Review: Arc The Lad: Twilight Of The Spirits

Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits
Genre: Strategy RPG
Platform: Playstation 2
ESRB Rating: Teen (Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Violence)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release Date: 6/24/03
Official Home Page: Arc the Lad @ Playstation.com

In 2002, the popular American company Working Designs released their most ambitious project yet. Even though the games had never before been released on American soil, the Arc the Lad Collection was (and still is) highly sought after. Containing 3 full games, a special battle arena disc and a making of disc, the Collection turned out to be another masterpiece from the wonderful people of Working Designs. Unfortunately, after the project was completed, they stated they would never again go to such lengths to localize a game.

Sony, the developers of the series, had previously thought that America was not a viable country to release the titles, but needless to say, Working Designs proved them wrong. Because of this, Sony decided to localize the 4th Arc the Lad title themselves. Subtitled “Twilight of the Spirits”, this is the first Arc title to be released on the PS2.

The question is just how good will the first Arc the Lad title released in the States that ISN’T developed by Working Designs compare to the previous releases? How many different RPG comparisons can I put in one review? Let’s examine these things, and much more.

Story
Many years have passed since the events that occurred in the first Arc the Lad series, and those occurrences have faded from memory and have since become legend and myth. The great elemental spirits who helped Arc and his companions have disappeared and when they vanished, spirit stones were discovered. Spirit stones basically harness the power of the spirits, which allows people to power machinery and perform magic. Also, the spirits’ disappearance heralded the coming of the Deimos, an odd species that appears humanoid, but typically looks like a demon of sorts. Because of their differences, the Humans and Deimos clash, and decide to split the world in two with each having their own half. Even though they set up this truce of sorts, it doesn’t stop the groups from clashing from time to time. In fact, that’s where our story begins.

Kharg, a human, is one of our main heroes. He is the prince of Nidellia, who lives in the town of Yewbell and is learning how to fight and one day will lead the armies of Nidellia. Nidellia was once a great country, but due to past conflicts, they have faltered and are now working to regain their past greatness. One of the things they are doing is mining spirit stones found in Plumb Canyon, which is near Yewbell. When a major attack on the canyon by the Deimos kills Kharg’s teacher, Kharg speaks with the Wind Spirit in a piece of a Great Spirit Stone his mother gave him, and he finds out that he must help save the planet from great destruction.

On the other side of the world, our other main hero, Darc, also begins his journey. He is a Deimos, and throughout his life, he has been tortured physically and mentally. His father was killed, his guardian Geedo beats him all the time, and nobody treats him like he feels he deserves. All that changes when he kills the right people and becomes king of Orcoth. He too speaks with the Wind Spirt through piece of a Great Spirit Stone, and must help save the land. In addition, he sees his father in a dream, and is told to unite the Deimos to save them.

The story is deep and engaging, and very difficult to simplify here, but I gave it my best shot. There are many different characters, each with their own story to be told. Since there are two main characters, the story switches back and forth between them, a la Suikoden III, and tells the story from each character’s point of view until the point that they meet up. Since they are the two that are destined to save the world, one has to wonder what is the connection between the two main characters?

Gameplay
The game plays a lot like Arc the Lad II, but it also plays like various other games as well. Normally, when not in battle, you run around towns and dungeons like any standard RPG. You can buy items and accessories, as well as talk to people and find chests and such. Outside of towns, the game plays much like Final Fantasy Tactics, where your world map is primarily dots with lines connecting them, though the background is a very detailed world map. You move to a dot, and if it’s your first time there, you’ll probably get some story exposition, as well as a battle. If you’ve been to a place before, you will randomly encounter enemies there.

Battles play like a hodge-podge of different games, but at its heart, it’s traditional Arc the Lad fighting. In previous Arc the Lad games, the fights were turn-based strategy affairs, where you moved your characters around environments and fought with weapons and magic. The biggest difference is that rather than fighting on squares, each character gets a particular radius they can move each turn. After they move, they can attack a certain distance either by regular attacks, special attacks and magic. It has a much more realistic feel this way.

In the course of battle, you gain experience by doing basically anything, be it attacking or curing. If you kill an enemy, you gain more experience than doing anything else. By engaging in combat, you not only raise your character’s levels, but also gain SP, which can be used to obtain new skills and magic. If you gain enough SP by the end of battle, your class goes up, and that determines what spells and skills you can learn using the SP.

Even though most of these concepts are pretty standard for a turn-based strategy RPG, there are a few rather unique concepts. Rather than buying new weapons and armor, you instead get weapon parts and accessories. The accessories aren’t anything special, since they just replace armor and you can equip any 3 accessories at any given time. The weapon parts are a bit different though, because rather than buying new weapons, you get parts that you can equip on your existing ones that do various things, from raising attack to changing elemental attributes. Also, pulling off magic and special attacks is done not with standard MP, but with spirit stones, which you gain in battle and can buy for a small amount of money.

