Inside Pulse 12

Review: Lord of Arcana (Sony PSP)

Lord of Arcana
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Access Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 01/25/11

Square Enix is no stranger to action RPG’s both before and after their merger. Between the two entities they’ve produced various and sundry action RPG’s that can be considered good (Parasite Eve, Actraiser, Vagrant Story), not so good (Crisis Core, Parasite Eve 2), and everything in-between, so it’s not even a little surprising to see one when the publish it. What is surprising, however, is that their most recent endeavor, Lord of Arcana, doesn’t seem so much like their own product as it does their answer to Monster Hunter. Well, that’s not completely right, as this isn’t their recent effort as much as it is a game they commissioned Access Games, developers of the recently backhandedly praised Deadly Premonition, to make, but it’s their surrogate kid, so close enough. While the gameplay and random battle systems are strongly reminiscent of Valhalla Knights, the game is laid out in a capacity so similar to that of Capcom’s monster obliterating franchise that the two obviously share more than a passing similarity. However, while the games share similarities in their interfaces and non-combat mechanics, the game play is a bit more similar to your standard action RPG fare in a lot of respects, and seems to have a lot in common with, as noted, Valhalla Knights, only with a somewhat more limited focus in many respects. Both franchises that Lord of Arcana borrows from are arguably pretty solid, however, so it would certainly stand to reason that when borrowing from two solid franchises, the end result would be pretty good, right?

Let’s find out.

The story in Lord of Arcana is pretty basic: your main character is some sort of awesome monster killer in his home land who takes on a quest to seek out the Arcana in the land of Horodyn. By doing so, your character loses all of their memories as a consequence, as well as the sweet gear they start the game with, and you find yourself essentially stripped bare in a temple in the middle of nowhere. So, delivered into this world with a weapon and the clothes on your back, your goal is essentially to smite the monsters in your path, fight the Arcana you face, take their Cores, and by doing so, become ruler of the land. The story is about as developed as something like Monster Hunter, which is to say, enough to let you know what you’re supposed to be doing, but not so much as to be overly complex or involved. The story is very direct, though there are some mild complexities to how the game world works and such that are generally handled well enough. It’s not expertly crafted material or anything like that, but the game world has some personality to it and the story is different enough to be interesting as you follow along. That said, the game doesn’t make any sort of effort to make you follow it, which is to say that while NPC’s in Monster Hunter would at least make some effort to say “Hey, you kind of have to pay attention here,” and force you to learn about what was going on, Lord of Arcana doesn’t even bother with this, and you could easily just run through multiple chapters without talking to anyone but vendors without a problem. It’s one thing for a game to offer minimal story, but when a game basically says “We don’t care if you read any of this or not” you kind of have to wonder why they included it in the first place.

Lord of Arcana is generally visually interesting when discussing the character and monster designs. The character models are well designed, and while the visuals aren’t the most powerful the PSP can push out, the art design makes up for that. The character and monster animations are also generally solid and flow well into one another, so you don’t see disjointed animations pop up as you’re playing. The player characters look unique and the monsters you’ll face down throughout the game are interesting looking and don’t just borrow from your standard monstrous fare in other fiction. On the other hand, the game environments, save the temple you find yourself in at the start of the game, are somewhat bland, unfortunately, and don’t really add anything to the experience beyond what the characters offer. The environments are also somewhat repetitive, not so much in the sense that “there are a limited amount of them that the game has to work with” so much as “everything tends to look the same from one zone to the next”, and there’s not really enough variety to keep things interesting. The music is fairly standard fantasy fare and works well enough for the game, though you’ll not find any of the tunes stuck in your head when you finish playing the game, as they’re fine, but generally unmemorable. The odd smattering of voice work that pops up here and there is generally pretty good, and the sound effects are also rather well done and fit the theme of the game, so fighting monsters sounds like one would expect, for example, and the monsters you meet sound distinct enough to be interesting.

