Bucketlog October: Arc the Lad

Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.

January: No More Heroes 2 (Wii)February: Steins;Gate (PS3)March: Okage: Shadow King (PS2)
April: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies (3DS)May: Banjo-Tooie (N64)June: Mother 3 (GBA)
July: Beyond Oasis (MD)August: Two Worlds II (X360)September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru (GB)
October: Arc the Lad (PS1)November: ?December: ?

October

No Caption Provided
  • Game: G-Craft's Arc the Lad
  • System: PlayStation (via PlayStation 3)
  • Original Release: 1995-06-30.
  • Time from Release to Completion: Twenty-four years, four months, twelve days.

It has been something of a nightmare trying to arrange this October edition of the Bucketlog, a feature that - overall - I'm sort of wishing I'd organized a little better from the get go. Due partly to the week-long Extra Life streams but mostly to this frankly irresponsible idea of mine to delegate each entry to a separate non-current console, I bounced between a DOS game that was way too long, a decade-plus old Indie game that I could not figure out at all, a "classic" Xbox game that my Xbox 360 absolutely refused to boot up despite being on the backwards compatibility list, and eventually a glance through my small library of PS1 games on PS3 that I impulse bought because they were all games previously inaccessible to Europe. That is how I eventually settled on the first Arc the Lad game by G-Craft.

An early game by PlayStation standards - released on the dead center of 1995 in Japan, on the very same month that saw the release of EarthBound on the North American SNES - Arc the Lad is the first part of a planned trilogy of strategy RPGs in the vein of a Shining Force: in the sense that each member of your party is a story-critical character with a unique range of skills, not an interchangeable archetype with a specific martial focus that fits into some vague rock-paper-scissors structure. It's primarily pixel- and sprite-based barring a handful of slightly wonky CGI cutscenes, and - most critically for my purposes here, some two weeks after the Bucketlog deadline I'd set myself - its status as the first chapter of a three-part story meant it was relatively brisk. I'd first encountered the Arc the Lad franchise not via the original Arc the Lad (which was a Japan-only release) or the Arc the Lad Collection, the Working Designs-localized compilation of all three games (which was only released in North America) but by the somewhat distant descendant that is Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits for PlayStation 2, which I discussed back in 2017 as part of my The Top Shelf feature. It's been a point of interest since then to see where this franchise originated. More vitally, how does Arc the Lad stack up against Vandal Hearts and Final Fantasy Tactics: its closest PS1 contemporaries?

While I'm not making any bold claims about quality at this juncture, I will say that Arc the Lad has a few remarkable facets that involves its status as the first part of a series. Chiefly, that it establishes a lot of world geography and plot-lines like Arc's missing father that are left for future entries to flesh out which, while it doesn't make for compelling storytelling playing the game on its own divorced from its sequels, does at least create an interesting precedent for what we now call episodic games. I see so few games from this era with the kind of unfounded confidence in its continued longevity that Arc the Lad exhibits, to the extent that the developers feel like they can create a handful of countries, spend around an hour in each one, and then pad out the brief runtime with a 50-floor bonus dungeon (more on that horror in a little bit) and story-inessential "training" maps of pre-determined mob placements. The core story of the game would probably take somewhere between 10-15 hours to complete (less if you're buttoning through cutscenes) if you just stuck to it, which means you could feasibly fit five or six Arc the Lads into a single Final Fantasy VIII or Xenogears (though, again, not that I'm complaining about a mercifully short RPG).

It can be a nice-looking game when it wants to be. Benefit of being a pixel game on a 32-bit system.
It can be a nice-looking game when it wants to be. Benefit of being a pixel game on a 32-bit system.

In addition, your team is limited to seven people in what feels like a nod to Kurosawa: the main hero Arc, who maintains a jack-of-all-trades balance of physical and magical prowess; Kukuru, the kunoichi deuteragonist who can't hit hard but is hard to hit, and also fast with her support magic; Poco, the out-of-his-depth military musician whose instruments provide a wide range of support and offensive skills; Tosh, a purely offensive swordsman whose higher movement rate allows him to dash right into the front lines; Iga, a burly monk who is the master of counterattacks; Gogen, a venerable sage who is the party's pure spellcaster; and Chongara, a linguistically-challenged merchant/thief and designated comic relief who relies mostly on summoned units. Between the seven you get a great variation of skills and talents, though some naturally shine brighter than others. For instance, when I'd completed the game both Arc (the hero) and Tosh (the pure offensive swordsman) had hit their max level as both would regularly be sweeping the battlefield. Poco and Kukuru, conversely, were seriously falling behind due to the lack of XP earned from using their support skills. As the game and enemies grew ever more challenging, these softer units would fall even further back, sometimes dying in a single hit if an enemy happened to squeeze past my frontline fighters.

However, despite these deficiencies and limitations, there are sparks of originality and innovation throughout Arc the Lad. The most striking is the game's presentation, which is distinctly Japanese: I had always seen its bandanna-sporting hero in bulky iron plate and assumed the usual medieval fantasy setting, but instead Arc the Lad feels both beholden to Japan-focused RPGs full of yokai and samurai like the Momotaro Densetsu series as well as riffing on Final Fantasy VI (and Final Fantasy VII, in an unexpected bit of precognition) in how the world is filled with technology haves and have-nots, with regions of the world living a humble feudal existence while other kingdoms, like Arc's home continent of Seiryu, having technology like giant airships and enormous televisions in the city square. The more technologically advanced kingdoms were also, inevitably, the ones causing the most damage to the world's natural order: the natural order that Arc and his party eventually set out to make right again, by travelling the world and befriending a series of elemental "Guardians." It took me a moment after absorbing what I felt was a generic JRPG plot that it only became so because of what followed years after this game: Final Fantasy VII had taken the world by storm and begat a number of imitators, and we slowly became inured to seeing fantasy worlds with present-day contemporary metropolises where spiky-haired heroes wielded swords against robots and monsters alike. It's hard to think back to before that particular aesthetic was everywhere.

