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The Whole Game in My Hand #7

by Michael J. Anderson, 2007-10-11
Games reviewed in this article:

My favorite quote from the movie "Back to the Future" is 'when this baby hits 88MPH you're going to see some serious ... um ... stuff'. After three rather dry months of releases, all of a sudden there is a burst of a dozen games and now ... very little for the rest of the year. That's right - it seems that all of the delayed games finally hit - all at once. This is good in terms of getting everything in before the big holiday sales rush, but makes for a rather huge article!

There are a few new things I am trying with this edition. First off I am putting an index at the top with links to each game (hopefully you already noticed this). This should make navigating to something that interests you much easier. Also, whereas in the past I would put in whatever review size I wanted for each individual game, with the feature game at the end getting extra-special treatment. Now I am going to limit the 'standard' reviews to less than ~500 words and save the full reviews for 'Featured Reviews'. And in a final - and likely one-time - change, this month I am putting up two featured reviews, as well as linking to my massive D&D Tactics review. Let me know in the comments what you think!

Nintendo DS – August / September Releases

The Settlers (My Score 1/5, Rated E)
Long load times, awful controls, poor frame rate. Sounds like the litany of complaints I've made about many PSP games over the past two years, only this time I'm making those same complaints about a DS game. It is quite sad that this was a game that I was greatly anticipating, yet is so fraught with problems it is hard to believe it even managed to get released.

The game is based on the PC Settlers II, and is a combination city builder and real time strategy game. You need to build your territory and balance the needs of everyone who lives there, but you are also competing with other factions inhabiting the area. Unfortunately, you start the game without any tutorial or helpful pointers, and no help from the manual. This dooms your first several hours to wasted attempts at learning how to do things and how not to do them before starting over with a serious attempt to play the game. For a game that seems to play to the DS strengths, it manages to bungle almost everything - clicking is imprecise, there is precious little feedback given, and this is the first DS game to ever completely freeze my system (and both my kids DS's) repeatedly. The loads are terrible, the game is not very responsive, and overall the technical issues along with a lack of focus on making the game fun at all completely bog htis down and make it one of the worst experiences I've had on the DS. Don't let this game happen to you!

Luminous Arc (My Score 3/5, Rated E-10)
Most strategy-RPG 'tactics' games are heavy on lengthy combat missions and light on plot above unifying story elements. Luminous Arc has a strong narrative and loads of time spent developing characters and having their tales unfold. Unfortunately none of it is particularly interesting, engaging or deep - we learn about the characters but don't care that much about what happens to them. That immediately puts the combat system as the sole hope of rescuing the game from the pile of 'yet another reasonably solid but unremarkable efforts'.

Unfortunately the battle system, while reasonably fun and challenging, is overshadowed by contenders new and old. The character-richFire Emblem GBA (of when do we get a DS game in the series!?!) games brought you into battles really caring about your 'units', and this is also true for the recent PSP game Jeanne D'Arc. Here you know your characters but never care about their plight. The game also lacks the skill system and battle depth of another GBA gameFinal Fantasy Tactics. And while it is seldom fair to use other games to judge a new one, Luminous Arc uses enough elements from all of those game types to practically invite the comparison. And while there are no glaring holes or flaws, there is also nothing that stands out - nothing that has you dragging out your DS when you know you should be going to sleep or doing something else. It is a decidedly uninspired game that you will probably enjoy for a while but if you stop to play something else you will never return, and if you do you will be hard pressed to remember Johannes or any of the others.

Heroes of Mana (My Score 2.5/5, Rated E-10)
The Nintendo DS has loads of wonderful games. This isn't one of those. It also has plenty of games that are an excellent demonstration of how well a genre could work on the system. This IS one of those. Unfortunately it fails to work very well as a game, resulting in an experience that can be summed as follows: "Heroes of Mana proves RTS games can be great on the DS, but is a mediocre game you shouldn't buy."

