La Pucelle: Tactics is the latest Nippon Ichi developed strategy role-playing game for the PS2. In its homeland of Japan, it was released over two years ago which, for fans of last year’s excellent and overlooked Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, may come as a bit of a surprise. La Pucelle has most of the same quirky anime trappings as Disgaea and it plays a lot like it too. For a certain subset of gamers, that should be very good news. La Pucelle isn’t quite on par with Disgaea in terms of weird-ass customization mechanics, but that only means newcomers will be able to easily enjoy the game without the requisite brain aneurism that Disgaea demanded. And so what – who cares if you can’t confer with an assembly of evil politicians or venture into your items and weapons to level them up – I didn’t much care for those aspects of Disgaea to begin with. It’s the margin of potential character advancement, simple yet strategic combat, endearing story and intriguing character interaction that makes a strategy RPG for me. La Pucelle has all that and more.
In Disgaea, we played as a demon from the netherworld. La Pucelle: Tactics, however, takes a slightly different approach with its protagonist. This time around, you’ll fill the role of the angelic demon slayer named Prier. La Pucelle is the name of the demon slaying school Prier attends. She is joined by her little brother and her bossy tutor on a holy quest of purification that spans nearly a dozen lengthy chapters.
Some moments the story has the thoughtful, melancholic mood of a Hideo Kojima Sega CD game. Other times it borders on laugh-out loud funny, throwing in an unpredictable anecdote at just the right moment. The developers and localization team obviously worked very hard to achieve the level of quality and cohesiveness that La Pucelle possesses. Each chapter in the story has multiple possible ending sequences depending on your character’s actions and you won’t know whether it’s good, normal, or bad until the chapter comes to a bittersweet close. You are awarded with the game’s form of currency if you get the good ending, but the real motivation comes from the satisfaction of knowing your efforts resulted in a happy ending (for the chapter) for your characters.
If you’ve played Disgaea, or any somewhat recent strategy RPG, then the combat mechanics in La Pucelle should be familiar to you, mostly. You’ll fight through a series of maps. Each map is made up of a grid of squares. Your characters can only move so many spaces on the grid each turn. You can attack enemies by moving one of your party members within range of an enemy and selecting ‘attack’ or ‘special ability’, then you need only select the desired enemy with the on-screen cursor. But unlike Disgaea, or any somewhat recent RPG, the actual combat sequences don’t take place on the map. Instead, the game switches to a zoomed-in side view of the battling characters, much like traditional RPGs. This change of perspective doesn’t affect the gameplay at all, but it’s still a cool addition and makes it much easier to appreciate the nicely detailed, well animated character sprites.
To make things interesting, La Pucelle employs a Dark Portal system, not unlike Disgaea’s elemental pyramid system. Randomly scattered on each map are dark portals that are aligned to various elemental properties (such as fire and ice). From these portals sprout forth a forward-moving current of dark squares. If a character (be it friend or foe) is standing on one of these dark squares when a battle occurs then the elemental property of the dark square will affect the amount and type of damage it receives in the fight. But the Dark Portal system is much more than simply an elemental modifier; when caught in the current of a dark portal, the direction that the character is facing will divert the elemental flow accordingly. So you can strategically place characters on the map so that the Dark Portal current encapsulates all the squares within it. By circling opponents with dark squares and then destroying the originating Dark Portal by using the ‘purify’ command, you’ll rack up bonus attribute points for each square destroyed, plus it will initiate what essentially boils down to a super summons that inflicts devastating damage to every enemy inside the radius of your strategically directed elemental current. You can also use the ‘purify’ command on enemies. Purify a baddie enough and your opponent will turn into your friend and be added to your growing roster of playable characters. Confused yet? Don’t be. It’s a pretty simple (yet highly enjoyable) gameplay mechanic – it just sounds complicated on paper.
While Disgaea was undeniably a great game, many complained that the enemies in the game were too predictable. Well, the same can also be said for La Pucelle: Tactics, unfortunately. Enemies always attack the character with the least amount of hit points so you’ll frequently see the enemy waste five turns defeating a party member that only has a few hit points left. Yeah, the AI’s not very smart. But what the enemies lack in intelligence they more than make up for with brute force. The game has a tendency of pitting you against the odds, throwing plenty of overwhelming monster and demon muscle at you every step of the way. It is a rare occurrence indeed when La Pucelle: Tactics doesn’t challenge you to put some serious thought into how you fight. So the computer’s lack of dynamic strategy isn’t actually a hindrance on the gameplay at all; if your enemies weren’t dumb as doorknobs, it’d be prohibitively difficult to make any progress at all in the game.
Every item in La Pucelle is equip-able for everyone. The only rule is ‘you can only have four.’ That is, each character has four slots that can be filled with anything. You can even put duplicate equipment in multiple slots if you want. Four ‘attack’ type pieces of equipment will yield a character with very strong attack power. Equipping four defensive type pieces of equipment = a very thick-skinned warrior. But you understand, right? Of course, since you only have four slots to work with you’ll most likely want to fill them with a combination of powerful ‘attack’, defensive, and elemental items. Elemental staffs, which you could also equip four of if you wanted, give your character the ability to cast an assortment of offensive and defensive spells such as wind and fire and ice and heal. These equipment items can be purchased at the shop. The large variety of items keeps the “equipping” aspect of this RPG fun. New equipment becomes available at the shop as you spend money and complete surveys about the types of items you’d like the shop to carry. Even the shop in this RPG abides by traditional RPG dynamics (the more you spend the higher your customer ranking) and, well, that’s just cool. The complete exclusion of disposable items -- like phoenix downs, potions, and ether is a little nutty to a loyal Final Fantasy fan like myself, however.
The well-animated 2D character sprites found in cut-scenes and brief combat sequences add immensely to the feeling that you’re playing a classic SNES Square-developed RPG for the first time. Except with way better animation and special effects that wouldn’t be possible on the hardware, even taking into consideration the system’s proficiency with scaling and rotation. (Sorry, have to amuse myself somehow.) La Pucelle’s old-time 2D styling finalizes the game’s powerful trifecta of sound, story, and visual representation. Of course, an affinity for the 16-bit era may be a requirement for appreciating Pucelle’s graphics. So keep that in mind if you’re a wetback, wetback.
The music is haunting and fascinating. It’s like, I don’t know, Final Fantasy on Yanni. The music is just really well made. I’d pay about 6 dollars for the game’s soundtrack. The voice acting is, in a word, excellent. Every perfectly executed passage of dialogue simply “reaffirms” the storyline, which is much more interesting and multi-faceted than Pucelle’s forerunner Disgaea. The game’s dialogue will switch to excellent voice acting when you’ve completed a notable accomplishment within a chapter, much like Grandia 2 did on the Dreamcast and PS2.
The game isn’t epic or anything. La Pucelle: Tactics won’t surprise you at every turn like Final Fantasy or something. And the story isn’t all that engaging, either. After the third or fourth chapter, you’ll pretty much know exactly what to expect from La Pucelle; a solid, entertaining combat system, near limitless potential to improve your characters, and just enough dialogue to continually push the proceedings forward. This is a game that hardcore RPG fans can spend hundreds of hours with, improving items, leveling characters, and training monsters. While anyone who fancies themselves a role-player will also find a lot to like about La Pucelle: Tactics.