According to legend, the powers of light and darkness once collided in the form of the Dark Prince and the Maiden of Light, and although light was victorious, the threat of darkness still remains. At the Church of the Holy Maiden, the band of demon hunters known as La Pucelle spend their days exterminating the forces of darkness, but new member Sister Prier isn’t content to go after small fry forever- despite being feisty, outspoken and the most unlikely candidate for the job, she dreams of one day taking on the mantle of Maiden of Light for herself.
Getting started with the game
Although Disgaea was the first Nippon Ichi PS2 game to make it over to the West, back in Japan, their dynasty of PS2 SRPGs actually began with a rather different game- La Pucelle Tactics. Loosely related to the Marl Kingdom series, La Pucelle takes us to the kingdom of Paprica for twelve chapters of demon-bashing and general saving of the world from evil. As you’ll come to see in this review (if, of course, you don’t already know), the game lacks a lot of the innovations of those that came after it, making it a bit harder to go back and get into after you’ve immersed yourself in the likes of Disgaea and Makai Kingdom.
Places to go, people to see
As part of the pre-Disgaea era, La Pucelle lacks the home base/dimensional gate to battle maps setup that we’ve become so familiar with in Nippon Ichi games, relying on a more traditional world map filled with the usual RPG locations. Although most of these are battle maps, there is a pseudo free-roaming aspect to the game in a few of the towns and villages- once you enter them, you can move left and right, pressing X to proceed to further screens or talk to NPCs as needed.
Unless you have an unhealthy fascination with chatting to NPCs, your main reason for visiting town (other than triggering cut scenes) will, unsurprisingly, be to drop into the Rosenqueen shop. Like its incarnation in the Disgaea world, the shop stocks limited amounts of items, and the selection will change according to a survey you can fill out after you make your purchases. Perhaps surprisingly, healing items seem rather hard to come by (luckily healing spells are easy to learn- more on that in a moment), and so the bulk of your hard-earned cash will be spent on the equippable items needed to enhance your characters’ stats. Since characters never change the weapons they use, these items are essentially accessories, which can be used to enhance a character’s attack, magic, defence and so forth. Rods are of particular note since they also increase a character’s strength in a particular element, thus enabling them to use spells of that element- and like Disgaea, if they use it enough times (variable depending on the character), they can learn that spell permanently.
Another feature available to play with is a connection to the Dark World courtesy of some generic hooded characters who pop up in various locations. Their purpose is not to take you to the Dark World, but to send your generic monsters there in return for being able to perform item fusion. Effectively, you’re selling them into servitude in hell in return for an ability you can’t get elsewhere- perhaps not an act befitting the moral standards of a demon hunter, but there you go.
So there you are, all equipped and ready to take on some demons- so let’s waste no more time into getting into battle and its specifics. Each dungeon consists of a sequence of maps that can be approached in either the coward or completist manner- once battle commences, you can either make a run for the exit square that takes you to the next screen (a favourite tactic of mine in the Arc the Lad II days), or you can battle it out properly. The latter is recommended, not just because it’s a) the point of the game and b) essential for recruiting monsters and levelling up but for the simple reason that once a map is properly cleared, you get taken to a menu where you can save, sort out characters and equipment, and even return to the world map for automatic healing of all party members. As with Disgaea, characters emerge from a base panel (which they can also retreat into if they haven’t taken action that turn), and up to eight characters can be out on the field at any one time (the number decreases if a character gets killed).
Important as it is, however, the exit square is not the only event you can trigger on a map- keep your eyes open for any other red squares you may encounter, as stepping on them can trigger story events. Viewing these events isn’t just about seeing extra cut scenes- they can be the difference between getting the bad, normal or good ending for a chapter, complete with the healthy cash bonus that comes with the better endings.
