Arcana (SNES) review
I'm tempted to describe Arcana with just this one word, and leave it at that. It certainly isn't an inaccurate assessment; aside from the possible distinction of being one of the only first-person dungeon crawlers on the SNES, Arcana has nothing unique to offer. Though it's playable and lacks any gaping flaws, I fail to find anything to praise about Aracana.
But somehow, there's always a little voice in my head telling me that Arcana is actually brilliant, and that I am a fool for not realizing it. You see, Arcana isn't one of those games that immediately grab your attention - there's little to distinguish it from the dozens of mediocre RPGs that fade into obscurity. Yet do some research on it, read its instruction manual on the net, and you'll eventually convince yourself that this is different. There seems to be some sort of hidden beauty beneath Arcana's unassuming exterior, and you will want to find it. We all like to feel proud about our purchases, and for one glorious moment after turning the game on, you'll know that you've just located one of the SNES's forgotten classics.
Then the dull exterior comes off, and you're left with a dull game.
Arcana did have a lot going for it. It was one of the first US-released games to revolve around the concept of cards. You play as Rooks, a young man who is the last surviving Card Master. The art of the cards allows Rooks to summon elemental card spirits to fight at his side, as well as use ''generic'' cards to cast magical spells in battle. It's clear that Arcana takes its card theme seriously; when enemies and characters appear in first-person view, they are actually portrayed as cards with an appropriate portrait painted on them.
The cards also promise to be the focal point of battling. A complex and impressive-looking elemental flow chart is displayed in Arcana's manual, and it is explained that you must use the powers of the elements to your advantage in order to succeed in Arcana. Enemies, as said before, appear as cards, and its elemental affinity may be deduced from the color of its card border. Each element is weak against another (both offensively and defensively) and strong against another. It's exciting to see a game finally make magic an important part of regular battling; in most console RPGs, after all, the use of magic involves no more strategy than ''hoard all your magic points for the big boss, and then unleash all your most powerful spells!''
But Arcana never lives up to this promise; magic, in fact, turns out to be even more pointless than usual. Consider that in the first dungeon, both Rooks and his female companion can dispatch an enemy in one physical attack; then consider that, even against an enemy weak against wind, your card spirit's wind-elemental spell requires three or four castings to kill an enemy. Spells do have the benefit of hitting every enemy in the battle, but there's little chance of that happening. You see, spells can miss in Arcana, and they do so at an alarming rate. A spell cast on a group of four or five enemies (which is fairly normal for the game), will hit every target... oh, maybe one every three times.
That's not all. The animations of the spells are terrible; even Final Fantasy 2, which came out a year earlier, had drastically better spell effects. What's more, in Arcana each spell animation hits only one individual enemy. If you cast a spell on a group of five, you see the crappy animation five times, each time hitting a different enemy (if you're lucky, of course - usually, you'll see two or three even more infuriating ''[the spell] had no effect on Slime B'' messages). As if to further discourage you using magic, your characters have a puny supply of magic points; a mage-class character that joins you later on has exactly four castings of her attack spell before she runs out MP. Even if you have admirable patience, decide to accept misses as a fact of life, and stock up on MP-restoring items, you'll still be deterred by the game's delightfully descriptive spell names such as ''Attribute 6''!
So magic is out. It's certainly possible, though, to just go through the game with just your physical attacks. It's still your standard first-person dungeon crawler, although an in-game map which automatically plots every tile in the dungeon that you've covered takes away the fun of drawing your own maps and figuring out the layout of a dungeon yourself. But without the strategic thought the elemental system promised, Arcana is disappointingly simplistic. No enemy ever poses a threat; a fairly common item can fully heal the party anywhere outside of battle. You can even buy items that permanently raise your statistics in the second town! The dungeons, largely thanks to the auto-map, are of no difficulty at all. Even the third dungeon, a twisting labyrinth likely longer than the rest of the game combined, can elict nothing more than a bored ''when will it ever ennnnnd?'' comment than any true frustration.
The text introduction may convince you that the story is Arcana's saving grace. Although there are a few typoes and odd wordings here and there, it does make it seem that Arcana will be the rare ''old-school'' RPG with a truly complex plot and well-realized characters. The first chapter continues this illusion; Rooks is contacted by a childhood friend who seems to have gone over to the ''other side'', and is persuaded that is friend is actually trying to work for the forces of good. This promising start then crumbles before your very eyes, and by chapter three it is likely that you won't even know what's going on. And see that one-screen-large map of mostly green plains and one or two towns and mountains scattered across it? That's your entire overworld. An improvement, certainly, over the ''one town, one dungeon'' set-up of many other games of the genre, but enough to dispel any illusion that Arcana will offer an immersive world.
Save its rather unique approach to depicting the characters and enemies, Arcana's graphics are nothing special. The dungeon walls lack variety, but they are pleasing enough so that you won't mind staring at the same pattern for hours. The enemies do have some attack animations, quite unusual for an era where RPG enemies were mostly unmoving portraits that flash when they're supposed to attack, but soon it becomes obvious that many of the attack animations are recycled over and over again. The music is just as nondescript, offering a soundtrack of approximately six utterly forgettable songs that repeat over and over again.
So Arcana is an average game. Mediocre, even. But there's just something about it that makes me want to like it. I want to be immersed in the world of Elemen it creates, pathetically small it may be. I want to learn more about Rooks, Ariel, Salah, and the remaining members of its cast, cardboard-like as they are. I want it to challenge me, intrigue me, entertain me. There is something about Arcana that makes me want it, and no other game, to be the one game I'll look back on as the best RPG I've ever played.
And yet Arcana stubbornly refuses to be the game it could have been. Few games feel as incomplete as it does; It almost feels as if Arcana's developers came up with the brilliant ideas, trashed them midway through development, and decided to just code a mediocre game to cover them up. Perhaps I'm being too harsh on Arcana. I'd likely give an identical dungeon crawler with no plot, a less inspired magic system, and less charm a higher score. But Arcana does have a plot and an inspired magic system and loads of charm; for butchering all of these, and for utterly failing to live up to its potential, I deem it less than the average game it would have been.
Community review by lurkeratlarge (January 11, 2004)
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