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Wolf Kanno's Crazy Ramblings and Incoherent Statements

My Top 100's Lost but Not Forgotten: Arc the Lad II

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One of my all time favorite publishers in the 90s for video games was Working Designs. It was a company that actually tried to get a lot of cool JRPGs released in the West long before the actual JRPG boom in the last years of the decade. I've already spoken about their most high profile title they ever worked on, Lunar: The Silver Star Story, and this is actually one of two games they worked on that's on this informal list.
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So in the waning years of the PS1, Working Design was doing well with the release of the Lunar titles and a myriad of arcade shooters they released, yet one game series alluded them, Arc the Lad. Arc the Lad was Sony's killer app for the PlayStation, knowing the RPG crazed Japan would never accept their console if it didn't have at least one RPG on it, they hired G-Craft to help them develop one for their consoles launch. For those who don't know, G-Craft was the studio that originally developed Front Mission for Square, before Square bought out the company in the late 90s. One of the masterminds for the first two games in the Arc the Lad series is actually Toshiro Tsuchida who not only developed the Front Mission series for Square, but was the battle designer for FFX and XIII, so regardless of whether you know who this guy is, you've likely played some of his works.
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Anyway, Arc the Lad ended up becoming a Tactical Turn Based RPG, but due to scheduling conflicts and the ambitions of the team, the title ended up pulling a Persona 2, by which I mean the developers decided to split the game into two titles as not to compromise the original vision of the game. So Arc the Lad was released in 1995 for the PS1's launch and received lots of praise for it's interesting story and tactical gameplay. It did get nailed for being criminally short (the game can be finished in about ten hours) and ending on quite a cliffhanger. A year later, Arc the Lad II was released to much great acclaim with several design fixes, a meatier narrative, and quite possibly too much gameplay but I'll get to that later. The game was such a massive hit, it spawned an anime adaption, and a direct sequel. Despite all these accolades Sony of America refused to let anyone publish the game overseas, until the waning years of the PS1. Working Designs agreed to the tumultuous task of localizing the Trilogy. A task that turned into a huge deal if you ever watch the Making of CD that came with the collection.
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I picked up these games cause WD had a great record with me and I wanted me some Tactical RPG goodness, sadly, I've come to the conclusion that Arc the Lad and Disgaea may have both fed into my waning interest in Tactical RPGs, but I'll get to that later as well. I will tell you now, that AtLII is easily the best entry in the franchise that I've played, but it's difficult to talk about without first going into the other entries, so bear with on the info dump.
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Arc the Lad begins in the Sacred Land of Seriya, a prominent kingdom with many ancient traditions including the legend of the Ark and the Sacred Flame. The Ark was an ancient artifact that served as a covenant between humanity and the five elemental spirits after a great calamity nearly destroyed the world thousands of years ago. Nowadays, with the rise of technology, people have forgotten this and these stories are simply traditions and myths that younger generations play along with to placate the older ones.
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The White Clan of the Sacred Flame itself is tasked with protecting the Flame Cion and the priestess of this duty is also traditionally married off to the Prince of Seriya. Kukuru the future heir of the clan is not happy that her life has already been decided for her, and so with the advise of the mayor of her village, travels to the shrine of the Flame Cion to put out the Sacred Flame and abolish her clan's duties once and for all. After doing so, she begins to have a bad premonition and a blizzard hits the mountain where the shrine resides that hasn't been seen in ten years.
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Meanwhile, Arc prepares to leave his mother and his home to go on a journey to find out what happened to his father Yoshua. Ten years prior, when the last blizzard hit, Yoshua left for the mountain where the Sacred Flame resides and never returned. Most of the village presumed he died, but Arc believes he is alive and wants to discover the truth. When he reaches the mountain, he finds Kukuru, who has returned to re-ignite the flame after realizing her foolishness. Arc volunteers to light the flame for her and comes across an ancient demon that the Flame Cion had sealed off. It easily dispatches Arc and heads back down the mountain to kill Kukuru and her clan for sealing it away. Dying in the cold, Arc is awakened by the voices of the Guardian Spirits who tell tell Arc that his coming to the mountain was promised to them by his father, who made a pact with the Guardian Spirits. that his son would save the world and humanity. The Guardians revive Arc and bless him with their power in exchange for his duty to travel the world and save it from an impending ruin. Arc agrees and re-ignites the Flame Cion, which re-seals the demon and saves Kukuru's life.
