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Where the Hell is Arc the Lad?

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[If there are games that haven't gotten new entries in years, seemingly disappearing from the zeitgeist, and wasting their potential, Lord Spencer has probably played them. Arc the Lad has always been that game in the periphery as I went on playing my usual rotation of games. But I am reminded now, in the godforsaken year of 2020, that I haven't seen an Arc the Lad in years. Where the hell is Arc the Lad? ~Marcel]

Coming into the console market as a new player, Sony knew they had to cover all bases, especially regarding the RPG genre that is heavily favored by the audience in Japan. As such, they had three major RPG game releases in their first year, all published by their video game wing. One was Wild Arms (Where the Hell is Wild Arms?), another was PoPoLoCrois, a one-off game. Both games were turn-based JRPGs.

The third game in that strategy was slightly different, a Tactical RPG that didn't exactly light up the world but it did find some sort of a fan following. Hell, it even managed to spawn an anime show.

The show covered the first two games

Arc the Lad was a solid TRPG series that survived for two generations before unexpectedly being decimated by the release of the PS3.

So, what the hell happened here?

To understand what exactly happened to the Grandia series, we need to look at all the games released under that name, which isn't many. Unlike other franchises that I covered in these blogs, Grandia only has six games. These are divided neatly into three mainline games, and three spin-offs.

The mainline games all employ a similar JRPG structure that utilizes the franchise's trademark battle system. As for the spin-offs, they are varied and each game is nearly self-contained within itself.

All audience ratings are from GameFAQ, and commercial performance is based on some research by myself.

A) The Original Trilogy:

The original trilogy of Arc the Lad games consists of three interconnected games set in the same steampunk world. There is a clear progression in scope and ideas between each of the three games. However, the general Tactical RPG gameplay remains the same.

Originally, these games were not ported to the West. However, all three games were eventually published in the West by Working Designs as the Arc the Lad Collection in 2002,  whooping three years after the release of the third game.

1- Arc the Lad:

  • Released: PS1, 1995 in Japan, 2002 in NA.
  • Developer: G-Craft.
  • Publisher: Sony, Working Designs (NA).
  • Audience Reception: 71.6% .
  • Commercial Reception: About 1.11M Units Sold.

Arc the Lad establishes much of what the series is about with a minimum of fuss. It simply introduces a steampunk world setting where technology, magic, and monsters all exist. In that world, the titular lad, Arc, goes into an epic journey that involves shadowy organizations, ancient magic, and a lot of battling.

The special thing about Arc the Lad's battle system is that it combines both traditional Turn-Based RPG battles and the grid-based Tactical RPG battles. Unlike fully realized TRPGs like Shining Force and Fire Emblem, the battlefield is smaller and the number of units is lower (seven in the first game and six in the rest). As such, with only seven characters in your party, the battles much faster and more frequent. Also, the battle system has a focus on area-of-effect moves and gives each character a range of attacks and options that is close to classic JRPGs, making for a hybrid genre.

Luckily, the battle system is engaging, even if the game grows repetitive by the end because there is nothing much to the game other than that. It is very basic in its storytelling and the world is not properly fleshed out. Also, it is considered very short relative to the genre. If anything, the first game in the series is more a proof of concept than a fully realized game.

2- Arc the Lad II:

  • Released: PS1, 1996 in Japan, 2002 in NA.
  • Developer: ARC Entertainment
  • Publisher: Sony, Working Designs (NA).
  • Audience Reception: 82.2%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 1.05M Units Sold.

A proof of concept for a game like Arc the Lad II, which takes every element in the first game and improves on it while also adding in more. From crisper sprites, more varied graphics, to a better-told story, it does everything better in every conceivable way. Hell, it even manages to give the main character of the first game, Arc, his due as a badass hero.

Central to the second game's appeal is the way it fleshes out the universe through the job (quests) system. Starring Elc, a "hunter," there are many side quests you can sign up for to flesh out both the world and the combat system, which is not changed much from the first game. Another thing that the game added was a monster capture and training system that predated the explosion of Pokémon.

Overall, this is considered the pinnacle of the original Arc the Lad trilogy, and for good reason.

3- Arc the Lad III:

  • Released: PS1, 1999 in Japan, 2002 in NA.
  • Developer: ARC Entertainment
  • Publisher: Sony, Working Designs (NA).
  • Audience Reception: 79.4%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 0.42M Units Sold.

In many ways, Arc the Lad III should have been the natural evolution of the series. It  "improved" the graphics by incorporating more 3D effects. It "expanded" the story by adding more "twists and turns." It tried to appeal to a "mature" audience by aping the widely successful Final Fantasy VII and be an "edgier" game.

