Arcana is a classic, first person RPG, which was a rarity back then and is still not exactly commonplace today. Arcana is also the only RPG published by HAL America. Arcana is a nice game by itself, but fans of Shining in the Darkness on the Genesis will notice a striking similarity between the two games, including the names of some of the weapons, the graphics used for dungeon walls and area map, and the interface used while in towns.
Ten years ago, the kingdom of Lexford underwent a civil war. This war was waged by Galneon, an evil sorcerer with dangerous plans. Galneon and his army overthrew and murdered King Wagnoll, and established tyranny over Lexford. The King's two daughters escaped safely, but are now missing, and are hiding from Galneon and his followers. Now, Galneon wants to establish control over all 6 kingdoms on the continent, and according to some, he has a method far more effective than a brute force invasion.
The hero of Arcana is Rooks, the only card master who survived the war. Rooks's parents fought to protect the King, but they were killed by a traitor. Now Rooks is a man, and thanks to the training he received from his father, he is a fully capable card master. Rooks is ready to do what he must to return peace to Lexford, but before he can think about how to begin, his childhood friend Ariel appears. Ariel is the son of the traitor who killed Rook's parents, but he does not share his father's political views. Ariel asks Rooks to investigate the nearby temple for an explanation of the evil spirits that have recently been appearing in the town of Galia.
Although Ariel cannot accompany Rooks on his mission, Teefa, Ariel's apprentice, joins up. What happens on this trip will set Rooks's quest in motion.
The story of Arcana is adventurous and enjoyable, but fairly superficial. Rooks's past is only explained briefly, and the relationships between the characters aren't really established. The legends about the kingdom and its history are fairly interesting, and usually the objectives of each new task are clearly defined. There are occasional gaps in the story line due to translation issues, but they are very small. All in all, Arcana's story is simple and understandable, but only mildly fascinating.
Movement in Arcana is exactly like that of other first person RPGs. You can move forward or back, and pressing to the left or right of the directional pad will change the direction you are facing by 90 degrees. When you are in a town, you need only press left or right to choose a building to enter.
Arcana's gameplay is centered around exploration and fighting. The places Rooks and his allies explore include a multitude of dungeons and landscapes. All of these areas have plenty of paths to search and treasures to find inside. The combat in Arcana tends to be unpredictable. First, the encounter rate tends to fluctuate. Sometimes it is very high, as I have once been attacked after merely turning a corner after the last fight. Other times, you will get a good chance to walk around a while until the next battle.
Next, characters' turns seem to occur randomly. Sometimes one character will get two turns in a row, other times that same character doesn't get another move for a long time. Also, the difficulty of the battles varies tremendously, as you may have a fight with just one Goblin, then the next the fight in the same area could be 4 Bees and 3 Assassins, any one of which is more powerful than that Goblin. Even the most dangerous of regular battle is usually fairly easy to win, but survival over the course of many fights is adequately difficult.
Boss fights are also a mixed bag, as some aren't so tough, but every so often you'll fight a powerful boss in Arcana.
All spells and characters, as well as some weapons have elemental attributes. The basic rule about elements is Water beats Fire, Fire beats Wind, Wind beats Earth, Earth beats Water, and Man has no advantage or disadvantage against any attribute.
Your party can have up to 4 characters. Rooks will always be there, and so will one Spirit Card. Spirit Cards are, just as their name indicates, spirits who can take the forms of cards. The spirits only come out of their cards during battle. Spirits do not equip any items, and they don't have experience levels, but they grow in power and learn spells whenever Rooks gains a level. Spirits have very low attack and defense, but they know a lot of spells.
Rooks only has the Wind Spirit Sylph at the beginning of the game, but he will eventually find Spirit Cards for the other 3 elements. Once he has more than one Spirit Card, he can switch between the ones he has any time out of battle, or on his turn during a battle. Spirits have different elemental attributes, but all human characters have the "Man" attribute.
Arcana contains a multitude of weapons and spells. When shopping for weapons and armor, it's important to keep moving down the list of items; there are multiple pages of items at all stores, but there's nothing indicating these extra pages exist. Some weapons deal elemental damage or can be used as items to cast spells.
The spells in Arcana include attack, healing, and auxiliary magic. Under attack spells, there are single attribute spells like Lightning, Water, Fire, and Smash, and there are also attack spells with multiple attributes. In addition to traditional power increasing auxiliary spells, there are spells such as "Change Attribute to Water", which, just like it sounds, changes the elemental attributes of your party members to water.
The graphics in Arcana are rich and vibrant. There is a wide variety of first person playing fields, which plunge you into mazes of dungeon walls, thick trees, and rocky mountainsides. The environments are somewhat repetitive and there are few places that stand out as landmarks, but the lack of variety in the backgrounds will not cause players to get lost, as there is a map screen.
Since Arcana's story and gameplay have a strong emphasis on cards, all sprites used for the monsters and your party members are contained in cards. These sprites are detailed and lifelike. The sprite animation in Arcana is fairly simple; heroes swing their weapons when attacking, but when enemies attack, their card changes into a bursting slime ball, a pair of punching fists, a swinging sword, or a chomping mouth of sharp teeth depending on the monster.
Magic in Arcana also has fairly simple animation. Healing and auxiliary spells only create little swirls. Attack spells show the enemy getting pelted by flames, bubbles, lightning bolts, and/or rocks. The special effects are never very big, but they are fairly explosive, especially when a character's card is torn in half indicating their death.
Finally, cards are used to frame face portraits for the characters. The face portraits feature very nice artwork, and the artists chose very fitting appearances for all characters, as this cast includes a young hero, a daring adventurer, an old knight, a young, kind hearted princess, her older, more crafty sister, and many others.
The main graphical weakness of Arcana is the 3-D animation; walking forward through the 3-D halls is choppy, even more so than Shining in the Darkness. Still, it's good 3-D for a 2-D system.
The music from Arcana is first-rate, and sometimes downright addictive. I especially like the music for towns and battles, and I can honestly say that it was the music that kept me wanting to fight more enemies. The other background music was also enjoyable.
The sound effects supplemented the music very effectively in battle, but they were used conservatively in other places. The sounds made by casting spells and those made by the magic itself, along with the sound effects used for thrusting weapons, were all perfect for bringing the battles to life. Outside of battles and story events, there weren't many other sound effects in Arcana.
If you're looking for another first person RPG, Arcana is definitely worth playing. It was fairly overlooked back in its time, but it was a nice game nonetheless. Tracking down this classic will be difficult, so if you want it, expect to search a few used video game stores or possibly be on back order for a while, but I know from experience that even the rarest of RPGs are attainable.