The Mana games have always featured real-time combat, but in Heroes of Mana the typical action-RPG combat is replaced with real-time strategy. You control a band of heroes charged with saving the world in a story that unfolds in seemingly incessant cutscenes that constantly interrupt the flow of the underlying strategy game. The implementation of the real-time strategy elements are the only redeeming elements - selecting multiple units or enemies with simple stylus movements will feel instantly comfortable for fans of genre games on the PC. Unfortunately it is not enough to carry the game, as enemies are indistinct and battles never get terribly exciting. We can only hope that Square uses this combat system as a template to build an exciting and engaging real-time strategy game in the future.

Rune Factory: A Fantasy Harvest Moon (My Score 4/5, Rated E-10)
The recent PSP game Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon took the traditional life simulation game into the future - with mediocre results. Now a new DS game comes along and adds fantasy monsters and combat to the game, and guess what - it works quite well! It doesn't start out that way - between the amnesiac main character and quirky female companion and other things that happen from the very start it feels that the game should have been called 'Cliche Factory' instead.

But soon enough the game hits its' stride - after working the farm for a while you get to start exploring some local caves, which is handled quite nicely. The classic elements are here for the most part - it retains the farming elements but changes from having animal husbandry to a system perhaps best described as 'monster mastery'. It is an effective combination that loses a bit from both parts - this is not a hardcore fantasy RPG and will therefore not satisfy some fans of that genre; neither is it a traditional Harvest Moon game and therefore some fans of those games will be turned off. But it keeps enough core elements while adding new things that provides a fresh new direction that retains enough of its' roots to satisfy most gamers for looking for something a bit different.

Nintendo DS – Coming Soon and Outlook

At the top of my 'watch list' for DS RPG's is Mazes of Fate, which is supposedly coming out sometime in October, though I've heard nothing since May. After that there are no RPG releases (though there are a couple of strategy games and of course a new Zelda game) until November, with Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker, which was very positively received in Japan. And that is all of the known DS RPG releases for the rest of the year.

Sony PSP – May / June / July Releases

D & D Tactics (My Score 3/5, Rated T)
One of my most anticipated games of the year ... failed to live up to expectations but still provided me many hours of solid D&D combat fun. Read my full RPGWatch review to get all of the gory details.

Jeanne D'Arc (My Score 4.5/5, Rated E-10)
Check out my review of this excellent strategy-RPG in the second of this month's Featured Reviews.

Brave Story: New Traveler (My score 4.5/5, Rated E-10)
Check out my review of this solid turn-based jRPG in the first of this month's Featured Reviews.

Dragoneers Aria (My Score 3/5, Rated E-10)
There are defining moments in every gamers experience - moments that link you to a game forever. One of my best moments is the Jedi Training area in Jedi Knight II - the combination of John Williams lifting score and the catharsis of coming into your powers really struck me then and continues to this day. Not one of my best moments is an early play session with Dragoneer's Aria. I was in bed in the evening, had played some of another PSP game and then switched to this one. I had already played a bit - enough to get past the first series of cutscenes and into the area where I had some control and engaged in combat. I started playing and had to wait for area loads, for drawn-out battles, for cutscenes, for everything. And before long I found myself nodding off to sleep during a battle. So that is my singular memory for Dragoneer's Aria - it managed to take me from very awake to fast asleep within about twenty minutes.

Dragoneer's Aria is a solidly mediocre game with no terrible features - nor any good ones. The story is boring and mundane, the combat system is torturously slow and makes the unfortunate choice of emulating Final Fantasy II, and the crafting system is bland and simplistic. The characters are all stereotypical and even the seemingly interesting theme of having dragons integral to the story fails as the game relies on combat to carry the day - and when I say that combat is boring, I am saying that it can easily take ten minutes to resolve a simple conflict

If Dragoneer's Aria was a book it might be called 'A Series of Mediocre Events'. However, it is a game that essentially boils down to two key attributes - boredom and frustration. It is amazing to me that as I played this game I was constantly referring back to Blade Dancer, a game I thought was deeply flawed - and thinking that it was better in almost every way! There is not a single element in this game I would call 'bad', but the way they are assembled it makes for an almost totally unenjoyable experience. I relish long games, and have no problems when a game makes it clear that I will have to level grind to survive - those are all part and parcel of being a RPG lover. But games that seem to go out of their way to waste my time raise my ire like nothing else I know.

