Arc Rise Fantasia – Staff Review

I’m led to believe that hating on Japanese RPGs is the “in” thing right now. Yes, they were pioneering and revolutionary back in their heyday, that magical time around the fourth and fifth console generations (and specifically the SNES and PS1) when cartoony, sprite-based graphics were the norm and any semblance of an intricate plot was head and shoulders above the competition.

That said, Arc Rise Fantasia is a fairly standard JRPG. Brooding protagonist with oversized sword, quiet, sheltered healer girl, semi-fantasy setting, colorful character designs, it’s all there. And it’s better than the haters would lead you to believe.

Congratulations! You’ve chosen to actually read this review, which means at least you’re morbidly curious enough to find out why I spoke somewhat highly of this game. The truth is, that sense of inquiry alone qualifies you to potentially enjoy Arc Rise Fantasia. If you’re not constantly assessing the situation, trying to make sense of what’s going on, and occasionally finding your understanding to be invalid or subverted, then you’re just going to have a standard JRPG on your hands. And you’ll complain that it’s a standard JRPG, because you’re engaging it on much too passive a level.

I realize I’ve become known for describing things in terms of other things, so for those of you who can keep up, here goes: A plot that slams together the political intrigue of Final Fantasy Tactics and the “beloved enemy” complex of Radiata Stories, combined with the “parallel-party” concept from Mana Khemia 2, with a semi-tactical battle system that operates like Last Rebellion meets Star Ocean (but turn-based) and weapon customization that melds elements from Final Fantasy IX and Mega Man Battle Network 3. Also, Moonraker and Independence Day, for whatever reason. Don’t scoff, it works. Trust me.

Got all that? Good. It’s part of the curse of being media-savvy; you begin to realize there are really very few “original” ideas, just permutations of what’s been done before. Mana Khemia was one such permutation, and it was fantastic.

Don't waste your money on the Blackjack or Slots, just go straight for Poker.
Don’t waste your money on the Blackjack or Slots, just go straight for Poker.

Let’s take it from the top. You’ve got a Protagonist, Quiet Healer, Suave Thief, Stoic Swordsman, Gun Bunny, and Precocious 12-year-old. You begin as a mercenary, but after being cornered in a strange dungeon/lighthouse/power station… thing… the dragon-thing what inhabits said facility grants you his power under terms and conditions that you’re unprepared to contest, or even parse at the time. After skipping past the EULA (and stomping the adversary), you learn that said mystical being was being kept there as an energy source for the Empire, so your epic-moment-of-power-up is now causing brownouts all over the place. The prince of the empire (not the one on your team) demands that you infiltrate a rival nation and knock out their equipment what’s been hampering the Empire’s use of some natural Lifestream-like fuel supply. And then your adoptive sister…

Y’know what? I’m gonna stop it there. Suffice it to say we were about to get into rather spoiler-ish territory, and the story is of sufficient quality that I’d feel very, very bad about it. Playing through Arc Rise Fantasia made me recall some of the better stories I’d played through… specifically those mentioned before, Final Fantasy Tactics and Radiata Stories. I reiterate my previous statement, though: this is the kind of game that welcomes your speculation.

And now for something completely different: Gameplay. In standard RPG form, you have armor, footwear, and accessories to upgrade, fiddle with, and obsess over throughout the course of the game. Weapons, though, work a little differently. Each weapon contains within it a 4×4 grid, several cells of which will be covered with gem-looking things. Some of these, in black, are intrinsic to that particular weapon and cannot be moved; the rest can be manipulated, slid, removed, or stored for later use. The catch is that said grid starts at 3×3, concealing and locking down certain elements and limiting the modifications that can be made… until a number of weapon points are obtained. As WPs are accrued, the weapon levels up, (usually) first expanding the grid to 3×4, then unlocking the onboard gem for removal/placement on another weapon, then finally expanding to the full 4×4 grid. (Further, if a fully unlocked weapon’s grid is completely filled with gems, the weapon will exhibit another “secret” trait/bonus/upgrade.)

And, yes, you can equip a can of insecticide.
And, yes, you can equip a can of insecticide.

That’s great and fun to fiddle with, but what do you do with those weapons? Why, you beat up local irrationally-hostile wildlife, of course! (And undead, and magical constructs, and elementals, and whatnot.) Arc Rise Fantasia continues the trend of using Action Points to limit your choices on a particular turn. Each “round” of combat restores your AP by a set amount, while some unused AP may roll over to the next round if unspent. Each character contributes to the starting and maximum AP of the party, but during combat no distinction is made as to whose AP is whose. That said, three people will each carry out one attack much faster than one person will carry out three attacks… at least until chain attacks become available. A timeline at the bottom of the screen informs you of the foes’ tactics, which foes are acting when, and when your actions will occur in relation to theirs.

It’s a lot of information. A heck of a lot of information. As such, particularly epic boss battles – and you’ll have a difficult time finding a boss fight here that isn’t a knock-down, drag-out affair – can quickly become a chess match, as you plan each move more carefully than the last, dissect the opponents’ strategy, and (quite often) have your butt handed to you and consider how best to alter your weapons to give yourself a better chance. Most folks don’t like JRPGs because of the demand for level grinding; Arc Rise Fantasia places less emphasis on said grinding and more on trial-and-error problem solving. (Until you face the last boss some 13 levels too early and just get pummeled. Oh well.)

Also of note is the magic system, a very open-ended model that takes the old Dungeons and Dragons/Final Fantasy design and runs with it. Each character has an “orb” into which gems are placed; the strength and position of the gems determines that character’s usable magic. In combat, said spells can be altered into stronger forms by synchronizing casts between party members, or by the presence of a crystal of the appropriate element on the field, or (if in a pinch) having the same character cast the same spell twice in succession. This latter tactic, while effective, can quickly create problems as each character is limited to 9 casts at any given spell level.

All right, enough pussyfooting around. Let’s get to the sound. Yes, the Yasunori Mitsuda music is great, if a little forgettable (except perhaps for the final dungeon, with that big abstract bassline), but the vocal work… dear Imaginal, Real, Easa, whichever god you wish, it’s just Capital-B-Like-It’s-Not-Thriller Bad. And it’s heartbreaking because the one voice that stuck out at me, Liam O’Brien as Prince Alf, could’ve been so much better. To go from great performances – Akihiko in Persona 3, Goto in Mana Khemia 2 – to this? It’s not that the localization is bad, per se; some of the mid-combat banter seems so well-written and timely… but the performances just seem… wooden, like the actors themselves are as jaded on JRPGs as the rest of the industry seems to be.

So, of course, there’s no Japanese language option. (Else I would’ve used it. Heck, I spent several hours with the vocal effects muted.) I don’t think I’m quite happy with this, one of the great advancements of the sixth console generation (read: the PS2), being thrown to the wayside.

It pains me. And I know that folks will take just that, just the gripe about the vocal work, to the bank and continue their “lolJapan” stance. And it pains me. The rest of the mechanics of the game, the rest of the storyline, the rest of the character interactions are so good, so much so that I expect some will write me off as some weeaboo shill, insisting that these tired JRPGs are still good. And it pains me. Because they still are.

Arc Rise Fantasia seems just cliche enough to scare off those who wouldn’t give it a fair shake anyway, while pleasantly surprising anyone with the resolve to get 10 hours in. It’s almost as if it’s saying, “Yeah, haters gonna hate, but wait and see what’s next.” I did, and I feel better for it. You can too.

Played to completion on a retail copy. This one’s for Niko.



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