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Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits (PlayStation 2) artwork

Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits (PlayStation 2) review

"Arc: Twilight of the Spirits often feels more about toil than reward."

There's an unsung element hidden within the many ranks of the RPG genre, one that receives its fair share of unfair criticism yet still stands tall despite the tainted words thrown at it; the oft-mocked tropes that those blind to the subtle and masterful stereotypes employed within declare overused or tired. Those naysayers are fools, ones who appreciate not the sturdiness and reliability bought from this very system over the years! The staple points of plot may very well be something all games of this ilk share, but have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? The answer, dear reader, is because the genre needs them, thrives on them and would be ultimately lost without them. Certainly, most RPGs gleefully recycle the same inelegant narrative and the same elephantine idiosyncrasies time and time again, but this is something akin to tucking into our favourite meal or partaking in a preferred track of music; it makes us feel safe and warm inside. It feels like home.

Ladies and Gentleman, if this spiel of poppycock was true, Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits would be on the receiving end of a 10/10 review.

[To see what a 10/10 review looks like, please go here, here and not here.]

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits (PlayStation 2) image

Meet Kharg, one half of Arc's dual-protagonist program. Between them, these two happily check the box of every last stereotypical trait that has plagued RPGs since its pencil and paper days. Kharg is a descendant from royalty, has a super-strong sense of justice, a strange birthmark that is mystically referenced to every half chance the game gets, and travels with his childhood friend, Paulette, who has a mad crush on the guy that he fails to notice. Kharg loves and reveres his chums and adores his homeland of Yewbell, which, as second-in-command to the aptly named Defence Force[!], he will defend aggressively from the evil Ditzwald empire and the warlike monster-esque race of deimos. He is loved by his village's citizenship, is the pride of Lloyd, commander of the Defence Force and father to Paulette, and is chastised by his overly protective mother, who presses upon him the need to be without hate. Because hate leads to suffering, leans him towards the dark side, and promises a cataclysmic confrontation with Sith-Lord Vader. Or something.

His undistinguished voice actor will even offer such cringe-worthy cries as "Justice will prevail!" during battle. Seriously, next time you get into a ruckus with someone, yell out "Courage and kindness are real power!" and see how far that gets you.

Note: he really does say that. Big emphasis on 'real'.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits (PlayStation 2) image

On the other side of the spectrum, we have Darc, the predictably angsty one. Orphaned at a young age, he is whisked into slavery by the toad-like mage, Greebo and lives in abject poverty. Born a human-deimos hybrid, he is looked down upon and taunted by the race his dying father begged him to save. Indeed, it won't be long into meeting Darc that you are shown a flashback of his deathbed-ridden dad, fading away with the final words of "Darc, it's up to you to save the deimos race!" Nothing like a little bit of peer pressure to start one's young life. And so, Darc is angry and bitter towards the race he is supposed to saviour as they heartlessly label him a deimos-wannabe. Which, you know, is quite the stinging slur. He continues to toil under Greebo's heavy hand, bottling up hatred and rage towards everyone. Oh, and he has a strange birthmark that is mystically referenced to every half chance the game gets.

Just to prove he's full of hate, his voice actor not only sounds like he has the world's strongest throat cold, but he'll yell out such angry phrases as "Die! Take this!" and "Next time you're dead!" while in battle. For someone wearing a sarong, he's quite the violent man-demon thingy.

Arc will jump between these two leads as the game progresses, allowing each protagonist to gather their own parties in an intertwining set of paths that will constantly let the player gain insight into each side's perspective. Kharg will swiftly collect Paulette, the aforementioned childhood chum who swings a pretty mean sling in contrast to his more commonly seen sword, while Darc will pick up the Orcan girl, Delma, both deimos preferring to wade into battle using their talon-laden claws. Other members will gravitate towards our young heroes such as the archer, Maru, a savage jungle-lad with illusions of princehood and a keen eye for a bow, or the Lupine warrior Volk. This hulking wolfman swings a crescent axe and holds command of a respectable smattering of wind and ice magic. Further warriors such as ex-merc, Ganz and nature-driven healer, Camellia will all make appearances as the game goes on, but not only do they remain as rooted in stereotyping as the leads they follow, they unfailingly hold oft-loose reasonings to HATE AND DESPISE a member of the opposite party.

Note: Delma also has a crush on Darc. He also fails to notice this.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits (PlayStation 2) image

[A brief aside should be made to note that one of Darc's party, Bebedora, breaks this mold by managing to be an awesomely original character. She's a man-made monster that wields the power to turn foes into puppets, effectively killing them and turning them against former allies in one foul swoop. Her childlike voice actor manages to exhume a macabre edge that the rest of the cast lacks and the quotes she comes up with are suitably chilling. She'll giggle happily when damaged, mock beaten foes in an emotionless tone and casually comment that darkness will devour everything in a believable delivery. If the effort put into her had been expanded to the rest of the cast, then Arc's personae wouldn't feel like such a chore to wade through.]

