Nintendo DS RPG fans can be proud to make Luminous Arc an addition to their library. While the game has fundamental problems in its stylus control, it is an enjoyable strategy-based RPG that includes a compelling plot, fun flash drive system, and absolutely remarkable audio. Even though this may have not been the definitive game we’ve all been waiting for, I can’t think of a better RPG to buy for the airplane trips this summer.
On the planet of Shtraberl, there is a hatred of witches. 1000 years ago, in a raging war between dragons and witches, there was a watershed moment known as the Aldhed disaster. This combination of natural disasters which crippled and destroyed the planet was said to be the sole fault of the witches who could not be stopped from their ambitious and atheistic ways. On top of being magically powerful, the witches were known to be religiously corruptive and this led to a hatred that lasted the entire millennium. Thankfully for Shtraberl, God, in all of his omnipotent wisdom, struck down the heathens and returned the peace. That is, of course, until the game begins.
When our story opens, there is a change at the top of the religious hierarchy. 13-year old Johannes has been named the new Grand Cardinal and his predecessor, Kingston worries about Shtraberl being a ripe target for a witches uprising. Even though there has not been a major attack or something reminiscent of the Aldhed disaster for almost 1000 years, this possibility still consumes Kingston. He orders for a group to be formed whose only duty is to uphold God and to seek out anyone who would question his validity or power. These “Garden Children” are made up of: Heath (a lance-wielding knight), Alph (a rifle-bearing man), Theo (an archetypical archer), Leon (a ladies man and talented swordsman) and Cecille (an extremely pious cleric).
In the establishing shot of the Garden Children, we see them in medias res: Alph and Theo are bickering like the brothers that they are, and Heath is training them to be the best protectors of the light they can be. Soon after, we learn that the witches still indeed exist and that Shtraberl once again must be saved. The bulk of the game then takes the gamer on the journey through this world and introduces him or her to very disparate places. The game is very theological at moments and is really as much about God and faith as it is about witches and dragons.
Even though the game is a Strategy RPG (which is not known for the narrative depth of multiple characters), one of Luminous Arc’s strength is its rich character development. With each addition to the party, I felt as though I really understood the motivation for each person. While there are some exceptions to this conclusion, in the end, I almost know why each wanted to be going into battle with Alph and the rest of the squad. I believe this is very exceptional for a Strategy RPG, but Luminous Arc manages to pull it off.
This little DS cartridge never struggled to get my attention with its story arc and for that I am very grateful. With that said, I did have one main issue with the way in which the story was delivered. The game’s format was very static: Fight a battle, advance the story, fight a battle, talk with the 3 assigned characters the game allows, advance the story. The fact that there is a button-presson option that says “advance the story” is a problem. Because the game becomes self-reflexive and requires the player to hit a button to “advance the story,” the story becomes separate from the battles. Ultimately, therefore, one feels as though he or she must sit through the story to get to the action; that is a poor way to transmit the narrative. Even with this main drawback, I still found the plot moving, interesting, and at times, highly original. It receives an 85%.
I’ll let my soundtrack-reviewing colleagues weigh in on the OST, but let me delve in briefly to the sound of this title. Wow. Enough said. Seriously, I am really amazed by the audio care put into this title. There are fully voiced scenes with above-par actors, there is an original soundtrack with an incredible J-pop title screen, and there are great sound effects that become the characters’ trademarks when their turn comes up. For example, every time it is Cecille’s turn, she says “God Bless us,” while someone like Theo will say “I won’t let my brother down.” To further this point, when a character is critically wounded, they will say something along the lines of “…not yet.” This little touch, combined with the phenomenal attention to detail, quality, and quantity, makes this audio second to none. I award a score of 94%.
Let me first begin with the positive gameplay elements of Luminous Arc. The game features a very interesting and unique battle system. Primarily, it allows the player 8 people on the battlefield and easily supplies all of the pertinent information on one of the dual screens: turn order, HP/MP, move rate, etc. Further, by clicking either the L/R buttons on the top of the system you can go in depth into either allies or foes’ data. You can see things such as equipment, spells, attributes, or special abilities. Instead of having to pull a separate menu to find out this data, which is what you have to do with most strategy RPGs, the DS really shines through here.
During battle, there are some features that really work well. One of them is the Flash drive system. This system which is a gauge that fills based upon kills and other actions performed by the characters, releases some “limit break” attacks that are unique to each member. This provides the player with some powerful actions that are both visually interesting and essential for long term success. I was initially skeptical of this system, but all complaints faded when later in the game two characters could combine for even more powerful attacks. Similar to the Chrono series, these attacks really made me appreciate the combination attack method.