Final Fantasy II Anniversary Edition (My Score 2/5, Rated E-10)
For many fans of the series, Final Fantasy II represents the nadir of the series - it is certainly the low-point of the early part of the franchise. With a skill leveling system that borders on masochism, Final Fantasy II did at least try some new things and offer a plot that is different from most others. However, simply trying new things isn't enough, and in the past this game was bundled up with the superior Final Fantasy I. This seems especially wise based on this release - the developers have done everything possible to 'put lipstick on this pig' as the expression goes, but it is still a vastly underwhelming game, and all of the prettying up has only served to accentuate the negatives, making this one more avoidable than ever.

It seems strange to me that whereas Final Fantasy I got overhauled in so many ways this game has been left untouched - there have been plenty of examples of usage-based skill systems since this game came out that have worked much better. Aside from that complaint, the game is not a bad addition to the Final Fantasy universe - the story has a nice depth based on the looming shadows of war and feels different due to the lack of the typical central 'crystal quest'. Most everything else is clearly part of the early Final Fantasy universe, though: the look and feel are the same, the dialogue and quest system, and the incessant random battles all carry over from the original game. Whereas the first game was and is a true classic that offers several reasons for fans to buy multiple versions, this game was best left as part of a collection such as the 2004 GBA Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls.

Riviera: The Promised Land (My Score 3/5, Rated E-10)
I actually commented on the GBA version of this game in the Roleplaying Games for Handhelds - GBA article I did almost two years ago back at RPGDot. In that I said "The storyline is captivating, the technical presentation is superb and the unique gameplay twists make for a fresh role-playing experience that’s unlike any other currently available." Fast forward to today and we get the exact same game updated slightly in terms of visual appearance and voiced dialogue but otherwise basically untouched. All of the strengths and weaknesses remain the same, only the strengths shine less and the weaknesses seem to have grown with time, resulting in a very average experience that isn't worth revisiting. Or rather, if you want to see this world again, save some money and do it on the GBA.

Most of the game works well and is a lot of fun. The interactive storytelling is engaging, the graphical presentation is richly colored and stylized, and the battle system is solid. It is a fairly easy and very linear game, and even the more challenging battles can be handled in a few different ways. First, after failing once or twice, you should know your opponents' strengths and weaknesses and be able to use them to your advantage. Second, you can restart a battle with the enemy weakened, which makes it easier, but also kills your score. Finally, after a certain point in the game you unlock ‘practice' battles, which can be used to increase your skills without wearing out your items. Spending a good amount of time with practice battles (i.e. grinding) ensures that boss fights are always winnable. Another wonderful aspect of the game is that your actions decide many outcomes including alternate endings. This actually provides a bit of replay value to a game that otherwise feels like it would only a single play.

There are a couple of things that I still didn't like, namely the mini-games and the scored combat system. In addition, while the voiced dialogue was a nice addition, the translation is not very good and having to both listen and read the terrible translations gets painful after a while. The same is true with the cutscenes and enhanced visuals - it is a nice update but you pay for it with longer load times. Overall, this is a decent game that hasn't aged well and feels like there is no reason for it to have been ported to the PSP.

Tales of The World: Radiant Mythology (Average Score 3.5/5, Rated E-10)
While this game starts with a bang - you get to fully customize your character from the very start, a rarity in the jRPG genre, and you actually get to make occasional choices through dialogue that have some impact on the overall flow of the game - it quickly abandons all visions of novelty and descends into being content as a very average and traditional addition to the Tales series. The story fizzles before it really starts and is replaced by a bunch of simple fetch quests that seem to have no purpose outside of allowing you to gain enough favor to meet and recruit members from other games in the Tales franchise. And that reveals the sole appeal of the game - by utilizing the same combat engine, including popular characters from the series and allowing players to customize the look and play style of the main character, Namco has made a game specifically tailored for loyal fans of the series. The problem is that it holds little to appeal to anyone outside of that specific group.

Sony PSP – Coming Soon and Outlook

Things are going to get pretty sparse for the next few months - mid October has the release of an updated port of the classic Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions that looks very interesting. Late October has the portable release of Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, which is an updated version of the original Disgaea PS2 strategy-RPG game. In November there is a double-pack release of classic Castlevania adventure games on a single UMD and a new Warhammer strategy game ... but neither of those are RPG's. We still don't have a release date for Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, the game that has done extremely well in Japan. Nor have we heard anything else about the PSP port of SilverFall. And that is pretty much it until the start of the new year.