Yes, there's a fight with your evil doppelgangers, and yes it's the final
Yes, there's a fight with your evil doppelgangers, and yes it's the final "boss" of the game. Arc killed six of them with one spell.

There's also a handful of mechanical innovations, which while perhaps weren't ideas that would set the world on fire certainly still further enhance the game's own distinct personality. Throwing and grabbing mechanics, for instance: a character with points in the former becomes more adept at using items on other combatants, heals for allies and traps for enemies, while points in the latter allows the character to grab enemy items thrown at them and toss them back. There aren't really enough enemies in the game that toss items around to make these statistics noteworthy - they're mostly there to stop you throwing powerful items at bosses, which usually have decent grab stats - but I could see the future entries making them a more prominent fixture. The XP gain seems to derive from both damage given and taken: in theory, if a weaker unit were to take a serious hit and survive, they'd gain a huge amount of experience and be able to catch up to their teammates faster. Unfortunately, this also made it harder for lagging characters to catch up, as their damage output was often in the single-digits against higher level enemies. Finally, the versatility of Chongara's summon pot and Poco's instruments makes them both very interesting units on the battlefield, if not broken with the right amount of focus: Chongara's summons can be individually leveled up and even given equipment, and one of the game's superbosses actually becomes one of these summon options (albeit only in the aforementioned story-inessential training maps, since she'd massacre any story battle you throw her into), and the first two you get can heal other units and build little bridges to inaccessible areas respectively, which are useful utilities to have early on. Meanwhile, Poco's instruments recall the bard class of the Wizardry games: they start relatively useless, being behind the pure warriors and mages of the party in terms of damage output, but the powerful effects of the infinite-use mid- to late-game instruments they find eventually allows them to equal and even dwarf their more limited comrades.

I mentioned a little earlier that Arc the Lad's story, being rather short, meant that the developers sought to expand the game's meager runtime with a bunch of time-consuming bonus dungeons. One involves training at the monastery where you recruit the monk Iga, where you take on eleven progressively tougher challenges. Another involves the arena, a slightly more comic chapter where the emcee gleefully hints at a violent death for any who participate (and a set of matching luggage to the tournament's runner-up) that provides a near-endless amount of one-on-one fights with prizes for every successful tenth bout. Finally, there are the Forbidden Ruins near Chongara's store, in which you only need to descend five floors to progress the story. I have no idea what possessed me to partake in this fifty-floor monstrosity, be it curiosity or determination to see what lay at the bottom, but the idea of this place is to fight your way down to the fiftieth floor - without ever healing or having the chance to leave with what you'd found thus far - and then defeat the game's hardest opponent on the bottom floor: a prepubescent anime girl called Choko. Then, you had to fight all the way back up to the first floor before you can leave. It's an undertaking that took me an entire day, one fraught with tension as there was never an opportunity to save my progress throughout, and while only two characters emerged intact they were forever changed by their ordeal: not only were they twenty levels higher than everyone else in the party, but they had seen some really serious shit. There's a few end-game bosses like the Wyvern and the Fate Dragon that appear in huge numbers on the lower floors, and of course Choko herself is no pushover: twice the HP of any enemy in the game, and a nasty habit of inflicting the darkness status which made her already prestigious ability to dodge even more effective. Though a constant source of anguish, I have to admit that playing through that whole debacle gave me memories of this game that won't soon abate, for better or worse.

Starting to suspect whoever took these screenshots for the site pointed a phone camera at the TV. The real thing is a little less blurry, I swear.
Starting to suspect whoever took these screenshots for the site pointed a phone camera at the TV. The real thing is a little less blurry, I swear.

On the whole, I'm still not sure where I stand with Arc the Lad and I suspect I never will unless I bite the bullet and buy its two sequels from PSN (Sony had the temerity of selling off the Arc the Lad Collection piecemeal). It's about on an even keel with the first Vandal Hearts - the sequel, which I love, is a completely different and way crazier story - and certainly a big drop in complexity from Final Fantasy Tactics (and, I have to assume, the Tactics Ogre game that preceded it and was released on the Super Famicom a mere three months after Arc the Lad). It's also completely unbalanced and easy to break apart due to its copious bonus content - which when added to the game's story missions probably still accounts for more than half the game. I have some fondness for it and SRPGs of its type though; I like going through these maps with a posse of familiar faces, utilizing everyone's well-established strengths to divide and conquer the enemy forces, and seeing them all interact in the story scenes in-between as Chongara cooks up another scheme and everyone complains about Tosh not bathing as often as he should. The game even ends with a Trails in the Sky-style romantic confession and sudden tragic separation, building towards an arc (so to speak) that would no doubt stretch across all three games. It's wholly unlike Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, which changed far more than just the grid-like structure of the first Arc the Lad, but I'm glad I got a taste of this lesser known exemplar of the SRPG sub-genre.

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