“Throughout history, mankind has always met the unknown with fangs bared. Ignorance would give way to hatred, which could only culminate in destruction. Thus was prejudice brought into the world, kicking and screaming like an infant bent on subjugation and self-service. A many-headed hydra, prejudice has manifested itself in numerous forms: the guise of nationalism, the narrow vision of racial supremacy and the self-serving mantle of those who call themselves righteous. This fear and contempt will surely lead to the downfall of our great civilization, for it has already begun…“
With these words in mind, step once more into the world of Arc the Lad, a world rich in history and on the verge of ruin. Two races, the remnants of Man and the beastly Deimos, vie for control of dwindling supernatural resources: the spirit stones. For humanity, the stones represent a bountiful supply of energy to warm their homes and illuminate the night, but for the Deimos, it is the source of their magical power and key to their very existence. What started as a dispute over fuel would become a jihad of racial genocide, stemming beyond the boundaries of rationality. The conflict seemed endless as both sides would not stop until the other would face extinction. Into this struggle are we thrust in the opening hours of Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, Sony Computer Entertainment’s latest RPG offering for the PlayStation 2. As the fourth title in the acclaimed Arc the Lad saga, Twilight of the Spirits draws from the rich heritage of its predecessors and brings the series to a new level of technical achievement and storytelling.
The peaceful, though scarred world Arc and Kukuru left behind in the original Arc the Lad would face its greatest challenge millennia after those two heroes managed to seal away a great evil. Twilight of the Spirits is the tale of two young men on different sides of this bitter conflict.
First, there is Kharg, son of Nafia, Queen of Nidellia. After Nafia’s dissolution of the monarchy of Nidellia in the early years of Kharg’s life, the former crown prince would grow into a strong young man whose only wish is to protect his fledgling homeland from the encroaching grasp of the inhuman Deimos. Having never known his father Windalf, Kharg finds a father-figure in Lloyd, the captain of the Nidellia Defense Force, and a good friend in his daughter, the feisty Paulette. His desire to protect humans from the ferocious Deimos would lead him to meet others who shared his goals. His conviction would only grow stronger as he would eventually watch the people he loves suffer from the frequent and devastating attacks of the Deimos. Soon his wish to protect his people would grow into a desire to shield human civilization from the destructive forces of the Deimos.
Finally, there is Darc, son of Windalf of the Drakyr, and Kharg’s twin. After his father’s death, young Darc was found and raised as a slave by the Deimos hag Geedo. Unlike his very “human” brother, Darc was freakish. Clearly the spawn of a human and a Deimos, Darc would be loathed by the creatures he tried so desperately to be one of. Entrusted with half of the Wind Stone, an heirloom of the Drakyr Tribe, Darc dreams of his father’s last wish to save the Deimos from destruction. To Darc, mankind’s encroachment on Deimos territory, their theft of the spirit stones, and their murdering of his kind leaves him only one recourse: to save the Deimos, he must destroy every human on the planet.
As fate would have it, these two twin souls on different sides of a great conflict were ignorant of the role they would play in the greater drama to unfold. For in truth, the humans and the Deimos were victimized by another party. Both races would find themselves hunted and exploited by the Dilzweld Empire. This highly militarized and industrialized nation of humans, ruled under the iron grasp of Emperor Darkham, was slowly conquering the peaceful human nations of the World Alliance and driving the Deimos out of their own territory. Already they had driven the Deimos tribes on Halshinne to extinction while waging horrible wars on human towns that would not submit to their rule. Was this territorial expansion merely the unification of humanity under one strong flag, or was there something more sinister in Darkham’s plans? When the young refugee Lillia crosses paths with Kharg, and eventually Darc, some of the truth behind Darkham’s ambition would come to light.