Once you actually get into battle, on the surface of it La Pucelle looks like any other SRPGs- the player and computer take turns moving their units around and performing attacks and special skills on a grid-based isometric map. Play for even a little while, however, and you will soon begin to spot some key differences- which sadly feel less like innovations and more the result of this being a game from the days when Nippon Ichi were slowly feeling their way into the genre. For example, when you choose to attack an enemy, the attacker unit and all allies adjacent to them face off against the target unit and all enemies adjacent to it not on the main map, but on a separate ‘fight’ screen. Depending on their relative speeds, each unit on the fight screen gets the chance to attack someone on the other side, which means you can actually end up countering before you are even attacked. It also makes taking on a close-knit block of enemies more of a challenge, since even a weak enemy can bring his stronger buddies along with him. Fortunately, however, special attacks work a little different; not only are they performed straightaway (normal attacks have to wait for you to ‘execute’ or end turn a la Disgaea), but there is no opportunity for the target to counter. Unfortunately, once you use either an attack or a special, that character cannot move until next turn, even if they didn’t move before they attacked.
Getting used to this form of combat may make it harder than usual to get to grips with the game, but there is no doubt that La Pucelle is also one of the more difficult Nippon Ichi titles on offer. Chapters vary from surprisingly straightforward to annoyingly difficult with no real sequence, meaning that in one playing session you might make significant progress, whilst in the next you suffer several crushing game overs in a row (typically such game overs seem to be attached to boss battles which follow lengthy and unavoidable cut scenes).
One unavoidable feature of the battlefield is the presence of dark portals, which spill dark energy out onto the field. Left unattended, these portals will allow new enemies to periodically appear on the map- not the most welcome prospect if you’re already struggling with the ones that were there in the first place. Happily, there is a way to deal with these portals- all story characters except the air pirates and any generic monsters with maximum happiness can use the ‘Purify’ command to reduce the dark portal’s HP to zero. Once a dark portal is thus destroyed, all the energy coming out of it will also be removed, damaging all enemies standing on it with an elemental attack corresponding to the energy’s colour (or in the case of aqua/cyan energy, healing all allies). The more purification you do on a map, the higher your bonus at the end.
Dark energy isn’t just a random thing to have flowing across the field, however; it is perfectly possible to manipulate its direction to best suit your needs. The portals, which always produce primary colours of energy in red, green or blue, send energy flowing out in one direction, which can be altered by having a character stand on the portal and face a new direction. Further characters can then redirect or stop the flow by standing in the path of the energy, whilst the primary colour flows can also be combined into yellow, cyan, magenta and white for different elemental attacks. The most impressive way to put this ability to use is to create a ‘miracle’ by looping fifteen or more squares’ worth of dark energy round in a circle and then purifying it- doing so will summon an elemental creature that damages every enemy within the loop. Advanced players (or anyone who wants to spend time on GameFAQs) can even learn how to trigger multiple miracles in one go, leading to spectacular results.
Better still, miracles and purification aren’t just there to occupy the extreme gamer- they also have a practical purpose within the game beyond damaging enemies and preventing the arrival of further monsters. Each purification is worth a bonus score depending on how many squares you purify, enemies you damage and miracles you generate, and the total score translates to EXP for the items the purifying character has equipped. It can and does often seem like a rather tedious process for levelling up items and slowly boosting their stats, but those few extra attack and defence points can be the difference between life and death against some of the game’s harder bosses.
Just in case you were in danger of taking all of that in, there is also one more use for purification- the recruitment of generic enemies. In this pre-Disgaea age, there is no Dark Assembly or equivalent place to go and create generic characters- instead you must win existing enemies over to your side using purification. The more you purify a particular enemy, the greater the chances of it joining you once you defeat it- and indeed, on occasion an enemy will even choose to convert even though you didn’t purify it at all. Unsurprisingly, boss enemies cannot be converted off the bat- instead you’ll have to fulfil a specific condition in order to unlock that ability.
Once you have monsters under your command, you can affect their development by using the Train command in the menu. Each time you clear a map, you get a new training command- either a pleasant one designed to increase happiness, or a harsher action that will help them to build their stats more effectively. Whether you choose to be a harsh taskmaster or a more generous soul, it is always important to keep an eye on the happiness of your monsters- should it drop to one, the poor creature is apt to run away from its evil master, whilst raising it all the way to ten allows the monster to use purification.
As a game awash with the concept of levelling up, the equipment levelling and standard levelling with EXP is not enough for La Pucelle- there are also other aspects which must be paid attention to. As mentioned earlier, special skills level up with use, whilst equipment can also determine which stats get a boost each time a character gains a level. As a rule, the average player need not pay a great deal of attention to all this number crunching, but anyone wishing to dominate the game will need a good grasp of how to accumulate points for their characters.
