Why do people say that videogames have no educational value? In vision therapy, I played a blue and red Arkanoids clone to help my eyes work together. The Legend of Zelda taught me the basics of reading maps. And thanks to playing La Pucelle Tactics, I can now call somebody "stupid" in Japanese. Demon hunting heroine Prier is always calling people baka: her younger brother, her best friend, scary monsters. "You really piss me off!" she shouts at a demon lord just before whacking him with her baton. Loud, selfish and abusive, Prier isn't a hero for everyone. Yet players strange enough and patient enough to appreciate her will find this game a fun little gem.
Prier and her big mouth are members of La Pucelle, the "supernatural emergency" wing of the Church of the Holy Maiden. With her brother Culotte and classmate Alouette, she beats the bejesus out of rogue demons. But what starts out as a routine exorcism snowballs into a mysterious Evil Plan. The students (along with a freelance demon-hunter, a princess with a split personality, and a pirate who sails through the sky) are all that stand between them and the end of the world.
Our heroes fight their apocalyptic battles on 3-dimensional boards, which players can rotate to get a better view of the action. Like living chess pieces, the characters travel across these boards by moving a certain number of squares. As they get stronger, they can move more squares per turn.
The game also takes a hallmark of the role-playing genre—experience points—and splits it into a million pieces. Characters still level up, but so does everything else. Items, attacks, and even someone's individual stats get their own "experience." Every time a character uses a special attack, that attack's experience goes up. It then gains levels and gets stronger, dealing more damage and reaching across more squares. And certain equipped items raise certain stats after battles. All these possibilities make every teammate a smorgasbord of untapped potential.
But the exorcists-in-training don't have to save the day all by themselves. Demons can be converted before they're killed, usually with the help of a purify command. Creatures who've been purified enough will join the team once they die, and be very useful besides. Equipping one's monsters with two or more items and giving them to seedy Dark World dealers allows items to be combined for more power.
Purification isn't just for pesky monsters . It's also used to neutralize streams of dark energy, which flow across the screen in elemental colors: red (fire), green (wind), blue (ice), yellow (lightening), purple (aid), white (holy) and cyan (healing). When a player purifies the dark portal at the mouth of the energy stream, all its colored squares explode in a satisfying, painful-looking manner. Any monsters caught within the stream will suffer damage. (Unless the stream is cyan, in which case all allies standing in it will regain some health.) Purifying dark portals also raises item experience, especially if the element in the dark energy stream is the same as the element in the item.
The best way to administer a beatdown in La Pucelle Tactics is to create a miracle. Miracles happen when one stream of energy forms a circle and enemies—or friends, if it's a healing miracle—are standing inside it. When that stream is purified, a god appears and everything from damage to experience points goes through the roof. Unfortunately, I didn't get to experience miracle-making in all its glory. To do so requires some understanding of geometry, and I have the spatial skills of a matchstick. I was lucky to make a simple square; patient Euclids can sketch together a domino-chain of miracles and rack up massive bonuses.
Gameplay is only one of the title's charms. Its characters are at once funny and sad and sweet and exasperating, and they're all the more loveable for it. Like teenagers in a John Hughes movie, people in this game aren't who they appear to be. Princess Eclair doesn't really want to be a princess. But instead of telling someone how she feels, she's repressed her anger and fear and turned them into a whole other person. Prier's brother Culotte is timid and unsure of himself. "I'm sorry!" he says, setting a stampede of mushrooms on unsuspecting monsters. Yet he loves Prier and wants to protect her as she has protected him throughout his life. We sense Culotte's inner turmoil early on, groan when he does stupid things on its account, and cheer when he becomes a man. His sister, on the other hand, seems about as sensitive as steel wool. For her, any problem can be solved with an uppercut or a scissor-kick to the face. Nevertheless, her cloying confidence disappears whenever she thinks of the guy she's crushing on.
Characters are also made loveable by the game's anime art style. Human sprites in La Pucelle Tactics aren't very big; yet I see self-assurance, relief, bashfulness, rage, religious calm and despondence in their tiny faces. The demons look nice, too. While there are bats galore and guys in creepy cloaks, there are also squeaky-voiced mushrooms, hippos that fart fire, and a whale as big as a skyscraper. I even enjoyed the battle animations. My favorite is an attack where Culotte, giggling, crushes his foes with a gigantic kitten.
Still, for all its cleverness La Pucelle Tactics isn't perfect. It involves very little exploration for an RPG. Areas are accessed via a map and a cursor, like in Summoner: A Goddess Reborn. That map allows players to save the game and refill health and magic; it quickly became my lifeline�that is, until one of the game's chapters cut me off from the map entirely.
Enjoying La Pucelle Tactics requires a compulsive temperament and a perverse sense of humor. I liked watching characters grow and change and beat the living crap out of each other. The Zen-like calm of leveling up has hooked me like some kind of drug. I ask myself: Just how strong can my teammates get? Can I make it through the Cave of Trials in one piece? Wouldn't it be sweet if I could find a way to convert boss monsters? If my readers will excuse me, I'm off to kick some demon butt. Again and again and again.