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Meeting with the King of Seriya, Arc garners the king's favor despite the objections of his obviously evil Prime Minister, Andel. He gives Arc access to the royal airship, the Silver Noah, and Arc begins his journey across the globe to convince the Guardian Spirits to aid him and learn more about the impending ruin that will spell human extinction. During his travels, he learns that his father was Yoshua is still alive and that he is actually the brother of the King of Seriya who went missing when he saw a vision of the world's end. Arc befriends several eccentric heroes, discovers that demons and monsters have infiltrated humanity and are causing chaos across the globe, and that mankind's negligence and urge for expansion and technological advancement has started to take a toll on the planet. After gaing the Guardian's blessing, Arc is tasked with finding the Ark itself, but his progress is hindered when Andel kills the King of Seriya and sets Arc up as the murderer. Now a wanted man, Arc has to sneak his way back into his home country to uncover the Ark and receive it's blessing. In truth, the Ark is not an artifact of power, but instead a container for an ancient evil that nearly destroyed the planet thousands of years ago. The Ark is taken by Andel and Arc and his crew are arrested, but the removal of the Ark from it's holy site begins to cause earthquakes and unseals a sacred tower from centuries ago. In the confusion of the quake, Arc and his crew escape wit the help of the Silver Noah's crew. Kukuru remains in the newly emerged Tower to use her blessing by the Spirits and Ark to keep the Ancient Ones evil at bay while Arc sets out on a journey to stop the demons from awakening their master.
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What's interesting to note about Arc the Lad 1 is how it's initially a cliche storm of overused RPG tropes before the last leg of the plot throws a whammy at the player with several dark turns. This is kind of important to note because AtLII runs with this and what starts off as a typical hero's journey with elemental MacGuffins eventually leads to a deconstruction and subversion of all of these tropes.
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Arc the Lad II introduces us to a new hero, Elc. Elc is the last surviving member of a clan that worshiped the Fire Guardian and received his blessing in the form of pyromancy. When the game opens, Elc is having a PTSD nightmare of watching his clan being bruataly murdered with machine gun fire as they try to protect an ancient statue they were tasked with guarding. Watching his father and grandfather gunned down before him led to Elc awakening his pyromancy gift and he slaughtered some of the troops before collapsing and being taken on board the Silver Noah. Ten years later, Elc is now a Hunter, which are similar to Breath of Fire's Rangers or Ivalice's Clans, in that they are a mercenary guild that will do odd jobs for the common folk that ranges from house chores to monster extermination. Despite his nightmares of his childhood, Elc's memory is swiss cheese and he wishes to remember something important he wanted to do but his traumatic past keeps the memories buried. His other goal is to hunt down the world renowned terrorist Arc, whom Elc is convinced led the attack on his home village.
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Elc is contacted in the middle of the night for a rush job at the airport. A terrorist has taken hostages and is preventing airships from the Romalia Empire to enter the city. Elc is able to diffuse the hostage situation but the terrorist runs into one of the Romalia ships. In his pursuit, Elc encounters a girl named Leeza whom is accompanied by a Wolf Monster named Paundit. Confronting the terrorist, Leeza helps Elc battle the terrorist, who reveals that he is some weird human monster hybrid. He is then killed by members of the mafia organization known as the Cabal, who arrive to silence the terrorist for his connection to them as well as to take back their "cargo" Leeza. Despite being offered the chance to look the other way and leave as the Cabal takes Leeza, Elc has a flashback of a childhood friend named Maribel, who sacrificed her freedom to let Elc escape a place called White House. Elc helps Leeza escape and they journey to a nearby city to stay with Elc's longtime friend Shu, the hunter who found Elc in the desert and rescued him years ago. Trying to uncover what's going on, Elc discovers that Leeza was taken from her home village by members of the Cabal due to her unique power to communicate and control monsters. They intended to take her to White House and slowly Elc begins to remember his traumatic past of being an orphan at White House who was experimented on with other children.
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Meanwhile, Arc has spent the intervening years between games waging a one man war against Romalia and its machinations across the globe. Andel and several other prominent leaders across the globe are all secret agents working for the Roamlian Empire and are working towards both global domination and unsealing the Ark to release the Ancient One. While Arc prevents the worst of Romalia's travesties from occurring, it often results in severe collateral damage which simply feeds into the public opinion of Arc being a master criminal. When it becomes obvious that the Cabal and White House are both subsidiaries for Romalia's efforts, Elc and Arc eventually cross paths and the results are not terribly pretty. From there, the game spans a massive world and several plot threads from the first game are finally tied up along with the new ones introduced by Elc and the new cast. Yet the game subverts your expectations as it becomes obvious that for every victory the heroes manage to get, the villains seem to always get closer to their goals.
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While I won't spoil too much, I can honestly say that Arc the Lad II is a surprisingly dark game with a very bittersweet ending. It's interesting to watch goody two-shoe Arc from the first game transform into a more pragmatic heroe in the sequel who is willing to get his hands just as dirty to fight the bad guys as they are to him. Arc and his crew are called out on this by Elc's team but the game does a good job to show the villains as absolutely dangerous and rephrehensible monsters with the goal of gloabl extinction that suddenly it justifies Arc's more drastic battle tactics. Of anything, it can be best described as a cynical take on FFVII, or more correctly, FFVII is an idealistic take on Arc the Lad II since AtLII predates VII by a year. Part of why I say this is not simply because the game's have similar themes, in truth I feel WA1 has more in common with VII's plot than Arc II, but it's hard not to feel like Square may have been taking notes from this game while developing VII.
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Aesthetically, the Arc Trilogy takes place in a world that doesn't feel too off from VII's setting with small pastoral hamlets and Asian Pagodas sitting nice and neatly besides sprawling 20th century skyscrapers and cities. While Arc's crew are mostly stereotypical sword and sorcery wielding fantasy fodder, Arc II's crew are not afraid to recruit robots and use guns to get their job done and I honestly feel Shu and Shante would fit perfectly in VII's setting while Barret and Red XIII woudl hardly feel out of place in Arc II's world. The entire airport sequence honestly feels like something you would have seen in FFVII or VIII had it used 2D sprites of course. None of this is a criticism of course, it's actually a very difficult aesthetic to handle and people clamoring for a game in a similar setting as the RPG juggernaut may be pleasantly surprised with this series. There's even a Sephiroth looking guy who joins your team in Arc III, and his weapon is easily an expy of Cloud's Buster Sword. This mix of cultural and historical styles is further shown through the game's soundtrack which switches back and forth between suual RPG fair, music that wouldn't sound misplaced in Breath of Fire IV, and some really cool jazz pieces. It's a nice touch to have so much variation since most game music tends to sound homogenous to the game's themes.
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It's difficult to explain how awesome Arc II is without first explaining how different the game was from Arc I. In truth this is a first Assassin's Creed scenario where the first entry is adequate but not exactly amazing and then the sequel (which I'll remind ou came out a year later) is a complately different beast that impresses on all fronts. The original Arc game was your typical point and click Tactical RPG where you would get a map and either click on a point and either watch the next story sequence or fight something. There were some places you can walk around and talk to people like a typical RPG but they are all quite limited in scope. Your characters could only equip four accessoies, there were not shops, and characters gained skills through levels. There were seven party members and you used everyone in battle after you acquired them. So overall, Arc one was pretty basic. It's still fun, but compared the the subgenres usualy reputation for deep customization and loads and loads of options, the game is very underwhelming. It even has sidequests but most of them are just marathon battles with little variation.
