“The spirits forgive everyone they love- and they love everyone!”
In times gone by, when I didn’t have access to nearly as much anime, I used to watch the Arc the Lad anime on the Sci-Fi channel. It was far from the best of series, but it sparked an interest in the franchise, and in time I turned my attention to importing the by-then increasingly rare six-disc collection of the first three games. It was the beginning of a year long occupation with the games that stretched across bits and pieces of my spare time during the final year at university, and now, for some reason, I feel compelled to write about this oft-overlooked but sometimes worthy SRPG series.
Arc the Lad
The story of a destined young man and his suitably eclectic allies as they try to gather the powers of the five elements and save the world from the Lord of Darkness, Arc the Lad has generic and simplistic written all over it, yet somehow it remains slightly addictive for the five to six hours of play the basic storyline offers (dedicated players can complete such side quests as an incredibly difficult forty level dungeon with no save points, or 1000+ battles in the monster arena, but such things were not for me). Its merits can probably just be attributed to my love of SRPGs, however, as this is a game that will win no awards for story or gameplay. In particular, the playable characters either fall into the extreme of incredibly useful or utterly pointless, to the extent that the weakest ones will never live long enough to level up. Whilst sword users Arc and Tosh and martial artist Eega are all strong attackers, healer Kukuru, harp user Poco, mage Gogen and summoner Changara are all so utterly weak that it is almost a relief to get them killed off so that you don’t have to keep using their turns to wait or run away.
Arc the Lad II
Having made such a simplistic effort for the first game, the creators go to the opposite extreme in Arc the Lad II, a sprawling and expansive effort that not only features a lengthy main storyline, but also has numerous side quests that the player, in their role as a bounty hunter, can take on in the various towns they visit. With more characters to choose from and the ability to import save data from the first game, Arc the Lad II offers far more in terms of playability, but in some ways, it is almost too much. If, like me, you start to get bored with the game by the end, you’ll find that your lack of attention is duly reward with under-levelled characters who are puny weaklings even in random encounters. Worse yet, even when you initiate an attack, it is highly likely that you will miss and the enemy will respond with a highly damaging counterattack, before following up with a second attack on their own turn. The final boss must also rank as one of the hardest in gaming history- where all previous bosses had 500 HP maximum, he has 4500 in his first form, and 9999 in his second. It took me some three hours just to defeat him.
The ‘Help, my characters are pathetically weak and I don’t have much in the way of special equipment’ method for defeating the final boss: First, make sure that you don’t have to go out or even move from the spot for the next three to four hours. Next, choose your party of 1337 (mine was Arc, Elc, Gruga, Tosh and Shante) and equip them as best you can. In an ideal world, you’d have a Rosetta Stone for 0MP use and the Invincibility spell for several characters, but if you don’t have that, just put an item that regenerates MP on Shante.
When battle begins, put Shante out of the range of enemy attacks, but have the others move towards the boss (try to make sure they don’t stop in the middle of the screen, or when the boss targets his ultimate attack on them it will hit Shante too). When they reach him, have them attack as much as they can before they get killed, and then have Shante revive them at the bottom of the screen (you can also let them retreat for healing). Repeat until the damn thing finally goes down.
Arc the Lad III
If bounty hunter quests were merely side events in Arc the Lad II, in the third game they become the meat of the game as a new generation of heroes take on the Lord of Darkness in a world somewhat altered by the events of the first two games. Over the course of 100 quests (some optional, some necessary), hero Alec becomes a skilled bounty hunter in a game which is not as sprawling and expansive as its immediate predecessor, but is much more manageable because of it. In short, whilst Arc the Lad II is probably the best game in terms of technical aspects, this game is much more enjoyable for all but the most masochistic of players, since it’s a lot easier to work through. It also features cameos from Elc, Tosh and Shu, and whilst importing your saved game from Arc II doesn’t affect anyone’s stats, it does add in some extra lines of dialogue.
Arc: Twilight of the Spirits
Taking place hundreds of years after the initial trilogy, ToS follows the intertwining story of twin brothers growing up in very different environments, and to mark the series’ graduation to the PS2, several changes are made to the game play. Unfortunately, these alterations not only make the battle system feel a lot more restrictive, but the game returns to the old way of having only powerhouses and puny weaklings, with nothing in between. The game is also weakened by being the first to feature extensive voice acting, a move which only highlights how dislikeable the shallow cast actually is.
Also of note is the game’s fiendishly difficult final boss; this time the Lord of Darkness is in the shape of a giant eyeball who not only has incredibly punishing attacks, but uses every opportunity to summon other eyeballs who attack every time he takes a turn. Since you have to sit through twenty minutes of cut scenes and two other battles just to get to him, getting killed by an army of eyeballs is nothing less than painful.
Characters- the most generic set yet
Kharg: The naïve and idealistic hero of the human side of the story.
Paulette: Kharg’s childhood friend, she secretly harbours romantic feelings for him. She swears revenge against the humanoid Deimos after they kill her father. Quickly becomes useless in battle due to her weak physical and magical attacks.
Maru: A young foreign prince who hangs around in the forest near Kharg’s home trying to evade the Fashion Police. His bow attacks are actually the most useful in the game due to their range and ability to hit multiple enemies.
Ganz: An axe wielding generic who lives in the forest and joins the party to make up the numbers.
Tatiana: An uptight and severe scientist from the game’s equivalent of Russia, she joins the heroes relatively late in the game and is next to useless in combat.
Darc: The moody and angst-filled hero of the Deimos side of the story. Having been mistreated for years, he hates everyone.
Delma: Darc’s follower and the closest thing he has to a friend early in the game, she is hot-headed and secretly in love with Darc. She quickly becomes useless in battle, but can actually be made worthy with high end equipment.
Volk: The gruff axe-wielding wolf-man who swears revenge against humans after Paulette’s father kills his wife and child.
Camellia: A trickster and magic user who is transformed into an ugly old woman after experiments are done on her. She reverts to her attractive younger self later in the game, but remains equally incapable of inflicting more than 1 point of damage per attack.
Bebedora: A dark magic user and soulless creature created to destroy the world, Bebedora is the one vaguely interesting character in the game due to her combination of incredible power and general naïveté about the world. Her physical attacks are weak (probably because she hits people with a doll), but her magic is devastating for the few times you can use it before her ‘magic stones’ run out. She can also take control of an enemy unit and force it to become an ally.
There is actually another Arc PS2 game entitled ‘End of Darkness’ that takes place a few years after ToS, but with its new more action based battle system and a slew of poor reviews, I’ve never been too inclined to actually buy it. Could this be a sign that the pointlessly recurring battles between bands of heroes and the Lord of Darkness should finally come to an end?
It’s never going to win any awards for originality and innovation, but amidst the generic storyline and sometimes frustrating battle system, Arc the Lad can offer a measure of fun. If you’re a big fan of SRPGs, the earlier games are by no means a bad addition to the collection, although more casual players should probably give it a miss.