"Lord of Arcana isn't a bad game, though it has its flaws; it's simply a title with a very limited audience."
There's a lot to like about Phantasy Star Online and Monster Hunter Freedom - they're addictive and allow you to take down big baddies with your friends. It's the same with the Diablo titles, or for that matter, any loot-based RPG - it's all about getting bigger numbers and badass equipment. Lord of Arcana is no different, as it's clear that Square Enix was a little more than influenced by the great success of Monster Hunter in the Japanese market. There's killing big, bad boss monsters, collecting loot and crafting new gear just to go out and do it all over again. There are timed missions through repeated dungeons and not a whole lot of story to hold it all together. It's not the type of game that's for everyone, but if you're part of the subset of gamers who loves to grind it out for your phat loots, Lord of Arcana is right up your alley.
Anyone who has played Monster Hunter Freedom or Phantasy Star Online will be familiar with the basic premise of Lord of Arcana: the main character joins the Slayers Guild to regain lost memories and gain the power of the Arcana. It's honestly not presented incredibly well, but for this type of game, it's not even really necessary to have a story. What does all this mean for the player? Lots of grinding to get the right items to kill the big bad bosses who protect those arcana combined with repeatable quests to level up. It's a pretty simple premise, and one that wasn't championed by the aforementioned titles, but has been refined by them. Lord of Arcana isn't so much a refinement, but an off-shoot of these. Monster Hunter was less RPG-oriented and provided a more visceral combat system. Phantasy Star had its roots deep in statistics. Lord of Arcana meets them in the middle and it works well enough, but don't expect anything greater than an average of the two games.
As would be expected for this type of game, customization is key. Characters wield weapons selected from myriad types and gain experience in them as they wield them. This is in addition to experience earned for magic and general experience that increases a character's health. It's far from the deepest system in the world, but it's more than functional. Most of the game's statistics are culled from weapon crafting and customization, as the items that fall off enemies can be used to cobble together all sorts of new weapons and armor, as well as enhancements for that gear. Still, often times it feels all for naught, as throughout the game's progression, even the weakest of enemies feel like they have a constitution far too large. That's also where the game's biggest flaw comes into view: its repetition, both in combat and out of it.
Players spend most of their time doing quests for the Slayers Guild, and at any given time, there aren't many that are worthwhile; essentially they exist as a structure to get the player more monster parts. Most of the quests I played boiled down to what you might expect in an MMORPG: Collect eight lizard gizzards, slay twelve skeletons, and so forth. It's not particularly fun to trudge through these quests, especially considering that some require you to collect items that randomly spawn as part of resource nodes, which makes things ever tedious. Compounding this frustration is the fact that combat doesn't take place on the field, but rather in its own arena. I'm honestly not sure why this is, considering that as players explore areas, they seem to have all the abilities available to them outside battle as they do inside. It's not like many RPGs, where a different engine runs the combat versus the non-combat sequences, and it just ends up being awkward. This becomes a significant issue in multiplayer, as characters cannot easily enter one another's battles while they are in the midst of it.
The combat itself is relatively smooth, and players do get access to more moves as they progress. It is, however, repetitive, as I spent most of my time mashing on the same five-or-six-hit combo with my greatsword. Against regular enemies, it seems like grinding for grinding's sake, and not because the combat is worthwhile. Still, with bosses, however, combat is much more engaging. Most regular enemies feature one or two regular attacks and one "strong" attack, and their patterns are obvious. Bosses are more complex and their models feature multiple "parts" to attack that disable some of their abilities and give better loot at the end of the battle if defeated. The boss battles, however, are incredibly long. I spent more than 20 minutes fighting the game's first real boss - Agni - only to die and have to start the entire mission again. On the other hand, Lord of Arcana is very friendly about death. Players can recover with an easily-purchased, easily-crafted, or easily-found item that they can carry three of in battle - so it's no longer a case of Phantasy Star Online, where it seems like the only rare items you find are Scape Dolls - when you already have one.
Another drawback in the combat, both boss and otherwise, is the lock-on system. To lock onto an enemy, you must hold the "L" button on the PSP. It's not the end of the world, but I would have at least liked a "toggle"-style lock-on if I so chose to use one. What becomes frustrating is that during sequences it becomes difficult or impossible to lock onto enemies. When surrounded by multiple enemies, I often couldn't target the correct one. This was one of the reasons I favored the greatsword, as many of its sweeping attacks would hit the enemy I was aiming for even if it wasn't the enemy the game targeted. When fighting bosses, they often enter attack sequences that remove the lock-on, and finding your enemy again requires using the radar, something which isn't too appealing.
The frustrating combat does also lead into the single most frustrating part of the game: the lack of certain crafting items in the game. Many items require monster cores to be crafted, and these are a bit hard to come by. Every boss you kill automatically drops a core, but even at the beginning of the game, there are an abundance of items that require the "Agni Core", which drops off the game's first boss, so I grinded and got about four of them. If regular enemies randomly dropped cores, this wouldn't be an issue, but the first enemy that you fight in a zone drops its core after a message stating there is arcana power in that area. It sucks, especially if you're after a Skeleton core and the only enemies in that zone are Goblins. It's not a good way to keep me grinding and was easily the biggest drawback in the game. Some will like the difficulty that this creates in the game's crafting system, but most will not.
Finding a friend to play with can be fairly difficult, as well. There is no option for infrastructure play, just for ad-hoc local gameplay. You can certainly use Ad-hoc Party on your PS3 to play, but every time I checked with this pre-release version, there was no one to play with. One positive thing that Lord of Arcana did was allow players to install a demo onto any memory stick. If you've got a friend who's interested in playing with you, you can drop the demo onto his PSP and he can join your game. It's how I got to try out what limited bit of the multiplayer I did, and it's clear that this is the preferred method of play. It's the same wall that Monster Hunter for the PSP runs into in the United States - because we're not playing on trains or in groups, we need online multiplay, and it's simply not here.
Lord of Arcana, at its core, is a solid title with lots of potential. I'd be excited to see what a Lord of Arcana 2 looks like, and I'm sure that we will at some point, as long as the popularity of Monster Hunter in Japan stays high. That being said, there are lots of barriers in Lord of Arcana that keep it from being a worthwhile title for most gamers. If you're a big fan of loot-based games like Diablo or Monster Hunter, you're going to find a lot to like in Lord of Arcana. If you find grinding or hunting to be tedious, you're going to want to pass this one right by. Lord of Arcana isn't a bad game, though it has its flaws; it's simply a title with a very limited audience.