Game Description: Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is the first game in the series to be presented entirely in real-time 3D, and breaks significantly with the connected storyline of Arcs one through three. Set some thousands of years after that story concluded, it tells the story of two brothers, one demon, one human, whose lives intersect across a 60-hour quest. The classic RPG expands onto PlayStation 2 in an intriguing storyline filled with strategic combat and adventure.
While it's currently hip to compare games with the medium of film and literature, it's all but brutally obvious to most of us that games are an art form still in its infancy. Yes, games have made great strides in the past decade toward becoming more like movies and books, but until games manage to integrate stories with real human issues into their narrative structure, they're a weak facsimile at best.
The problem thus far has been that games refuse to address valid human concerns with any kind of legitimate depth or profundity. There have been games that have tackled weighty issues (Xenogears, Deus Ex, etc.), but those titles are generally few and far between—and even then, the overriding onus on creating compelling gameplay often means that the story takes a backseat to the action.
Because this is usually the case, it's all the more refreshing to see a game like Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits turn up on game store shelves earlier this year. Arc isn't the game that will put this relatively new form of media on par with film and literature (which have both been around for significantly longer time periods), but it is a step in the right direction. Arc is a game that actually attempts to infuse some weighty philosophical issues into its traditional strategy role-playing game (RPG) structure.
At the core of the title is a conflict that seems as old as time (both for the game and for humans in the real world). The humans and Deimos (who are demons converted from monsters) have been at war. Both sides hate each other, each for their own unique reasons. Both are determined to wipe the other out.
Enter Darc and Kharg, a Deimos and human respectively, who are half brothers born of a human mother and a demon father. They've been separated since birth, and neither realizes that the other is alive—until they finally encounter each other in the game's narrative. Each struggles to define himself in a world—Darc faces prejudice from his fellow Deimos because he has human blood in his veins. Kharg's people turn against him once his Deimos side comes to light later in the game.
Each man hates the other so much that they're bound and determined to wipe the other out. It's not unlike race relations here in America, or something akin to World War II.
However, the two brothers have to set aside their differences to fight a greater evil—an ancient lord of darkness who's been freed thanks to the world itself being filled with hatred. It's here that the game returns to its traditional (and safe) narrative structure, but it's still nice that they tried to address some serious issues that most games would ignore at best and would gloss over at worst.
This isn't to say Arc is flawless narratively. Unfortunately, while the writers have worked diligently to infuse some kind of meaning into their narrative, their skills aren't always up to the task of conveying these sentiments as genuine. There's a fair amount of proselytizing at work in this game, and it's often very heavy-handed. The characters almost demand this though—for while the plotline may be striving for a higher level of literacy than the average game, the characters are still little more than archetypes that genre fans have come to know and love. Hopefully, though, this is a step in the right direction, and one that future games will seek to emulate and improve upon.
But, enough about that—let's talk about the game itself.
If nothing else, Arc demonstrates the value of playing a game through to the end before attempting to write a review. The last time I had such a love/hate relationship with a title was while playing Bethesda's Morrowind. Arc never quite reaches the highs or lows of that experience, but it can be a trying title nonetheless.
In typical RPG fashion, the game starts out slowly. In order to tell the two-sided tale, the game is broken down into chapters. One chapter is devoted to Kharg, the next to Darc, and so forth. Eventually, late in the game, the paths cross and merge into one—but until then the game has something of an identity crisis as it switches from one perspective to another.
This wouldn't be a bad thing... if both parties were equally interesting. It's a shame that the game suffers because Kharg's characters and chapters are typical RPG (heroic young knight with the traditional team of human comrades) creations. The Kharg chapters are staid, predictable, and frankly a little trite (while Darc certainly looks like a halfbreed and has a hard time fitting in, Kharg looks exclusively humanand never deals with those issues). Darc's chapters, on the other hand, are really quite entertaining-his comrades are more interesting, his struggle more involving, and the character himself is richer and more competently drawn. Because of this, I often found myself working through the Kharg chapters just so I could get back to Darc's more interesting story. Had both stories been more balanced, the game could have been something truly special.
