Released in Japan as Arc the Lad: Generation, End of Darkness is the fifth (and hopefully final) game in a series that began in the early days of the Sony PlayStation. The series is well-known and held in high esteem back in Japan, but American gamers have only been exposed to Arc the Lad in the last few years, and the delay has allowed nearly all the title’s hype to wane.
For those of you concerned with the series’ details: Working Designs released Arc the Lad I-III (all PS1 titles) in a package set along with a battle arena mini-game. Then Twilight of the Spirits was released on PS2 about two years ago, a title well-received by game reviewers though its sales weren’t exactly impressive. All four of these games were Strategy RPGs, though Twilight of the Spirits seemed to have a unique twist that made it more interesting than the “simplistic” gameplay of the first three titles. Twilight of the Spirits also took place one thousand years after the events of Arc the Lad I-III, and while the locations were familiar to the veteran player, the whole feel and style of the game was clearly different.
Now, in this fifth installment, things go downhill. I understand that my appraisal of Arc the Lad: End of Darkness varies little from what many others have said. If you’ve read other reviews, don’t expect much new from me. Though I am slightly more positive about the underdog titles in the game industry, I did not find much to be optimistic about in this game. Let’s run through each of the five categories for the sake of clarity and organization, starting with the game’s plot.
Just as Arc the Lad III took place ten years after Arc the Lad II, End of Darkness follows roughly a decade after Twilight of the Spirits. Our new protagonist is Edda, a tall, dark lad who grew up on a secluded island with the local villagers and wields a cudgel (or as I like to call it, “a stick with a fancy name”). Joining Edda in his quest is a tiny guy named Hemo, the game’s over-the-top comic relief. Though the heroes of the previous game make appearances in End of Darkness, they are no longer the key players in the story. Arc the Lad has always had intelligent creatures other than humans inhabiting its world, and Hemo comes from a race known as “Slothians”, who are known for their laziness. For some reason, Hemo isn’t anything like his brethren, bursting with energy and always ready to open his big mouth or get into some form of trouble.
Alright, so we have a hero and a dopey sidekick. Now we need a girl. No problem! During the game’s introduction, Edda is handed a book by Hemo that has something to do with exorcism. As he begins to read it, a girl pops out of the woods and asks that the book be returned to her. This enigmatic girl, whom Edda bumps into many times throughout the game, is named Kirika. She is secretive (because she has secrets to hide) – often rude – but whether or not she is good or evil is a difficult question. It is, indeed, one of the key questions throughout this game’s plot.
Alright, we have a hero, a sidekick, and a girl. Now we need a conflict. Oh, right: there are these creepy monsters called malademons (known to the people on Edda’s island as the Darmyst) that cannot die. You can knock them down, but you cannot kill them. Unless, of course, you’re an exorcist. And it just so happens that Edda is an exorcist, like his mother before him. After an initial encounter with a malademon (that doubles as the game’s opening tutorial), Edda’s talent is discovered and your adventure into the world begins.
From here, the game’s story unfolds by taking on certain plot-related quests at a hunter’s guild counter (much like in previous Arc the Lad titles). Efficient gamers can then run through the game’s entire length in about fifteen hours, then spend another four hours reaping a little extra plot in the game’s epilogue scenarios (similar to Lunar: Eternal Blue, but less rewarding).
In my opinion, one thing Cattle Call did right was character interaction and development. Though Edda may not have much depth, and he may not have any secrets, he is a bright and optimistic protagonist, something we rarely see in RPGs these days. His desire to help others and his overall innocence make him even more of a do-gooder than Zidane of Final Fantasy IX. This exceptional sort of person draws out interesting reactions from the game’s cast of characters, be they heroes from Twilight of the Spirits (such as Paulette) or random NPCs (especially the Deimos in Rueloon village). As a character, Edda is refreshing.
I was sometimes irritated by the constant interactions Edda has with Hemo, as I didn’t find Hemo to be as funny as the developers apparently wanted him to be. However, Edda’s interactions with Kirika were, I thought, especially well-done; I was drawn into their interactions, though ultimately not much is made of it. For being such a short game, the developers could have lengthened the experience sufficiently by having more significant dialogues, including a few that might not be triggered simply by signing up for tasks at the guild’s notice board.