Well, this has proved an interesting few months, with some reasonably good releases on the PSP for a change as well as the start of almost complete dominance of the PSP in terms of RPG releases ... now let's move on and take a look at Etrian Odyssey in some more detail.

Handheld RPG Review - Brave Story: New Traveler (PSP)

There are many famous cliches in so-called jRPG's (Japanese role playing games), to the point where it seems you could automate the entire process of building one and come up with a passable game (indeed, the Legend of Heroes games, aside from having titles that sound like they were generated by the 'name-o-matic', feel on whole like they could have been made without any human assistance). Give a kid a tragic cause, a loud friend, and send him off to conquer the root of all evil, battling thousands of mice and delivering bread all along the way.

To be very honest that is exactly what I was expecting from Brave Story: New Traveler, even after actually starting to play the game - it all seemed very familiar. The slacker hero with the friend who gets in trouble - wait, didn't I just play this on my DS? But then something happened - an amazing story full of wonderfully drawn characters that will drag you all around the map right to the very end of the story. There are still more than a few cliches left that you'll have to contend with, but they won't seem so bad because you really want to make it through the next boss battle and on to the next town to see what plot twists and turns await. As you reach the end you will realize that you have just finished the best RPG to reach the PSP thus far!

You play as a young boy named Tatsuya who is a bit of a slacker - he is out with his friend Miki, supposedly walking her dog, but he is so busy playing his PSP that he can't be bothered with anything else. So when the dog takes off and Miki goes off after her dog, he doesn't realize anything is going on until the dog returns and is pulling him along somewhere. He discovers Miki unconscious by the side of the road and rushes her to the hospital. No one can figure out what is wrong, yet she is deteriorating. Tatsuya is terribly distraught, and then a mysterious voice comes to him, telling him of a place and a way that he can get his deepest wish granted, and opens up a gateway for Tatsuya to enter. Thus begins his journey! He lands in a place called 'Vision' and is identified as a 'Traveler'. He needs to make a long journey and prove his worthiness to get his wish granted by battling through troubles throughout Vision and helping others.

This where the game fills up with some fairly typical stuff - you need to collect several gems by defeating bosses, the basic story unfolds town after town after town, and you will be inundated by thousands of random battles all along the way. The gems tie you back into the real world so you can glimpse Miki in her hospital bed and get little tidbits of the story in progress while you are away. If you have EVER played a tradition Japanese RPG on any console you know how to get started here - watch a few cutscenes, run around linearly until stuff happens, watch more scenes, run around a bit more and then get launched into a series of local maps that end up in a larger overworld map to take you to the next set of small local maps. It would be easy to dismiss this all as yet another game in the Final Fantasy mold - linear quest from town to town with random battles and level grinding and so on. But it is so much more than just that ...

Technically the game is solid throughout and truly excellent in places - the graphics have a wonderful style that mixes anime, modern Japanese RPG designs, and Batman. Batman? Yep - when you hit things in battle you will get an over-sized 'Blam!' or 'Clang' on screen in full color! This on top of character models that are extremely detailed and wonderfully 'realistic' (within their own realm, of course) and environments and dungeons that are varied and nicely drawn. Battles show close ups on all of the characters - and they look every bit as good in battle as during cutscenes. Effects are also extremely well done - skills, extra and unity attacks each have nice special effects that look stunning on screen. And non of it slows the system down - there is no noticeable lag, no stuttering, nothing to pull you out of the experience. That includes load-times; it would be reasonable to expect that such detailed and varied graphics would lead to prolonged load-times, but that isn't the case. Loads for the various zones are perhaps 10-15 seconds, and feel entirely acceptable. The soundtrack, sound effects and voices are all very well done and complement the visuals and story - but there is no getting past the fact that this is one of the best looking games on the PSP and the load times don't suffer as a result.

