Summary: Tired of the repetitive combat system found in most RPGs? Enter Arc the Lad, which sports a unique turn-based combat system. Do we actually have a quality PlayStation 2 RPG in the summer? Let's pull up a few stools and fire up the kettle corn to hear what Marcus the Lad has to say about it.
This past Spring, Sony in Japan published Arc the Lad’s debut on the PlayStation 2. Thankfully, Sony Computer Entertainment America decided to waste no time in bringing this new Arc stateside. In what may be one of the shortest RPG translations in recent history, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits was released in America just a few months after the Japanese release.
We’ve put in a good 40 hours into our copy to see it all, and we’re happy to say that it was time well spent.
Playing both sides
It all starts off simple enough – following the formula set by so many Japanese RPGs before it – with a young boy that’s quickly given the responsibility to thwart a Big Evil Plot. Actually, it’s two young boys… and one of them isn’t really a boy. You see, the world is divided between two oppositions: deimos (which are really just demons) and humans. Instead of just experiencing the story from a single perspective, the game play alternates the player’s point of view between Kharg (the human perspective) and Darc (the deimos perspective). Playing from both sides of the tale keeps things fresh and, predictably, the two paths eventually converge.
As expected, these two sides are at odds with each other and are planning to wipe one another out for the sake of peace. The bone of contention between the two is a limited resource called spirit stones. The humans use spirit stones as a source of energy and the deimos use them to fuel their magic. In addition to the ‘vanilla’ spirit stones, a group of five very special Great Spirit Stones composed of Wind, Earth, Fire, Water, and Light (just one off from calling Captain Planet) gives infinite power to the one who gathers them all. Naturally, everyone is out to catch ‘em all as if the Great Spirit Stones were pocket monsters.
SIDEBAR: In addition to the four elements, Heart was needed to call Mother Earth’s greatest defender, Captain Planet!
During each character’s turn, you’re given an area where you’re allowed to move and aim your attack. You have the freedom to fight man-to-man, or team up against individual enemies. Even where you stand in relation to an enemy has an effect on the damage that you inflict. For example, an attack from behind deals greater damage than a frontal strike. Each character has a different range; some have a wide or long enough range to hit several enemies with a single attack. Some special moves can be pulled off only when two characters are within a close proximity to each other.
Obviously, positioning and strategy play a big part in the battles found in Arc the Lad. It’s not a big issue at the start since you only have one or two people in your party, but it’s vital later on in the game when you’re in control of a handful of fighters, battling more powerful opponents.
Experience points are accumulated based on battle experience. Characters that do more during fights will level up quicker. It’s not enough to just bring a character in for a second to steal something and then run away to safety.
SIDEBAR: Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits
Instead of magic points, Arc the Lad uses spirit stones as a limiter for your special abilities. Interestingly, and unlike magic points, spirit stones cannot be recharged – after all, they’re stones. Rather, you pick up spirit stones dropped by defeated foes, or if you’re really desperate, you can fork over gold to buy them from merchants.
Really, really big guns
Later on in the tale and after you’ve acquired an airship (every RPG must have one, it seems), you can spend your spirit stones in powering the ship’s cannons. In the place of big, powerful summons, Arc the Lad lets you call in the big, powerful attack of your airship’s guns to help you blast some fools sky-high during a battle.
As fresh as the battle system is, Arc the Lad doesn’t force them down your throat. There are no random battles, which we feel are a dated RPG convention. The only times that you’ll be forced into battles are during story-critical moments or when traveling from location-to-location on the world map (though the latter can all be retreated from). Other than that, you’re free to run freely around the environments and not be afraid that the game will suddenly toss you into a fight that you never saw coming.
If there was one thing to complain about, it’d be the character animations. Whenever a character speaks, the camera focuses on him or her miming out the dialog. Since there’s no voice acting during the textual dialog, the characters’ mouths flap at random with their arms gesturing about. In an age where graphics technology can allow characterization through visuals alone, Arc the Lad sticks with the old-school method of showing emotion via text.
Silly puppet acting aside, the graphics in Arc the Lad are among the best in RPGs today. It may not have the CG movies of Final Fantasy, but the in-game visuals are just as satisfying.
Thank you for the music
The sound design, on the other hand, can’t match up to the visuals. There’s nothing wrong with the sound effects, but nothing outstanding. Most of the sound effects in Arc the Lad come from the battle sequences, where swords and arrows impact with rather muted results. Then again, sound effects don’t usually play a huge role in RPGs in comparison to other genres, such as action games.
Thankfully, the soundtrack is constantly pleasant to the ear. In terms of quality, the music of Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is superb and is easily the best yet from the series. The unfortunate part is that what we get in quality, we don’t get in quantity. The limited selection of music means that many pieces are repeated again and again throughout the game. This isn’t as monotonous as it could have been, as some how each piece of music that plays over a given situation feels appropriate.
SIDEBAR: In addition music for Twilight of the Spirits composer Harada Takashi has worked on the score for the anime A Tree of Palme. He’s also really into all things Ondes Martenot.
(Kudos if you know we’re babbling about.)
Unfortunately, the talkie moments in Arc the Lad are extremely sparse. At best, the game goes to a cut scene where just a few lines of dialog are muttered and before you know it, you’re back to reading text. Perhaps we’re just spoiled by other recent RPGs and their liberal use of voice acting, but it wasn’t until Final Fantasy X that we realized how much voice acting can add to the experience.
Part of the problem is that the game teases you with its cut-scene and voice acting ability. The letterboxes drop down momentarily to focus in on great looking characters and environments; the characters open their mouths with voices coming out… and then it’s over.
It seems that Arc the Lad’s biggest use for voice actors is for its battle sequences. During the beginning of a character’s turn, he or she may blurt out one-liners such as “I will save the deimos!” or “I’m on the prowl.” After getting hit, they may retort with sayings such as “You’ll be sorry” or “That tickles!” While some of them are mildly amusing (though not to the same extent as in Warcraft), it’s largely a waste of voice talent.
SIDEBAR: Jennifer Hale is another voice actor in Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits. She’s worked on other epically-voiced games such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and Eternal Darkness. Her most recent work is playing Bastila Shan in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
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