I was wrapping up my game sessions with Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits on the same day that the most recent Middle East Peace Plan fell to pieces. A suicide bomber detonated a bomb on an Israeli bus in Jerusalem that killed 18 and wounded nearly 100 innocent people. It was another heartbreaking episode in a long line of horrible events beamed into our living rooms, sometimes live, into our television screens from that part of the world. But as I watched the accounts of the act and reports on the resulting aftermath, it became clear just how similar this real world event was with the digital one I had just been playing. Granted, the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a solemn and complicated affair with enormous repercussions across the globe not to be trivialized by comparison to the racial conflict in a videogame, but they do share underlying motivations and justifications for their acts. Sadly, it is all the more tragic because unlike Twilight of the Spirits, there isn't a single personification of evil that can force both sides to end their discord and unite.
As with their real world equivalent, the Deimos and Humans have been at odds for generations. Their strife is so engrained in their culture that no one even remembers why they first fought; the true reasons have been lost, exaggerated and even manipulated to the point where the truth can no longer be discerned from myth or hearsay. But as I played I learned that what was behind all of this fighting and conflict may be some single outside entity. And it is here that the game loses me somewhat.
It reminds me that other games have tackled similar subject matter before, and though Cattle Call took it further than most, the developer is unwilling to escape the conventions of the genre to treat the subject matter the way it deserves. Take, for example, the two brothers, Kharg and Darc. Mike wasn't kidding about the disparity between the two. Kharg is the typical young hero who comes with his own loyal band of followers. He's young, he's handsome, he's a prince and he's good with a sword. He's also incredibly dull. The only bad thing that has ever happened to him in his life happen it the middle of the game, but it never endeared him to me despite the insistence of the often heavy-handed plot. Darc, on the other hand, is far more interesting. He has endured pain his whole life, he has had to fight for everything he has ever had and he is trying desperately to find his place in a world that wants nothing to do with him. That is a huge divergence for this genre. Sometimes it seems like Kharg's presence is there so as not to scare off the prototypical role-playing game (RPG) fan—one who wouldn't be immediately accepting of the Darc storyline, or for that matter, his demonic good looks.
Mike also wasn't kidding about the almost split personality of the game. The first half of the game is great. The story is told well and is unveiled slowly and deliberately while the combat is enjoyable. It's the latter half that takes a bit of a dive. The story resorts to almost all of the standard RPG clichés that I have been bored by in so many of today's console RPGs. Mike also hit the nail on the head when he criticized the battles. Though easy, they are fun and often take some strategy to complete. However, at the very end, the difficulty surges upward and I was never prepared for it.
What I find unusual is how few people mention Twilight of the Spirits's rather unique look. Most console RPGs these days have a very characteristic hyperstylized look to them popularized by Square's recent Final Fantasy releases. Said games aimed for intricate graphics with unrealistically dressed anime characters. Twilight of the Spirits's graphics are more simplistic, and will naturally take a few hits in direct comparison. The colors in Twilight of the Spirits look muted and washed out; the characters' clothing look sparsely detailed and uninteresting and in the beginning, the environments are pretty bland. Cattle Call makes use of one of the many special effects capabilities Sony trumpeted prior to the PlayStation 2's launch. With this effect, objects in the background appear out of focus. Unfortunately, it is not applied very successfully here. The result is that everything in the foreground (or in focus) is sharp, leaving everything else blurry, as if covered in a light film of Vaseline.
However, to simply look at the game this way would be unfair as the developer wasn't trying to create an eye candy release, but was trying to create a 3D game with a consistent look and feel. And I give it much credit for doing that. Everything in Twilight of the Spirits is in 3D, from the characters, to objects, to the environments. The graphics engine is used throughout; it is used during battles, during navigation through towns and other areas not to mention the cutscenes scattered throughout the levels. There is no doubt that this made for smooth transitions and a lack of the unbearable load times so common in similar other games.
I must also give Cattle Call credit for its handling of one seemingly small area of the game: the characters' random vocalizations. No, I don't mean diatribes or verbal exchanges, but what they say during the course of battle. Each character has a slew of one-liners they belt out during an offensive or defense turn. It actually adds to the battles and makes them more than simple predictable exchanges, which, let's face it, is what they pretty much are.
My only other issues with the game are minor. I'd love for someone to tell me why characters still spin on an axis instead of simply turning to look at someone. I can't understand why I'm not allowed to pan and rotate the camera during battle. This feature has been a mainstay of the strategy RPG for years because it solved a problem intrinsic with traditionally, isomeric, grid-based layout of the battlefield. I assumed Twilight of the Spirits's 3D layout would negate the need for such a feature but I was mistaken. The spaces are more open and the ground more leveled, but my characters still got stuck behind things and the ability to see around objects and other characters would have gone a long way to make battles less of a hassle.
I enjoyed my time with Twilight of the Spirits. It was a pleasant surprise that came just as I was tiring of the entire genre. It offered a surprisingly deep plot and some interesting characters. It showed a lot of promise. Unfortunately, Cattle Call tries to serve two masters and ultimately hurts its product. The subject matter is never given the kind of attention it could and only gave glimpses of where the developer could have taken it if it hadn't been so concerned with pleasing the hardcore fans. This is a shame because there is enough here hidden behind the RPG conventions for Twilight of the Spirits to be so much more.