Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
A week ago, I had a friend recommend the game Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark in strongest terms. Typically when I receive a game recommendation I file it away for potential future playing—I’m typically juggling two or three more pressing games I want to finish and don’t have the time to pick up another—but one piece made Fell Seal’s recommendation different: the recommender described it a hybrid of the best of all three Final Fantasy Tactics games.
That (coupled with my respect for the person in question) made for a proposal too intriguing to turn down, and I downloaded the game within the hour. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed.
Tactics has not seen a new game since Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2: The Grimoire of the Rift came out twelve years ago. I’ve written before about my love for the series’ gameplay (and one of these days I’ll dive into some of the more interesting elements of their narrative presentations), so the idea of a spiritual successor to an old favorite—and a spiritual successor that was possibly better than the originals—held quite a bit of appeal.
A “spiritual successor,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is a game that is technically not connected to an earlier (and usually very popular) game but is meant to evoke the feel of a sequel. These typically pop up in cases where licensing issues prevent a company from continuing with a series—such as with Arc System Works creating BlazBlue to fill the time when they couldn’t continue with Guilty Gear—or when a studio has left a beloved IP dormant for a long time and another developer wants to take a stab at satisfying the original’s fans.
Spiritual successors tend to be kind of hit-and-miss. In some cases, they ride on nothing but nostalgia and end up as fairly superficial and unsatisfying experiences. My best example of this would be Tokyo RPG Factory’s I am Setsuna, which tries to be an artsy homage to Chrono Trigger and ends up feeling empty and unoriginal (and consequently boring). Sometimes they diverge too far from the heart of their source material and end up becoming something else entirely, as in the case of Bravely Default, which is an interesting and valuable game but nonetheless doesn’t really deliver particularly well on the promise of “another Final Fantasy V.” I actually prefer Bravely to FFV, so this latter category isn’t an inherently bad one, but it does somewhat defeat the purpose of a “spiritual successor.”
The most successful spiritual successors are those that fully understand what made their inspirations great. BlazBlue is truly the best example of this, as it had the benefit of having the exact same creative team as Guilty Gear (albeit with Mori Toshimichi spearheading the writing while Ishiwatari Daisuke focused more fully on the series’s music). This has changed somewhat now that Guilty Gear has been revived, but originally BlazBlue took everything that made Guilty Gear fun and iterated on it while maintaining the same feel. Larger-than-life characters loosely inspired by popular culture? Check. Awesome rock-and-roll soundtrack? Check. Wacky-but-exciting sci-fi superhero story? Check. And—most importantly—top-notch, super tightly designed 2D fighting game foundation? Check.
BlazBlue is the “ideal” spiritual successor in that it has enough of its own identity to stand as a distinct offering from Guilty Gear, but it also has enough of Guilty Gear’s core to feel like a plausible iteration on the games in the older series. It rode that balance perfectly in the first few games, and then when ArcSys revived Guilty Gear BlazBlue started taking more risks and carving out its own unique place alongside the revamped version of the series that inspired it. BlazBlue is not without flaws, but as a spiritual successor to Guilty Gear it’s a home-run.
Fell Seal doesn’t have the head-start Blazblue did. Its development team has no connection to that of the games it’s emulating. It’s a two-person Kickstarter project. There’s no inherent reason it should be successful. And it manages to be among the best spiritual successors out there—and certainly the best follow-up to the Tactics games.
Fell Seal (and any other top-shelf spiritual successor) benefits from a fundamental understanding of what made its inspiration work and not work, and also of what inspired its inspiration. The game doesn’t just borrow from the Final Fantasy Tactics games—it borrows from other RPGs that fed into those games, including the original RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. Fell Seal supplements its Tactics-inspired ideas and mechanics with Dungeons & Dragons staples (and not-so-staples) that were nonetheless absent in Tactics. The Thief-equivalent class getting a representation of a D&D Rogue’s Sneak Attack feature is such a clever choice it seems wrong for the Tactics games to not have it. Fell Seal also allows full visual customization of generic units to allow players to create unique characters (again, D&D-style) and it feels as if it has everything a longtime D&D player would want to mess around with in the context of a Tactical RPG, from rocket boots to cursed swords to anything else.
I think the moment when this “drawing from the influence’s influences” clicked was when I walked into a shop in-game and the shopkeeper greeted me with the phrase “Be pleased.” It’s easy to move right past this without thinking anything of it—but it made me grin from ear to ear.
There’s a long-running D&D show that streams on Twitch (and is now a podcast) called Critical Role. It’s a D&D campaign played by a bunch of voice actors and run by the fabulous Matthew Mercer. It’s probably the most well-known D&D show out there, and Matthew Mercer’s DM-ing is something of an inspiration to pretty much every DM I know (myself included). The phrase “Be pleased” is something of a running gag from a section of Critical Role where the party travels to the desert city of Ank’Harel. The typical greeting within Ank’Harel is… “Be pleased.”
Additionally, the most prominent merchant figure in Critical Role is originally from the area around Ank’Harel, so when I saw a merchant in Fell Seal using the Ank’Harel greeting, I immediately thought of Critical Role’s Shaun Gilmore. It’s a tiny Easter egg, to be sure, but it speaks volumes about the game’s awareness of the sources that produced it.
There are all kinds of little things that make Fell Seal a great game, but it’s this awareness that makes it all possible. It knows where it comes from. It’s not simply trying to replicate and iterate upon Final Fantasy Tactics—it’s a game built in the way Tactics was built, looking at everything that came before and building the best game possible based on the experimentation of older works. And it’s incredibly successful.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition