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La Pucelle: Tactics (PlayStation 2) artwork

La Pucelle: Tactics (PlayStation 2) review

"Each character can carry four items, and there are no class restrictions. What this means is that you have full control over how each team member evolves. Do you want a badass magic user who also has armor more powerful than a locomotive? Not a problem. Just buy the right gear and equip it, then watch your character mow down the opposition without a care in the world."

It’s tempting to look back on life and wonder what would have happened if things went just a little bit differently. What if you took the other road home that day after school when it was raining, and you didn’t meet your new best friend? How would your life have been different? Little incidents can make big changes. It’s true of life in general, and also of the video game industry itself. What if Disgaea: Hour of Darkness had never been localized by Atlus? What if fans didn’t recognize that for the astonishingly good tactical RPG that it was? And what if someone at Mastiff hadn’t been paying attention? Then, well… us Americans wouldn’t have been able to experience La Pucelle Tactics. The world would have been a much darker place indeed.

Like Disgaea, La Pucelle Tactics starts out simple and grows massive by the game’s conclusion. The game opens with the introduction of three characters central to the plot. The first of these is Prier, a young girl who believes that she will become a hero known as the Maiden of Light, a person destined to defeat another entity dubbed the Dark Prince (he has this theory that destroying all humans will make the world a better place). She’s just passed her exorcist examination, so all looks good for her to accomplish her dreams. Then there’s her brother Culotte, who also has a French-sounding name and big ambitions. The two of them are orphans raised in a church by a kind old man named Father Salade, along with a mentor named Alouette. As the plot develops, they’ll embark on little expeditions to solve local mysteries. Over time, these pieces of a mysterious puzzle develop into a world-encompassing canvas as they meet other characters (some friends, some not) and learn that someone is looking to return the Dark Prince to prominence so he can create a gut-wrenching world the main villain feels is a ‘utopia.’

Without spoiling a few high-impact plot twists, it’s not possible to do the story justice, but you should trust me as a huge fan of Disgaea when I say that La Pucelle Tactics tells a much richer tale. There’s no direct connection between the two storylines, so don’t expect to be reunited with old friends, but the characters this time around are so good you won’t care. The team that did the voice acting is really top-notch. They infused each character with the appropriate emotions and it’s only a few spoken lines of dialogue that are bothersome at all. Everything’s on-screen, too, so you can enjoy the tale even if you’re hearing impaired. Or if you like Japanese, you can listen to the tale in that language instead (the original tracks were preserved and can be selected from the game’s ‘customization’ menu).

Naturally, you won’t always care about the protagonists’ feelings (which are explored rather extensively in the case of each ‘human’) as you will their ability to kick butt and take names when it comes time to tramp across the battlefield. Thankfully, this is where La Pucelle Tactics most excels, in some ways even beyond what was possible in Disgaea. It’s quite possible to spend five or six hours doing nothing more than leveling up characters… and love it!

Just as an example, suppose you decide that Prier needs to be your most powerful character. You focus most of your energy developing her attacks, then. When it comes time to buy weapons, you look at the list and notice there are several options. One is a powerful sword, but then you notice what appears to be a weaker blade. You almost dismiss it, but then you see a small icon listed. Grinning, you equip her with that weapon as an investment. As she raises her levels, your risk pays off: quickly, she overtakes the strength she would have had with the ‘more powerful’ blade you avoided, because the weapon’s attributes have strengthened her as her levels crept toward their maximum. Meanwhile, you’ve equipped her with armor that carries other attributes, and possibly even another weapon. Each character can carry four items, and there are no class restrictions. What this means is that you have full control over how each team member evolves. Do you want a badass magic user who also has armor more powerful than a locomotive? Not a problem. Just buy the right gear and equip it, then watch your character mow down the opposition without a care in the world.

The system works remarkably well, and it makes level progression downright addictive. There’s another reason to increase the strength each of your humans possess, though: it helps you convince monsters to join your cause.

Picture a battlefield, tilted to its side in an isometric view. If it helps, envision something along the lines of Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre. As a battle begins, the enemies dot the landscape like pimples on a teenager’s nose. A blue panel serves as your base, from which you draw your chosen warriors. You can engage up to eight of your team in a single battle (provided you have that many allies, which you soon will). Once they are deployed you can tell them where to move, then issue attack commands appropriate for their range. Raise levels and the distance a given character can move (as well as the radius for spell casting) increases. Early on, it can be quite fun to buff up your characters, but eventually you realize you need to gain more allies. When it comes time to do this, you’ll have to employ what the game calls it’s ‘Purify’ command. This is how you enter dark portals, and it’s how you recruit devious monsters to join the team.

