Arc the Lad was one of the first games released onto the Sony Playstation and it sits in that initial period where developers were still trying to work out what the best thing to do with all the additional space they had now that technology had made the jump from cartridge to CD. The solution Working Designs and G-Craft came up with was to include fully orchestrated music and CGI cutscenes that may look dated by today’s standards but were beyond anything previously seen in an RPG at the time.
Arc the Lad is the first game in a series that was phenomenally successful in Japan but failed to make a dent on the American or European markets, with many of the games being unavailable until the release of Arc: Twilight of the Spirits gained traction. Even then a massively expensive Arc the Lad Collection was the only way to play the games as they were intended as a complete chronological story that interlinked between titles and even spilled out onto a special Arena disc. The release of the first three games and Arena onto Playstation Network in 2011 changed that however and today the series is accessible to be played the way G-Craft intended.
Graphically Arc the Lad uses large detailed sprite work and chipset backgrounds to create its world, featuring lots of animated elements and a great deal of moving parts in what otherwise could look quite drab. In all honesty the design choices for the characters are a mixture of genius and just plain weird, with vibrant and interesting designs portrayed in squat strangely dimensioned character models. The art style takes a little getting used to at first, as it appears that everyone is fully formed from their head to waist then has short legs, but once you are over the hurdle you begin to appreciate some of the smaller details. One character carries a variety of instruments on his back and they all move and flap as he walks or when he falls over. The game is largely menu driven for the most part and these clearly display all the data you will need. Battle animations start small but soon work their way up to being epic in scale. It’s no secret that the game looks a tad dated by today’s standards though and some people will find elements ugly to look at when pumped through a HD television.
Sound and Music are excellent throughout this title, with the theme from Arc the Lad reprising across the series and even as the opening for an Anime show inspired by the games without any significant changes. Each area has a unique theme that sets it apart from the others and clearly sets up the tone of that country or culture. Sound effects are actual samples and have been sourced for the game exclusively, though they do make a reappearance in the sequel Arc the Lad II.
The story of Arc is something that will divide players. As a prelude to the much larger Arc II it is fantastic, as a stand-alone game it stops dead just as it hits its stride some 10 hours in. This is a short game to say the least, but it does make up for that in a variety of ways, one of which is in the way the story is told. The game opens with a woman named Kukuru who is a member of a sacred clan that protects a flame in the mountains. When the flame is extinguished a monster called Ark Ghoul appears to have been freed. Meanwhile Ark, a young swordsman sets out to look for his father who has been missing for 10 years. The pair encounter each other by accident and in the ensuing attempt to relight the flame Arc is killed. It is here that Arc encounters the spirits for the first time and is told that not only is it his destiny to re-light the flame and stop Ghoul, but he will also return one day to retrieve the Ark, a mystical box that will one day save the world. Throw in corrupt empires, possessed members of state and wars in the making and the stage is set for a grand tale that belongs as much to the supporting characters as it does to Arc. Strong ronin with bloody pasts, insane old mages and a merchant who can summon genies to help him are all among the cast which as mentioned before ends on a cliffhanger and feeds into the sequel seamlessly, importing items and character data along with it. For many the scramble to get the second instalment started will be immediate.
Gameplay is similar to the tactics game type as seen in Shining Force II, however the process has been streamlined so that attacking is always a simple button press and controller shortcuts can be established to make going through the menu almost non-existent. Everything is grid based instead of isometric allowing for all tiles to be the same scale. Red and Blue markers clearly indicate attack ranges and walking distances with a jump stat governing what obstacles a character can leap over. Items and chests are dropped onto the field, making for decisions in the midst of combat as to which option to take and spells level up in potency with regular use. Ranged attacks are uncommon at first making them highly prized and even throwing stones from a few feet away is considered a viable tactic. Inventory space is limited, making for some harsh choices between battles as to what to keep (the four gemstones are a good bet because they will come in very handy later!) and each character can equip four items at any one time. Outside of battle menus drive everything with destinations selected from a world and then regional map based on the location you want to explore. The game features no towns to speak of, instead focussing on event locations, dungeons and battles. It’s a bold move but it actually works in this games favour because of the short length of the story backtracking across distances would feel like unnecessary padding. The game prompts you to save before you enter a destination and at key points only, which coupled with early access to an airship and plenty of locations to revisit and grin for experience points means that you can never save your game into a corner.
Special mention of some of the additional content should be made. The game has a quiz, an arena held by the monks to train certain skills and win prizes, and a giant 100 floor dungeon to fight your way through to capture the best genie in the game and add her to your roster. Summon spirits are also useful outside of being in combat to fight, with some building bridges in battle and others working as clones of other monsters. There’s also a monster diary to complete for those who really want to get everything out of the game and doing so adds another 10 hours boosting the experience to roughly 20 hours all in.
Overall Arc the Lad is a brave start to a bigger franchise. It lacks the customisation of games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, but makes up for it in charm and dedication to the overall experience of the series. Anybody hoping to play the (vastly superior) sequel should start here because it set down foundations and works toward one of gaming’s biggest plot twists beautifully. It’s a short game however and the graphics do look dated when compared to other games of the time. Currently easy to download on Playstation Network for under five pounds and not representing a significant investment in time, it should be sitting on every PS player’s internal hard drive.