A Solid Start
Arc the Lad is a respectable product. The set of games seems relatively important in SRPG history, as you can see the influence and similarities of these games in later classics like FF Tactics. Arc by no means invented grid combat or strategy gaming, but I feel like it has a significant place in the history of the genre. It often gets a bad rap for being short, but that is by design. It is supposed to be an intro to a larger story, and I don't have a problem giving developers a pass for accomplishing their vision so long as it is well executed.
While the game didn't hit US retail until well after the end of the PS1's lifecycle, the game was originally developed in 1995. The style is old school top down sprites, and was well executed with a number of angles in cut scenes. Nothing about the art direction or graphics was amazing for the time, but it does manage to hold together well in what was an otherwise rough transition period. The story is good quality and again concisely delivered. Arc gets some clues to begin looking for his father, who disappeared many years past. Along the way he meets a number of funny characters and gets swept up in some devious political intrigue. None of the characters are amazingly deep, nor is the plot mind bending like some RPGs, but I definitely appreciated it for what it was worth. The developers never tried to do way too much with it, and what they did they did well. It's not necessarily very satisfying and ends on a "Now our real adventure begins!!1" type of ending, but that is a necessary evil, and cool if you understand that going in and have Arc II queued up to go.
The gameplay is straight up SRPG. There are no random encounters, everything is a set piece battle whenever the player changes locations. I enjoyed both the infrequency of battles and the solid mechanics. Everything is top down grid based, and attacks all have a variety of range and area of effect. For example, standard sword strikes may go only one space, spears or whips might be able to go two spaces and combo attack enemies, while some spells or special attacks can go several spaces and spread out from the target. One interesting aspect of Arc games is that experience is acquired based on attacking enemies. The ramifications here are significant: characters don't grow by showing up; they have to make the attacks and kills in order to gain levels. The problem then is that when I went with my standard MO of powering up my protagonist and using him and maybe others as tank damage dealers, my other characters eventually fell behind the enemies so badly that I had to really scheme to try to get them involved in battle to level up. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it's different and I always enjoy different, it was just surprising.
Arc I and II are a great set. You'll need to get through I before you can get into the much, much meatier and more conclusive II, but it's relatively short and enjoyable while it lasts. There's not a ton of content to part I, but I feel like what it did it did relatively well, especially for the time, so three stars it is.