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Arc II is a completely different beast. For the most part, the game is similar in execution to Shining Force rather than the usual menu-driven entries of the subgenre. There is a world map you can traverse, towns you can explore and shop in, and plenty of NPCs to chat with. The game plays like a typical RPG except for battles which are all tactical grid turn based actiosn like Front Mission or FFTactics. You'll even explore dungeons tough it has several rooms where you'll have to fight battles in. Wjhereas the first game had limited customization with all the characters being specialist in their own combat styles, Arc II allows characters to use different weapon that change their combat prowess like Elc who can use weak but defensive based spear, jack of all trait swords, or even heavy axes. The cast all take a Chrono Trigger approach of characters who are each a specialist in a single element and have a mix of offensive and defensive skills that add more variety to the battles. Eventually you can even teach characters two additional skills from a list of predetermined abilities for further customization.
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Equipment and even consummable items also have their own levels and occassionally they'll unlock special skills like improved counter attack chances or herbs that cast the regen effect in addition to healing. You can even level equipment faster by taking them to shops to and paying money to raise the levels instead of relying on battle XP. There are also shops where you can fuse equipment together to build stronger gear, so the game has a ton of character customization.
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One of the most underappreciated aspects of the game is that the larger cast of characters meant the devs now limit you to five party members per battle which greatly speed up battles compared to Arc 1's battles that got sluggishly slow towards the end of the game. In additon to the new cast of seven characters, you eventually recruit Arc's crew minus two members, making for twelve story characters, and then Leeza can add an additonal eight characters through her ability to recruit monsters. Monsters themselves can be evolved into their more powerful palette swap incarnations by reaching certain level requirements and they come with their own skills and quirks. Additonally, if you had the Collection liek I did, there is also Arc Arena, a side game where you and a friend could transfer your recruited monsters over to it and either battle each other or several of the game's challenges. This is actually a real easy means to get an edge in Arc II as you can transfer these monsters and any items you acquire back to your main file. So the customization is quite deep.

While Arc 1's sidequests were largely relegated to several variations of "fight a trout ton of monster battles" either in a torunament, a fifty floor dungeon, or doing a favor for the local Guardian Spirit by just engaging in the same three random battles a lot, Arc II's sidequestsa a re bit better refined. Every town has a Hunter's Guild and Elc can go there to take on missions, Most are battles, but they tend to have more of a story coponent to them which gives them more importance and variation. Additionally, the Guilds have wanted posters which often unlcok the chance to run into the creatures in one of the game's random encounter areas, story dungeons, or even actual Guild missions. These greatly expand the world, adds more clout to the Hunter's as a story element, and gives some great character moments for the cast. My personal favorite story mission in the early sections of the game involves a Necromancer your hired to shut up cause his chanting in the city seweres is keeping people awake. You promise to let him go if he'll stop summoning the undead, so this unlocks a new mission where you have to investigate a creepy guy in an rough part of the city who has been seen with children. Turns out it's this guy who is now turned into a doll maker and the "children" are his eerie creations. After thumping him again, he vows to find religion and leaves. Next mission involves dealing with some crazy monster cult... you can see where this is going.

For the most part Arc II is just a richer experience. The story is great, the cast is fun, and the world and setting are well told. So how did this not make the list you might be asking? Well this game is a committment. Apparently the devs took to heart the criticism of the first entries lack of content and basically did what they could to subvert this.