Though the characters were portrayed well (even to the point where I began to admire them and be amused by their interactions), the overarching plot of End of Darkness is something less than epic. Some of the climactic points in the game include the struggle to unify humans and Deimos (non-human intelligent creatures, of which there are about ten different races), the struggle to bring down a terrorist organization, the struggle to solve the mystery of Dr. Sarak’s death at Cathena Lab, and the struggle to go on as a hero when it feels like the world’s troubles never end. Though there are moments of interest in the plot, and there is clearly a rich heritage from which End of Darkness feeds, the game does not end on a climactic note, and the overall presentation isn’t much better than many other RPGs out there. If it hadn’t been for some of the better dialogues, I would have scored story worse. As it is, I am giving it a 78%.
As I had mentioned earlier, Arc the Lad: End of Darkness is played through a mission-based system. However, unlike the previous four Arc the Lad titles, End of Darkness is an Action RPG. Let me rephrase that. It’s a poorly-executed Action RPG. In battle, the player can do standard attacks, dash forward and backward, target an enemy, circle around the enemy (using L1 and R1), and execute one of four skills assigned in a menu by holding R2 and then hitting one of the four “shape” buttons. In short, it’s like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Except this time, everything goes wrong. How? Why? Let me explain.
First of all, that basic summary on gameplay mechanics that I just gave you might be of more help than the in-game tutorials. I don’t know if this was Namco’s fault for poor translation or what, but I found the tutorials in this game were atrocious. They would introduce a topic, talk about it in vague terms, and then send you on your way, baffled by what you just read.
Edda, along with the game’s other 24 unlockable characters, can equip cards. Yes, cards. There are ability cards (of the magic, gimmick, and special skill types) and part cards (of the attack, defense, and accessory type). I don’t know why they chose to use cards instead of just having “abilities” and “equipment”, but that’s how it goes down. These cards can be found in the fields during battle (by destroying boxes or defeating enemies) and by purchasing them in shops. Cards can also be synthesized, though there are only a small number of combinations that actually work in comparison to the total number of combinations that could be attempted. This, like many features in End of Darkness’ gameplay, was unnecessary and crippling for the player (well, at least for me).
There are two types of missions Edda can attempt: those placed on the notice boards (that continue the game’s plotline) and those run at the desk of the hunter’s guild. The latter is performed for the sake of earning experience points and money (the monetary unit in the game is called “gods”…I don’t know who the developers were trying to offend, but they’re going to succeed at this rate). Once Edda has acquired enough experience points from the desk tasks and has completed two of the plot-continuing missions, Edda can take a test at Rueloon to go up a rank (allowing him to take on higher level notice board tasks). In other words, you do some plot-moving quests and some pointless quests to go up ranks so that the story can continue. It can go by quickly, but sometimes it feels like it’s taking forever. In later missions, the story-based tasks have you revisiting the same places for no reason other than to take up time and slowly unravel some mystery that nobody really cares about.
Earlier I mentioned unlockable characters. These characters come in the form of — you guessed it — cards. These cards can be “materialized” so that you can play as characters from any of the previous four Arc the Lad titles (hence explaining the “Generation” subtitle in Japan). However, these characters cannot be used in the story-based missions, only in the money-earning missions and in online play (which I’ll discuss later). Leveling these materialized characters is done by having Edda exorcise malademons, which grants Edda SP that can be assigned to the different characters. As this is done, the characters go up in rank, which improves their statistics (sans health, which only changes by adding a special accessory giving the character another 100 HP). The additional characters are a neat feature, but their lack of use in the plot makes them a brief side note to the game’s main story; I found myself having little desire to use these characters, though they all looked interesting.
Online games allow for up to four players in cooperative missions and eight (four vs. four) in competitions, though it’s unlikely you’ll manage to find that many people anymore, as the game has not done well at all in terms of sales. I would have preferred the multiplayer mode be accessible from home, so that I could use my unlocked characters and Edda in some special post-end-game story missions. That sort of innovation could have been fun. Instead, I am stuck waiting for ten to fifteen minutes for one other person to sign on and ask to go on some random coop mission that, surprise, isn’t much fun.
