While it's currently hip to compare games with the medium of film and literature, it's all but brutally obvious to most of us that games are an art form still in its infancy. Yes, games have made great strides in the past decade toward becoming more like movies and books, but until games manage to integrate stories with real human issues into their narrative structure, they're a weak facsimile at best.
The problem thus far has been that games refuse to address valid human concerns with any kind of legitimate depth or profundity. There have been games that have tackled weighty issues (Xenogears, Deus Ex, etc.), but those titles are generally few and far between—and even then, the overriding onus on creating compelling gameplay often means that the story takes a backseat to the action.
Because this is usually the case, it's all the more refreshing to see a game like Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits turn up on game store shelves earlier this year. Arc isn't the game that will put this relatively new form of media on par with film and literature (which have both been around for significantly longer time periods), but it is a step in the right direction. Arc is a game that actually attempts to infuse some weighty philosophical issues into its traditional strategy role-playing game (RPG) structure.
At the core of the title is a conflict that seems as old as time (both for the game and for humans in the real world). The humans and Deimos (who are demons converted from monsters) have been at war. Both sides hate each other, each for their own unique reasons. Both are determined to wipe the other out.
Enter Darc and Kharg, a Deimos and human respectively, who are half brothers born of a human mother and a demon father. They've been separated since birth, and neither realizes that the other is alive—until they finally encounter each other in the game's narrative. Each struggles to define himself in a world—Darc faces prejudice from his fellow Deimos because he has human blood in his veins. Kharg's people turn against him once his Deimos side comes to light later in the game.
Each man hates the other so much that they're bound and determined to wipe the other out. It's not unlike race relations here in America, or something akin to World War II.
However, the two brothers have to set aside their differences to fight a greater evil—an ancient lord of darkness who's been freed thanks to the world itself being filled with hatred. It's here that the game returns to its traditional (and safe) narrative structure, but it's still nice that they tried to address some serious issues that most games would ignore at best and would gloss over at worst.
This isn't to say Arc is flawless narratively. Unfortunately, while the writers have worked diligently to infuse some kind of meaning into their narrative, their skills aren't always up to the task of conveying these sentiments as genuine. There's a fair amount of proselytizing at work in this game, and it's often very heavy-handed. The characters almost demand this though—for while the plotline may be striving for a higher level of literacy than the average game, the characters are still little more than archetypes that genre fans have come to know and love. Hopefully, though, this is a step in the right direction, and one that future games will seek to emulate and improve upon.
But, enough about that—let's talk about the game itself.
If nothing else, Arc demonstrates the value of playing a game through to the end before attempting to write a review. The last time I had such a love/hate relationship with a title was while playing Bethesda's Morrowind. Arc never quite reaches the highs or lows of that experience, but it can be a trying title nonetheless.
In typical RPG fashion, the game starts out slowly. In order to tell the two-sided tale, the game is broken down into chapters. One chapter is devoted to Kharg, the next to Darc, and so forth. Eventually, late in the game, the paths cross and merge into one—but until then the game has something of an identity crisis as it switches from one perspective to another.
This wouldn't be a bad thing... if both parties were equally interesting. It's a shame that the game suffers because Kharg's characters and chapters are typical RPG (heroic young knight with the traditional team of human comrades) creations. The Kharg chapters are staid, predictable, and frankly a little trite (while Darc certainly looks like a halfbreed and has a hard time fitting in, Kharg looks exclusively humanand never deals with those issues). Darc's chapters, on the other hand, are really quite entertaining-his comrades are more interesting, his struggle more involving, and the character himself is richer and more competently drawn. Because of this, I often found myself working through the Kharg chapters just so I could get back to Darc's more interesting story. Had both stories been more balanced, the game could have been something truly special.
However, about 13 hours in, things start to pick up. The plot kicks into high gear, and the battle system starts to become a little richer as your characters learn more skills. During this span, I was absolutely thrilled with the game.
... Which makes it even more tragic that the game takes another nosedive in the last stages. There are several reasons for this—the story offers up the simple solution for the race problems and gives the game a traditional "main" enemy. Everything that was daring and original is subjugated for typical RPG narrative elements.
Worse still is that the game is a cakewalk until players reach the final boss and the difficulty increases almost exponentially. Hard bosses are fine (in fact, I relish them), but when a boss is merely hard because he's cheaply designed (given unfair attack patterns that make beating him more difficult than it should be), I'm not pleased. The last boss in Arc is one of the cheapest I've seen in awhile—and he seems totally out of place in the game. He can be bested, but he's much tougher than he should be thanks to a constantly regenerating shield and the fact that players are forced to fight two other long battles without a save point prior to battling him. Lose and it's back to square one, basically.
The innovations don't only come from the story—although that's where the serious evolution takes place. The game's battle system also tweaks the traditional strategy RPG formula as well.
Rather than feature isometric grid-based maps like practically every other game in the genre, Arc takes an approach much like Breath Of Fire: Dragon Quarter. There are no grids for movement-just a highlighted area that the character can move in and perform actions. Unlike Dragon Quarter, there isn't a point system for movement and attack-players are allowed to move, perform an action, then their turn is over.
Rather than travel from town to town looking constantly for new items to equip, characters in this title keep their original weapons and armor. Instead, the items can be modified by putting various attack, defense, or status enhancing objects into the weapon and armor's pre-installed slots. The downside of this is that each weapon and armor has only three slots—so customization is rather limited.
Aside from these things, there's not a whole lot that sets Arc The Lad: Twilight of the Spirits apart from the traditional strategy RPG. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is just how easy the game is—winning battles doesn't take much strategy, at least not until the final boss. Because of this and the other aforementioned problems, Arc comes across as a flawed game—but it still deserves recognition for trying to work serious social issues into the narrative. It's not always successful, but it's a step in the right direction and one that I hope other developers will emulate.