However, about 13 hours in, things start to pick up. The plot kicks into high gear, and the battle system starts to become a little richer as your characters learn more skills. During this span, I was absolutely thrilled with the game.
... Which makes it even more tragic that the game takes another nosedive in the last stages. There are several reasons for this—the story offers up the simple solution for the race problems and gives the game a traditional "main" enemy. Everything that was daring and original is subjugated for typical RPG narrative elements.
Worse still is that the game is a cakewalk until players reach the final boss and the difficulty increases almost exponentially. Hard bosses are fine (in fact, I relish them), but when a boss is merely hard because he's cheaply designed (given unfair attack patterns that make beating him more difficult than it should be), I'm not pleased. The last boss in Arc is one of the cheapest I've seen in awhile—and he seems totally out of place in the game. He can be bested, but he's much tougher than he should be thanks to a constantly regenerating shield and the fact that players are forced to fight two other long battles without a save point prior to battling him. Lose and it's back to square one, basically.
The innovations don't only come from the story—although that's where the serious evolution takes place. The game's battle system also tweaks the traditional strategy RPG formula as well.
Rather than feature isometric grid-based maps like practically every other game in the genre, Arc takes an approach much like Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter. There are no grids for movement-just a highlighted area that the character can move in and perform actions. Unlike Dragon Quarter, there isn't a point system for movement and attack-players are allowed to move, perform an action, then their turn is over.
Rather than travel from town to town looking constantly for new items to equip, characters in this title keep their original weapons and armor. Instead, the items can be modified by putting various attack, defense, or status enhancing objects into the weapon and armor's pre-installed slots. The downside of this is that each weapon and armor has only three slots—so customization is rather limited.
Aside from these things, there's not a whole lot that sets Arc The Lad: Twilight of the Spirits apart from the traditional strategy RPG. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is just how easy the game is—winning battles doesn't take much strategy, at least not until the final boss. Because of this and the other aforementioned problems, Arc comes across as a flawed game—but it still deserves recognition for trying to work serious social issues into the narrative. It's not always successful, but it's a step in the right direction and one that I hope other developers will emulate.
I was wrapping up my game sessions with Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits on the same day that the most recent Middle East Peace Plan fell to pieces. A suicide bomber detonated a bomb on an Israeli bus in Jerusalem that killed 18 and wounded nearly 100 innocent people. It was another heartbreaking episode in a long line of horrible events beamed into our living rooms, sometimes live, into our television screens from that part of the world. But as I watched the accounts of the act and reports on the resulting aftermath, it became clear just how similar this real world event was with the digital one I had just been playing. Granted, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a solemn and complicated affair with enormous repercussions across the globe not to be trivialized by comparison to the racial conflict in a videogame, but they do share underlying motivations and justifications for their acts. Sadly, it is all the more tragic because unlike Twilight of the Spirits, there isn't a single personification of evil that can force both sides to end their discord and unite.
As with their real world equivalent, the Deimos and Humans have been at odds for generations. Their strife is so engrained in their culture that no one even remembers why they first fought; the true reasons have been lost, exaggerated and even manipulated to the point where the truth can no longer be discerned from myth or hearsay. But as I played I learned that what was behind all of this fighting and conflict may be some single outside entity. And it is here that the game loses me somewhat.
It reminds me that other games have tackled similar subject matter before, and though Cattle Call took it further than most, the developer is unwilling to escape the conventions of the genre to treat the subject matter the way it deserves. Take, for example, the two brothers, Kharg and Darc. Mike wasn't kidding about the disparity between the two. Kharg is the typical young hero who comes with his own loyal band of followers. He's young, he's handsome, he's a prince and he's good with a sword. He's also incredibly dull. The only bad thing that has ever happened to him in his life happen it the middle of the game, but it never endeared him to me despite the insistence of the often heavy-handed plot. Darc, on the other hand, is far more interesting. He has endured pain his whole life, he has had to fight for everything he has ever had and he is trying desperately to find his place in a world that wants nothing to do with him. That is a huge divergence for this genre. Sometimes it seems like Kharg's presence is there so as not to scare off the prototypical role-playing game (RPG) fan—one who wouldn't be immediately accepting of the Darc storyline, or for that matter, his demonic good looks.
