Arc the Lad (アークザラッド)
Released 6/30/1995, developed by G Craft, published by Sony
- Turn type: Speed based system
- Maps: Medium, Terrain bonuses.
- Character Customization: None.
- Character Development: Standard XP/level system.
- Party Size: Max 8
- Equipment: 4 accessory-type items.
- Game Flow: A series of required stages in order, but there are free battles to fight as well.
- Saving: Outside of battle.
- Death: Defeated characters are removed from the battle but return afterwards.
This is the first SRPG for the Playstation, which had come out in 1994. It was the first in a trilogy of games; they were not released in English until 2003. It seems that this was not originally intended to be a series, but Sony felt that the Playstation needed more RPGs to compete with other consoles. So Arc the Lad was released in basically an unfinished state; the main quest is very short and ends in the middle of the story, to be continued in Arc the Lad II next year.
The graphics are quite good for the time; the sprite work looks like improved late-Super Famicom graphics, the backgrounds are lush and well done, and the small number of FMVs fit well into the whole. What I find interesting about these early Playstation RPGs is that they were clearly following the Super Famicom model rather than the PC Engine model. The PCE had to rely on a lot of voice work, orchestrated music, and visual cutscenes to make up for the inferior graphics capability of the system. But early games for the PS1 like this have no voicing in the story sequences at all. Arc the Lad has a limited amount of voicing in the battles when the characters act and use their moves, although other games like Suikoden and Final Fantasy VII have no voice at all. This is in contrast to the shortlived PC-FX, which built on the PCE’s success — games like Der Langrisser FX and Power Dolls FX are fully voiced.
I used the Mednafen emulator, which I have already been using for the PCE and Saturn games. The game ran flawlessly on my 4-year old laptop and used a modest amount of the CPU.
The battle interface is streamlined and overall easy to use. You can move directly with the D-pad, attack with the circle button, and end your turn with the X button. You only need to open menus to use items or spells. The X button ending turn is tricky for someone used to most other SRPGs — I kept accidentally ending my turn when I intended to take back my move instead (you don’t really “take back” a move in the game, you just move somewhere else).
Each character has a basic attack, but then also has a number of special abilities that they learn — mostly by levelling but a few characters learn by finding them instead. Arc is a basic fighter, Kukuru is a healer, Gogen is a magician, Poco has mostly buffs and debuffs, etc. The abilities level up as they level. It’s a nice system that keeps each character different. Chongara has summon abilities which produce units that can create platforms, heal, or do other things.
My biggest problem with the system is the balance. This shares a quality of several other SRPGs — due to something about the damage and stat formulas, a character who falls behind by a few levels becomes nearly useless in battle. It is possible to simply ignore this and only use a few characters. This is what I did, relying almost entirely on Arc and Gogen, with Kukuru to heal. This works, but I don’t like having to do this. I think that you basically have to grind to avoid this. To the developers’ credit they did provide a number of things to do other than the story battles — there’s a 50 floor optional dungeon, an arena, and a training center. So if you do want to grind your characters, you don’t have to just play the same maps over and over.
The game takes place in a steampunk type world, although the steampunk elements are somewhat muted. You have airships to take you around to different places, but none of the main characters use any guns or anything like that. For the most part you can’t explore towns, and maybe if you could the steampunk elements would be more evident.
The story begins with the mayor of the starting town tricking Kukuru into extinguishing the Cion Flame, thus releasing the Ark Demon into the world. Later, the main character Arc tries to fight the demon but gets wasted. A mysterious spirit gives him the power of the guardian spirit, and he sets out on a quest to find out more about his father and hopefully stop the monsters who have come into the world. The story is fine and has some nice developments and twists, and the cast is limited enough that you get to know all your companions. It’s hard to say too much about it because this is only the first part of the story — although it does finish after a climax point, you could probably beat this game in 5 hours if you knew what you were doing. If you do all the extra stuff that’s probably another 15-20.
Arc the Lad II was released the next year; it’s game 72 on my list so I will be getting to it before too long. The game allows you to carry over some things from the first to the second game so there’s a continuity — this is a feature that was enabled by the use of memory cards to save games. Did the PC Engine or Sega CD have any games that used the internal memory to enable a carryover?
