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Serving Justice One Squirrel at a Time
It's a rare game that includes "a little something for the ladies", and perhaps this is the biggest draw for this game, that is if you like angry men with horns in skirts. However, this game is far from revolutionary in breaking any gender barriers that may or may not exist in the world of video gaming. In fact, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is far from revolutionary in every other aspect as well. Luckily, for those who dared to purchase it on a whim, this title is well crafted and contains a reasonable amount of fun and challenge. Most of the aforementioned "fun and challenge" stem from the battle system of Arc the Lad. One could say it's like any tactics RPG sans the squares, but it is really more like Grandia II minus the complexity of timing. In this turned based system, when your character is up, you are allowed to move within a designated blue radius. After you decide where to park yourself, you can swivel about in place like a ballerina while another area appears to show you the range of your weapon and effect area, allowing you to aim. Magic or Special Skills also work in a similar way except in that these special actions require the use of spirit stones.
After you have successfully slain one of your enemies, provided that it poops out an item, some spirit stones or money as it dies, your character has to physically move over that item in order to pick it up. You are still allowed to complete another action, but you are not allowed to move. If the item is dropped nowhere near your next enemy, this can be very annoying as you'll have to wait an additional turn to deal out some pain. Additionally, if you slaughter everything before you pick up your goodies, you will receive nothing. Because of the variability of what items are dropped, you will find yourself constantly budgeting your magic use. If not careful, there are certain points in the game where you will find yourself using more spirit stones and wasting more HP than you can afford to buy back.
The positive aspect of this battle system is it gives the player a considerable amount of freedom of movement and demands some amount of cerebral exercise in order to successfully complete a battle. The boss battles can be particularly engaging as there is usually an optimum technique that works best. Perhaps because the game would rather that you use strategy over brute force, you never feel like your characters really kick ass, even after you have acquired their most powerful moves. This means that every battle, even should it be against a roving band of squirrels, requires planning, which when leveling up, can get rather tedious. Leveling up in another exercise in tedium. The characters who dole out the most punishment level up the fastest, while your weaker characters quickly become useless.
As far as generic monsters go, the ones in Arc the Lad couldn't be much worse. It has the most aggravating misuse of repeated monsters that I've ever seen. We're all used to games just slapping on another color and calling it a "purple imp" to up the count of unique enemies. While Arc the Lad does this as well, it also assigns levels to each enemy. The difference between battles is often the difference between fighting a level 2 band of squirrels and a level 13 band of squirrels. They're all squirrels, and they all have the same abilities and movement radius, the later just takes longer to kill.
At least there are no random battles, per se. Battles are area based, in that if you cross over a certain area on the map, you may or may not encounter a battle. In Arc the Lad's dungeons, designated rooms have battles, and after you have completed the battle you are free to roam about the area and explore without being attacked again. Sounds nice, but there really is no point to roaming about as there is rarely anything to interact with, besides the obvious glowing elevator switch or treasure chest.
Despite some of the decent aspects of the battle system, which is arguably the core element of any RPG, I guarantee you I wouldn't have finished the game if there wasn't some assemblage of an interesting plot. While playing a game where you beat squirrels senseless may sound appealing, after you've played through for about an hour, the novelty wears off immediately.
Interestingly enough, the conflict of this story is not a typical good guys versus the bad guys setup, all though at the final battle, it does come down to this. Rather, the whole thing starts when a human woman, Naffia, gets some sweet lovin' from a demon, or Deimos, as this game calls them. So maybe it's not as torrid as I'm making it out to be, but because of their affair Naffia gives birth to twins, Kharg and Darc. Through some sketchy events, the twins are separated, never knowing of each other's existence. Kharg is raised as a human with his mother, and Darc, looking like a genetic chimera, is raised in the harsh world of the Deimos. Humans and Deimos hate each other, therefore the twins are destined to war with one another. You play as each character separately, switching back and forth between story arcs until near the end of the game. It is interesting to watch events unfold bearing both points of view in mind. One might expect these two sides to come together peacefully at some point, but thankfully, in an effort to be less cliché, there is always some tension between the humans and Deimos even during temporary truces.
As far as characters go, possibly the most interesting one is Darc. He constantly struggles with the upwelling of human emotion, but also is in touch with the bloodlust of his demon side. Most of the other characters can simply be judged by how much you like your adventure story archetypes. Maru is your typical unbiased youth, but get this, he's psychic. A lot is made of this ability, but the only time you get to see it is when he predicts that a dingy will sink into the ocean. Wow. Another annoying character is Lilia, our leading lady. It seems that her character design came from the recycle bin of whoever designed Yuna of Final Fantasy X fame. She, too, has some wacky kimono thing going on, but here it just doesn't work, just as Kharg's fancy pants are similarly disturbing. However, no matter how novel a character might be, it would be hard to tell from the dialogue. While it's not as forced as say Shadow Hearts, it certainly doesn't add to character depth. The biggest insult you get to hear is when Darc is called a Deimos wannabe. Ouch, that like so hurts. Also, the humor basically boils down to that darn Maru and his wacky antics, which is a misnomer, as his antics aren't very wacky at all. Perhaps though, any wit is lost due to uncreative localization.
The music is easy to forget, which sometimes is a good thing in games that you spend a lot of time with. What's more worth commenting on is the voice acting. It is not terrible, but if there are other people in the room with you, you might be embarrassed when Kharg says things like "Oh cyclone, mow down the enemy before me!", in such a sappy voice it never ceases to make me cringe. Luckily, you can turn the battle voices off, which I never did because I enjoyed the aggravation. It always seemed funny to me when Darc screams "I will save the Deimos!" as he beats up a turtle.
The graphics in this game are alright, aside from the characters hands. They look a bit chunky and cumbersome at times while Kharg's look weird and emaciated. So just don't look at the hands, that's the simple solution, but what about the awkward animation? How does one avoid noticing that? The truth is, half of it isn't bad, what is annoying is the dialogue parts where the characters enter a death spiral of repeated gestures. Watching Kharg angrily pointing and flailing his arms about long after his lips have stopped moving is unnatural and creepy. The nicest thing about the graphics is the way the trees sway in the breeze. Most of the environments are nice really, it's just a pity that even though the environments are 3D, you move around in them as if they were flat.
Upon completing this game you will receive a New Game + option. However, this ain't no Chrono Trigger or Disgaea. You get to start all over again at level three, but you'll have a few leveling up apples and some item that makes gaining experience twice as fast. To my knowledge, there are no alternate endings, and after seeing it the first time, it would be hard to imagine any other ending. I suppose the only reason to play through again is to do all the side quests and ferret out every last treasure chest. Joy.
Basically, this is your typical "in-between the Final Fantasies" game, should you schedule your life that way. It's not very long, and is worth a decent playthrough, even if you don't like tactical RPGs. It's really more of a tactical lite genre that isn't too complex and is easy to get into. However, a preponderance of minor cliches and a general lack of personality may turn many off to this game.
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