The result was a downgrade to the unique and fun-filled Arc the Lad II that was more haphazardly brought together than built to purpose. Don't mistake this for a bad game. It is not. However, it is just not as tight as the second game. Hell, it grows tedious in the same areas that you may even prefer the shorter and more focused first game.

Overall, this was an okay conclusion to the original trilogy that some found to be the weakest of the three games.

B) The "New" Series:

After the conclusion of the PS1 trilogy and the (very late) release of the collection to Western audiences, the PS2 was released and the series migrated to the new console with two new games. The first nominally sharing the battle system with the original series, and the second a sequel that completely dunks the series into the cold waters of failure.

1- Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits:

  • Released: PS2, 2003 in Japan and NA.
  • Developer: Cattle Call.
  • Publisher: Sony.
  • Critical Reception: 72%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 0.36M Units Sold.

 

I don't care what anyone says in criticizing Twilight of the Spirits, because I am convinced that it one of the underrated gems of the PS2. Set in the same universe as the original Arc games but with a limited connection, Twilight of the Spirits tells a story of conflict and racism (speciesism) from two points of view. First, there is the story of Kharg, a human prince of sorts (just a "prince" of a small village) who wants to rid the world of the evil Deimon races to protect humanity. Then there is the story of Darc, a half-human half-Deimon bastard who attempts to climb the ranks of Deimon society and become their supreme king, with the ultimate result of destroying all humans.

Both stories are not equal, with Darc's being the better story. However, both combine to form something greater than the sum of its parts. Especially when you put in the other moving parts in the story as military empires and ancient cults attempt to change the balance of the world. There is a silly business with a Magguffin girl, but that doesn't detract from the central conceit of the plot, that centuries of war and hatred are powerful forces that cannot be overcome even with great peril in the background.

To support the amazing story, the series made an impressive jump to the PS2, with vibrant colors and interesting character and world designs. One element that was both great and hilarious was the hand gestures that the characters used while talking (the English VA was a little cringy in Kharg's side of the story). If you stop advancing the conversation, the characters would continue gesturing for infinity.

Of course, none of that would matter if the central gameplay mechanics were not sound. Thankfully, the game was excellent at that point. No longer constrained by square grids, each character had a radius to walk through, and their attack also had radial effects (straight line, fan area, half circle, full circle, etc.). It was a natural evolution of the TRPG gameplay the series was known for, but in a unique direction that simply worked so well.

2- Arc the Lad: End of Darkness:

  • Released: PS2, 2004 in Japan, 2005 in NA.
  • Developer: Cattle Call.
  • Publisher: Sony, Namco.
  • Critical Reception: 58.6%.
  • Commercial Reception: Around 60K sold.

 

Then it all went to hell. I still have not idea what the hell was End of Darkness supposed to be, or why it was conceived the way it was. A complete departure from everything the series was known for, the game had little emphasis on story and instead was focused on dungeon crawling with action RPG gameplay. Yes, it even attempted to make a comprehensive online component of that.

Instead of having new unique and exciting characters, the game gave you the ability to recruit all characters from past Arc the Lad games that you can then use in the optional dungeon and in online rote gameplay. With poor gameplay, lack of any meaningful connection to the past series, I have no idea who this game was for.

Fans of the series wouldn't like to play a game with completely antithetical gameplay together online just because the characters are familiar, and fans of such gameplay (mercurial existence at best) wouldn't be attracted to the history of the franchise in the first place. This resulted in the worst-performing and worst-selling game in the series, with the added distinction of losses incurred by maintaining the online component for some time.

As a game franchise first pushed by Sony in their bid to dominate the console market and prove that they cover every genre, it probably appeared that Arc the Lad would be a constant presence as long as Sony continued in the console market. This was evident with the decent commercial performance of the first trilogy, but also evident with increased effort in jumping to the PS2.

Yet, we could see Sony's reluctance to champion the series in their decision not to port the games west, starting and ending with the fourth game; Twilight of the Spirits. This has probably foretold the eventual fate of the series.

So, why did it die?

Failure to Break Ground on the PS2:

On the PS1, even without being ported west, it cannot be said that a consistent sales of 1 million copies are negative (with the third games selling at 0.42 million copies being a little disappointing). However, once the game was jumped to the newer generation of consoles and failed to gain traction, it was probably apparent that the franchise was not resonating with a lot of people.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits was made to make a splash. With an increased focus on story and cinematics, it was obvious that Sony hoped the game would perform much better than selling 0.36 million copies and getting middling critical scores (very unfair in my opinion). It appeared that neither the story nor the gameplay was able to attract a sizable audience.

Ultimately, the series failed at attracting such an audience even when it unwisely pivoted to a different genre, cementing its end.