Someone over at Cattle Call made a bad decision in making this game an Action RPG. In fact, I’d say Cattle Call made a number of bad decisions with this game. Many of the systems are convoluted and hard to follow; much of the potential innovation in this game is sucked away, and it turns out that it can be completed with a bare minimum of exploration into these various features. Top it all off with an inconsistent difficulty level (that is, the whole game is easy until the last boss), and gameplay gets a barely-passing 65%.
Part of what makes gameplay so bad is the game’s control. Though the button configuration is acceptable, the physical mechanics within the game are terrible. For example: running. When in battle, holding triangle allows Edda (or other playable characters) to run, so long as an enemy hasn’t locked in on him. However, bumping into the smallest object at any angle will cause the character to fall backwards and then take some precious time getting up. I’m talking 89 degrees, nearly parallel to a wall. I can understand running face first into a wall and then falling over, but brushing up against a wall? Come on! That’s just poor programming.
Another problem was targeting. Enemies are targeted by pressing L2, and targets could be cycled by pressing L2 again. To remove the target from all enemies, however, one has to hold L2. I found this to be problematic; perhaps hitting triangle (the button to run, as in “run away!”, would have been a better option).
Worst of all is simply trying to hit enemies. I don’t know if this was the fault of the camera, or the programming, or what, but getting a few decent hits on an enemy was especially difficult for some unknown reason. Is it because cudgels are just bad weapons? I don’t know. All I know is that the feel to the action in Arc the Lad: End of Darkness is terribly clumsy, and I often found that I had no control over my character: not a good sign. 60%.
The standard for PS2 RPGs these days is that dialogue be voiced: perhaps not random NPCs in a town, but at least in key events with major characters. Well, that doesn’t happen in Arc the Lad: End of Darkness. The only voice acting to be found is done in battle: characters will randomly shout silly or angry things at the enemy while performing skills or getting pummeled senseless. That doesn’t impress me. However, I will say that having the “silent” dialogues in the game hearkened back to a day when voice acting wasn’t the standard, and I enjoyed it for its nostalgic effect and for its demand on my mind to come up with what the voices may have sounded like. For example, I imagine Hemo to be the Sicilian villain from The Princess Bride.
The music in Arc the Lad: End of Darkness is pretty decent; the majority of the songs are recorded by real live musicians playing real live instruments. However, the majority of the songs (according to the soundtrack, 21 out of 34) originally appeared in Twilight of the Spirits. This shameless act of borrowing lessens the value of the music in my opinion, though it is still quite good.
If Cattle Call had wished to see a higher “sound” score from me, they would have either implemented more voice acting, more decent voice acting, or a larger score for the music. As it stands, I’m giving sound an 80%.
What is there to be said? The graphics look smooth, the characters look good, so much so that there is no such thing as an “FMV sequence” in this game: all cutscenes are done with the in-game engine. However, like with the music, much of the world in End of Darkness is just slightly-updated versions of what we saw in Twilight of the Spirits. Certainly there are new places, but many areas (such as the towns) are familiar locales for players of the fourth Arc the Lad.
Clearly, graphics are the best thing this game has to offer. However, as they are not anything exceptional or revolutionary, I cannot award an “A” level score. Graphics gets an 86%.
I suppose it would be fair to say that End of Darkness is to Twilight of the Spirits as Final Fantasy X-2 is to Final Fantasy X. Take the same world, put a couple of years in between, have some new characters and a boring plot to distract gamers from what they cared about in the last game, and tie up all the loose ends before everything’s said and done. Well, even in that case, I’d say X-2 did a better job than End of Darkness.
Crippled by poor gameplay, redeemed at times by enjoyable dialogue and decent aesthetic qualities, Arc the Lad: End of Darkness ends up being a mediocre game. However, as it is short, it may be a good rental, especially for gamers who have played the other titles in the series and would like to continue the journey in the Arc the Lad universe. I award Arc the Lad: End of Darkness a 72% and hope that the next game in the series is either much better or else is never created.