The combat system is another enigma - if it was a recipe it would read 'start with the same ingredients every other cake uses', then 'add stuff', and come up with the best cake you've ever tasted. OK, this isn't the best battle system you've ever seen but even if you have recently played other Final Fantasy inspired turn based battle games (or even the Anniversary releases of the first two Final Fantasy games themselves) you will still be very pleasantly surprised at how much fun you'll have in battles. The core is the very familiar system - initiative-based turns where you and your allies face off against enemies on a separate battle screen, getting options of what actions to take when it is your turn. A couple of really nice features will hit you fairly early on - the battles move quickly and your character can level up mid-battle. The speed of battles is a big deal - when you're going to face thousands of random battles over the course of the game, waiting around forever for those battles to resolve is a major drag on your enthusiasm. Fortunately the game has a nicely tuned system that speeds things along while still having plenty of animations and great-looking moves. The ability to level-up mid-battle seems odd until you gain a new skill of Bravura attack or Unity attack in the middle of battle that allows you to wipe out a tough foe.

But as they say variety is the spice of life, and so it is not enough to have quick battles with pretty animations repeated over and over ... and over again. That is where all of the special moves come in - each character gains what are called Bravura, which are special attacks or magic spells used for offense of defense. The most obvious are healing spells and power attacks, with increasing power in the Bravura skills costing more and more 'Brave Points', a rough equivalent to mana. One important difference between Brave Points and mana is that Brave Points are gained by dishing out damage to your foes in battle. Depending on the effectiveness of an attack you gain back your points based on a multiplier. For example, if you have 25 remaining Brave Points out of 30 and use an attack that requires 5 points, which will obviously leave you with 20 points (I'll leave the proof of math concepts for the reader to do as an exercise). However, if you hit effectively, perhaps even with a critical hit, you might get a 'BP Multiplier' of 2.0, meaning that you will gain BACK 10 Brave points, completely refilling your meter back to 30 points.

Unity Attacks are attacks learned through an affinity gained between two or more characters by battling together. These also require Brave Points to execute from all characters involved in the attack, but only the character that chose the Unity Attack gains back any points as a result. Another unique feature of Unity attacks is that they only count as an action for one of the characters: so if you have all three characters involved in the attack, you can still choose separate attacks for the first two and the Unity attack for the third, resulting in a potentially devastating round. Bravura skills tend to be fairly standard attacks and defense spells, but some of the Unity attacks are things like 'Bug Stomper' that does devastating to all critter-like enemies on the field. It is not exaggerating saying that a single Unity attack can turn the tide of some particularly tough battles; nor is it an exaggeration saying that a poorly timed Unity attack can seriously deplete your Brave Points and leave you extremely vulnerable.

You might be confused at this point, thinking "hey, he just spent three paragraphs gushing about the combat system after saying that what really distinguishes this game is the charming story and characters." Don't worry, I'm getting there! The story itself starts slow and highly cliched as I mentioned before, but it forms a nice basis and builds quickly and consistently into something much more engaging and enjoyable as it progresses. This is not some grand-scale tale of subterfuge and intrigue, though there are twists and turns throughout the tale. Nor is it the most gut-wrenchingly emotional epic ever told, though the gradual catharsis is thoroughly satisfying. Perhaps it is the loose and whimsical feel to much of the story, or the laugh-out-loud moments (of which there are many), or even the minor insights that play off of some of that humor that make them even more poignant. There are so many little things that just feel right in the story that you can forgive all the things done wrong. There is a striking example early in the game - you have to rescue a son who has wandered off and encounter the father who is beside himself with grief and fury over his son. But as soon as the rescue is done there is about a thirty second discussion about the boy needing more independence and then the father joins your party to travel the world forever. An even more egregious one happens later when one character says he much cannot leave, but then pretty much immediately joins up with you and leaves everything behind. Everything is explained away in terms of the impact that 'Travelers' have in Vision, how joining up to help can help everyone else as well and that it is important to all that the Traveler sees their quest through successfully. Sounds good, but it still feels like a cheap shortcut to explain away some plot inconsistencies.

