"To have Arc the Lad standing on its own without the collection... just doesn't work, because it doesn't offer nearly enough by itself."
Arc the Lad was first released in 1995, but only in Japan. It wasn't until 2002 that North Americans were able to experience the game that introduced the core characters and tactical battle system that made the series so popular. When Working Designs released Arc the Lad, however, it was packaged in a collection featuring Arc the Lad I, II, III, and Arc Arena. It held a higher value being grouped with all those other games; as a standalone title, Arc the Lad can be completed in about ten hours without doing any of the side material. It also feels more like a prologue to the events of Arc the Lad II than a self-contained title.
I'll confess, up until playing Arc the Lad, the only games I had experienced were the two on PS2: Twilight of the Spirits and End of Darkness. I enjoyed the former and hated the latter. Naturally, when it was announced that the Arc the Lad I was coming to PSN, followed by releases of II and III, I knew I had to experience the series' roots. My expectations for PSone Classics are always quite low: I know as a reviewer that experiencing these games now will not be the same as how I would have seen them years ago. Unfortunately, Arc the Lad only provides something extremely outdated and barebones - a game without much of a soul, and it really doesn't set up enough of the story to justify a purchase.
Destined For Greatness
Arc the Lad is a tale of destiny: everything has been predetermined for the main characters. But what would happen if they want to alter their fate? The game begins with the focus on Kukuru, the girl that challenges the notion of destiny. Kukuru is a member of the Sacred Clan, and her duty is to protect the shrine. Unfortunately, she desperately wants to escape a life that has already been decided for her. The most loathsome part? She'll be forced to marry the prince in the tradition of her clan. To escape her fate, she decides to follow the advice of the mayor to extinguish the Flame Coin, which has burned on the mountain for over 3,000 years.
But almost immediately after doing so, she has a feeling of impending doom and soon realizes her mistake. The mayor, indeed, has tricked her for his own selfish reasons. Soon after, the first blizzard in ten years hits the village. The game then cuts to Arc, who is desperate to look for his father who disappeared on the mountain ten years ago. Arc still has faith he is alive and later meets Kukuru on the mountain for the first time. Arc attempts to relight the Flame Coin and soon finds out that his father made a pact with the spirits to prevent the death of the human race. Arc is a part of this destiny and receives the power to defeat all monsters. The story then ebbs and flows throughout the game with Arc's destiny becoming more and more clear in the pact to save the world.
The story is definitely not the focal point of the game, which is a shame considering it's supposed to set up Arc the Lad II. There's little plot development throughout other than the basic concept: this is Arc's destiny, and his story is supposed to play out this way. Since this was a game created in 1995, it's also clear that character
development was not the focus of the developers either. There's a romance in the game that comes out of nowhere, and while you have a large party, you really don't get to know any of the constituent characters well. This all makes me wonder if it's even necessary to play this entry before playing Arc the Lad II. Do you understand the concept of destiny? Then you have all you really need to know to get into Arc the Lad II. As it stands, all you have is characters on a screen who mean nothing to you and a barebones story beating into your head notions about fate.
I'm Supposed to Have a Strategy, Right?
Arc the Lad is a typical strategy RPG. Each character has a limited range of movement and as each turn progresses it's up to the player to choose the best spot to move the characters. Characters have access to the typical attack, magic, item commands. There are new characters that surface throughout the game, all having their strengths and weaknesses. The problem lies in the fact that Arc is really the one character who is a powerhouse, especially later in the game when battles become tougher. The player can totally abuse Arc and annihilate almost everyone in battle with just him. Too many times my strategy revolved around killing every enemy with Arc and having a large group of characters supporting him. Probably, this was done intentionally as Arc was blessed with the powers to kill any monster that comes his way, but it still makes the other characters almost useless for anything other than healing or buffing Arc.
Each character also has four slots to equip various skills such as counterattack, poison resistance, 10% more defense, etc. Regrettably, these lose meaning in the game as some of the skills are completely pointless. For instance, never once did I get poisoned while I played the game, even without the use of poison resistance. It's safe to say skills do not make or break battles. It's probably not all that surprising that the game plays out so simply - many early strategy RPGs now appear archaic. I give Arc the Lad credit for being one of the pioneers in using a battle system that revolved around strategy. The game definitely helped make the trend catch on, but playing it now will only remind players of how far the strategy RPG has progressed from its early days.
It's fair to say that even the developers knew that they weren't providing a complete package with ten hours of gameplay because the side quests tacked on to the game are almost completely filler. There's a dungeon called the Forbidden Ruins, which is completed as part of the game in less than ten floors, but if players go back they can experience fifty floors worth of treasures and battles. For the hardcore player? Maybe, since in those fifty floors there are no save points. What is the real pay off? Bragging rights? Enjoying a grindfest? If all fifty floors are completed, players are treated to an extra character that they don't really need to complete the game. If that side quest doesn't sound appealing, there's also a fighting arena, which nets some nice items for battle, but again these goodies aren't all that important to players' success in the game, so these quests feel more tacked on than carefully integrated.
Following suit with the outdated battle system, the graphics and sound are very archaic. It's difficult to judge now, but even for its time, they're less than impressive. The graphics aren't awful - the sprites are colorful and artistically competent, but animations are simplistic. The music doesn't really do much to enhance the experience, either. I did chuckle at the battle voices still in Japanese. Even the menus and interface aren't as clear cut as they should be. The game uses a radial menu, but unlike modern titles that use one, the player must use the D-pad, which isn't the best tool for the job. It's just another example of how UIs have evolved over the years.
Just Skip Ahead to Arc the Lad II
Those wanting to see where the series starts should download Arc the Lad, but I can't guarantee it will be a fun experience. It's certainly a glimpse into SRPG history, but the game doesn't even meet the expectations of its cheap $5.99 price-tag. It's almost best to pass over the first entry and go straight into Arc the Lad II. I know Arc the Lad is more of a segue into Arc the Lad II, but there's little to be gained by playing it. As it stands, Arc the Lad is just a weak entry in a series that is stronger than its first offering. To have Arc the Lad standing on its own without the collection, though, just doesn't work because it doesn't offer nearly enough by itself.