The Dilzweld Empire is seeking the five Great Spirit Stones, the most powerful remnants of the Great Spirits who had passed from the world ages ago. Legend says that an infinite power would be born when all five stones are gathered. How Emperor Darkham intends to use this power would remain unknown, but his army would stop at nothing to get their hands on these relics. In fact, Lillia remained a target, as she holds the Light Stone as a keepsake of her dead mother. Kharg and Darc, holders of separate halves of the Wind Stone are also under the watchful gaze of this ruthless empire. Thus the race to gather all five stones begins: Kharg to stop the plans of the Dilzweld Empire and Darc to gather the power for himself to destroy humanity, the Dilzweld Empire included. What lies ahead for these brothers? What will be the fate of humanity and the Deimos? Only time will tell…
The drama woven throughout Twilight of the Spirits is a compelling tale of human tragedy, betrayal and stoic perseverance. The story unfolds as chapters in the individual stories of Kharg and Darc until their fateful meeting close to the climax of the game. While Kharg’s story draws from a stagnating pool of RPG clichés (protect mysterious girl with unknown power being chased by evil empire) Darc’s tale is sheer brilliance. His rise from slavery to conqueror amid tenuous alliances of intimidation is deliciously refreshing. His inner turmoil over the ongoing struggle between his humanity and his inhumanity make him one of the most memorable anti-heroes in the genre. Kharg however, is the boringly pure and unblemished hero – at least until he comes face to face with his twin. I found myself rushing through Kharg’s predictably scripted events just to see who Darc would stab in the back (or vice versa) when his next chapter unfolded. When both protagonists meet, Kharg’s tale improves a thousand-fold and Darc’s adventure cools down to a slow boil. Thankfully the resolution was dramatic and insightful, albeit predictable. Overall, despite the disparity between the adventures of both characters and the predictable nature of most of the storyline, the entire tale was surprisingly enjoyable. Twilight of the Spirits is a tale filled with memorable characters, dramatically emotional moments and even a few neck-breaking plot twists.
Visually, Twilight of the Spirits is a competent, though occasionally uninspiring experience. As the first in the series to be entirely rendered in real-time 3D, the game boasts an impressive variety of attractive backgrounds, but leaves much to be desired on many character models. While certain characters such as Darc and Kharg are impressively rendered, sporting some of the most amazing eyes to ever grace a polygon model, some of the supporting characters (Volk and Samson for example) and many monsters suffer from noticeably lower polygon counts. Thankfully all of the in-game animation is superb, but the difference in quality is quite noticeable.
The backgrounds are wonderfully designed, sharing a similar creative flair to Grandia II. The bevy of different locations and towns across the several continents found in Twilight of the Spirits is commendable. Surprisingly, all of the in-game cinemas are rendered using the real-time engine. While I was hoping for gobs of delicious CG FMV, the real-time event scenes were more than adequate and are cinematically excellent. Combat special effects range from dull to pretty, with distinctly FF-inspired spell orgies appearing in the final hours of the game. Graphically, the game enjoys a solid frame-rate with lush visuals and plenty of variety, though doesn’t attempt to push the graphic envelope for PS2 RPGs.
Acoustically, Twilight of the Spirits is a marvel. From bone-cracking orchestrations of ferocious wind, percussion and brass, to the head-bobbing guitar of almost Sonic Team inspired melodies, the range and quality of musical selections is jaw-dropping. Yes, there’s no Uematsu or Mitsuda attached to this particular score, but that makes the music that much more original. The classic influences of a philharmonic orchestra, the laid-back feel of soulful funk and the fierce brevity of electric rock are all here with no J-Pop idol in sight. To make the melodies that much sweeter, the score seems to be entirely Redbook audio and not synthesized, which gives for a crystal clear acoustic experience. Audiophiles with big speakers are going to annoy their neighbors, as Twilight deserves to be cranked up until your walls shake.
Following the tradition of PS2 RPGs, Twilight of the Spirits features voice acting for several of its key story sequences. The quality is impressive, though some of the lines come off as overly dramatic. Sony spent no expense in gathering a competent voice cast for Twilight of the Spirits. Quinton Flynn, who plays the role of Kharg, has had numerous roles in videogames, ranging from Final Fantasy X (Bickson of the Luca Goers) to Metal Gear Solid (Raiden). Darc is voiced by none other than comedian Carlos Alazraqui, best known for his work as the Taco Bell Chihuahua. There’s also a bevy of well-known anime and gaming voice talents found in Twilight of the Spirits vast cast of characters. Debbi Derryberry (Sasami from Tenchi Muyo, MOMO from Xenosaga: Der Wille Zur Macht) plays the emotionally stilted demon puppeteer Bebedora and even Michael Bell (Raziel from Soul Reaver) crawls out of the woodwork as Diekbeck. As petty as this may sound, the only complaint I had was that that there just wasn’t enough voiced cinemas in the game. Roughly 1/10th of the event scenes throughout the adventure were voice-acted, and while as competent as the text-based scenes were, they lost a great deal of emotional potential. Awkwardly enough, there is so much combat chatter in battle that players will find themselves turning off those voices before very long. Regardless of this inequity, the impeccable musical score and talented voice cast make Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits a superb acoustic experience.
