Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Arc The Lad is one of the first good strategy RPGs to ever be released for the Sony PlayStation in Japan. Although diehard American fans of the genre clamored for a domestic release, the game was never announced by Sony. Even now, nearly 4 full years after its Japanese release, many RPG fans still hope for the possibility of a US release. Unfortunately, it will likely never happen (the upcoming Arc The Lad III is the best hope for US gamers), which is a shame, because Arc The Lad turns out to be an excellent game.
It’s a cold winter, and, at the base of Toville Mountain, Kukuru, the only daughter of the Whito family, faces a dilemma. The members of Kukuru’s family line are the preordained guardians of the mystic spirit shrine on top of Toville Mountain, and Kukuru is obligated to marry the prince of Palencia, something that she does not want to do.
However, the leader of Kukuru’s village has given her an alternative. If Kukuru will climb Toville Mountain and extinguish the ancient flame in the spirit shrine on top of it, she will be free from her undesirable engagement. Aware of neither the consequences of this act nor the ulterior motives of her village leader, Kukuru agrees to extinguish the flame. However, as she does this, an ancient demon imprisoned within the fire is released.
Stunned at the events that have just transpired, Kukuru reports this news to her village leader. Trying to hide his sinister motives, the village leader puts up a front of skepticism and ridicules her. As Kukuru leaves, the village leader contemplates his nefarious scheme.
In Arc The Lad, you play as Arc, a young man who is searching for the truth regarding his missing father’s alleged death. Arc begins his search for his father at Toville Mountain, and, after meeting Kukuru, decides to light the ancient fire in hopes of finding some clues. Although he does not learn anything about his missing father after lighting the flame, Arc does learn about his true destiny.
Arc The Lad is a 2D strategy RPG in the vein of the Shining Force games (with the exception of the 3D Shining Force III). The bulk of the game is executed through overhead view strategy battles. The battles are turn-based, with a character’s speed attribute determining when and how often he or she gets to perform an action.
Like the Shining Force games, the strategy is relatively simplified compared to that of many other strategy RPGs. In battle, characters can attack with weapons and use magic and items. In general, the battles aren’t too difficult, since the game rarely makes you pay for making strategy errors until later in the game. As a whole, the gameplay is executed well, though it’s not quite as crisp as that of the Shining Force games.
Arc The Lad does have one key weakness in its gameplay, however. The game is ridiculously short in length. Strategy RPG fanatics will probably take about 5 hours to finish this game (optional side quests included), and even novices should be able to blow through it in less than 10 hours.
There are some minor problems, too, but these are of much less significance than the length problem. In the battles, the maps tend to channel your party through narrow passages a lot. This, combined with the fact that your characters can’t move through each other (unlike the majority of strategy RPGs), slows down the battles needlessly. The battle maps themselves could have been a little bigger, too.
Arc The Lad also features excellent control. Your characters can only move in 4 directions, but they are responsive to the control pad. The menus are a bit disorganized, but not to the point of detracting from the game.
However, there is less precision in the magnitude of movements that your characters make than in other strategy RPGs. Tapping the directional pad in a certain direction will move your character the same amount as holding it down in that direction for just a bit longer. This makes the interface more noticeable to the player, which is not something that I like too much in RPGs. In addition, the collision detection between your characters and objects in the background is often way off.
Arc The Lad is packed with appealing visuals throughout its length. Although there’s nothing groundbreaking to be found in its 2D graphics, everything is generally extremely well drawn with a nice variety of colors. The character designs are pleasing to the eye, and the animation is quite smooth, particularly in the playable characters. The spell effects are unimpressive but serviceable.
My only gripes with the graphics are very minor ones. The backgrounds in many places could have used a few more colors. The FMVs are sparse, and are somewhat grainy in quality, choppy in animation, and uninteresting in content. Also, the character portraits that pop up when major characters in the game hold conversations are poorly done. They are blocky, severely lacking in color, and really look like they could have been done better even if Arc The Lad was on the Sega Genesis.
Arc The Lad’s storyline is well written throughout its length. Although nothing about it really blew me away, it moves well, stays interesting, and contains some poignant moments. The character development is decent, too. However, the storyline does feel rushed at times, perhaps due in part to the fact that Arc The Lad is such a short game. Also, without giving away any specific plot spoilers, I will say that I was disappointed with the ending, because it’s a major cliffhanger.
Perhaps the strongest individual aspect of Arc The Lad is its sound. The sound effects are crisp and substantial, and the impact of a blow to my characters made me cringe at times. In addition, your characters often give off one of a variety of battle cries as they attack. These battle cries are clearly sampled, expressive, and very well acted. Kudos to the seiyuu who worked on this game. Unfortunately, there is no spoken dialogue in Arc The Lad other than these battle cries.
Even more impressive than the sound effects is the soundtrack. Composed by Masahiro Ando and Hirotaka Izumi and performed by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the streamed score is mostly dark and moody throughout, matching the atmosphere of the game perfectly. At the same time, it manages to throw out some compellingly catchy melodies, even during some of the darker moments. Arc The Lad definitely has one of the better soundtracks that you’ll find in a game.
Because of its relative tactical simplicity, Arc The Lad is a good strategy RPG for those who are strategy novices or are not big fans of the genre. Even for hardcore strategy fans, Arc The Lad’s combination of beautiful graphics, a brilliant soundtrack, and a solid storyline make it a worthwhile purchase. In spite of its short length, I would recommend this one to all interested parties.
Special thanks to Wade Monnig.