Enjoyed catching back up on these reviews after a few months.
That last question you ask is interesting. I feel like this concept is very old on the PC; the first game I played through in which I recall it is Quest For Glory II (1990), but I feel like there must have been CRPGs, particularly D&D RPGs, where it's older than that.
I don't recall such a feature on Sega CD (the Lunar games feel like they'd be the best candidate and I don't think they had it), but not sure about PCE.
Speaking of Sega CD, I do kind of wish you'd given Dark Wizard a crack, whether or not that requires a commitment to finish it. I'd be curious what your thoughts are on the general gameplay formula, having played so many SRPGs now. I rented it back in the day and played it for a bit on emulation about 10-15 years ago. I would have stuck with it longer except my emulator at the time kept crashing when I tried to run it, and I think my save game eventually became corrupted or unplayable. Hopefully today's emulators can handle it better — I was having fun up to that point. I think it's actually a very unique and interesting game. I'm not aware of anything else that's really like it. It's certainly more of a strategy game than Shining Force, but much more of an RPG than something like Gemfire, so it's pretty debatable whether it qualifies as an SRPG.
One other game that I think might be more strategy-ish but I hope you'll consider when it comes up on your list is Dragon Force on Saturn (which also has a Japan-only sequel that got translated in the past few years). This one is said to be pretty Saturn-defining, and I've never played it.
And one last thought, pertinent to your other blog while I'm thinking of Sega: would love if you'd consider reviewing Shadowrun for Mega CD (1996) as a sort of one-off (kind of like your PCE reviews) when you eventually get to it. This game still does not seem to have an English patch, and English-language information on it is pretty thin, which is interesting for a game whose (very different) SNES and Genesis versions are still considered pretty iconic.
Anyway, keep up the good work!
Maybe I should have played Dark Wizard more — it just seemed so slow and long, and it was right on the edge of just being a strategy game instead of a SRPG.
I do have Dragon Force on my list so I will play it when I get there. I've heard that the Saturn emulators don't handle it very well, but we'll see.
I wonder if better emulation could reduce those slowdown problems. It really didn't stand out to me when I played in the past, for some reason. I'm not sure if I was just more patient back when playing on original hardware. But when it comes to emulation, I notice that at least for PSX, some of the emulator options can reduce the CD access time problems, even without hitting that Fast Forward button.
I did Google emulation on Dark Wizard and found an early 2010s discussion of how broken it was at the time, with various emulators resulting in missing sound effects, save states being an absolute no-go, and a broken ROM circulating that inevitably crashed at a certain point that stopped you from proceeding further. So I'm seeing it wasn't just my bad luck. I didn't see any recent discussions on it though.
Saturn emulation was in a weird spot for a long time because it relied almost entirely on SSF, which is closed-source and developed by just one guy (who I think might be Japanese). I think Mednafen's Saturn emulation has come a long way (this is Beetle Saturn in Retroarch), but I believe SSF still does some things better and might be worth considering if none of the Retroarch options are working well for a Saturn game. With this game being viewed as a top Saturn exclusive, I would think that getting it working well would be a focus for the devs on at least one of the emulators.
Can't wait for you to start playing Arc the Lad 2. I just finished Arc the Lad 1 (in one day; the whole game took me 6 hours on a blind playthrough…) and have started playing Arc the Lad 2. Holy moly this game is good. REALLY GOOD.
Seriously, what was it about 1996 that seemed to magically produce amazing games? It's like everyone skipped 1995 and waited till 1996 to give us the great ones. Bahamut Lagoon, FE4, Sakura Wars, Vandal Hearts, Arc the Lad 2 – these are all some of the most iconic SRPGs of the entire DECADE. I haven't even gotten around to playing Energy Breaker, Terra Phantastica, or First Queen IV, but those all look solid too. 1996 might be the best year in SRPG history, holy shit.
First Queen IV probably won't qualify as an SRPG for you — it's borderline for me but I really enjoyed FQ1 when I played it on the other blog so I decided to give it a pass.
I'm glad to hear Arc 2 is good; I thought Arc 1 had a lot of problems so I hope they improved it.