It’s been far too long since ‘Arc the Lad: End of Darkness’ effectively brought the franchise to a screeching halt on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, and although the Arc series as a whole has never brought the kind of mass acclaim that other venerable RPG franchises have, it’s been time wasted for those who got to experience its other entries. Now, a mere 16 years later for those in the west, the series is seeing an attempted resurgence on mobile.
Of course, ‘Arc the Lad R’ got a release in 2018 for those in Japan, and surprisingly it was announced that the Japanese servers were being shut down at the end of 2021, prior to the games western launch, bringing its longevity into question. Still, while it’s available it’s no doubt being used as a test for player interest in the series as a whole (especially after other venerable franchises such as ‘Breath of Fire’ crashed and burned on the same tactic) so aside from it being a new RPG release, it’s this site’s civic duty to ensure this title gets reviewed.
Set after the conclusion of Arc the Lad II (which played out back to back with Arc the Lad to produce a seamless story experience), but before the events of Arc the Lad III, the player takes control of a young Hunter by the name of Halt, who along with fellow Hunter Sarah participates in the rescue of a strange girl from an aggressive invading nation, and quickly becomes wrapped up in a bid to unite the other countries against them. The somewhat tried and true plot hook gets some interesting writing in the form of the girl’s circumstances, as Mizuha appears to have a recollection of events that are yet to happen, being at times a character who looks back on events as if they have already occurred, but never at the expense of the moment. She’ll refer to Halt as a boyfriend, or that he’s ‘never usually so rough in his approach to situations’, then catch herself and course correct, making for some nice writing. Of course fans of the other games will also get to re-meet many of the familiar faces from prior entries as the pair take their world tour. Fret not however, Arc is still firmly gone, and even Elc (though recruitable in the gattcha) is somewhere out there doing his own thing, allowing the two new protagonists to shine on their own merits. It’s a surprise that more elements of Arc III, especially its characters and locations, aren’t reflected as much as prior titles given that they share the same world, but as this is an ongoing narrative and updating mobile title this content could be being held back for later use. The game actually feels a lot like Arc III, with a focus on the Hunter’s Guild, missions, continent hopping and cameos from prior-heroes as you chart your own story.
Graphically the game looks like the kind of update the original titles would have gotten if they were ever re-released to the PlayStation 2. The same chibi sprite work has been re-drawn into 3D models in a similar same art style, though to show how different characters have progressed they are given updated outfits and even multiple costumes as they unlock new layers of power that the player can switch between once owned. Backgrounds are similarly treated with many locations remade with HD textures and animated elements. Sadly the menu systems and the home screen are a little clunky and lack a streamlining of design that high-quality titles tend to display on mobile these days, with the home screen having too many icons on display for its own good. That said transitional scenes and narrative sequences are well compositioned and feature unique backgrounds that set the grandeur of many locations that wouldn’t sing as much from the overhead perspective of the combat. Arc the Lad R isn’t going to set the world on fire with its graphics, but the engine does a good job in making combat readable and keeping the story flowing, whipping out some epic scope when needed.
The sound design is very 90s in its feel and tone, with pace behind it that really gives the game a distinctively ‘Arc’ feel, capturing the era of its highest popularity as a series. Sound effects are presented with over-dramatic and meaty thwacks that sell the combat, though the inclusion of Japanese dialogue in battle (not in narrative sequences) is nice, but does feel like window dressing to give the sprites a little more flavour rather than an important inclusion. It’s a solid audio package on the soundtrack alone however, which shifts to show a range of action beats and emotional moments when the story dictates it.
Putting the worst stuff first and foremost, yes this is a freemium title and with that comes the requisite gattcha and energy mechanics as well as both currencies earned in game and a premium, purchasable currency amongst other purchases. Deeply into the game at this time, there’s not been a wall we’ve not been able to grind past with play, but there is always the possibility of a pay wall in later updates and content. At this point we know what to expect with a tactical, freemium RPG. The home screen with its links to party building, equipment, crafting, the gattcha and store as well as the all-important ‘missions’ screen. The player is given access to an airship base from the very start of the game and can access any of the world’s established nations, there broken into locations where battles and plot events can take place. At times it will feel like there are more narrative beats than battles in the early game, with a heavy story focus that (whilst wordy) feels compelling but can leave you wanting more action and actual gameplay. As the game gets established this balances out however and the optional side content for character specific missions and Hunters Guild work helps by allowing you to ditch the story entirely and get stuck into the action of you’re experiencing cut-scene fatigue. Whilst battles are quite standard tactical battles, there are a few touches that make it feel fresh and distinct. Firstly the ability to jump a foe or have them jump you returns from the main series and shakes up how most players will structure their team on the field in addition to giving a few other tactical benefits. Then there is the manner in which characters passive skills trigger at the end of their turn, given the most attention in Healers who automatically cast a regenerating spell on an area around them. This further makes character placement important as you want to maximise its effect but also allows for them to be more active in combat than simply repeating one action indefinitely as many healing classes often do. Each character has a standard attack, passive buff and two special attacks that unlock for use once their counter has filled over time, and using these to break an enemy can be extremely satisfying. There is an auto-battle feature available, but with the games heavy emphasis on positioning for maximum benefit and control of the battlefield, this feels like it’s for grinding out prior missions instead of allowing players to sleep through new battles.
Overall, Arc the Lad R is a fun mobile game that puts a good amount of emphasis on narrative sequences and driving the story forward, but does become grindy in the long term and may not be supported for too long. We recommend that those interested in a story experience download and give it a try, and highly recommend that anyone with experience of the series do so for the clever fan service and continuation of the world setting alone, which is very well handled. This may be a free to play mobile title, but it somehow manages to capture the feel and tone of the Arc world very well, and should be applauded for that. We can but hope we see more Arc the Lad in the future.