In addition to these gameplay moments I liked, there is a very dynamic online component to the game. When a character reaches a certain point, he or she is granted the ability to go online to Nintendo’s Wi-Fi network (or to challenge someone wirelessly through the local DS connection) and face off against other people’s parties. While this is not as rich as the single player environment, I thought it was a nice touch and added to the overall gameplay.
With the good, must come the bad. The worst gameplay element is something that is becoming too common in today’s RPGs and that is the lack of a true world or world map. Unlike the Shining Force series, which allowed characters to find hidden items or characters in battles, explore towns, and generally get a sense of progression while travelling the world, Luminous Arc has none of this. Battles are not interactive—there are no secret squares to stand on or Jogurts to find. While there are towns, you wouldn’t know it as you never see them and are limited to a touch screen that says “Shop,” “Library,” “Advance the story.” Overall, the gameplay is advancing the story to get to the next battle (which is pointed out on the map as a hotspot), and then doing this over and over. This is by no means limited to this particular title (Lost Magic does something very similar), but it does detract from the overall gameplay.
Further, the equipment and shops of the game don’t really add anything to the experience. After completing a battle, players get money which they can use to buy equipment or items at any towns along the way. However, there is really no accomplishment in any of this: during battle the weapons are not illustrated any differently, and money in the game is far too easy to get for there to feel like an accomplishment in acquiring a new item. Overall, the idea of going to the shop felt more like a time killer than fun.
Other gameplay issues are hit and miss: Kopin, a white fur ball type creature shows up at various moments but doesn’t really make sense or add to the experience; characters restore all of their HP/MP when they gain a level which adds another layer of strategy to the fight sequences; there are friendships that can be strengthened during intermissions from battle to help with the synergy combination attacks; and there is an item synthesis process that is very poorly explained. Finally, while the battles were the highlight of the experience, ultimately, they were too easy and simple for my total liking. For all of the reasons listed above, I give gameplay an 80%.
There really isn’t too much to comment on graphically. I really enjoyed the artwork of the characters when you could see them on screen during the voice over sequences. The battles seemed crisp with environments conducive to that part of the world: the north contained volcanoes with fire creatures and lava rivers, the wooded areas contained natural enemies and rivers, towns had archers and elevated platforms for them to shoot their arrows. When each character attacked using a flash drive, there was a quasi-cut screen showing the attack, but it wasn’t as powerful as say seeing an esper animation. I did notice some slowdown when there were tons of enemies and characters on the screen, but not enough for it to become an issue. Graphically, I’d conclude by saying the game is solid, but not memorable. It receives an 85%.
While it may come as a surprise to the gaming community as a whole, the Nintendo DS has been a system that has attracted many RPG fans—ironic considering the intrinsic mismatch between a handheld system and a genre that is dependant upon extended gameplay. It has been home to some games that have utilized the stylus as a brilliant way to cast spells (Lost Magic), draw maps (Etrian Odyssey), and search locations (Touch Detective). It would seem then, that the Strategy RPG (a genre that relies upon swift and accurate control of a battlefield) would be a perfect avenue for the console to show off its precision and beauty. That may still be the case, but there is one thing I can now assure you: Luminous Arc is not that title.
This game could have and should been an ideal way to illustrate how games that require mouse like movements to quickly and consistently be executed. Instead, the stylus is inaccurate: I often found that I could not place the character on the correct square I wanted, I occasionally made wrong menu selections, and worst of all, it was almost as impossible to face the character in the correct direction after making an action. I would classify the stylus control portion of the game as a complete failure. Some people criticized the recent release of Sim City DS as a problem because of its stylus control. In all fairness, I found this game to be far more distracting and problematic. Luckily, the game includes an option to turn off the stylus control and this became a God-send for me. Once this selection was selected, I found myself speeding through Shtraberl like never before. Other than the stylus issue, the rest of the game was intuitive and adequate. For control, therefore, I award a 75%.
While this game will not end gamers quest for an irreplaceable Nintendo DS RPG, it can certainly entertain them for 15-20 hours. With online capabilities, an item synthesis shop that requires some time and effort, and a friendship system that opens up some unique synergy attacks, the obsessed Arc fan will play for a lot longer. Even with its faults, there is no question that the strategy RPG fan should pick up this title. For the rest of the gaming community, however, they might want to wait for something else to come along.