Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
I need to give Nintendo some credit: They sure as heck put together a durable system.
My Wii spent months gathering dust after I finished Muramasa, then survived being shipped across the ocean, spending the summer in a Brooklyn closet, and then another five hour bus trip being banged around in an old suitcase.
And yet now, thanks to Marvelous Entertainment, I finally have cause to hook the old girl back up. Arc Rise Fantasia, a title I sampled at the 2008 Tokyo Game Show, looked to be a rewarding, if not revolutionary, RPG experience. So what’s the verdict on this potential sleeper hit?
Well for one, my Wii is still hooked up.
Arc Rise Fantasia makes a lot of conventional choices in terms of game flow and presentation. You’ll manage a party of about six characters, three of whom can be active at a time with the occasional fourth man in the form of a computer-controlled guest. You’ll explore towns and dungeons, talk to NPCs, buy weapons and armor, and gather experience points from combat to gain levels. ARF looks and plays like most JRPG’s, but then gets ridiculous with weapon and magic customization and combat.
Let’s start with the latter. In each round, you have a pool of action points (AP) based on the characters present. Each action in battle burns up a certain amount of AP, special attacks and magic generally use more, whereas item use and regular attacks use less. The cool thing is that you do not have to use every character in each round; if you just need a few strong physical attacks in one round, you can allocate six points to your heavy hitter and he’ll chain all three attacks into a combo.
Characters set to attack the same enemy will also perform combos, occasionally giving you free extra hits. Adding to the strategy of it all is character placement on the field; magic and skills have a set radius of effect, and knowing when to separate your team or concentrate them (for healing spells, for example) is crucial. Each character has a menu of unique special moves that they learn after level-ups. There are also team special attacks, magic combinations if two characters use similar element spells, and summon attacks that tie in with story choices. On top of that you have weapon skills called Arm Force, which can add even more skills and status benefits. Add it all up and each encounter is chock full of tactical decisions.
The magic and weapon customization will only add to your stress — in a good way. Every weapon you buy has a unique look and the same base attack strength. What really differentiates them are the Arm Force pieces. These are basically gems with unique shapes that fit into a grid for each weapon. Use them, and you can make your favorite katana into a dragon-killer, or be granted with an auto-guard skill or increased magic power. Filling out the grid 100% requires leveling up the weapon in battle and fitting Arm Force gems in such a way as to fill every slot. Doing this unlocks secret skills which can be found in every single weapon.
That’s not even getting into the magic system, which is just as involved. You have to find gems for each element, set them up into special gauges for each character, which can be upgraded and expanded at shops. Using higher level magic requires more powerful gems and/or creative placement in the gauge. It takes some getting used to, to be sure, but the game will force you to master all of the different systems. ARF is not an easy RPG. Regular battles are usually a cakewalk, but boss fights are brutal. I had to grind for levels on multiple occasions, though a number of bosses are optional or don’t require you to win. The story and summon spells you obtain will change based on whether you win certain tricky battles. The secret to victory is learning how to set up your characters in advance, and knowing when to play defense and when to get offensive in long encounters.
ARF includes a typical menu of JRPG distractions, among them a casino, a battle arena, and dozens of guild quests. The former two are done well — blackjack at the casino is good fun for card sharks, the arena offers some excellent challenges, and the prizes one can earn from exchanging tokens are pretty sweet. (costumes, weapons, etc.) The guild quests, however, feel tacked on. Most of them require you to kill a certain number of a specific monster or gather various claws or feathers (again, killing a certain number of a specific monster) so, really, you’ll find that your best bet it just to sign up for a bunch, play the game, then come back and see if you completed any of the requirements. Not terribly deep.
There’s really nothing wrong with the way ARF plays. It’s actually a lot of fun, and all the variety in and out of combat will keep you from straying to fancier-looking JRPG’s before you’re finished. The challenge factor is there too, falling just short of frustrating at times. Strictly on gameplay merit, this
one has much to recommend it.
Definitely one of the game’s weakest points which, if you know me, is sort of a compliment. ARF looks like it was made in the earlier part of the sixth console generation, say 2001 or so. We’re talking low detail and resolution, empty and boring dungeon designs, and small towns with little character; easily outclassed by PS era Final Fantasy games. The sparse dungeons particularly bug me, not because they aren’t shiny enough, but because of how linear and short they are. Cutscenes are decent but still stiff with wooden animation. Even the CG movies are not that impressive, nor are there many to begin with.
