It’s hard to believe that the humble Tactics RPG wasn’t always as popular as it is today; with releases in its genre cooling after the Shining Force series abruptly stopped and Final Fantasy Tactics put a full stop on how they should be made. However the release of the Gameboy Advance brought a lot of such titles into the fold as a viable mobile genre and sparked interest again. On the PS2, a company called Nippon Ichi Software managed to create an art form out of such titles, carving out such brilliant examples of the genre as Disgaea, Phantom Brave, and of course La Pucelle: Tactics.
Actually developed before the aforementioned titles, La Pucelle made its western release after its siblings due to this resurgence in interest in Tactical games, but none of that dampens all of its charm and comedy value. Most akin to Disgaea in terms of style, this is a master class in side-splitting humour.
The graphics of La Pucelle could be summed up simply as two-dimensional sprites of amazing detail sitting upon three-dimensional backgrounds. But that doesn’t really convey the depth of detail that the sprites have to offer; each one has a selection of animations that far exceeds the standard shocked, hurt, angry stereotypes and manages to successfully couple comedy dialogue with visual humour. When Culotte is in the presence of Croix he takes on a tougher and more snide posture to show that he doesn’t really like him, whilst in contrast Prier leans in closer and tries to look more girly. It is these little touches that make scenes immensely enjoyable and keep you playing. Monsters are well animated and varied, though the typical trap of recolouring low-level monsters later in the game and passing them off as tougher variations is still there. Bosses look impressively big and dominate the battlefield, whilst the attacks used by enemy and party characters are wonderfully over the top. Lighting effects are also excellent, and add a little sparkle to some otherwise dull moves such as your basic ice or fire spell. Backgrounds are pretty and functional, designed to highlight the details of the characters rather than distract from them, and every battle-screen has a nice piece of 2D artwork that resembles its 3D counterpart on the battle-grid. Some of the graphics are a tad chunkier than the streamlined qualities of Disgaea, but taking into account the age between them it is understandable and barely perceptible unless you look for them. Playing the game now on a HD television does the game no favours however, and graphics look decidedly blocky in a format they were never intended for.
Optional vocal tracks between English and Japanese language is a nice touch, especially since you get to keep the textbox ‘subtitles’ in English. The Japanese voice cast is excellent; a really stunning piece of casting that conveys a real ‘anime’ feel. The western version is, surprisingly, almost as good. Casting has been well organized, an experienced cast assembled and the voices sound well matched to the characters. Particular attention should be paid to Culotte, whose wide variety of emotional musings and narrative flow is simply excellent. Sadly the music, once you have passed the main theme and the in-game character themes, is a little drab. Understandable considering that the battles could last indefinitely, but they lack memorability. Alas it brings an excellent game downand starts a trend that exists to this day in Nippon Ichi games.
The narrative is quite compelling. Prier and her younger brother Culotte are orphans taken under the wing of the Church of the Holy Mother. Trained to be demon-busters from an early age, Prier sets her sights upon becoming the fabled ‘Maiden of Light’ a chosen one who will be the best of their ranks and who is said will be able to defeat a dark avatar to save the world. No small feat, especially when her contemporaries are equally up to the task. The story premise may sound petty formulaic, but this is one roleplay where the initial setup grows far beyond its initial bounds. Characters are so wonderfully rounded that they break free of their initial stereotypes, or go one better and revel in them. The feel of the tale is very much that of light-hearted fun, with towns and locations named after types of food (for example, Paprika is their home country, ruled over by Queen Éclair) and many humorous side-quests provide scenes that will make you laugh aloud. It’s not one for the serious minded, but I assure you that if you give it time, it can crack even the hardest nut.
Gameplay puts an interesting spin on the usual formula and the key element of any Tactics RPG is the battle system. Luckily, La Pucelle does not disappoint in this area. In addition to the traditional movement / attack / special options for characters in the field, you also gain the ability to ‘purify’ dark portals. These portals are streams of elemental energy that spout from one source square and flow in straight lines across the battlefield, changing direction where characters divert its course. Purifying them is a simply matter of using a character’s turn to deal a certain amount of special damage to the source square that destroys it, thus causing a chain reaction ranging from healing to damaging anything on the stream. Doing so earns additional bonus points that work as Exp for your items, boosting anything equipped to the character that performed the Purification. Arranging these streams into a square however causes what the game terms ‘Miracles’- Large scale attacks that vary depending on the size of the square and the element of the portal. Some enemies can only be damaged in this way and successfully performing one adds additional cash to your final score for the battle. But purification does not simply end at that. Using Purify on an enemy character makes it like you a little more, and doing it multiple times before dealing a death blow can cause the enemy character to see the light and join your side. This essentially opens up a massive selection of additional units to your roster, and gives you access to the Training command, which allows you to balance your new allies’ development and keep them happy (because if you keep them happy then they can learn to purify too, and help you to gain more Exp or additional allies). Leave the portals alone entirely however, and they will begin to spawn additional monsters; so the clock is ticking to kill as many monsters in a turn as possible in case more appear and make things tougher for you. Should you decide that you don’t like your newly acquired monster, then you could always send it to the Dark World, essentially deleting it, but with the upshot that anything equipped to the monster in question gets fused into one item, thus creating stronger items. A handy addition to the game is the ability to decide what you want in the shops. By filling out a survey you subtly alter to stock each time until you get exactly what you want every time. While most of the game is played through on the world map or the battlefield, towns are played through a side-scrolling perspective and are peppered with fun characters to interact with. The basics of any Tactics RPG are evident here, with commands and shortcuts as expected. The system is nice and menus are not too long and complicated. Equipping characters is simplified by showing what stat boosts an item provides from the get-go as well as features, such as training monsters, being point and click commands. The shortcuts speed things up a lot, and since most of the movement uses the analogue stick it has a nice free-feel to it. The only quarrel may be that for cursor movement in battle the D-Pad is far less likely to slip up than the analogue option. But still, such things are not a major problem and do not detract from the game itself.
Overall, La Pucelle Tactics is a wonderful game. It’s not so serious that it pushes away fans of casual gaming, and it revels in its comedy roots. Some of the narrative twists are really surprising, especially the moments of sobriety, and the characters are all excellent. Aside from the background music never quite meeting the high standards that the rest of the game upholds, this is perhaps the best Tactics RPG Nippon Ichi released on the Playstation2. I strongly recommend it to anybody looking for a distraction until the next “serious” game; it will add a little light to your life, I promise.