1995 was a great year to be a fan of RPGs in North America. The 16 bit console wars were coming to end, making way for the next-gen consoles to take over. This did not stop companies from releasing not only some of the greatest games of the year, but some of the best RPGs ever made. Super Nintendo led the way with heavyweights including Chrono Trigger, Earth Bound, Ogre Battle and Breath of Fire 2, contenders such as Secret of Evermore, Brandish and Robotrek, and even the rare pretender in Secret of the Stars. Sega Genesis users did not have nearly the same selection, but still had Phantasy Star 4 to call their own. The 32-bit Sega CD had a pair of great games in Lunar Eternal Blue and Shining Force CD, and its newer, more expensive brother the Sega Saturn cast out the abysmal Virtual Hydlide onto the world.
For unestablished companies across the pond looking to port and release RPGs stateside, this was not the year to do it.
Arc the Lad, a 1995 release in Japan by Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. would not find its way over to North America until 2002 as part of the Arc the Lad Collection. By this time, the Playstation was just about out the door, with the Playstation 2 emphatically coming through the other way. The Arc the Lad Collection included four complete games and a bevy of collectibles. For those who have no interest in the bells and whistles the collection provides, they can download these titles off the Playstation Store at a fraction of the price. Arc the Lad is a serviceable strategy RPG that includes standard RPG cliches (level grind or die) while also introducing some unique elements such as the prompt save.
Arc the Lad follows a tried and true formula in terms of its story. You begin the game as the title character Arc Eda Ricolne. His father has been missing for ten years and is presumed dead. Undeterred, Arc leaves the sanctity of his homeland Touvil on a quest for vengeance and eventually finds himself on a quest to save the world. Early on, he runs into a young magician of the Sacred White Clan, Kukuru. Arc discovers that his new acquaintance was duped into putting out the Flame Cion which had been burning for 3000 years. This leads to the arrival of a demon which Arc and Kukuru work together to slay.
Such a confrontation leads to the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Along the way they meet a distinct cast of characters consisting of a musician by-trade turned soldier whose brigade is annihilated by monsters, an ancient wizard who was locked away in a 3000 year old book, a rogue guard who managed the mother of all individual prison breaks, a merchant who doubles as a summoner and finally an incredibly strong but equally naive monk who unknowingly serves under a monster leader before being shown the true path of righteousness. Your party of seven is standard-fare for strategy RPGs, but having such a large party to control can be overwhelming. Thankfully Arc the Lad provides simple battle mechanics that gamers should pick up with ease. However garnering success and winning battles with regularity is correlated with calculated strategy and hardcore level-grinding.
Battles take place on a grid where the party and enemies can move east, west, north and south. These battlefields are generally expansive and littered with obstacles and other terrain that can both prove to be helpful and a hindrance. Pressing L1 and R1 together allows for free roaming of the area. Prior to every battle, the player is given the option to setup the equipment of their characters. While there are only four slots per character, this setup could ultimately be a difference maker in the outcome. Having only four slots does not allow for much flexibility, and throwing in character specific items makes it even more challenging to determine who should equip what. While an auto-equip would have been nice, with a varying array of different enemies with different susceptibilities and immunities from one bout to the next, gamers will have to be conscious of what they equip characters with at all times.
When it is time to begin fisticuffs, character navigation is determined by the number of squares they can move to during a given turn and their starting point. While melee attacks are the coup-de-jour, pressing square brings up the party's inventory which includes items that provide party status enhancements as well as items to inflict status abnormalities on the enemies. There are also projectile weapons at the party's disposal such as bombs and stones to inflict pain from afar
Pressing circle brings up a circle of spells and character specific special attacks that vary in range and effectiveness.
While turn based RPGs gamers are accustom to fast-paced battles, Arc the Lad will serve as a rude awakening for those who are quick off the mark. Enemies even at the early stages match up fairly well with the party and it is very easy for a group or even a pair of enemies to take out a party member in short order. Something non sequential in turn based RPGs such as how one approaches an enemy can determine heavily who comes out on top in strategy RPGs.
Approaching an enemy from the side or the back increases the likely hood of successfully damaging them, as well as decreases the odds of the enemy being able to counter. Enemies are also spry in that they will pick their spots casting spells from a safe distance or with the protection of a blockage requiring party members to get up close where party members either face a world of hurt or use their projectiles with reckless abandon. Once victory is gained, a results screen displays all the party members, the number of enemies they slayed and amount of experience they acquired; (these are designated with swords and hourglasses respectively).
As akin to Strategy-RPGs, It will take time to be victorious but in Arc the Lad certain terrain issues result in battles going on longer than they need to be. Some enemies will remain stuck behind certain obstacles where the only way to vanquish them is to have a party member traverse from end-to-end to get to them. Spells and projectiles may not have the necessary range to connect, and more often than not party members will have to approach single file to get to the enemies. Of course some of these foes could also be deceptively overpowering and sending a party to challenge them could ultimately result in a not painless, but very quick demise.
Roughly seventy-five percent of one's time spent playing Arc the Lad revolves around battling. The other twenty-five percent is split between navigating and events. Arc the Lad's linear approach is welcoming in the sense that gamers will not have to spend time having to find their way around. Party members will often chime in after an event providing near perfect instructions and directions as to where to go next. In between battles or events, gamers are taken to a map screen where certain areas become available to select. Once the party acquires an airship, they can visit any of the continents and or areas they previously visited at ease. The length of this game is respectable, but dependent on one's dedication to power-levelling or just plain luck in winning battles, could dictate how long the playing experience becomes.
Cosmetically speaking, Arc the Lad does not pack much of a punch. Considering it was developed on a next-gen console further puts it to shame when games on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were pushing each system's capabilities to the nth degree. Arc the Lad is not an ugly game, but certain components such as the battles and few scenes involving towns and dungeons look bland and subpar to the 16-bit titles. Other instances such as spell-casting displays, characters flapping their gums while speaking and cut scenes do however show the superiority of the Playstation's hardware.
The audio on the other hand is well arranged. The arrays of tunes from battles to events, to even the map screen are all indicative to their respective environments. Character battle cries as they score a hit, miss, get attacked, or acquire an item are common place in games nowadays but back then, it was almost as revolutionary as the technology that brought along full motion video and snippets of cut scenes that were drastically different then the in-game graphics.
Each of the characters in the party is unique and entertaining in their own way. This comes out in the dialogue they dispense, and while there is a lot of it to weed through (and it cannot be skipped), these characters have an abundance of personality and wit. This could be attributed to the translation of the text, but rest assured it is not broken or made up of philosophical drivel. Instead the language appears "Westernized" for a North American audience.
The prompt save is nothing new for gamers nowadays as they are often mandatory when moving from one game disc to another. While it is true that virtually no games prior to the shift to CDs required this, In the collection, Arc the Lad however was one CD. The prompt save comes up before every battle and before every new event. For the rare times the prompt is not offered, gamers can access the save function by pressing the square button.
Strategy RPG gamers will appreciate Arc the Lad for what it is, a by-the books, easy to pick up but challenging to complete title. However despite its respectable price tag, the rest of the gaming world will probably do what their gaming brethren did in the past; let this title pass them by in favour of the more popular RPGs of today, and the aforementioned re-released classics of yesterday.