Another day, another top-tier PlayStation 2-exclusive role-playing game. 2003 is shaping up to be the year of role-playing games and, for the most part, Sony seems to be on the sending and receiving end of things. Life is good for the diehard RPG enthusiast, who also happens to own a PS2, make no mistake. Jump on the bandwagon while the getting’s good, Shirley. Published by Sony Computer Entertainment and developed by relative newcomers Cattle Call, Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits won’t be cutting into Final Fantasy’s hefty profit margin anytime soon, but with its highly satisfying battle system, meticulously detailed environments, and intriguing storyline, Cloud might just be sleeping with one eye open these days.
For those who are fans of the previous Arc the Lad titles (all two of you), you’ll be glad to know that Twilight of the Spirits retains the same setting and mood as its critically-acclaimed predecessors, though since this game takes place well after the events of the third installment (couple hundred years), Twilight is related only by spirit, as it were. Most of the fan-favorite characters from the PSX games are sorely M.I.A, but luckily the new cast manages to get the job done with aplomb. Some of the events of earlier Lad games are touched upon and there are even a few curious cameos, but for all intents and purposes this is an entirely new game with entirely new characters and a new story to tell.
Twilight of the Spirits will undoubtedly rub more than a few people the wrong way during its initial 10-hour rev-up process, which all but excludes interesting story elements. But just as I was tentatively planning on giving Twilight a paltry 70-75 score, the plot began to show signs of promise as the game’s two main characters started to intersect, story-wise, in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
You’ll start the game playing as a young prince to the throne named Kharg, who soon resides over the peaceful village of Yewbell, and after meandering about for a few hours, you’ll get to play as his demonic evil brother known as Darc (the Daring?). The action subscribes to this formula of switching between these two characters at pivotal moments within the story, and while other RPG games (Suikoden III for example) tend to suffer from an overabundance of perspective changes, Twilight’s focus on only two interweaving character plots proves to be easily manageable and eventually enthralling. Both of these protagonists represent two respective factions in the world of Twilight: Kharg represents the humans while Darc is the poster boy for a race of demons called the Deimos. Each race seeks to expunge the other and the plot’s irony comes from the fact that the two opposing leaders are, initially unbeknownst to them and the player, full-on blood brothers. As the plot unfolds, you’ll come to be engrossed in this sordid family affair that will ultimately dictate the outcome of the known world. A likely story, to be sure, but entirely original and unique in its own right. That is, once you drudge through the first dozen or so directionless hours of the game.
As straightforward and risk-free as Twilight is as an RPG, the gameplay is actually surprisingly well done. Your on-screen character moves like the wind at the touch of the left analog stick -- doors automatically open simply by moving towards them, and loading time between screens is almost instantaneous, somehow; almost as if the game was cartridge-based. But the real star of the show is the stellar battle system, the likes of which haven’t been seen in any RPG of late (save Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter). When combat ensues, you are given free reign over the battleground and can move your character around as you please. Each character has a movement meter that dictates exactly how far the character can roam from turn to turn. The action isn’t exactly real-time but it’s not exactly turn-based either. You have active control over the movement of your fighters but once you deal a blow to a nearby enemy, you’ll assume control over the next person in your party.
What makes the combat in Twilight so satisfying, though, is the fact that varying damage is done to enemies depending on the angle of the attack. Attacking directly from the front will deal the least amount of damage while attacking from the back will deal the most. You can also pull team-based attacks, which prove to be some of the most devastating attacks in the game. Your tension meter, which gradually fills as you suffer damage, along with the proximity of you and your teammates, will dictate whether a team-based attack will be executed. The best way to understand the battle system in Twilight, if you’ve never played the game, is to think of it as an innovative combination of Dragon Quarter and Grandia II. And if you’ve played those games, you know just how substantial a claim that really is.
In lieu of standard magic points are spirit stones. As you perform magic or special maneuvers, your character’s supply of spirit stones will decrease accordingly. Since spirit stones are tangible objects as opposed to traditional insubstantial magic points, they will not be replenished automatically, nor will they be replenished at inns. Instead, they must be physically purchased at shops at the rate of two gold pieces per one spirit stone, which makes you think twice before unloading that spirit stone-intensive special move simply for the sake of speeding things along. This element of the game adds greatly to the overall depth of the experience but isn’t fully appreciated until much later in the game when battles begin to get challenging.
The long-winded, drawn-out, initial stage of the game takes place mostly in the same few boring areas, but once each protagonist gets their hands on airships, whooaa nelly, lock up the kids and take off the dress cause all bets are off, Nancy. Just when you start to think you’ll be staring at the same mundane (albeit beautifully rendered) environments for the rest of the experience, you get to travel to new and exciting lands that will make you breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Moving from area to area is done via an overworld map, and as you pass each area checkpoint one of two things will occur: either a battle will ensue or you’ll be given the option to enter that area. Should you choose to enter the area, you’ll be treated to a gloriously-rendered game space bearing subtle touches and visual nuances that you normally wouldn’t see outside of top tier RPGs.
Seriously, Cattle Call seems to have inherited the kingdom in terms of graphical design; it is most closely likened to the art direction of Final Fantasy X, to be quite blunt. The scenery is breathtaking. The character models are also nicely rendered, though not nearly to the same degree. But the characters move realistically and smoothly – Darc, in particular, is one mean looking dude, constantly decked out like a bad-ass horned demon/human that could probably take Dante in a no holds, anything goes street fight.
Twilight sounds great, too. Not quite Masashi Hamauzu caliber, but audio director Hideyuki Tanaka definitely has his moments, busting out with orchestrations that beautifully contrast the scenario that they are played in. Some may say the tunes offset the mood more so than contrast, but the bottom line is you’ll wanna listen to them regardless. Voice acting, what little of it there is (long-delayed super special cut-scenes occasionally glisten on-screen), is surprisingly well-done considering the localization team had only three months to fix the game up for American consumption.
Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits is one of the best RPGs of 2003, no doubt about it, but this sweet, sweet deal comes with a hitch: you must (must, must, must) be dedicated enough an RPG enthusiast to grin and bear it through the preliminary rough spots. Twilight basically boils down to a pure, simple and satisfying role-playing game that is easy to pick up, easy on the eyes and downright absorbing, eventually. Great game, great game.