Most role-playing games have a few memorable characters who captivate you and make you yearn to hear the story, and are then filled out with generic characters who could just as soon be called 'NPC114' for all you care about there existence. Once again Brave Story distinguishes itself here - early on you meet a few characters who are very well drawn and described and are truly intriguing characters - but they are actually minor characters only present for a few minutes of play. For a while you'll likely think 'I'm sure they'll be back, otherwise why would they have been so interesting'. Then you will realize - EVERY character is interesting, EVERY character motivates you to learn more about them and either like or dislike them through their actions and dialog. The main characters are truly wonderful and really suck you into the adventure - while at first the silent protagonist and loud-mouthed but good-hearted sidekick will seem trite, but there is such a warmth and strength of personality given to these characters that you will shrug off any cliche behavior and embrace their quirks and clever remarks alike.

As I have said, Brave Story: New Traveler is an extremely charming - but this is more than just the story and characters. I've gushed about them and about the visuals, the battle system, and the dialog and sounds already. But it is how it is all put together that makes the difference - you don't feel like you are meandering the world map looking aimlessly for stuff that was poorly described in order to force you into random encounters. Instead all of the random encounters and world events seem to fold naturally into the overall experience. It is part of how the game is expertly paced - I know I've harped on the speed of battles, but I cannot stand when 90% of a battle is the intro and concluding animations (I'm looking at you Final Fantasy III DS!). Brave Story has a long tale to tell, but it doesn't seem intent on wasting your time - quick load times, battles that last just the right amount of time, travel in and out of town done quickly enough to not feel tiresome, and an interface that invites you to constantly try new things without ever penalizing you for your exploration. There is even a fun optional mini-game: Bird Battles. You go to certain locations and capture birds and add them to your personal inventory and then when you meet others so inclined you can engage in light-hearted battles - these are not pit-bull fights, none of the birds actually get hurt. But you can skip that entire sideline if you want.

But nothing is perfect, right? Unfortunately that is true here as well - but the good thing is that all I have are quibbles, not complaints. I have talked about some of the storytelling inconsistencies already, but the general need to fit everything in the confines of a generic Final Fantasy style RPG definitely make you feel boxed in occasionally. Particularly with regard to characters - while the characters are charming and well done, their motivations to join you, stop you, challenge you, give you quests and so on often feel extremely contrived. Once you get past that introduction everything is fine, but it does get annoying at times. Also the very fact that this is a generic jRPG at its core places limits - if you have failed to level up enough in one area you will hit 'random' encounters what feels like every five steps until you are deemed ready for things to slow down a bit. Finally, for a game that takes its time doing most things, your visits back to the 'real world' feel extremely short and you are only given hints as to what has been happening. I would have loved to spend more time there with each visit, seen more things - but perhaps that is more an indicator of how much more I wanted to engage the story rather than a flow in the presentation.

Flaws and all, Brave Story: New Traveler is the best RPG so far on the PSP. Feeling fresh and familiar and hitting all the right notes in terms of technical details and storytelling, this is a memorable experience that has dozens of hours of fun ready for any Traveler ready to take the challenge. And if you have a PSP, it would be a shame to miss this one - it has apparently not sold well Japan and has had little publicity for the releases in the rest of the world, so it is up to PSP owners to grab this one up and spread the word!

Oh, and one last thing - amongst the items in the game is The Legendary Rod of a Forgotten Idol, which is called ... the Sanjaya Staff!

Pros and Cons

+ Wonderful characters and many funny moments
+ Doesn't waste your time
+ Excellent combat system.
+ Fun OPTIONAL mini-games.
+ Very nice story unfolds unexpectedly
- Spent too much time shopping at Cliche's R Us
- Too little time in 'visits'
- Starts off slow and typical enough you might not get to the good stuff.

Final Score

Taking what looked to be yet another generic Final Fantasy clone and turning it into one of the best games on the PSP is no mean feat, yet that is exactly what this game manages - it is solid and well done, but also loads of fun and never wastes the players time. It is an easy recommendation that I rate as a 4.5 / 5 star game.

Handheld RPG Review - Jeanne D'Arc (PSP)

Every child knows the story of Joan of Arc, the girl who was chosen by an armband that ended up being somewhat of an antenna to God. They know how she led an army consisting of talking lions and a wolf that speaks like Scooby-Doo and rained Fireballs on some English soldiers led by a crazy guy with multiple lives as she fought to end the English occupation.

