Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits

For a long time, humans and beings known as Deimos have loathed one another and battled over a precious resource, Spirit Stones. A human, Kharg, ambitions to destroy the Deimos, while one of the Deimos, Darc, ambitions to destroy the humans, with both sharing a mysterious past. Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits, developed by Cattle Call, marked the debut of Sony’s tactical franchise on the Playstation 2, sporting many gameplay changes from its predecessors, although the title ultimately comes across as mediocre in the end.

Like its predecessors, Twilight features a tactical battle system, albeit one different from those of previous installments. Said battles are sometimes randomly encountered during dot-connected overworld exploration, or encountered in certain rooms of the game’s few dungeons. This reviewer has never been a fan of random encounters in tactical RPGs, and in this title this problem is more annoying since the player can’t save on the overworld, and characters don’t recover after battles, with Spirit Stones, substituting MP, being somewhat restrictive early on in the game, as well. Thus, it might have been nice if overworld battles were completely optional.

That aside, the battle system does have some decent ideas. After the player selects participating characters, the battle begins, with both characters and enemies taking turns depending upon speed. An annoyance here, however, is the utter lack of a turn order meter, inexcusable since most Playstation tactical RPGs had this convenience (except, ironically, entries in the Arc the Lad franchise). Instead of featuring grid-based movement and positioning, moreover, Twilight allows characters and enemies to roam freely in circular ranges, and execute various commands during their turns.

Commands include normally attacking, with each character having a wedge-shaped attack range that the player can view with the R1 button; normally attacking foes from behind or the sides typically yields better results than attacking them head-on. Characters can also use special skills and/or magic, with either consuming Spirit Stones, which as mentioned substitute for MP, although they aren’t exactly a character stat in the traditional sense, since they don’t “recover” at healing points. Rather, players keep a stash of up to 999 Spirit Stones purchasable from stores that they can use to refill each character’s Spirit Stones.

That brings this reviewer to another issue with the battle system: the distribution of items, money, and additional Spirit Stones in combat. Instead of having a system like most other RPGs where the player instantly receives such resources after killing enemies or winning battles, Twilight instead has enemies drop one of the three, or a combination of the three, after their deaths. To obtain these, a character must approach them and pick them up, although doing so will constrict their movement range, allowing them only to use attacks or skills whence they get the enemy drops. Should the player win a battle and not pick them up, too bad, they’re lost.

Characters gradually gain experience to level up after performing various actions in battle, although more powerful characters will easily outlevel weaker characters, with the Spirit Stone system potentially restricting their actions if the player’s money is tight. After combat victories, Skill Points are distributed likely based on how many actions certain characters executed in battle, with players able to spend these points to learn new skills and magic, and weaker characters, again, getting the short end of the stick. Occasional “class ups” can come as well, increasing the number of abilities characters can learn with Skill Points.

All in all, the battle system features some nice ideas, albeit flawed execution. Annoyances such as random encounters, the lack of a turn order meter, unbalanced leveling, and having to choose between picking up items and fighting enemies recur throughout the game, and the battle system itself at times doesn’t mesh well with dungeon exploration (which is actually quite uncommon), especially in the last dungeon, which also features one of the longest, cheapest, and most boring final boss battles in the history of RPGs (although the game ironically isn’t that difficult until then). Granted, combat does have its moments, but somewhat loses its appeal with its flaws.

The interface doesn’t fare any better. The biggest problem is the stingy save system, with the player only able to save in towns and occasionally in dungeons, with often-long interventions between saving opportunities, given the nature of combat and dungeon exploration. The equipment system also creates something of a character management nightmare, with each character able to equip three “weapon parts” and three accessories, and no “equip best” feature being present. The shopping interface, furthermore, only shows stat changes from prospective equipment as if a character had an extra weapon part or accessory slot. The menus themselves, finally, are bit on the clunky side, although luckily, there’s no problem of limited inventory space. Still, interaction leaves plenty of room for improvement.

Twilight, however, does certainly deserve points for creativity, with its battle system being unique even today, alongside the method of storytelling, where the player controls two different parties. Granted, the battle system does borrow a little from Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter, and the story is a little on the derivative side, although the game nonetheless stands as unique among tactical RPGs.

The aforementioned method of storytelling, however, doesn’t very well redeem a mostly lackluster storyline. For one, the “special bond” between Kharg and Darc is painfully obvious from the beginning (Darc’s initial dream of his past pretty much spoils it), with both the human and Deimos sides of the plot full of characters who tragically lost friends and/or family to the opposing race, led by ambitious male protagonists with loyal female childhood friends, no less. A mysterious girl on which the fate of the world depends, an evil empire, filler characters such as Bebedora, occasional betrayals, hidden identities, and even an endgame rehash of events from previous Arc games, also figure into the plot, and ultimately, most gamers will be able to determine how things will turn out without even playing the game.

The game soundtrack is mostly unremarkable, although there are some decent pieces such as a few of the town and cutscene tracks, along with the title screen theme. The biggest turnoff of the audio, however, is the voice acting: Kharg sounds different at times, Darc sounds like a heavy smoker, Maru sounds like he’s in the midst of puberty, Bebedora sounds like a female Michael Jackson, and so forth. Voices become most abhorrent in combat, with poorly-translated quotes such as “O cyclone, mow down the enemies before me!” and characters lamely shouting out the names of their skills, even if the names of said skills are in the preceding quote. Mercifully, players can turn off the battle voices to spare themselves from hearing Sony’s janitorial staff. Overall, the music certainly isn’t a draw to the game nor is the voicework to a greater extent.

Twilight, however, is one of the best-looking tactical RPGs on the Playstation 2, with nicely-detailed, anatomically-correct character models (though they do show some minor imperfections such as fingers fused together and hair seeping through their clothes), enemies from previous Arc games nicely recreated in three dimensions, and believable scenery. There really isn’t too much to complain about visually, as the game is pretty much up to the visual standards of the Playstation 2.

Finally, the game is of modest length, with a straightforward playthrough taking as little as thirty hours, although a few sidequests can boost playing time to fifty hours, with a replay mode allowing players to go through the game again if truly desired.

All in all, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is at best a mediocre continuation of an already average tactical RPG franchise, with unbalanced combat, a stingy save system, a weak narrative, lousy voice acting, and so forth. The graphics are pretty much the game’s only saving grace, although great visuals do not a great game make. The Arc series would attempt to go in a different direction with the game’s direct sequel, End of Darkness, though said direction, given the lack of further installments beyond, was evidently into the abyss of mediocrity.

The Good:
+Great graphics.

The Bad:
-Combat is somewhat unbalanced and drawn-out.
-Dungeon exploration can be boring.
-Soundtrack is hit-or-miss.
-Awful voice acting.
-Trite plot.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 2
Game Mechanics: 6/10
Controls: 4/10
Story: 3/10
Music/Sound: 7/10
Graphics: 8/10
Localization: 5/10
Lasting Appeal: 2/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 30-50 Hours

Overall: 5/10

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