Lord of Arcana largely takes place in between two sets of locations: the town, where you’ll spend your time customizing characters, building gear and taking on missions, and the field, where you’ll be slaying monsters, performing missions and acquiring goods to forge into new stuff. The controls for both sections are mostly the same: the stick moves around, the D-pad moves the camera, the right bumper allows you to run, the left bumper reorients the camera behind you, and the circle button interacts with things and people you’ll see. Combat scenarios don’t change any of these functions, but do add some new ones; the X button allows you to block and/or dodge as the weapon permits, the square button allows you to attack normally, the Triangle button allows for Battle Arts to be performed, and the left trigger locks onto enemies. The circle button performs several functions, depending on the circumstances and weapons you use; it could be used to cast a spell, or as an alternate form of attack, or to pick up items, or whatever, so you’ll need to pay attention to what the game tells you it does at the time based on your gear and such, which can be a little confusing at first when you’re trying out new gear, for instance, but it’s not too bad overall. Your town-based interactions are somewhat limited, in that there are a few vendors to talk to and a few places you can forage for items, but for the most part, aside from a couple NPC’s that offer up flavor text here and there, you’ll spend most of your time in town preparing to leave it. The vendors in town make up the standard compliment of shopkeepers one would expect from such a game. There’s an item vendor for selling you goods outright, an alchemist who can make you consumables and forging items out of existing items you have, a blacksmith who can forge or upgrade gear, and two guild representatives of the hunters guild in the town, one for storing items and customizing gear, and one for doling out missions. There’s also a guild hall for taking on multiplayer missions if you have a friend or three to play with, and the temple, where you’ll take on all your Arcana quests.

Eventually, you’ll have your gear in check and you’ll head out into the field to do battle with the various monsters that inhabit the world of Lord of Arcana, and it’s here that the game begins to show off its differences from Monster Hunter. Each zone you can enter will generally feature searchable zones (highlighted with small light pillars), breakable items, and/or teleportation platforms that can be activated, along with the standard compliment of enemies. Enemies generally wander around a set part of the area until they see you, at which point they will attempt to chase you down. Should they hit you, or should you hit them, the game will load up an instanced battle ground for you to fight the enemy or enemies you’ve taken on. If you hit them unaware, you get a boost to attack, if they hit you unaware, you get a minus to defense, and if no one is unaware combat starts normally. The instanced area is represented as a circular battleground where you’ll fight the various enemies as they walk around the field and attack you as needed, though you can also run to the edge of the circle and run up against it to escape from battle, if you’ve been caught unawares by an enemy or just don’t feel like fighting.

You can take it to your enemies with one of five different weapon types: swords, which allow you normal attacks, blocking and dodging with X, and allow you to use shields and cards; maces, which allow you normal attacks, dodging with X, and the ability to kick enemies aloft with Circle, at the cost of card and shield usage; broadswords, which function identically to swords except they are heavier and more damaging, and thus, slower; axes, which allow for normal attacks, blocking and dodging with X, and allow card usage, though blocking only reduces damage; and firespears, which shoot with Square, allow dodging with X, and allow for card usage. Each weapon type has its own strengths and weaknesses, and a good amount of effort is made in the game to make each weapon type useful in various scenarios or against various monsters, encouraging you to play with friends or vary your weapon usage for best success. Characters can also equip Cards, which allow for normal magic attacks and skills or special Ultimate summon spells that wreck the whole battlefield, and can use consumable items in battle to boost skills, heal, deal direct damage and other such things. When you’ve done enough damage to an enemy, so long as you’re locked on and in close range, they’ll go into a death animation and the game will offer you the option of a Coup de Grace, which is an over the top death blow that is likely to generate more random items when the enemy dies, and can possibly damage multiple enemies depending on the enemy killed and the range of the monsters.

Most missions you’ll take on amount to killing a specific amount of enemies or collecting a specific amount of mission-specific items, but occasionally you’ll be tasked to take down a gigantic boss monster, either normally or when one is released from its Arcana in the temple. Standard combat comes down to recognizing enemy patterns and avoiding them, but when fighting Arcana monsters this becomes a whole new thing, as the Arcana monsters can often have multiple different attacks they can employ, and proper monitoring of the enemy is vital to success. When the Arcana beasts are low on health or have something broken on their body you’ll also have to go into a Melee Duel with them, which involves either repeatedly pressing one button or various Active Time Events that will pop up in sequence, to either damage or kill them, depending on the circumstances. They also tend to drop awesome crafting items when killed or when their parts are broken, making killing them very much a risk/reward scenario. Arcana monsters also have the potential to produce items called “Cores”, as do normal monsters when killed during special points when a field is high in Arcana power, which are also quite vital to crafting great gear. When the battle ends, the monster is harvested, and has a chance of producing a Core… or exploding into bits, depending on your luck.

