Revisiting the Classics – Arc the Lad
If you live in North America, there’s a very high chance you’ve never heard of the Arc the Lad series. The now defunct G-Craft studio developed this tactical RPG with very little intention of it leaving the land of the Rising Sun. And for 8 years, it and its sequels stayed lost to international audiences. It was in 2002 when the Arc the Lad Collection was created, when the game was finally exported, and could be experienced for the first time by many avid JRPGers who had developed a taste for that particular style of game thanks to major players like Square. This would be the first time I encountered the game.
The PSN, thanks to its focus on imports and PSOne classics (thanks to influences from sources like Monkeypaw Games) would become the home for its biggest exposure to American markets, finally providing an acceptable stage for a game that serves as a valiant, if not flawed, landmark in the evolution of the Turn Based Strategy RPG.
One of the best things about Arc the Lad, that still holds up well into the HD age, is the meticulous animations of the character sprites. Characters moved with accentuated detail, giving them real personality as they interacted with one another and the enemies. The designs of the characters themselves is also remarkable in that, for the most part, it’s kept pretty simple. The focus on keeping each character distinct, yet low fi and elegant also has its hand in creating the overall polished feel of the models.
The opposite can be said about most of the battle landscapes, which are usually large, cavernous pallettes of generic cave floor or grassy field, with a rock or tree spotted around for good measure. The blandness of the coloring is really apparent across such big areas, and takes a lot away from the overall look of battle. The wide open spaces are for utilitarian purposes, obviously, but that doesn’t mean the presentation doesn’t suffer.
Menus feel somewhat cluttered at times, some parts feature information that seemed jammed into a corner for safe keeping, while other parts of the same menu are vast and lonely. Menu organization isn’t the earmark of a bad game, necessarily, but it’s noticeable enough to mention. You don’t spend a whole lot of time in these menus, however, so it doesn’t force you to work around its flaw too much.
The game focuses around the title character, Arc, who embarks on a journey to find his father, and discovers that he’s destined to save the world from ancient evil. The overall story doesn’t get much more dynamic then that, which was a sign of the times in 1995. He is quite archetypical of the classic JRPG hero, as well: young, rash, brave, naïve. Whether that’s a good or bad thing really depends on ones penchant for classicism. You’ll find characters like him in games even today, but with the his antiquation is still very apparent. He’d wear a white hat and ride a white horse, if this was a western.
Though, it’s in his supporting cast that things get interesting, and somewhat groundbreaking for the time period. Kukuru, a monk for all intents and purposes, is deeply intertwined in Arc’s tale, as they find out early that their destinies are related. She is strong-willed, wise, and driven, which for a female character up until that point was a rarity (though to be fair, 1995 was a good year to be a tough lady character). She even fought empty handed, and in plenty of occasions, saves Arc’s life. Social impact aside, she have a variety of layers, stacked on top of emotions and responsibilities, that really make her strong in ways that Arc is, in a the sense of being a fully formed cohort.
The rest of the characters aren’t as well rounded, but are still interesting sparks of flavor, that build well on top of the Arc-Kukuru foundation. Poco is a soldier who was never good at being a fighter, and was a meager musician in the army. Being around Arc makes him feel brave, and inspires him to be better than himself. Gogen is an ancient spirit that manifests himself as a crazy old man, who is wise with otherworldly knowledge, but absolutely bonkers. Tosh is an elite solider betrayed by his army and driven by a need to right the wrongs done to him and people he failed to protect. Chongra is a merchant who is in it for the money first, second, and third. Iga is a stoic and loyal protector of ancient secrets, and who he’s betrayed by his own, takes up Arc’s quests to mend the damage.
One of the most dramatic hit/miss scenarios regarding these characters is the dialogue. Most of it is standard JRPG fare. Generic sentences that involve talking to someone, explaining your quest, blah, blah. But every so often, you’ll read something that was either far more clever than you expected to read in the particular conversation you read it in, or something that is just down right hilarious. This game has a great sense of humor at times, though I don’t know whether I’m laughing at jokes they’ve made intentionally, or at attempts to sound hip that just didn’t pan out. I like to think that it’s both (most likely just wishful thinking.)
Anyone familiar with games like Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics will recognize the gameplay of Arc the Lad. Every character moves within allotted spaces, and attacks when the opponents in range. I would question the real depth of Arc the Lad’s strategic elements, though. I found that so long as my melee characters attacked up close, and my magic casters attacked from a far, that I really didn’t need much in the way of placement or anything else that could really qualify as strategic elements. I did notice the significant jumps in difficultly in each new dungeon, that will require most players to grind in previous areas first before tackling, but I wouldn’t call that tactical. Enemies aren’t very bright, and it doesn’t take much to outsmart them.
When doing actions, like attack, using items, or casting spells, the character gains experience, and can conceivably level up mid combat. This is both a blessing and a curse, because you can really make your go to guys extremely handy just by using them, but those who can’t get into combat won’t get experience, and will be severely under-leveled. Since you can’t leave characters out of the battle, they become glaring weak links that you tend to hide in the back of the ranks, further perpetuating the cycle of idleness, and making them ever more useless. Grinding solves this issue, but it is still a headache.
The sets of skills given to each character seem rather arbitrary, as well. Why would Arc, who has barely used a sword, have the ability to cut a hole in the ground, and pour magma on his enemies? Or summon meteors from space to collide with foes? Besides trying to one up each other of the Bad Ass Scale, I really don’t know why any characters have to skills they do. Mechanically, it also tends to blur the lines between roles. Gogen is very obviously a mage, and Tosh a fighter, but Arc and Kukuru have attacks that are very much spell-like, complete with range and comparable damage scales. So the tactical use of these characters tends to boil down to “whoever is around” as opposed to “who should be in position.” You also can’t move through friendly characters, only over them after characters learn the appropriate Jump abilities. These are small things, when isolated, but really bring down the quality of the combat as a whole.
All in all, Arc the Lad is an old game that aged well enough. For every moment of brilliance, there seems to be a moment of fault that was excusable in the 90’s, and maybe even the early 00’s, but just don’t hold up in 2012. If you really want to brush up on your JRPG history and don’t mind the many ways the title dates itself, then you may just find a surprisingly enjoyable experience in this game. For those without that sort of patience, skipping this quest may be the best tactical decision.