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Cattle Call
June 24, 2003
Arc the Lad: End of Darkness

 Written by Tony Kennetz  on July 24, 2003

Full Review: Tis a wee little Lad in such a big sized game.

Take a moment and think about some of the biggest RPG franchises on the market today. Now, did you think Final Fantasy, .hack and Xenosaga? Those are three series that are all leaving their marks on the American market these days. One series you probably didn't think of was the oft-overlooked Arc the Lad, which has been big in Japan for years now. Here in the States however, the series has struggled to even amass a decently sized cult-following. But apparently the sales of the Arc the Lad collection on PSone were impressive enough to convince Sony that they really should take another stab at making this series shine in the US with Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits.

Twilight's story one that could give any RPG a rather long run for its money. In the beginning, the hero Khrag is first introduced as an aspiring military figure of his small country of Yewbell. The son of the most important person in the area, he is well on his path to becoming a lead political and military leader, and is already quite popular with everyone in the area. But he runs into trouble when the Deimos come into the area and threaten the safety of every human in the village. With the defense corps, they fend off the threat and help ensure the town's supply of spirit stones.

Spirit stones are the driving force for the Deimos and they're magic. After the Khrag and his allies drive the enemy away, the tables are quickly switched and no longer is the player a human, but rather they have been swapped to the role of a Deimos named Darc. You see, Darc hasn't had it as well as Khrag has in his life. Enslaved by an evil witch like woman, he has lived through many-a days of pain and torture. But now he has become the leader of the Orcon Deimos and is hell bent on destroying the humans at all costs.

What neither of these two know is that, despite the fact that they are so different on the outside, they come from the same parents, separated at birth. With both races searching for spirits stones for their own purposes, the two fight for all they know until they meet, and drama ensues, even more so than before.

Twilight of the Spirits has one of the most innovative and entertaining battle systems to be thought up in recent memory. Almost everything about it can be linked back to some other series or game, but credit is due for the development team's ability to patch everything they wanted to do together into a very coherent and exciting fight.

Despite the fact that most RPGs fans are followers of the massively popular Final Fantasy series, we all know that random battles have the tendency to breed absolute madness in with their frequency and often times pointlessness. Cattle Call managed to do away with most of this issue by using a world map system similar to that in Final Fantasy X. However, if a location isn't inhabited by NPCs that aren't enemies, you cannot explore these areas. You simply enter or cross over these areas on your way to another point and there you can be attacked. This is excellent for those of you who like getting from place to place in a hurry, but it makes the exploration portion of the game seem downplayed.

This isn't to say that Arc doesn't hold its fair share of fights in its arsenal. Oh no, actually it is quite the opposite. The fact is just that gamers have a choice as to how much they really want to fight, and when they want to do it. A truly refreshing decision, taking away one of role playing's biggest enemies: artificial game time.

Now that that's out of the way, we can dig into what happens when you do start to fight off those baddies out there in the plains, forests and more. Combat is solely turn based, similar to many of today's elite franchises. After that, however, the similarities start to die off as Twilight goes off on its own tangent to create its own niche in gaming action.

The turn based action is done pretty traditionally, each character takes their turn, does their thing and then the next character gets a shot. Normally, you wouldn't see people moving freely (somewhat) in a turn-based game. Such is the case in Twilight, as characters are allowed to move anywhere within a set range that is determined by their statistics. Knowledge of how to fully exploit this ability it key in battle, because your movements aren?t the only things that have limits. Weapons, special moves and magic all have certain boundaries that force you to think out what you're doing. Also, depending on the positions of one character after their turn, it is possible to get a tag-team effect if the player manages their turns and positions correctly. Simply put, strategy is very important when you're navigating the battlefield. While that may turn some non-hardcore RPGers off, most role players will find this a good chance to expand their abilities.

Throughout the game characters will join and exit your party as the story progresses. As would be expected, each has their own specialty or skill that makes them more valuable in one situation and less in another. As mentioned earlier, every weapon in the game has a barrier as to how far and close to an enemy it can be positioned for an attack to be possible. Therefore knowing when to sit back and use some items or when to attack with close range blows will deeply impact your ability to dominate a match. The game is forgiving but if you make one too many mistakes more often than not you're going to get the just ?reward? for it.