By collecting Cores and normal items out in the field, you’ll be able to have the Blacksmith craft or upgrade weapons and armor, as well as Orbs, which can be added to open slots on armor for added effects, and Cards, which allow you, as noted prior, to cast regular and Ultimate spells in battle. Defeating monsters also earns you experience points, which improve your overall stats, and depending on how you beat the monsters you’ll earn Magic and/or Weapon experience, with the former upgrading the performance of your chosen spell, and the latter improving combos and performance of your chosen weapon. Each spell and weapon has its own experience level, so you can balance out your experience by trading up and grinding or focus on one weapon and level it heavily, depending on your goals. Leveling weapons also unlocks additional Battle Arts, which can be equipped individually and offer different effects. Using magic in battle costs magic points, which build as you deal damage and deplete as you cast spells, while using Battle Arts costs stamina, which replenishes over time. Blocking attacks and dodging also use up stamina, however, and if your stamina bar fills up you’ll be stunned, unable to respond until you recover, so proper managing of the stamina bar is key.

There are seven chapters in the game, each revolving around the seven Arcana represented in the temple, though there are three additional Arcana to hunt down after you’ve cleared the main campaign. Each chapter unlocks new environments, missions and enemies to face, as well as crafting items and consumables to acquire and gear to fashion and upgrade as a result, and there’s a solid amount of variety and options in the game as you progress. A determined player can probably clear through the campaign in around twenty to thirty hours, though most players will likely find themselves taking a good bit longer, as the game has a higher than average learning curve to it. The game also offers multiplayer for up to four players, either offline or through online Ad Hoc tools, allowing players to take on missions through the guild hall together to take out tough monsters or grind for items and profit. You can also make multiple characters and put together new and different weapon/armor/orb/magic combinations to build the best possible character you can relative to your style of play, alone or with friends, as you see fit, and the different weapon classes are balanced enough that you can basically pick whatever weapon you feel is best and use it effectively in battle.

That said, while the weapon classes are balanced, the actual combat never really feels as such, as Lord of Arcana often feels unevenly balanced at the best of times. Most normal enemies are generally very simple to take out after one or two fights to learn their patterns, and even when they’re first encountered, the rank and file of the enemy forces are generally unlikely to do any sort of significant damage unless you’re a sloppy player. The Arcana monsters, on the other hand, are generally rough to start with and progressively ramp up as the game progresses, which is fine enough except that the game doesn’t seem to be terribly concerned about allowing the player to ease into this. Consider Monster Hunter: you start off fighting stupid grunt enemies for a few missions before fighting some sort of giant raptor or another as your first “real” challenge, then you’re fed to whatever the first enemy in the giant monster hierarchy is (usually Kut Ku) to learn the tactics needed to survive. Lord of Arcana gives you a tutorial where the giant boss monster is dumber than dirt and your main character is jacked out with items and gear, followed by two incredibly simple “kill these dumb goblins” missions before sending you off to fight Agni, who will promptly pound you into paste if you assume he’s on the same difficulty level as everything else at that point.

It’s not that the monsters you’ll face can’t be beaten; it’s that the game gives you no indication that what you’re about to face is going to eat you alive and you’ll basically learn NOTHING from prior fights that would prepare you for the next battle. Demon’s Souls, rough as it is, teaches you new things each battle and learns you by force on how to progress through the game as you move along. Nothing in the Agni battle can readily be applied to the next boss because the two monsters fight largely differently from one another, and the second boss, Takemikazuchi, is significantly worse by comparison. It’s one thing to start your game off painfully difficult, because if the players can adjust to the learning curve and the remainder of the game offers a normal sliding scale of challenge, you’re still doing an adequate job of balancing your game, but when the difficulty of the game dips like a roller coaster between normal combat and boss battles, you’re doing it wrong. In other words: when the player can start a boss battle and die, from full health, in the first five seconds when absolutely nothing prior to that point was even remotely that bad, your intentions don’t matter, because that’s shameful and it shows a gross inability to actually balance properly. Granted, it’s not like there aren’t SOME monsters out in the field that you should not, by all rights, be fooling with, but they tend to keep to themselves and after getting wrecked by one you’ll know to stay far away (until a quest monster summons one for you to fight before hiding, which carries its own problems of course), but the Arcana monsters are required monsters you HAVE to fight, so you’ll end up bashing your face into that wall until you can get past them. Frankly, given the nature and feeling of the game, this sort of thing comes across less as a satisfying challenge and more as needlessly frustrating game design, and that’s unfortunate.