What? That isn't the story you learned? Oh well, education continues to fail our children. Seriously, no one will mistake Level 5's wonderful new strategy-RPG game as a history lesson, as it takes broad license with the facts and timeline of her rise in fame and legend as she fought to retake occupied areas of England. The choices made were done to provide more gameplay options and help the story flow more naturally. And all of the changes made work excellently - the story and game flow along nicely and naturally, producing an excellent strategy-RPG accompanied by and excellent narrative, which is quite a rarity.

Get this - the game features four levels of cutscenes in addition to some in-mission banter and development. There is some character-to-character dialogue, in-game cutscenes, more broad cutscenes still using the game engine and finally fully rendered CGI scenes for major events. All of it looks wonderful and makes some of the best use of the the PSP hardware I have seen. It isn't that it is overall the most spectacular graphically, but it forms a well balanced continuum. Since the early days of video games we have looked at pictures on boxes that were never matched by the in-game graphics. Then games went to full motion video and things got even worse; with the advent of CGI there has been more effort to match the look and feel, but all too often we see amazing things in the cutscenes only to look at strange-looking chibi characters with little resemblance to the movies outside of perhaps hair color. In Jeanne D'Arc the high-resolution CGI characters look very much like the ones in the in-engine scenes as well as the combat avatars. It sounds trivial but it forms a continuum that draws you further into the story by keeping you solidly engaged with each character and the overall flow of the plot.

The excellence in the graphical presentation is matched in just about every other technical aspect of the game. The soundtrack is wonderful and quite enjoyable - the main theme is rousing and memorable, and I looked forward to hearing it even after dozens of hours spent playing the various missions. The music changes to suit the area and there is battle music, scene music and full cutscene audio with appropriate background sounds. There is some voice acting in the CGI scenes, but most dialogue isn't voiced. The controls and interface are similarly well thought out. I never felt like I was battling the game to get something done - if I wanted to move someplace legal, the game would let me move all over illegal spots to get there and figure out the best path. The interface is consistent throughout - if you are between missions and want to outfit your party in an area with no shop the interface is the same as going to a town to buy goods. Help is easily accessible at all times and plenty of information is provided to guide you through deciding what to buy for each party member. My only complaint would be that some of the load times were long - I have no issue waiting ~30 seconds to load a mission, but waiting 15-30 to switch from the main screen to the shop, then another 15 or so to reach the save screen and the same amount of time to work backwards gets tiresome after a while.

But enough about the technical minutia - how does the game play? If you have ever played a classic 'tactics' style game such as 'Final Fantasy Tactics' then you will feel immediately at ease. Selecting a town will allow you to engage in the mission, typically set off with some form of curscene. After the scene you are given a number of units to place in a preset area of the map. Certain missions require certain party members but in general you can decide to leave or keep anyone aside from Jeanne or the current mission leader, who is always required. Once you place your units, the battle begins with the player getting the first phase of the first turn. Each mission has a limited number of turns, which can at times present a greater challenge than the combat goals! For example, in one mission your goal is to get from one side of the map to the other in a certain amount of turns. Of course, the enemy goal is to stop you crossing the same area, so you will have to battle your way strategically towards your target. The first time I attempted this I spent too long in battle attempting to wipe out the enemy force and ended up three squares away from my goal as the turn limit expired ... so I got to repeat the battle.

Each turn is divided up into phases - there are phases for the player, enemy and neutral characters, with each unit getting two actions per turn. The turn order for units is completely controlled by the player - the focus initially starts on the leader, but there is no 'initiative list' or other constraint to choosing any other unit. In fact that is an important strategic element - choosing your attack order to maximize damage is critical to making it through battles. Once you select a unit you can execute their two actions. There are movement actions and combat actions, with only one of each allowed per turn. The movement action must come first since combat actions end the character's turn; you can move them to any legal square on the map within their movement range. Each character has a movement range, but it isn't dependent on encumbrance or armor as it would be in a D&D game. Once your move is complete you can select a combat action - these include attacks, skills, using items, or simply waiting.