On the up side, the character designs are actually pretty cool. There’s a diversity of styles made deeper by the ability to switch outfits for menu and dialogue profile pictures, and the artwork here uses an appealing anime style. Battle animations and spell effects are also solid. There are a lot worse-looking games, to be sure. Nevertheless be sure to lower your expectations if you’re spoiled by PS3 and XBox 360 HD RPG’s.
I had high expectations for ARF’s music given that the soundtrack was done by none other than Yasunori Mitsuda, one of my favorite game composers. For the most part, he didn’t disappoint, though ARF is no Xenogears when it comes to music. I absolutely loved the melodies in the regular battle and boss encounter themes. The slow and peaceful guitars at inns are also a treat to the ears, as is much of the music you’ll hear during down time. I cannot recall much of the background songs from various caverns and labyrinths, which speaks volumes. There aren’t a lot of great songs, but there are enough strong tracks to put the game a notch above your average JRPG.
Voice work is also consistently good if not extraordinary. For me the problem is more with the way the dialogue was written than with the actual performances. Many of the additional little comedic dialogues just aren’t that funny. Nicholas’ whining, Ryfia’s boneheadedness, and Cecille’s’ tough grrrrl act will grate even the most forgiving gamer. In terms of sheer acting, Alse and Sarge have the best VA’s. They also happen to be really good characters. That aside, the sound production and effects are all adequate.
The story begins with your typical spiky-haired over-compensating-big-sword-carrying teen. His name is L’Arc, and he’s a tough young mercenary with a giant blade on his back and a bad attitude (sound familiar?). He meets an innocent airheaded girl named Ryfia after falling from a sky battle against some dragons. The two gradually go from bickering foils to BFFs, all while getting sucked into a quest to save the world from… well, it depends on who you ask.
Depending on how they translate it, there are two religious philosophies at war, one named “Real” the other “Imagine.” L’Arc and his boys are led to believe that the former principle protects the world while the latter will lead to a sort of great cleansing (read: annihilation). Yet another group believes the opposite. To complicate things, the world’s chief energy resource is governed by giant beasts called “Rogress,” and the opposing factions are both trying to get these beasts to side with them so that their ideology might become the governing principle of the world.
Which one is right? We spend much of the game unsure and, to the writers’ credit, so does L’Arc. He isn’t just another surly young whippersnapper or some knight in shining armor who does whatever the mystical bearded guy in the cloak tells him; he questions all the pretty-sounding prophecies and sticks to his guns even when his team disagrees. His supporting cast includes some decent characters, among them the honorable crown prince Alse and the rogue Sarge. Leslie, the team sexpot, is also a nice more-than-meets-the-eye addition. Oigen the ex-knight mercenary is also well-developed.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast isn’t so hot. Ryfia has got to be the dumbest female lead in the history of JRPGs. There is an excuse for her ignorance in the story, but it won’t stop you from wanting to scream sometimes. Nicholas and Cecille are insufferable, and the female villain is so shallow and daft that once you see who it is and why, you will want to pull your hair out. Pound for pound, the story is a mixed bag told over about forty-something hours of gameplay. There are some extremely cliché and annoying elements, but also some genuinely mature and original moments in the narrative. It won’t disappoint, but it doesn’t sell the game either.
Menu-based combat, standard inventory screens, 3D map exploration, yada yada yada. There’s really only one important issue to mention for control, and it’s two words: fixed camera. This drove me crazy when I was in the middle of a dungeon. You cannot rotate, zoom, or move the camera in any way once you are inside of one. It’s been such a long time since I’ve even played an RPG that does this that I was confused. Annoying but you can get over it.
Arc Rise Fantasia plays like a solid PS2 JRPG from about eight years ago. Unless you’re a graphics whore, that isn’t a criticism either, since the PS2 had some truly great RPGs. The resolution and level of visual detail isn’t going to blow you away, but the character concepts are strong and the music is decent. In terms of gameplay, it’s far from being innovative or clever enough to be called a must-buy. Nevertheless, ARF gives fans of the genre everything they ask for and then some. It’s the first Wii game since Zelda that’s held my interest for more than ten hours.