Another neat thing is dual attacks, which allow two characters who are near each other and both in range of an enemy to attack together for more damage. A character gets the ability to do this when they are damaged enough and their tension meter is full. It’s similar to Final Fantasy’s limit break system in the fact that they get pissed off, and the characters glow with ethereal fire, and that’s when you can do the dual attacks. The cool thing is that if your enraged character does a dual attack with someone, that person still gets a turn, and can even turn around and do a dual attack with the enraged person. So it ends up being like 4 times the damage, because 2 people get a double damage attack. Nice.

Though the battles are not that unique, they do have their own certain charm. Because of the enhanced ability to move, it seems more like a battle should, rather than an overblown chess game. Battles never seem really tedious, even though some boss battles could take a while. Kudos to Sony for pulling off a battle system that improves on the systems found in previous Arc the Lad titles.

Graphics
The graphics in this game are quite the treat. Though not QUITE on the level of Xenosaga, they are still very high quality. I noticed very little aliasing in the game (mainly around loose hair) and all the models, character and otherwise, appeared very smooth and lifelike. The characters themselves are designed very nicely, with each having a very different look and style. They also used color very well with the characters, which makes them all look distinctive, but not gaudy.

For the entire game, it appears that the same quality of character models are used, which includes cinematics and battles. This is rather refreshing since most games (including my beloved Xenosaga) have different levels of quality depending on if it’s cinema (highest quality), battle, or standard running around (lowest quality). I should also note that the graphics during battles are splendid. Even the blue circle that shows where you can move is really good, even though it’s just a circle, and the spell effects are beautiful as well.

The environments are simply breathtaking. Each area looks so completely different, and each one is fully rendered in 3D, rather than a static prerendered image. In addition, there are many expansive areas that one may get lost in, but it’s still a joy seeing the sights and sounds when wandering around an area.

In addition to the 3D art, there is also a small amount of 2D art, namely the character portraits. Like many RPGs, when you speak to a character, it shows a 2D picture of the character’s face next to their text box. The art on these portraits is very nice, and it may even be done by the person who did the 2G art for Suikoden III, because the style is very similar.

All in all, Sony used graphics very well in this game. They know how they are supposed to be used: as support for the story, not to tell the story itself. This is a lesson that Square Enix needs to learn, since they seem to focus primarily on the graphics, then gameplay, then story, and then everything else falls by the wayside. If graphics were the focus of every game, then all games would end up like DOA:XBV.

Sound
In the area that I was most unsure about before playing the game, I was most surprised at how well the sound and music was pulled off. All the sounds fit perfectly, from footsteps while running around, to a meowing cat. Though it’s been a while since I’ve played a game that doesn’t utilize this aspect of sound well, I still feel it’s important to mention, because if not used well, it could completely ruin the ambiance of a particular area, or the entire game.

There is a small amount of voice acting in the game, and almost all of it comes during battles. Occasionally, someone will say something in a cut scene, but more often than not, it’s just text boxes. During the actual battles however, your characters will talk up a storm. It reminds me a lot of Grandia games, in addition to previous Arc the Lad titles, because the characters will typically have a taunt of sorts before pulling off a special attack. Though most of the voices may not all be very well known, they are all pretty good. In fact, one of the characters that Darc meets, Volk, is voiced by Steven Jay Blum, who is probably best known for voicing Spike Spiegel in Cowboy Bebop.

Despite the previously mentioned aspects of sound, music is arguably the most important, and it was what surprised me most about this game. I liked the music from previous Arc the Lad titles, but never this much. If a full orchestra didn’t perform the music, I would be very surprised. Several standard Arc the Lad themes return in this game, including main theme and the airship theme, and all are very well done. The battle music is brilliant, combining both rock and orchestra, and done in a way that one doesn’t overpower the other. Typically, games have good music, but ultimately forgettable. This game however, has really nice music that I could see myself listening to outside of the game.

Fun Factor
Admittedly, if there were a negative to the game, this would be it. There isn’t a whole lot unique about the game, but the game does feature a lot of nice aspects that make it quite an enjoyable experience. Because of the highly polished battle system, every single battle is different, and even random battles can be fought differently every time. Having the ability to choose which magic and special skills you learn first is a nice touch, since it lets you focus your characters in a way you prefer. Though it would be more interesting if you could level up more things, like skills for example (a la Grandia), it is still a very pleasant experience overall.

Ratings
Gameplay: 9.5
Graphics: 9
Sound: 9
Fun Factor: 7

Short Attention Span Summary
Though not the greatest RPG out there, this game still can run with the big dogs. Definitely worthy enough to hold the Arc the Lad title, this game upholds the concepts and style of the original Arc titles, and improves on them in many aspects. This game is for any fan of strategy RPGs, as well as standard ones, because everything it sets out to do, it does well. I haven’t regretted the purchase, and neither will you if you’re anything like me. At the very least, it deserves a rent, because it’s probably the best strategy RPG out there right now.