22 November 2010

Arc the Lad (on PSN)

I have to admit that the main reason I got Arc the Lad on PlayStation Network (PSN) is that it was mentioned in Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa. The later is, quite possibly, the best RPG to have ever been released for free. Not "limited time promotion, get it while you can" free, but "you can just download this for free" free. And in spite of (or more likely because of) how campy and ridiculous it is, it's actually really well done. The combat system is well developed and the story can be genuinely amusing. Someday, I may write a full review of it here. Until then, you should just go download it and see for yourself.

But anyway, the save points in Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden usually go on long, rambling, somewhat facetious monologues on how much better Japanese RPGs are compared to Western ones. Arc the Lad was one of the JRPGs frequently mentioned. With a little more research, I found out that it really is well-received. It also goes for about $80 for a used copy on eBay. You might be able to find a copy for $50 on Amazon, or $30 if you don't care about having the case or manual. So when I saw it crop up on PSN as a downloadable PlayStation Classic for just $6, I decided to give it a try.

Shorter than expected
After downloading it, I started playing it pretty much immediately. As usual when I start a new game, I get in to it and for a few days, it becomes my main way of passing time in the evening. Usually, I'll clock a solid 15 to 20 hours that first week, and then it'll go to join the slew of other games I'm all slowly completing. I really should adopt a better system, but oh well. It is what it is.

At any rate, with a lot of the RPGs I play, even 20 hours is just the beginning. I tend to play RPGs pretty slowly, taking time to plan battle strategies, do side quests, and talk to most of the random NPCs. A Persona game will easily take me 100 hours of playtime to complete. However, Arc the Lad is far less involved. I beat it in just over 16 hours, and that's including the optional, incredibly long 50-level dungeon.

Check out these sweet graphics!
Now, 16 hours is by no means a short game, especially considering that it was released within the first year of PlayStation's life. In fact, the game was released in Japan before PlayStation had even reached American shores. As such, the game feels markedly like an SNES game apart from some sparse 3D animated scenes of the airship flying. These cinematics have hardly aged well, which is not surprising for that era of video games. Early 3D graphics just haven't held up like sprite work has. Thankfully, most of the game is done with 2D sprites which look good, if a little cartoonish for the game's serious tone. The backgrounds are, at times, a little drab, and the grid system is very obvious in the visual style. It's no Secret of Mana, but it's got it's own charm. And given that it's a strategy RPG, the obvious grid can be easily excused because, well, everything is done on a grid in game.

A strategy RPG without all that strategy
Arc the Lad is, technically, a strategy RPG, but at times you almost forget that that's the case. The combat system involves moving your characters around on a grid and then performing attacks. Each attack has a different range. For example, physical attacks can only be executed against enemies in squares directly touching the square your character is in. Meanwhile, most spells will give you a wider range. Furthermore, after you select the primary target of the spell, some will have a small range of squares surrounding the target that will also be hit.

However, spells will only affect enemies (or allies, as in healing spells), whether or not the range of effect might include a mix of enemies and allies. This is somewhat asymptomatic of strategy RPGs, which often involves much more careful planning, down to the smallest of details, such as how to attack an enemy without hurting yourself. Likewise, the equipment in Arc the Lad is very simple. You don't even have weapons and armor to worry about. There's just four generalized equipment slots per character that you can put any piece of equipment you want in (well, except for the few character specific ones).

You don't have to worry about building a party, as you use all the characters that you have in every fight that they are available to you. You don't have to place them on the field like most strategy RPGs. You don't have to level up skills or equipment in menus, or organize items in your inventory, or really do anything in the menus. Outside of battle there is no menu. Just story and picking where to go next. In battle, the game relies on different buttons doing different things. X attacks, Circle brings up magic, Square brings up items, Triangle is cancel, and Select is equipment. Most of the strategy resides in setting up equipment before a match and then which abilities to use. And really, none of that is too hard. The game is actually pretty damn easy. In part because you just have Arc spam Gale Flash and run around taking blows like no ones business while countering with hot steel.

