In the modern videogame industry, games are almost always created in Japan. Although most games are brought over to America and the other regions of the world, there are always a significant percentage of videogames that never make it out. Frequently, the only option for non-Japanese gamers has been to either buy a Japanese system or modify their American one, and then pay for imports that are largely incomprehensible to those who dont know Japanese.
Working Designs has built a reputation as a company who rescues games that never make it over. The theory is that WD will find hidden gems, give them an excellent translation and then release the games in America, complete with extra goodies. Their latest effort is the Arc The Lad Collection, a compilation of 4 Arc games as well as some pretty juicy extras, including a Making of disc and the usual assortment of collectible items that you get in a Working Designs game. In this case, you get an Arc The Lad memory card holder, four Arc The Lad analog stick covers, a collection of cardboard standees for every character you can control in the game (thats a lot, folks) and if you pre-ordered, an Arc The Lad pocket watch. Also worth noting is the manual. Unlike most videogame manuals, this one is a delight to read. Well laid-out, printed on glossy color pages and hardbound, the manual might be the single most impressive item in the boxed set.
Originally, Arc The Lad was intended to be a single game. After development started to stretch beyond the initial schedule, a decision was made to produce a shorter game as the first in the series, and then to develop the rest of the game into a longer, graphically updated version. This led to the production of the short introductory game Arc The Lad, followed by the more substantial Arc The Lad II. After the success of the first two Arc The Lad games, a third was released, this time with a 3D update and plenty of FMV.
All the Arc The Lad games are strategic Role Playing Games (RPGs). Other notable games of this type are Final Fantasy Tactics and the Tactics Ogre series. These styles of games play out like a regular RPG except for the battle system. In battle, the characters and enemies are set out on a terrain grid, with the player controlling their movement and other actions in a turn-based system. Like other strategic RPGs, characters earn experience points and thus greater levels of power by completing actions on the battlefield. Youll have a ever-growing number of characters in your party and you can only pick a certain amount of them to venture forth onto the battlefield. There are some attack combos based on the placement of specific characters, as well as special ranged attacks depending on weapons, but theres nothing here to suggest that the battle system is anything more than competent.
Of the four games included in the compilation, the odd one out is Arc Arena, a game centering around fights between monsters that you train, but do not actually control. The game is actually somewhat Pokemon-esque, as you can use your monster-capturing ability in Arc The Lad II to provide more monsters to battle with. Although Arc Arena is useful in terms of gathering items to use in the other games, it doesnt really fit into the narrative arc (groan) of the series. Its a stand-alone game that will be most valuable to the true Arc The Lad junkie, and relatively uninteresting to everybody else.
And really, the greatest strength of the Arc The Lad Collection is the continuity between the games. Usually, an RPG series consists of a sequence of games that maintain a certain amount of aesthetic likeness, but each game will have a plot that is pretty much unrelated to the other games. Notable exceptions have included the Phantasy Star. In the Arc The Lad Collection, not only does the plot extend across all three games, but the world and characters do as well, creating a greater sense of involvement in the epic events that unfold during the series. The continuous narrative really ties the games together, as you can feel the stories converging as they develop, and its exciting to watch characters you played in the past make their reappearance, or to travel to cities visited in the last game.
In addition to the plot being continuous, the art direction maintains a consistency across the titles as well. Even though Arc The Lad III is done in a 3D style, as opposed to the 2D graphics of the earlier games, there are little touches that help tie everything together. For instance, baskets of fruit look pretty much the same in every game, regardless of the sophistication of the various graphics engines.
But even with the continuity in terms of aesthetics and narrative, the Arc The Lad Collection suffers from the essentially mediocre nature of each of the games.
Arc The Lad is most notable for being extremely short. A competent and driven player will finish off the title in an evening, assuming that said gamer has 10 free hours in an evening. The plot is fairly basic, and worse, the whole thing moves along on rails. True, most RPGs are fairly linear, but Arc I emphasizes this fact by having endless sequences of scenes with little or no interaction from the player. Additionally, the artwork for the game is uninspired. The character designs are often quirky or amusing, but like the rest of the game, theyre rendered with a muted and narrow palette that comes across as very dull. The tiling is very poorly disguised, drawing attention to the artificial grid on which the game takes place.
Arc The Lad II manages to take many of the flaws of the original and make them better. For starters, the color palette is much brighter and varied, giving the game a greater visual intensity. The tiling and environments are well-done and engaging. The plot has a bit more depth to it and with the addition of an optional job system, the game has a less linear feel to it. The problem here is that you never run into a plot twist that hasnt been broached before in an RPG, and with the retaining of a fairly mundane battle system, the game never vaults beyond the level of above-average. Taken by itself, this is not a bad thing, but is tempered by the fact that this is by far the best game of the collection.
Arc The Lad III represents a graphical update from Arc The Lad II in the form of using pseudo-3D rather than 2D. However, the change is not really for the better, as the colorful 2D sprites of Arc II wind up being far more engaging than the somewhat-bland characters in Arc III. Additionally, the fact that the plot has been added-on to the originally conceived narrative arc (groan) is entirely all-too-obvious, as the game feels dominated by the jobs that the player is expected to perform at Hunters Guilds throughout the world. Arc The Lad III boasts the longest playing time of the collection, but oftentimes the game will feel like an endless chore, rather than an epic quest for truth and justice.
All told, the Arc The Lad Collection will provide you with at least 120 hours of gameplay, assuming that you play all the way through the games at the fastest pace possible. Those who enjoy taking their time and exploring everything a game has to offer can probably add at least 30 hours to that total.
The question is whether its really worth it in the end. The continuity in narrative and aesthetics makes for a promising situation, but the potential of the games is reduced because of the essentially pedestrian nature of both the narrative arc (groan) and the gameplay. The narrative never really goes further than the classic ragtag band of good must defeat evil empire and save the environment concept in any of the games, and this simplicity is mirrored in the battle system. The battle system is designed around the single goal of defeating either all the enemy troops, or a single boss creature. This is a fine stance for a strategic RPG to have, but at the same time, does not do anything to differentiate Arc The Lad from a host of other similar games. Both the narrative themes and the gameplay emphasize the fact that the reason that the Arc games never made it over here in the first place is because of their failure to stand out from the crowd of similar games.