Marching either of your twin factions towards battle presents the player with a gridless battlescape similar to that seen in games like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter. Things play out in a strategic turn-based affair where, upon activation, a viable character's turn will highlight the traversable area of the mapscape they are free to explore. You can charge melee fighters into the midst of an enemy's rank, swinging their weapon in wide arks to strike multiple targets; you can position long-range backup units behind damage-absorbing obstacles to snipe at targets such as deranged wildlife or mechanical sentries; you can withdraw forces strategically, trying to tempt foes to advance unwillingly into your sights. The abilities of your cast vary from member to member and can be toyed with to your heart's content. Rather than the atypical genre-standard of purchasing new equipment as the game rolls on, Twilight lets you upgrade your initial weapon and armour. You're free to slap on enhancements that up your counterattack ability, lengthen you attack range or acquire accessories that have you traverse further or offer protection from differing elements. Having only three slots open for both weapon and armour means constant tinkering is required to keep yourself up to date and battle-efficient.

Along with the experience these battles will garner also comes a secondary reward in the shape of Special Points (or, because both myself and the game are lazy enough to employ abbreviations, SP.) You use these to purchase new skills and abilities, as well as to level up your library of purchasable talents. With up to eight skill tiers for each character, the more impressive talents take a respectable bit of levelling to unlock and a hefty chunk of SP to acquire. Although SP presents an interesting diversion and added incentive to battle away, these skills are locked and pre-set. You can't, for instance, decide to make Kharg a magic-heavy mage and see extra mystic options replace unrequited physical skills; there's no character defining here, and a player willing to invest a little more effort can easily have a fully-trained squad well before endgame.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits (PlayStation 2) image

However, for the most part, these extra skills are effective without offering up pure overkill, which is just as well seeing as Twilight is -- outside of a few intense boss battles -- content being an unchallenging affair. You'll see the axe-wielding Ganz spin around in a mad circle, damaging anything foolish enough to enter his blade's radius; you'll see a growling Volk envelop targets with lashing winds or a seething Delma singe and burn with pyro-laced trickery. Paulette will launch a flaming sling from range while poison tipped arrows will pierce foes complements of Maru. Kharg and Darc can both launch into some heavy-duty sword combos of their own while Camellia is content to heal away injuries when not plaguing others with earth-based chicanery. Instead of eating up MP, these attacks drain your Spirit Stone reserves; purchasable items that grant both humans and deimos usually nonassessable abilities. This new spin on the more common Magic Points system works out well; beaten foes can drop a small number of these stones during battle allowing those short on supply to top up, but while not rare, it's hardly common. Hard-hitting special moves have to be used sparingly and cleverly, giving battles a further cerebral edge.

Spirit Stones are also a great source of conflict between humans and deimos; the former using them to power ancient machinery and the latter needing them to access their innate magical abilities. Throughout the campaign, the two sides clash over the stones, each showing a deep distrust in how the other side 'misuses' their powers, diminishing their valuable resources to do so. But even when the two warring factions are apart, the scenarios each party finds themselves can often feel inspired. Guide Kharg's group through the gnarled branches of a giant tree they had the misfortune of crash-landing in, one laced with smatterings of hostile Orcan warriors and armed-to-the-teeth Ditzwald military personal. Have them assault a futuristic enemy encampment to try and rescue captured resistance fighters while mobile machine-gun mounts and battle-ready robots charge towards them foreshadowing the huge turret-mounted cannons that hulk ominously in the background, spitting explosive countermeasures at any available targets. Help Darc as he fights for the respect of his peers, battling through his own people and human mercenaries that appear to blight his homeland. Struggle through betrayal and repeated heartbreak as he tries to fulfill the dying wishes of his deceased father. And, when the inevitable happens, help both sides overcome their prejudice and hatred to wage war against a greater evil. A lot of the time, Arc: Twilight of the Spirits often manages to present scenarios strong enough to care about.

And then, sometimes, it doesn't. Perhaps the best way to sum up Twilight is to share the impotency of its biggest sidequest. Each party has a dreaded arena they must face, each giving the parties severe limitations on what they can or cannot do. These arenas are maniacal at times, outnumbering you with competent foes that can easily beat you and your limited team down in a heartbeat. Struggling through these test -- each requiring 40-50 straight victories and a good few hours of constant work -- rewards each team with a secret character. These characters are either throwbacks from the original Arc the Lad series or quirky brand-new members for you to enjoy. They exist on a slightly higher level than your standard squad personnel and manage to avoid most of the stereotype pitfalls the others wallow in. They hit hard, amuse, and look the part. But they're only usable in random battles; they're disclosed from plot-driven affairs.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits (PlayStation 2) image

Arc: Twilight of the Spirits often feels more about toil than reward. Stumbling across some of the more intense battles picks up interest for a while, but most of the game can be played on autopilot. Arc seems comfortable residing on a tier where fighting is a shade too easy while the plot strays the wrong side of cliché. It certainly picks up in the last quarter or so, but an oftentimes slow trek is expected until you get there.

EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (July 01, 2006)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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