Further, for a game that’s trying SO HARD to be some kind of a competitor to Monster Hunter that it’s kind of painful to watch, Lord of Arcana doesn’t take nearly enough away from the experience to be in any way able to compete. Now, granted, it’d be unfair to expect a brand new franchise to have the amount of content in its first game that Monster Hunter Freedom Unite offers, for example, but this game can’t even compare to Monster Hunter Freedom in terms of overall volume. The amount of weapon and armor options in the game, both in volume and type, are adequate, but you won’t take away much feeling that one weapon feels much different from another in its own class, and there aren’t enough varieties of weapon classes to work with, frankly. The game also offers nothing to do outside of battle in any capacity, and while the farm in Monster Hunter isn’t a BIG deal, it adds life to what is an otherwise repetitive game, something Lord of Arcana lacks. The mechanics of the game also don’t work as well as they could in a lot of cases. While it’s understandable that the ability to harvest Cores should have a random element to it in theory, in practice, having the harvesting chance fail three times in a row while grinding a boss is, frankly, annoying. The fact that, when using weapons that offer a blocking option, you have to block first, THEN dodge, is annoying and makes dodging less useful as a consequence. The whole stamina system in general is also quite poorly implemented, as it makes blocking seem useless in most instances, as you’ll likely end up in a position where you can dodge and pray the enemy doesn’t hit you, block until you’re stunned and eat the damage, or just eat the damage in the first place, and it just seems stupid to put players into a position where they can’t block or where blocking is a bad idea because they need to regenerate stamina. Finally, the complete inability to pause the game in any capacity while playing solo short of putting the system to sleep is NEVER a good idea, especially considering the same motion one uses to put the system to sleep also turns the system off. I understand why a game of this sort cannot allow for pausing in multiplayer, but when I’m playing solo, if I need to pause to do something in a hurry, if I were to, say, accidentally power the system down and lose an hour of progress? I wouldn’t be very happy about that, and I expect you wouldn’t either.

At the end of the day, Lord of Arcana desperately wants to be regarded as being in the same caliber of games like Monster Hunter or Demon’s Souls as a game that’s challenging and awesome for hardcore players, but it lacks the depth, balance, style and substance those games bring to the table, and the end result is a game that might be entertaining to a diehard action RPG, but will scream of being unpolished to everyone else. The story is adequate, if uninspired, the visuals are artistically interesting but often bland and repetitive, and the audio is serviceable without ever managing to be stellar. The concepts the game tries to work with, like the upgradable gear and the instanced battles, are interesting in theory, and there’s some solid variety to the experience and the systems if one finds the core experience engaging enough to want to work with it. However, the game often feels poorly balanced, as the introductory sequences hold your hand heavily and the first few missions give you no challenge before the boss ramps things up, and the game continues that “easy normal battles, vicious boss fights” cycle from beginning to end, something the games it compares to do not. Further, the game doesn’t offer nearly enough variety and offers nothing to do when not running around beating things up, which would probably help to distract from the gameplay issues and annoying mechanics. The bottom line is that, while those gamers who consider themselves forever up for a challenge might find some value in the experience, Lord of Arcana simply doesn’t have the style or the substance of the games it’s emulating to be worth its asking price, and you’d be better off playing one of the games it borrows from instead.

The Scores:
Story: MEDIOCRE
Graphics: ABOVE AVERAGE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: POOR
Balance: BAD
Originality: DREADFUL
Addictiveness: BAD
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: BAD

FINAL SCORE: POOR GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Lord of Arcana tries very hard to be a “hardcore” game, and succeeds in the sense that it’s quite challenging and that it’s not for everyone, but unlike the games it seeks to emulate, it fails in every other respect. The storyline is serviceable but not enjoyable, the graphics are artistically interesting but not technically sound, and the audio is solid but not stunning. The gameplay has a couple of interesting ideas of its own and borrows a lot of Monster Hunter‘s mechanics wholesale in an attempt to combine them into something that’s unique, and you can see ways in which this would have actually worked in a more polished game. However, the game’s balance fluctuates all over the place, giving you easy normal battles and overly punishing boss fights, there’s not nearly enough depth to the experience to keep it interesting beyond the first few hours unless you’re supremely dedicated, and many of the game mechanics are either not well implemented or purposely frustrating. It’s not that Lord of Arcana can’t be enjoyed so much as that, even to the players it’s trying to court, it doesn’t hold up as being on the same level as Demon’s Souls or Monster Hunter, as it’s simply not as polished or well designed. Given some time to develop and test a sequel, Access Games could likely turn out something that would be able to stand head and shoulders with the games this seeks to emulate, but this is not that game, and only the most diehard of gamers will enjoy spending time with it.