Arc II is a game that will test your love for Turn Based Tactical Grid battles. You will be fighting a lot in this game. Most missions involve fighting, dungeons eventually become ten to fifteen consecutive battles, and heaven help you if you try to backtrack. I love the Hunter Missions, but they will test you patience once they start incorporating dungeons into them. So early in the game, you bust into a mansion where the bad guys are apparently at. You have to explore the place and find a key to reach the main room and generally there is a battle in almost every room you enter giving you a total of seven battles total unless you accidentally walk back into a room you've already searched. Not a big deal cause this is all story relevant stuff. So after the dust clear, you get a hunter mission involving a rich couple puchasing the mansion and needing a Hunter to clear out all of the lingering monsters. So you go in an fight, you guessed it, seven battles cause there is one in every room there was a battle in during the actual story portion of the place. Finish that mission? New one pops up where the manison is under attack by a gang of thieves. Go back in and this simple mission is another seven battles. This is followed up by a third mission, so this quest chain is twenty one battles, and it's not even like you're fighting bosses or wanted monsters, the battles involve fighting basically the same group of two to three monter types. The story part is fun but these three missions can kill an evening since the nature of the genre means the battles can last up to ten to twenty minutes on average. You'll eventually pray that most of your unter Missions are one off deals or something where you only need to explore the first two floors of a place and not the whole dungeona again. Towards the end of the game, there is a series of these types of missions that involve going down a mine shaft that has about twenty levels to it. We're talking like seven to ten missions that involve traversing this dungeon over and over again and this wasn't even counting the Wanted Monsters who may appear on any of these floors. It gets exhausting really quickly.

So most people would say, "Well don't do the side content, and just play the plot." and this is where the stinger kicks in. Sometimes you need to play these missions to advance the plot, but the bigger issue is that Arc II tries to avert the usual issue with Tactical JRPGs which is that the games are all customization and no challenge. This isn't your FFTactics or Disgaea where the story mode can be finished at a fraction of the level cap. This was made by the Front Mission team so prepare to watch as the story enemies begin to jump five to thirty levels between story arcs. Those mineshaft missions I mentioned involved fighting enemies in their 80s. The next story mission area (which was the final area) had the enemies jump to Lv. 110 and up. The last form of the Final Boss has 9999Hp, in a game where my Lv. 100 best fighter can do 120hp of damge and the boss is set up in a way where there is only one spot of him that can take physical damage and he takes scratch damage from magic. This battle lasted oner an hour and since then I was pretty much done with the series. I don't think I even reached the end of the first disc for Arc III before I was simply just too burnt out to care anymore. So yeah, in a nutshell, the devs actually expect you to do all the sidecontent cause the main game is scaled for it. Another factor that's kind of annoying is that Arc II uses a Old Save Data transfer feature like Suikoden. So the levels and accessorries you acquire in Arc 1 can be brought into Arc II and III. Arc 1 caps the parties level at 60. In Arc II, there are several missions where you transport over to Arc's team or Elc's crew has to team up with one of the members. These battles tend to be scaled closer to what the evs beleive you should have the Arc 1 characters at because they expect them to be a crutch character, but if you failed to properly level them up, they are not going to be much of a help. Thankfully, I think the game does jump them up to a minimum level in case you did fail to properly level some of the characters but it still makes these fights a bit brutal if you're unprepared.

With all that said, the game is still fun and the story and characters are worth the investement but simply be preapred for a a game that's probably going to hit the 100 hour mark at minimum. I recently stopped my new playthrough to go through Chrono Cross again, and while I'm near the end of CC, the time for both games is nearly the same at around 35 hours. The differnence is that in Arc II, I'm probably halfway through the first quarter of the game. Part of me does feel you should play Arc 1 first, partly to take advantage of the Save File Transfer, partly to better appreciate how awesome Arc II is in comparison, and partly to get better background on Arc's and his team's personal stories. With that said, it's perfectly fine to skip the first game and just jump straight to the good one. Arc III also makes seeral great improvement over Arc II. It's very much a better game than Arc II is, but it lacks the gripping cast and story as the first two entries, largely because the first two games were designed as a single epic and Arc III's creation was made more out of fan demand than because the writers actually had some kind of story they wanted to tell. The game isn't bad either so I would recommend checking out the whole trilogy to be honest.

Arc the Lad is just one of those lost legacy type deals. The type of game that recieved local success in Japan but due to executive meddling, lost it's chance to shine on a global scale cause the powers that be simply didn't have faith in it. In this way, the game is similar to Final Fantasy III and even Demon's Souls which I've talked to. I know the trilogy is on the PSN network now, so if you ever want to play some old school Tactical RPGs with a great story, I'd recommend it.

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