Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: August 2007
We got our first hands-on look at Jeanne d'Arc at Sony's Gamers Day event in May, where the title was tucked away on the first day of the event, lost amongst the hype of numerous PlayStation 3 games. Though we only had a few minutes to spend with Jeanne, we found the quirky mixture of established gameplay, vibrant cel-shaded visuals, and an intriguing storyline to be just what the doctor ordered for a handheld epic. Besides, any worthwhile original title for the PSP these days needs to be celebrated, right?
Luckily, Sony Computer Entertainment America recently sent along what appears to be a near-final build of the title, which is now slated to ship on August 21st. Having spent several hours with the game over the last week, we wanted to update with some fresh impressions of the title and touch on some of the gameplay mechanics introduced within the first six hours of play.
As touched on in our last preview, Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) begins with the familiar French icon wandering into the forest on an errand when she comes across a fallen soldier. Intrigued by the glowing pouch attached to the man, she reaches for it, only to have a glowing rope shoot out and affix itself to her arm as a golden armlet. When demons attack, she finds herself mysteriously able to wield the soldier's sword, and is able to easily dispatch with the offenders.
Along with her companions Liane and Roger, she returns to her hometown of Domremy only to find the village ablaze, with each and every resident either missing or perished. During the battle that commences (against an English general and his goons), she hears voices commanding her to raise her wrist. When she does, she is mysteriously transformed into an armor-clad warrior, able to deliver devastating attacks and take on significantly more damage.
With their village destroyed and Jeanne suddenly focused on the fate of France, the trio heads out in search of the Dauphin (heir to the throne), in the hopes that Jeanne can help lead the country to freedom. Along the way, they encounter several unique companions, including Bertrand, Colet, and La Hire, an axe-wielding, lion-headed beast. While Jeanne d'Arc grounds itself in the real-life conflict of the Hundred Years' War and the legend of Joan of Arc, it clearly diverges with fantastic bipedal beasts and the use of magic spells.
As we gleaned from our original playtest, Jeanne d'Arc does generally adhere to the core gameplay principals popularized by the Final Fantasy Tactics series, with turn-based battles that take place on sectioned-off grids. The characters gain experience and level up during and after each battle, and can equip weapons, spells, and other beneficial items found during battle or purchased in shops. Each stage features an objective that must be completed in a limited number of turns, as well as a condition for failure, such as letting a certain character fall. Nothing terribly shocking in that regard.
However, two key concepts come into play during each battle: Burning Aura and Unified Guard. After a character levies an attack against an enemy, a flaming circle will appear in the square on the opposite side of the enemy. If another character attacks from that spot on the map, he/she will unleash a noticeably more powerful attack. This is especially helpful when attacking an enemy from behind, as the first attack will make him face away from the Aura, allowing the next character to launch an especially devastating barrage against a nearby foe.
On the defensive end, Unified Guard is an automatic shield that activates when two or more characters are in close proximity to each other. It will often nullify enemy attacks, but at the very least, it will generally lessen the blow of any attack. The pairing of these two concepts clearly encourages the use of teamwork to dispatch foes, as spreading your crew out across the entire map may leave characters open to attack. Though there has been mention of an item that will resuscitate fallen companions, we have yet to come across it after the first eight story battles.
Jeanne is able to use the armlet to transform once per battle, giving her the ability to move twice during a turn or unleash special attacks. As the adventure continues, it appears that she will be able to earn additional gems for the armlet, which may allow her to transform more than once per battle.
"This world is ruled by three spirits in opposition," claims an upbeat instructional screen. "Know how they interact!" Indeed, having power in one of the three Spirit Affinities (Sol, Stella, and Luna) will give a character either an advantage or disadvantage against enemies of a different affinity, depending on the cycle. Sol beats Stella, which then beats Luna; however, Sol is weak against Luna, which is, in turn, weak against Stella.
Think of it like Rock, Paper, Scissors for the strategy RPG world. Characters can be outfitted with Skill Stones to build power in a particular affinity, giving the player a large stake in determining the path of any particular character. We didn't get too deep into the realm of Spirit Affinities, but it seems like a concept that will play heavily into the later segments of the game, once more challenging foes emerge.
Though we've only scratched the surface of what is purported to be a 40-hour adventure, we're definitely impressed by what we've seen so far. While the story has yet to really pick up (a couple battles into the second chapter), the frequent anime cut scenes are mesmerizing, and the gameplay is balanced and fulfilling, if not yet particularly challenging. Even if the narrative never truly comes around, we feel pretty confident that Jeanne d'Arc will be one of the better reasons to dust off those PSP systems come late August.
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