As the fourth game in a line of turn-based strategy RPGs, Twilight of the Spirits takes the classic formula for a spin. The developers chose to throw away the tile-based movement grid from the game, replacing it with free-form motion. Players can move their characters to any position within their range, and at any angle. While this may seem a small change in execution, the difference in gameplay is vast. As such, positioning becomes a key part of effective combat. Each of the game’s 14 playable characters has an assortment of abilities to choose from, though many are breed specific with magic being an exclusively Deimos power and humans being gifted in weapon skills. Other notable features include a ranking system which grants each character access to a selection of new abilities upon promotion. Sadly, combat skills gained through rank increase are not automatically obtained; they must be purchased using SP gained through combat. Since experience points and SP is granted to each character based on their performance in combat, players will have to make sure to keep the entire party active if they hope to keep them at similar levels. Later in the game, both Kharg and Darc will gain access to an attack ability similar to a “summon” found in a Final Fantasy title, but these specials are extremely limited and must be used with care.
While the gameplay in Twilight of the Spirits is limited in terms of character customization and battle complexity compared to titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics, the game is remarkably simple to pick up and play. Gamers who have no previous experience with a strategy-RPG will easily be able to get acquainted with Twilight’s controls. Before long, even a rookie and find themselves being effective in combat without much difficulty or menu reading. In an adventure chock full of secrets that spans well over 50 hours, simplicity equals playability. The ease of the gameplay allows the player to enjoy the storyline instead of spending hours creating weapons or micromanaging an armada.
Controlling Kharg and Darc is simplicity itself as Twilight of the Spirits can be played with only using three buttons and the analog stick. While fully supporting Sony’s Dual Shock 2 and a plethora of shortcut button combinations, there’s very little use of the rumble feature anywhere in the game. The lack of a controllable camera also left me a little disappointed. While most of the world, both in and out of combat, is viewed using an entirely automated camera, there is seldom a moment where vision is obstructed. Since most enemy combat formations are random, the game does have a noticeable loading time between party selection and the beginning of battle. Outside of this niggling annoyance, loading times are virtually non-existent in all other parts of the game.
As the series premier on Sony’s PlayStation 2, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits had much to prove. After the seminal sequel to the original game on the PlayStation and the lackluster third installment, this fourth episode had to bring the saga up-to-date on new hardware as well as recapture a disenchanted audience after Arc the Lad III. I can safely say that Twilight of the Spirits captures much of the great storytelling that was a hallmark of Arc the Lad II, though suffers from occasionally dull episodes with Kharg: poster-boy protagonist. Thankfully, Darc’s quest maintained a strong influence on the overall storyline and managed to bring much magic to Kharg’s ho-hum adventure at the cost of a fair amount of its own integrity.
The developers successfully brought the Arc the Lad series to the 3rd dimension with Twilight of the Spirits, but the game is already showing its age. While not a smoldering piece of eye candy, the game holds a certain visual charm of its own. The acoustic mastery throughout the game only enriches an already enjoyable experience. To top it all off, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is a game that’s accessible to just about all levels of gaming skill.
In the time I spent with Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits, I remembered what was great about games like Skies of Arcadia, Grandia II, Final Fantasy VI and Lunar: the fact that despite all the advances in technology and gameplay mechanics, there’s a certain magic that makes an RPG a classic. Maybe it is the attention to detail or the scope of the quest, or perhaps the hero or heroine and the odds they face, no matter how insurmountable they may be. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel that playing in a world with characters whose anxiety, elation, sorrow and triumph are tangible makes for the most rewarding experience. As such, I feel that Twilight of Spirits holds the same magic as most of these time honored classics. Will it be for everyone? I leave that answer to you…