As the Wii library expands and amasses progressively more "hardcore" game experiences, it begins to resemble a PlayStation 2 more with each passing day. That image is helped with the number of traditional Japanese roleplaying games that have been popping into the pipeline lately.
Arc Rise Fantasia is one of three significant JRPGs that have been readying themselves for a Wii release, along with Xenoblade and The Last Story. It's also the first one out of the door, launching in North America while the others still haven't confirmed a Western release.
So, as the first major JRPG to hit the Wii this year, does Arc Rise Fantasia have what fans are looking for, or would they be better off waiting for something else? Read on for our review.
Arc Rise Fantasia (Wii)
Arc Rise Fantasia tells the story of a mercenary called L'arc Bright Lagoon (seriously) and a prince called Alf (seriously) who become sort-of Jesus Christ and fight with a God while trees turn into crystals (seriously). In case you haven't guessed, this is a JRPG storyline through and through. Silly, convoluted, yet taking itself absolutely seriously, Arc Rise has a narrative that only this type of game could get away with.
Surprisingly, it's actually not terrible either. While it lacks any real emotional impact, the story is a pretty decent yarn, especially as the game rises in tempo roughly ten or so hours into the experience. There are the obligatory plot twists and a number of characters even risk being rather interesting. At one's most negative, you could say that Arc Rise Fantasia's plot is no worse than any other RPG's and sometimes it almost becomes a bit better than the norm.
Any good the story does, however, is quickly undone by one major flaw -- the absolutely atrocious localization. Whoever they got to provide the voices in Arc Rise, I can tell you right now that they weren't actors. Lines are delivered by people who make it abundantly clear that they don't care, making dramatic scenes instantly feel flat and dull. It's frustrating to finally reach a climactic moment and fail to enjoy it because the actors ruin the mood with their apathetic delivery and inability to convey more than one emotion. To its credit, you can mute the voices, but silencing the game completely isn't an answer as far as I am concerned, and the localizers ought to feel ashamed of setting the whole game back.
There's not even a Japanese voice option. That would have been something.
With the story undermined, it all hinges on the gameplay, and Arc Rise plays it safe with a game that never veers from the beaten RPG path. Everything that has come to define the genre is found in Arc Rise Fantasia -- turn-based combat, grinding, optional quests, a world map, towns with new weapons, it's all preserved like a time capsule in ARF, and I actually approve. In many ways, Arc Rise's total lack of ambition is its saving grace. There are no convoluted gimmicks or needlessly complicated leveling system. It's unpretentious and familiar RPG fun, and that's just fine.
That's not to say there aren't a few little twists. For one, all characters in a battle share a pool of Action Points rather than take individual turns, which allows for a level of strategy. For instance, you can have one character use all the points to attack solo, or share the AP equally. After a few hours, the party earns the ability to chain attacks together to create more damaging blows, making for extra strategic uses of AP. When conditions are right, characters can also sneak in additional attacks, allowing players who are spatially aware to make quick work of common enemies. Nothing Arc Rise does is revolutionary, but the blending of traditional turn-based combat and light strategic elements at least makes every battle just that bit more interesting.
The use of positioning, timing and stacking is central to Arc Rise Fantasia, especially since enemies can stack their moves as well. Having to think just a little bit more about each battle is one thing that really helps the game along, despite the combat being inherently pedestrian.
The weapon system also keeps ARF more engrossing than it otherwise would be. Weapons don't have inherent attack values on their own, but rather contain special enhancements and abilities. Some of these enhancements are passive, such as stat boosts and special attack effects, while some of them grant new selectable moves. When these weapons are leveled up with Weapon Points earned after battle, the special abilities become unlocked and can then be shifted to other weapons to create an inherently more powerful armament. The only real drawback to weapon customization is the rather poor menu layout, which makes the moving of abilities far more complicated and hard to keep track of than it ever needed to be.
One major flaw in the gameplay is the random difficulty spiking that occurs. A lot of Arc Rise is pretty easy, and it should be impossible to die at the hands of common enemies without trying to do so. However, the game is a big fan of throwing totally unexpected and powerful bosses at the party, sometimes at the end of a dungeon without a nearby save point. It's a common and rather petty tactic employed by JRPGs to create a forced sense of difficulty and it's simply not welcome. Losing a considerable amount of progress because the game randomly felt like notching up the difficulty several places isn't really fun, and it's a shame that Arc Rise felt it necessary.
When the game isn't employing cheap "get hard quick" schemes, however, what we have is a very competently presented, well crafted roleplaying game that never tries to starts a revolution, but never sets it back. From its anime look to its conventional combat system, Arc Rise Fantasia is a game that most certainly wouldn't look out of place in the PlayStation 2's library, and I don't mean that as an insult. I actually respect that. Arc Rise Fantasia doesn't apologize for being a straight laced JRPG simply concentrates on giving fans of the genre what they like.
It's just a shame that the localization was so badly done. With better efforts made for the Western market, this could have been a truly great RPG, but the voice actors somehow manage to make the story seem more boring and absurd than it actually is. Deep down in Arc Rise's narrative are some pretty damn interesting themes of religious intolerance and segregation, but most gamers won't read that deeply into it thanks to the shoddy Western performances.
As it stands, Arc Rise Fantasia still manages to be pretty good. If you can ignore the acting, then what you have is a solid JRPG that remains enjoyable throughout and has enough to satisfy fans of good old fashioned roleplayers without the frills and complications that many developers desperately include nowadays in a desperate bid to appear "innovative."
Arc Rise Fantasia is the perfect RPG to play "between" RPGs. Something to pick up before the next big AAA experience hits and scratch an itch that one gets during the genre's common dry periods. You'll not have your jaw drop in amazement, but you'll leave the experience with a feeling that you've not had your time thoroughly wasted, and that's an accomplishment in its own right with JRPGs these days.
Score: 7.0 -- Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)