spin. In the classic JRPG days this was quite normal, what with Breath of Fire having its own battle engine that was similar to and different from Final Fantasy, which was also similar to and different from the Lunar games, which had a similar but completely different combat when compared to Dragon Quest.
With Ikenfell the combat is a mix of strategic moves on a grid similar to tactical RPG’s, but done in a side view style, much like how the Lunar games do it. That’s not saying it’s a Lunar game clone, since there is more attention paid to area of effects and timing when it comes to button presses. I’m not a huge fan of button press timing, if your computer’s frame rate is a little off (which can happen with vsync’d games like this), then the button pressed timing will be wonky, and even if you press it on time it won’t register it. Thankfully, this option can be turned off, and you can go right back to classic turned based tactics. The combat system is fun, and unique, but can wear thin after a little while and becomes gimmicky. That’s neither here nor there, the game’s plot is the main reason to play, and the combat doesn’t get in the way and only enhances that experience.
The music for both games are absolutely excellent. The combat theme for Ikenfell will get pleasantly stuck in your head for days, and the town theme in Ara Fell feels very much like the shire, in the best possible ways. Ikenfell’s music is mostly chiptunes with a few live instrumentation pieces to spice things up, while Ara Fell is all beautiful sweeping symphonies.
Since these are JRPG’s, let’s get to the meat of the games itself, then. The only reason you play games like these is because of the story. If the story isn’t good, then it’s not worth playing at all. Ikenfell wins out on the story front and the writing front. I compared it to Steven Universe earlier, and that’s 100% true. This is a high compliment. The characters are interesting, complex, funny, and full of verve and character. While Ara Fell is decent in the story arena, it definitely slacks behind Ikenfell in this instance. While the writing in Ara Fell is good for the most part, there are some moments when it’s a bit too loquacious for its own good, and it repeats a few conversations and points when it’s not necessary. Not to mention all the short jokes at the expense of the main character grow tiresome after a while. It’s kind of like a sitcom in that respect, most of the jokes are too easy and involve punching down on the characters or the obvious metajokes for an indie jrpg that we’ve seen a dozen times before.
That said, the character writing is decent and once it moves away from the quippyness and into the story proper, it’s really really good. I would say Ikenfell has the better writing and story and characters, while Ara Fell does admirably well and is well worth the price of admission.
Finally, both games have puzzles and exploration. Ara Fell is better at exploration, and rewards you for wandering around and discovering things on your own. In this way it combines the linear plot heavy style of JRPG’s with a more open world exploration. While Ikenfell has more enjoyable puzzles that feel like they came out a Zelda game.
Which is the greater Fell game? That’s a bit hard to decide. I can’t really give a winner in this context, since I liked both games for different reasons. They’re not too expensive, buying both of them will cost only 1/3 of the price of a AAA game, and give you just about as many hours of gameplay and enjoyment.
Ikenfell and Ara Fell are both available on the Nintendo Switch and Steam. I played Ikenfell on Steam on a PC, and I played Ara Fell on my switch.