The decline of the Mid-Tier Game:

The reason that the franchise was not able to continue with is middling sales is that mid-tier games, in general, suffered a gigantic setback with the start of the HD era. Especially with the PS3 butchering the mid-level developers of Japan that made the PS2 such a big draw in the first place. With rising development costs, JRPGs, in particular, began to suffer as their larger scope meant lower margins of error.

It is no surprise that many of these Japanese games in this blogging series have stopped with the PS3, as the rising costs and complexities of that console pushed them into the mobile space, where a fierce competition coupled with a race to the bottom mentality culminated in many franchises declining or disappearing. (this is common with many games I covered in this blogging series.

Sony's Departure from Supporting RPGs:

Sony no longer wish to fight for all genres

When it began in the console market, Sony was adamant about supporting each and every genre, roving that its console has games for every taste. That was especially the case for RPGs, which was a key genre for Japanese customers. Yet, as Sony cemented its place in the console market at pole position, it felt it was no longer required to support all genres in its console's library with first-party content. Which is why there is no longer any first-part Sony RPG.

Franchises like Wild Arms and Legend of Legacy, both of which were primarily published and supported by Sony, both abruptly ended. Even one-off games like Legend of Dragoon were no longer considered by Sony. Obviously, this meant the end for Arc the Lad, which was also primarily supported by Sony's gaming division.

Even as a fan of the series, I would admit that there are few unique attributes to Arc the Lad that would justify an unlikely revival. Its themes of the natural order being threatened by technological forces are apt in these times, but other games share those same exact themes. Other things such as the excellent story of Twilight of the Spirits is not borne of any special focus of the series and can be imitated by a new game.

One thing that I feel supports a revival is the franchise's...

Excellent & Unique Tactical RPG Gameplay:

 

Especially in its implementation in Twilight of the Spirits

There are currently very good TRPG games on the market, especially since Fire Emblem: Awakening saved that franchise. However, most of the games in that genre are similar to Fire Emblem in that they focus on larger battles with more enemy and ally troops. In contrast, the TRPG gameplay in Arc the Lad has always focused on a smaller number of characters (6 or 7) with much more variety of actions.

This is best demonstrated by the gameplay of Twilight of the Spirits. Here, the game forgoes the traditional square grids of the genre and instead gives each character a radius in which to move in. In that radius, the characters can move to position themselves away from enemy attacks, go behind lines or behind cover, and attack the enemies at their most vulnerable positions, preferably with area-of-effect moves that hit more than one target.

Such a system made for exciting and tactical battles in Twilight of the Spirits where I tried to line up three enemies to be hit by one super arrow bolt or simply pushed one into a group to be blasted by a fire blast. Of course, the enemy can do the same to you, which complicates your healing strategies because it makes you more vulnerable to a sudden grenade.

As far as I recall, there hasn't been such a system in another game since, and I think that's a darn shame.

Writing this blog, I feel that there is no chance for a revival for this series, even less so than other franchises that I covered. Yet, I found out that there was a new development just two years ago; a stupid mobile game with a Gacha system.

Even though that may be disappointing, it at least proves that there is someone within the development world who is at least aware of the existence of the series, and that fills me with slightest feelings of hope.

Hope that the series may continue in one of these forms:-

Mobile Only:

Here is where that hope would immediately be dashed. With the success of Fire Emblem Heroes, it is obvious that TRPGs fit the mobile market. Yet, with little to no character recognition, Arc the Lad would never have that kind of traction. That didn't stop their only mobile game from aping the same strategies and offering a "Gacha" system to prop a threadbare gameplay system.

If the series continues purely on that front, then I wouldn't consider it back from the dead at all.

Rereleases: 

Maybe with as much love as was shown for the Arc the Lad Collection

Weirdly, these games were rarely re-released. At least, if they ever were, there has always been very little fanfare accompanying that. I hope that more attention would be given in case anything in that vein is announced. I would pay good money for a remastered version of Twilight of the Spirits.

A Full New Game:

Something that takes all the lessons learned from Twilight of the Spirits and improves on it would be great. However, that's just a pipe dream and would never happen.

Now I am sad.

And the mobile game actually looked like it would have a lot of promise


The "Where the Hell is" is going to be a series where I discuss the decline and disappearance of game franchises that interested me greatly, and now are gone. For a series to be covered, it needs to have three or more games, an unresolved conclusion or different storylines and is a series I somewhat played. Please feel free to give me any feedback or recommendation, as I always try to write better blogs.

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Hello all, I am Lord Spencer, your friendly neighborhood royalty. Yes, the ancient bloodlines are letting absolutely anyone in these days. Being the lurker that I am, I have been following Destr... more + disclosures


 


 



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