One man army
Really, Arc is a one man army. Case in point. When I did the 50-level dungeon, I reached the final floor with only three characters out of my seven party members still alive, and one of those three died in the first round of action. Tosh and Arc were all that remained, and Tosh was lucky enough to paralyze the boss, making the fight incredibly easy. Having won and gotten my treasures, I began the arduous climb back to the entrance, but Tosh fell pretty soon thereafter to a nasty dragon or some other tough beast. I then proceeded to go through about 45 floors (i.e. 45 battles) with just Arc. And I never once came close to death. He's just too good.

i.e. Worthless compared to Arc.
In some ways, this is the biggest problem with Arc the Lad. Experience points are awarded based on how much a character accomplished in a fight, the biggest accomplishment being killing off enemies. Arc starts out as being a little better than everyone else, but that means he levels up a little faster because he's doing more. At first, it's not too noticeable, but as he got better, he would get more experience, making his level up, giving him more experience... It was exponential. By the end, Arc was over twice the level of my weakest party member. This means that, at the end, most fights consisted of keeping the weaker characters protected and ready to do their small part when needed and otherwise letting Arc, Tosh, and Iga run around and killing everything. And really, Tosh and Iga didn't hold a candle to Arc. They were just able to barely keep up.

So really, you just have Arc do Gale Flash and take out half the enemies on the field in one move.

Fun, but a little unrewarding
Really though, the game is still a lot of fun. It gives you that strategy RPG feel of moving units without bogging you down with tons of rules and menus. In many ways, the heart of the game is still very much that of the classic RPG style. The combat may feel a bit different, but ultimately, it's just about going through the story, one battle at a time.

Despite how melodramatic and intense the beginning was, the story is actually pretty simple. You need to save five Guardians and gain their blessings in order to save humanity. But the thing is, once you finally save that fifth Guardian and get the power to save the world, well... it ends. You never get to actually save the world! It just says, "To be continued..."

Continued when?
Honestly, I liked the game. And I was starting to feel the story and really get into it.

And then it ended.

I vaguely knew there were sequels, but I'd never seen them before, or at least I didn't think I had. I always just saw the one game labelled Arc the Lad that usually goes for at least $50. But then I remembered... that game had multiple discs...

So I did a little research. Turns out we never got the original Arc the Lad here in America like they did in Japan. We got Arc the Lad Collection, a single release that included all three games of the original trilogy. That's what usually goes for at least $50. I just never noticed the little word "Collection" at the bottom of the logo.

So really, up until this point, you couldn't buy the first game without having the full triology if you lived in America. But, perhaps in a move to garner more money, Sony decided to release them separately on PSN, with about a year in between each release. That's how they did it in Japan, and it certainly makes more sense there. And I'm not entirely complaining. All together the trilogy would probably total $20 or so on PSN. Not bad, all things considered.

But the thing is, I don't know if they're going to bring the rest of the trilogy to PSN in North America. If the first one doesn't sell well enough, they might not have any reason to bring the other ones here. It's not that it would be too large of an expense for Sony, but it would still involve some work. And if their customers don't seem interested, why bother?

My dilemma
I want to play the second one. It's supposedly the best in the series that improves on the original a lot. So what do I do? Wait and hope for a digital release? Or do I someday shell out the money for a used copy?

If I had three copies, I'd probably gloat by
posting photos on the internet as well.
Of course, this is where some suggest emulation. Although emulation is technically illegal, buying used won't give any money to the developers either. So if they aren't going to make it available for sale, who can blame you for finding another way to play it?

Still, I think I'll wait. At least until I have the money to by it used. Unless, of course, anyone out there wants to get me a generous Christmas gift. :þ Otherwise, well... my list of games I really want to see on PSN has grown a little: 1. Xenogears 2. Arc the Lad II 3. Arc the Lad III and honourable mention: Chrono Cross.

But seriously, it's a good game. And hey, if you're on PSN and download it as well, you'll be helping the cause. Or you could just end up feeling unfulfilled as the game ends abruptly, leaving you hanging and at a loss... staring at a page on Amazon and whispering, "Maybe someday..."


UPDATE: I was wrong. Arc the Lad II on PSN.

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