Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so the saying goes. If this is true, then Capcom must be tickled pink at what they've done. Thanks to the success of the Monster Hunter series in Japan, it seems like most action-oriented RPGs are using that game as a blueprint. While it may be expected for most developers, it's surprising to learn that Square Enix is now jumping on this trend. On the surface, it seems like Lord of Arcana could give Capcom's franchise some good competition. Dig deeper, though, and you'll see that it's not all it's cracked up to be.
The plot is pretty straightforward, and you'll learn everything you need to know in the first few minutes. The land of Horodyn was home to a great king who ruled through might and vanquished evil from the land. In Horodyn is a hidden portal to a place called Arcana, a land where full power can be gained but only for those strong enough to defeat all of the monsters. You are one of those travelers who seek to gain power and become the new lord of the land.
Interestingly, the game takes a page from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where you start with your weapon and personal stats topped at the maximum level. You'll learn basic skills and some advanced techniques, too. You'll be traversing room after room in a large cavern, breaking open treasure chests for items and fighting monsters in the process. Fights don't engage in the same room but in a different environment, where you and your opponents are confined to a circular arena until the battle is over. As a result, any attacks made during the exploration stage simply determine whether you'll get an attack boost or a defensive drop for the fight. You can attack using one of five weapon types, though you can also call upon summoned monsters from time to time to help deal extra damage. You can simply wail away until the enemy is defeated, but you can also execute a coup de grace, a finishing move that not only turns your enemy into a splattered pile of flesh but also damages other enemies in the path of the fatal blow.
The opening stage also provides your first boss fight, which acts as a blueprint for how all of the other boss fights will go. Each boss comes equipped with several weak spots, each affecting something different when hit. While the boss will always have one fatal weak spot to go after, the other weak spots lead to limb dismemberment or crippling, slowing down the boss or making it less powerful so that it's easier to fight. Unlike the regular creatures, you will have to engage in several Quick Time Events (QTEs) in order to finish off the boss creatures.
As expected, the real challenge comes when they take away everything you own, giving you a paltry equipment set with which to start questing. You start out by taking a trial mission to prove that you are fit enough to join a guild. From here, each mission behaves in the same manner. Whether above or below ground, you're thrust into a mission with a quota to meet and a time limit within which to complete the mission. The missions vary from killing a certain number of monsters to obtaining a specific number of items, but each always has you engaging in fights. Completing fights gets you experience with which to level up your character's health and other attributes. It also gets you weapon experience, which opens up new moves and abilities you can perform when you're wielding certain weapon types. Between each guild mission, you can do the standard things like buying and storing items or buying new armor and equipment. Once you complete enough missions, you can challenge a boss creature from one of the Arcana stones before you repeat the process to access and defeat all of the Arcana bosses.
The game's fun comes from random loot drops. There are plenty of common and rare items to obtain, such as potions, armor, weapons and so forth. Like any game of this type, there's rarely a set type of enemy in a particular location that will guarantee certain item appearances, so the enjoyment comes from hacking away at everything that moves until that item materializes. While the multitude of items should please those who enjoy this sort of gameplay, item collection gets amplified further with the addition of item crafting; rare monster cores begin to appear after the first boss has been defeated. The loot is not only powerful but also visible on your character, and given the amount of items that combine good looks with high stat functionality, expect to be hunting for quite some time, especially with the new items made available through DLC missions.
The idea of random loot drops isn't enough to hide Lord of Arcana's many flaws. The idea of having a leveling system for your weapon type experience is novel, but it feels like it takes longer than usual to learn how to properly wield said weapon. Getting to perform a two- or three-hit combo takes some time to earn, but it takes an extraordinarily long time to try to get any better. Even worse, because each weapon has its own leveling system, you lose the will to experiment since doing a weapon change means going back to previously defeated levels to effectively use said weaponry later in your quests. The reason you'll want to do this is because every enemy feels like it's a chore to kill. From the early goblins to the later, larger monsters, the dungeon minions seem to have just as much health as a boss, with each one taking several hits from powerful weapons before finally going down. It both helps and hurts, then, that these enemies have predictive patterns that never change. You'll eventually learn the patterns and successfully beat every monster without taking much damage, but the process is tiring enough that you may not want to keep fighting after experiencing enough similar battles.
One other big annoyance with the title has to do with loading. No matter what you do, it seems like the game tries to take any and every opportunity to kick itself into a loading screen. Going from one room to another will always initiate a load screen, as will going in and out of battles. Going from town to town does the same, and going in and out of cut scenes will always bring about load screens. It wouldn't be so bad if they were short load screens, but most of them go beyond five seconds each, and with some quests consisting of rooms, you'll hear the laser mechanism in your UMD drive work harder than it ever has. There is an option to do a partial install on your memory stick that takes up around 184MB of space, and while that is a decent chunk, it is worth it to alleviate the stress this game puts on your system.
Like a good number of recent action RPGs on the PSP, this game supports multiplayer. Unfortunately, the game also has the same flaws in tow. Once you complete the initial campaign mission to obtain guild status, you can enter the guild hall to create your own lobby or enter one on the list. Up to four people can go questing together, taking on any of the available missions and grabbing loot in the process. Missions don't seem to scale according to the number of participants or their personal level. While this may be good news for those who want to conquer levels that were too tough solo, it makes for some boring missions if you happen to play one of the easier missions in the game. Multiplayer questing is enjoyable, but the restriction of being ad-hoc local multiplayer only significantly diminishes the fun factor. While there are the usual ways of getting around this (via the PS3 ad-hoc program or by using a third-party PC solution), having a native online mode would be all that one would need to get a significant leg up among the various action RPGs on the console.
Sound is fairly good in Lord of Arcana. The music is exactly what you would expect from a Square Enix game. It's epic without being overbearing, and while it isn't as memorable as some other works from the company, it fits the game perfectly. Effects also sound good, with each one coming in clearly without a hint of distortion. Voice, though, is rather limited. You'll get it for narration and for certain cut scenes, but don't expect it too often. Your created character only has grunts and shouts in his or her repertoire, and as often as you'll hear that when going solo, you'll simply get it multiplied when playing with others. Considering what the competition offered in this department, it's disappointing to see that the game didn't take the next step.
The graphics run toward middle of the road. The monsters look fairly grotesque, though you'll be more impressed with the bosses you have to fight, most of which are large enough to fill the screen and more. Your character looks fine, but don't expect some of the finer details of your clothes to show up properly on the PSP screen. Both you and your opponents animate well enough, but you almost always have to follow through on such animations, so that means plenty of opportunities for cheap hits on both sides. Environments look decent enough. They aren't plain and are textured, but don't expect to be swept away like you would be with similar environments in similar games. What drags this down a bit is the abundance of fade-in at towns. It may not happen much in the battlefield, but every town you visit initially looks abandoned before suddenly teeming with life the moment you get close enough. It's both laughable and sad that games from a high-profile publisher would suffer from such a flaw, and the fact that it happens quite often is inexcusable.
Your enjoyment of Lord of Arcana will depend greatly on how you feel about grinding and whether or not you have willing friends. Obviously, friends would make any experience better, but with the way battles are broken up here, only the boss fights make the game exciting with a crew. When playing solo, the game becomes tiresome. With nothing else to make it stand out, your desire to complete the title alone evaporates rather quickly. If you have friends who love the role-playing/action sub-genre and have already played through the other games of this type, give this one a try, as there is some genuine fun to be had. If you're a solo player who's just looking for a few creatures to slash, feel free to skip this one.
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