Any low-level monster you notice in a battle can be convinced to join your team. When you start out, the villain likes you about as much as you like the goon who cuts you off in traffic. Casting the ‘Purify’ command gives you a chance to persuade the monster that the grass is greener on your side of the fence. If enough of the team gets in on the act, the game will eventually tell you when the monster ‘will join no matter what.’ Then you just wipe its health meter clean and it joins the team. You can even call it to battle in that same round, provided you have space available in your line-up. The result is that each new enemy you encounter is at first quite exciting. You’ll find yourself enthusiastic when an opponent casts a spell that obliterates your front lines: “Oh, wow, I’ve got to add that skill to my team!” The concept truly is exciting.

Unfortunately, it’s at about this point that La Pucelle Tactics starts to lose some of its luster. By the time I finished the game, I’d realized there really aren’t that many varieties of monsters roaming the world. You’ll become sick of the bear-shaped enemies, the flame-shaped monsters and the assorted other baddies quite soon, and the minute you do you’ll notice there are perhaps twenty different enemy shapes in total, if not less. Not only that but, thanks to the skill-sharing nature of the game, many of them only have a few unique attacks and otherwise rely on the same basic methods. Definitely a case where Disgaea releasing here first (with its almost endless array of options) worked to La Pucelle Tactics’ detriment.

Another example is the game’s overall length. If you work at leveling your characters intelligently and you don’t make a lot of mistakes, it’s possible to finish the game in under 40 hours (despite the 120 promised on the packaging). Though Nippon Ichi thoughtfully included multiple endings for each chapter, they don’t vary substantially one from the next. You’ll only care about the differences because of extra items received when ‘Good Ending’ flashes on the screen (as opposed to ‘Normal Ending’ or even ‘Bad Ending’). Since there are only twelve chapters and no after-game festivities (your progress isn’t saved as the final credits role, and the majority of the chapter must be played in one time-consuming sitting), the paths you can take through the game don’t diverge much at all.

About the only way to add length to your time spent with La Pucelle Tactics is to recruit more monsters and spend time leveling them up, but even this project grows old after awhile. Then your only relief comes from the Dark Portals.

Ah, yes, the portals. If you played Disgaea, you may remember a series of icons littering the field that had significant effect on how battles played out. In La Pucelle Tactics, things are different. Look at any battlefield and you’ll notice diamond-shaped tiles that emit strange lines of magic, like trickling currents of water. Step in a stream and the water will flow from that point in whatever direction you face. In this manner, you can set up a string of characters that move the flow in any pattern desired. When one character purifies the root of this elongated string, each panel will burst and potentially help you or damage your opponents. Bring the stream full-circle to increase this effect. It’s not as deep as the system in Disgaea, but it definitely works and it can be fun to toy with the feature when you’re interested in playing around.

There’s another reason for those portals, too: they can eventually serve as the entrance to an alternate world with a series of ten dungeons. Play any one map long enough without purifying its portals and the map’s dark element will increase until a mysterious portal to that alternate reality appears. Venture inside and you will find yourself at the start of a gauntlet (similar to but inferior to the ‘Item World’ in Disgaea). Reach the end and you’ll be awarded not only with experience points gleaned, but also a powerful item. If you’re the right sort of person, this alternate reality can be strangely alluring.

Still, many gamers who came for the story won’t find such (admittedly bland) distractions pleasing at all. They’ll want to find what will happen next to the characters and the world they inhabit. As the game reaches its conclusion, each delay will irritate to an increasing degree, and so I have to say that the final chapter can be downright irritating.

Throughout most of the game, you can select how much time you want to devote to the game. If you only have an hour to spare, sit down and play through a few maps, stopping after each one to return to the world map and save. Your characters will be fully re-energized and you won’t have to sit through the story sequences you just read if a battle or a power surge should happen to end your game. The final chapter changes this somewhat.

Suddenly, you find that a character you may not even have used to this point must be made quite strong or he won’t be able to defeat a monster the plot compels him to fight alone. So you spend a few hours leveling him up, hating it the whole time because the plot isn’t advancing at all and the stupid game shouldn’t force such a thing upon you. Then, finally, he’s built like a brick outhouse and no demon can phase him. You rush him onto the battlefield and the battle ends with you the victor (after quite a bit of text beforehand). Instead of allowing you to save, the game then subjects you to a bunch more text, then a series of around five battles culminating with the boss encounter. Getting this far can take hours, and there’s literally no chance to save. Then if you beat the game, there’s a bunch more reading before you’ve seen everything. What this means is that you absolutely must set aside a few hours of your time when you know you’re about to beat the game. Quite honestly, it’s ridiculous.

Fortunately, the game is not plagued with such flaws. For the most part, La Pucelle Tactics is every bit the well-crafted gem you may have come to expect from Nippon Ichi. Like I said, it’s got a great plot and a rewarding combat system. It also has terrific localization and even some stirring musical compositions that will tear at your heart strings precisely when they should. It’s funny, it’s cute, it’s epic and challenging. It’s La Pucelle Tactics and you should buy it today.

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Staff review by Jason Venter (August 29, 2004)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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