Although it is entirely possible to complete the game without ever touching on it, lovers of random dungeons will be pleased to learn that their needs are furnished by what the English translation chooses to call the Dark World (we usually know it as the Netherworld, or in Japan, Hell). Each time you kill off your allies, use a Present or simply fail to purify all the dark portals before clearing a map, that map’s Dark Energy Index increases- and if it hits 100 or above, a portal to the Dark World will open. The Dark World is effectively a random dungeon of multiple levels, in which the player can level up and recruit certain types of enemies. It’s a welcome place for strengthening your characters and unlocking some of the more advanced mechanics of the game, but it comes at a price- spend too long in the Dark World, and Prier herself may even become an Overlord one day. There is good news for the pure of heart, however- purify all the dark portals on a map and the Dark Energy Index will decrease once more.
Story-wise, La Pucelle is heavily reliant on the standard “forces of good vs. world-destroying evil” story that so often crops up in RPGs, with even the revelatory twists in character storylines erring on the side of the predictable. Happily, the story benefits greatly from its eclectic and likable cast, from Prier, a refreshingly direct and tomboyish female lead to Homard, an air pirate who commands a crew of humanoid cats.
As per usual, Nippon Ichi have come up with some attractive character designs that translate well into cute sprites- although the girls do have surprisingly muscular and well toned legs. The often criticised isometric maps are indeed nothing spectacular, but are nonetheless functional and pleasant enough to play on (excluding the ones where camera rotation is disabled for some reason), whilst spell effects are likewise ‘good enough’ without being anything special. Then again, their level is no more or less than what I usually expect for SRPGs- I’m here for the game play more than mind-blowing graphics.
Unsurprisingly, the music is handled by Tenpei Sato, and whilst the soundtrack is less varied and memorable than his work on the Disgaea games and Phantom Brave, his quirky themes fit the tone of the game well whilst being reminiscent of Rhapsody (the games take place in the same world, albeit on different continents).
Going back and playing La Pucelle after trying out all their more recent games cannot help but make the game seem a little unsophisticated and rough around the edges compared to its more refined brethren, but even with the inconsistent difficulty level and need to get to grips with the numerous aspects of the levelling system, La Pucelle is still an enjoyable experience. Those who only liaise casually with SRPGs shouldn’t go to this as a first choice, but addicts to the genre will find a solid game to occupy their time.
Extra: My Party in Brief
- Prier: Many people use Prier as their primary attacker, but mine is more of a middle of the table character. She has plenty of close-range attacks to bring out, but with all my bears what I really need is a distant attacker.
- Culotte: Prier’s brother, Culotte is one of those characters that perpetually has potential, but never delivers on it. In principle he could become a good mage and healer, but mine is too weak to survive to that point.
- Alouette: Sister Alouette is no longer useful in any capacity as an attacker, but she does have a nice stock of healing spells. I like to keep her well behind the front lines so that she can heal or run back to the base panel as needed.
- Croix: A ranged gun user, Croix is not only powerful, but he is useful for linking with the bears in adjacent square attack squads. His Double Shot special is a useful HP decimator.
- Homard: Although Homard is useful to others, I haven’t really spent the time on levelling him up, and hence even his Burning Soul attack isn’t the devastator it could be. Perhaps he can shine in New Game+ (a PAL only feature, if I am correct).
- Papillon: Due to her high movement range, Papillon is most people’s running away character, but since mine is Level One, I never even get her out.
- Yattanya: Homard’s deputy, Yattanya is slowly gaining strength- his Long Paw attack is particularly useful.
- Chocolats: Generic cat members of Homard’s crew, they are cute but weak.
- Salade: Despite being an old man, Salade joins the team at Level 50 and never looks back. His 50 Year Jab ability combines economy of SP with highly respectable damage.
- Éclair: Although not particularly useful as herself, later in the game Éclair gains the ability to become the devastating Dark Éclair, who makes up for not wearing much by delivering some deadly attacks.
Although many monsters joined up to be a part of my team, the ones I rely on the most are the Bear types (Big Bears, Ogres and White Devils). Cute in appearance yet deadly in battle, bears may be weak against magical attacks, but their decent defence and high attack make them great front line attackers. I couldn’t have beat the game without the help of my trusty legion of bears.