The combat system itself is simple yet quite engaging due to the strategy required to out-think and out-maneuver your opponent. The conditions for success or failure on a mission are clearly spelled out, and success typically involves eliminating all enemies or a specific enemy or making it to a specified location. Failure results from all allies falling, the leader falling or the character you're escorting falling in battle. In pretty much every case your enemy has a vast strategic advantage at the start of the battle in terms of positioning - you are clustered in one spot at the beginning of the map and they are spread throughout, typically already occupying high ground and turrets and other strongholds. You need to move your units into positions to most effectively strike without setting yourself up to take too much damage. One interesting constraint is that you can only attack on the four cardinal directions - there are no diagonal attacks. This makes movement and positioning more of a chess game of thinking ahead to ensure you can deliver damage to your opponents before they reach you. The combat attacks you have at your disposal depend on your class, but include archery, sword and shield, axe, spear and magic. Each character can also get special weapon-specific skills by equipping 'skill stones'. Skill stones are one of the key items in the game - there are active and passive direct combat stones, magic spell stones and stat enhancement stones. In addition, at a certain point in the game you obtain a way to enhance the skill stones to make these critical items even more useful!

I mentioned that deciding turn order is critical to success in battle. An example of this would be having three characters in range of an enemy knight using a sword. Assuming the three characters are an archer, a rogue and a spear-wielder, you would have multiple ways to approach the battle. The goal would be to take the knight out in a single turn while taking as little damage in return as possible. So you might have the spear-wielder attack first from two squares away on the front, doing significant damage, lowering enemy resistance and taking no damage in return (since the knight has a one square attack range). Next the archer would attack, doing nearly the same damage as the spear (had the archer attacked first the damage would have been lower), and leaving the knight with less than one third of his original health. The rogue moves behind the knight to the 'flaming circle' for a back-attack, which is further augmented by the 'burning aura' effect from the spear attack (this works similar in effect to a flanking bonus in D&D). Whereas a frontal attack as the first move would have done little damage and suffered a brutal counter-attack from the knight, the rogue now has a significant advantage and easily deals enough damage to finish off the knight without suffering any damage.

As is true with any strategy game or RPG, gaining experience and leveling your units is critical. In Jeanne s'Arc, this is done in combat - you gain experience by attacking, casting spells, healing others or yourself, or using items. Delivering the finishing blow on an enemy gains you the most experience. Completing missions gains you bonus experience based on numerous factors related to how successfully you carry out your strategic combat, which is divided up equally between all of your party members.

Once you have completed a mission (and watched any subsequent cutscenes) you have many options. You can find a shop in a previous location to buy and sell items, or continue following the story to the next area, or replay one of the previous missions in 'Free Combat' mode. The game encourages you to replay missions to enhance your characters and earn more gold by changing the enemies you meet in the story mode and the free combat modes. Free Combat serves several purposes - first you will find that the game assumes you will have reached a level based on some amount of replay, so if you don't then you will often be too low-level to successfully complete a mission. It also allows you to learn - trying different approaches for the same battle is a wonderful way to develop your strategic skills. Finally, you will generally have more units than you can deploy, and will likely develop favorite combinations. This means that some units will be underutilized and not level up as fast as others. Taking those members back through Free Combat missions is a great way to even out your party so that you can call upon an even greater breadth of skills for a mission.

As you continue through the game you will become more and more engaged with the characters and story, and you will be surprised by the various twists and turns the plot takes along the way. It is wonderful and amazing in a game that is focused on a series of tactical combat missions that you get such a wonderful story to carry you through the many hours you will play. It isn't perfect - there is a certain simplicity to the combat based on only attacking on the ordinal directions, and some of the dialogue doesn't flow very well, but in general it is a solid and fun game that you won't want to put down until the very end.

Pros and Cons

+ Beautiful cutscenes.
+ Excellent combat system.
+ Very accessible yet challenging difficulty
+ Excellent level design
- Limitations make combat simplistic at times
- Lacks the full strategic depth of games like FF Tactics
- Dialogue feels strange at times.

Final Score and Game Info

Jeanne d'Arc is a wonderfully fun game that delivers a nice combat experience wrapped around a nice evolving story with some fun twists and turns. It doesn't have the full strategic depth of the best games in the genre but makes up for it with a great focus on characters. It is one of the best games in any genre on the PSP so far, and is another easy recommendation that I rate as a 4.5 / 5 star game.
Box Art