Special attacks and magic are staples of role playing games and have been since as long as most of us can remember. Arc holds enough of both to hold its own in a league chock full of competition. Both of these are powered by Spirit Stones in the land of TotS. For the Deimos they are the driving force of their magic and humans use them for power. Fighters all use them to boost their attack and healing power. There is only one way to replenish the supply of spirit stones for the party, and that is to purchase them from one vendor or another. While they are rather inexpensive and rarely hard to come by, using a traditional magic source and system (Magic Point) might have been a bit better here as because not only is there a limit to how many stones a character can hold, any extras the party has are off limits during battle, which is highly annoying when you're running low and losing a fight.

The problem is that even though you may frequently run low on elemental power, its unlikely that you'll frequently get into that danger zone with enemies. For the most part the battles are all insanely easy, and oddly enough most of the story driven fights are easier than the ones out in the field. This creates a lack of intensity in a large portion of the battles that simply shouldn't be a problem for an RPG as often as it is in Twilight.

You'll be rewarded for taking down a bad guy though, no matter how easily they died. Ranging from money to spirits stones to healing items, you can take advantage of an enemy's demise as soon as you can get a character over to the location of the death. Experience is also awarded by a per-turn system so you can gain levels quicker, and given enough time possibly without even killing an enemy on the field. It sounds a bit weird on paper but it makes sense if you think about it. If you go out to do three sets of ten pushups, and you can't get through that third set, you still gain strength. That's the same approach this game takes.

Interaction with the NPCs in Arc is essential to gain a complete understanding of the story and the missions that are at your hands. If you see something that moves, you can probably talk to it or gain some type of item from it, and that's always a plus in the realm of role playing where everything should have some type of interaction value. Make sure to take advantage of every opportunity to speak with people and to then follow those conversations up, it's the only way to gain the full experience.

Looking at TotS from a purely visual standpoint, there are truly a lot of positive things that should be noted along with a few negatives that must also be acknowledged. Artistically this game is about as close to Square Enix quality as you're going to get without actually being made by the famed company. Every character is original and its never hard to tell two main people or beings apart. Take the half-Deimos-half-Human Darc for instance. The elements of both races blend together and pretty accurately physically represent the one who was never really accepted by the others of his village. You can find this type of work in most of the lead characters in the game, although a few clich?s managed to sneak their way on to the premise.

Technically speaking, things take a slightly less appealing turn. While the graphics are still sharp, featuring plenty of color and liveliness, there are some flaws that got through some of the crack. One of the biggest of these would be the overuse of animation. While the animations that are used in the game are fairly well designed, sometimes they're just used at terrible times. I don't recall needing to fail my arms in very direction known to man when I say ?Okay? to someone. That's the kind of thing that happens here, and it just looks like amateurish. The other major problem was that some of the cut scenes still don't match your Xenosaga's or even the ?ancient? Final Fantasy X. Otherwise, however, there is little to complain about in terms of this game's technical aptitude.

The audio really manages to shine in its moments in the sun. Take a listen to the music that plays just about anywhere and you're bound to be taken by a soundtrack that is pretty bizarre for an RPG, with guitar riffs and electronic inspirations to be found on the inside. The voice actors are also highly impressive, specifically when it comes to those on the Deimos side of the story where the gruff voices of Darc and others really demand everyone's attention. The only downfall of the audio is in the sound effects, that are sometimes just a bit too willing to take a backseat to the rest of the sound department. Now, here is the largest problem to face this game: replay value. SCEA's last RPG outing, Dark Cloud 2 had reasons aplenty to keep coming back to this game for weeks on end. Simply put, Twilight of the Spirits does not have that same staying power. Aside from some minor side quests and two extra character to hunt out, both of which are admittedly very hard to find, there isn't much reason to keep putting this in your PS2 aside from the highly involving story.

Bottom Line
The key for everyone to remember when they play Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is that they aren't going to get a masterpiece of a game. Although there are a lot of big pluses that should be commended in a very loud manner, the issues that do remain could act as a buzz kill if you come into the game expecting another FFX. That said, do expect to find an entertaining game that will take about 40 hours of your life away, and you won't regret that exchange for a moment. It is just a shame Sony allowed this game to come out with such limited press, because of that many gamers are going to miss out on a solid RPG for the slow summer months.

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