Sound JRPG fundamentals; a good Mitsuda-composed musical score; no random battles
Shamelessly derivative design; shockingly hard boss battles; mediocre voice acting
Arc Rise Fantasia is unusual among Wii RPGs in that it isn’t unusual. Up to this point, every Wii role playing game seems to have veered off the traditional JRPG formula in some substantive — and at times calamitous — way. Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, for example, deviated from its traditional predecessor into monster capture territory; Opoona was as much job and relationship sim as it was role playing. Arc Rise Fantasia, by contrast, is a by-the-numbers Japanese-style role playing game, derivative from top to bottom. It isn’t innovative and it has some flaws, but it also delivers the honest-to-God JRPG experience that the system has been sorely lacking and will be a welcome sight for Wii owners who enjoy the traditional, epic, party-focused, turn-based journey.
The fundamentals will be familiar to those versed in the genre. A 17 year-old spiky-haired protagonist with an oversized sword sets off on a quest to vanquish a secret evil, joining up with the requisite cast of demure white mages, rough military types, Chosen Ones, and rogue-ish mercenaries who have a heart underneath it all. Turn-based combat, elemental magic, experience points, leveling up, equipment and items, characters with defined combat roles, inns, world maps, optional sidequests, optional side-bosses… the usual elements are all in place. There is no use of motion or IR at all in Arc Rise Fantasia, and most players will probably want to use either a classic or GameCube controller (both of which are supported) if they have one, since the Wii remote / nunchuck controls are a bit awkward to use.
The game runs, at a casual pace, from 40 to upwards of 50 hours — a solid length for a game of this type. The plotline is the sort of head-scratching, convoluted journey that seems to be endemic to the genre. Just as Tales of Symphonia baffled with all sorts of complicated and confusing elements surrounding Desians and angels, so does Arc Rise Fantasia befuddle with its religions that all seem to run together and its esoteric political factions. The game’s robust, categorized dictionary — combined with a Tales-inspired series of optional “skits” — helps clear up a lot of the confusion, although certain finer points are liable to be lost in the wash of each succeeding subplot.
Combat, ever the centerpiece of the RPG, draws its lineage from traditional lines but also manages to innovate. Battles are mercifully not random; enemies can be seen in the field and avoided. Once in combat, a party of three (or occasionally four) dukes it out in turn-based fashion. Rather than have all the characters each get a turn, the party shares a pool of action points (AP) that can be mixed and matched in various ways. In a given turn, any number of permutations could take place: every character might perform one action, one character might perform several actions, two characters might perform some actions while one does nothing, and so on. This approach creates a lot of tactical layers to combat, especially when trying to decide whether to use, say, a large, AP-hogging attack or scattered attacks complemented by some healing.
There are a few other elements to combat that really deepen the experience. Players can perform standard functions, such as item use and regular attacks, but they can also use magic as well as “Excel Acts,” which are unique special attacks, and special abilities based on character weapon attachments. Attacks can be chained among characters in various ways, including pairing up two elemental magic attacks (i.e. two fire attacks) to make a more powerful elemental attack, or combining three special attacks from three different characters into a Chrono Trigger-esque three-character Trinity Attack.
Combat is good for several rewards. There is the usual lineup of dropped loot, cash, items and experience, but the game also has a weapon system that is shaped by combat. Each acquired weapon has a variety of “Arm Force” attachments, special items that provide status buffs or unlock special attacks, not unlike Final Fantasy VII‘s Materia system. Once unlocked, Arm Force attachments can be placed on other weapons to stack abilities in a Tetris-style grid, but they cannot be unlocked until a certain number of weapon points (WP) have been acquired through combat. WP is earned alongside experience points and other things, so players will have incentive to swap weapons around to unlock as many attachments as possible.
With this in mind, it’s probably no surprise that grinding is a grim necessity. The game, fortunately, has an answer for that. During combat, players can micromanage every move (a necessity in boss battles, as will be seen shortly) or turn it over to the AI to handle. This latter option is a bit like Final Fantasy XII‘s gambit system, allowing players to give each character a set of parameters: use only regular attacks, concentrate on healing, do whatever you want, and so on.
Grinding is a necessity for another reason: the boss battles. The developers must have thought it funny to shock players, because many of the bosses are the equivalent of a bucket of ice water. It’s not uncommon to go breezing through a dungeon full of regular enemies, practically on autopilot, only to get creamed by a powerful boss who shamefully exposes the party’s shortcomings. The ease of the regular enemies can cause players to be lackadaisical about buying new armor and optimizing weapons, but after being wiped out by a giant monster of the deep, a player will invariably find himself back at the armor shop, working over a weapon’s Arm Force configuration, or grinding out a new level or two against lesser opponents. This disparity in difficulty is an irritant — one has to wonder just what the developer was thinking — but it also means that players will certainly give bosses due fear.
The visuals aren’t perhaps as system-pushing as one might like but they aren’t disgraceful, either. Character design is quite memorable: great heroes and villains alike. Some of the cutscenes are more low key, with Fire Emblem-style cutouts over text boxes, while more important moments feature cinematic, motion-captured cutscenes reminiscent of Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World or a poor man’s Resident Evil 4. Combat is actually pretty stylized, with some nice cinematography and a gratifying array of over-the-top special attack effects that splash with light and color.
And then there is the voice acting. The early trailers of the game were cringe-worthy (think Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean), and indeed the voice work is less than stellar, although it is not quite as apocalyptic as some have claimed. (Or, perhaps, a player simply grows accustomed to mediocre work as the hours go on.) It’s a bit mystifying, though, because the cast seems reasonably professional and has flashes of competence; nevertheless, their deliveries are often ill-suited to the dramatic tension of the moment and some of the actors seem miscast. The game allows for voice work to be shut off, although that, too, seems like a poor alternative, especially during the cinematic cutscenes. Ultimately, the best course seems to be to put up with the voices, although this is clearly a downer for a game featuring this much talking.
As a consolation prize, the musical score comes courtesy of Yasunori Mitsuda, who is best known for the timeless music of Chrono Trigger and Xenosaga. While the music of Arc Rise Fantasia doesn’t match the work of those titles, the overall quality of the score is good and a few of the tracks are absolutely awesome. The music consistently evokes the sort of epic ambiance that a game like this demands, including a main combat theme that holds up well over the long hours. The boss battle themes are a particular highlight, giving gravity to life-or-death situations.
So does this game belong in the library of the Wii RPGer? Unquestionably. The tragedy is that Arc Rise Fantasia is almost doomed to fail commercially. Publisher Ignition Entertainment has given the game next to no marketing, and at the time of this review the game can’t be found on any retail store shelf, save the occasional GameStop. The low profile, combined with the bad taste the trailers’ voice acting no doubt left in gamers’ mouths, can only be a recipe for terrible sales– which will only make it harder to get decent RPGs like this onto Wii in the future.
Those role-players who can buy this game, though, should. Arc Rise Fantasia is a purist’s RPG that successfully adapts some of the best practices of the genre while offering a refined and eminently competent experience, especially where combat is concerned. It certainly has its share of shortcomings: the game is largely derivative, the bosses are brutal, the voice acting is mediocre, and the plot is convoluted. Even with those drawbacks, though, Imageepoch gets serious props for doing what no developer has yet seen fit to do; namely, give Wii owners a party-based RPG free of gimmicks.