Mike also wasn't kidding about the almost split personality of the game. The first half of the game is great. The story is told well and is unveiled slowly and deliberately while the combat is enjoyable. It's the latter half that takes a bit of a dive. The story resorts to almost all of the standard RPG clichés that I have been bored by in so many of today's console RPGs. Mike also hit the nail on the head when he criticized the battles. Though easy, they are fun and often take some strategy to complete. However, at the very end, the difficulty surges upward and I was never prepared for it.
What I find unusual is how few people mention Twilight of the Spirits's rather unique look. Most console RPGs these days have a very characteristic hyperstylized look to them popularized by Square's recent Final Fantasy releases. Said games aimed for intricate graphics with unrealistically dressed anime characters. Twilight of the Spirits's graphics are more simplistic, and will naturally take a few hits in direct comparison. The colors in Twilight of the Spirits look muted and washed out; the characters' clothing look sparsely detailed and uninteresting and in the beginning, the environments are pretty bland. Cattle Call makes use of one of the many special effects capabilities Sony trumpeted prior to the PlayStation 2's launch. With this effect, objects in the background appear out of focus. Unfortunately, it is not applied very successfully here. The result is that everything in the foreground (or in focus) is sharp, leaving everything else blurry, as if covered in a light film of Vaseline.
However, to simply look at the game this way would be unfair as the developer wasn't trying to create an eye candy release, but was trying to create a 3D game with a consistent look and feel. And I give it much credit for doing that. Everything in Twilight of the Spirits is in 3D, from the characters, to objects, to the environments. The graphics engine is used throughout; it is used during battles, during navigation through towns and other areas not to mention the cutscenes scattered throughout the levels. There is no doubt that this made for smooth transitions and a lack of the unbearable load times so common in similar other games.
I must also give Cattle Call credit for its handling of one seemingly small area of the game: the characters' random vocalizations. No, I don't mean diatribes or verbal exchanges, but what they say during the course of battle. Each character has a slew of one-liners they belt out during an offensive or defense turn. It actually adds to the battles and makes them more than simple predictable exchanges, which, let's face it, is what they pretty much are.
My only other issues with the game are minor. I'd love for someone to tell me why characters still spin on an axis instead of simply turning to look at someone. I can't understand why I'm not allowed to pan and rotate the camera during battle. This feature has been a mainstay of the strategy RPG for years because it solved a problem intrinsic with traditionally, isomeric, grid-based layout of the battlefield. I assumed Twilight of the Spirits's 3D layout would negate the need for such a feature but I was mistaken. The spaces are more open and the ground more leveled, but my characters still got stuck behind things and the ability to see around objects and other characters would have gone a long way to make battles less of a hassle.
I enjoyed my time with Twilight of the Spirits. It was a pleasant surprise that came just as I was tiring of the entire genre. It offered a surprisingly deep plot and some interesting characters. It showed a lot of promise. Unfortunately, Cattle Call tries to serve two masters and ultimately hurts its product. The subject matter is never given the kind of attention it could and only gave glimpses of where the developer could have taken it if it hadn't been so concerned with pleasing the hardcore fans. This is a shame because there is enough here hidden behind the RPG conventions for Twilight of the Spirits to be so much more.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Violence
Parents will want to approach Twilight of the Spirits with caution. The story line involving the dangers of prejudice is a noble one, but there is more than a bit of bad language littered throughout the narrative. None of the language is extreme, but it is there—with a surprising amount of regularity.
Strategy RPG fans will certainly want to pick the game up. It's not the most difficult strategy RPG on the market by any stretch, but this is such a niche genre that gamers who like these kinds of games have to support them so that more come out. Despite the flaws, it's still a fairly engaging game.
Gamers in general will probably get even more out of the title. It's quite accessible for a game in this genre, making it a fine entry point for those who are unfamiliar with strategy RPGs. There aren't any multi-tiered job systems or anything of that nature to bog the player down—it's just move and attack, basically.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers won't have anything to worry about. While much of the game is voice acted, each scene also features subtitles of everything that's being said.