10 for ’10: Arc Rise Fantasia

Arc Rise Fantasia

Developer: Imageepoch, Marvelous

Publisher: Ignition

U.S. Release Date: July 20, 2010

Genre: It is the JRPGiest JRPG to ever JRPG.

I’ll take “crushing disappointment” for $1000, Alex.

It’s shameful, but I’ve probably expended more brain power on this game than anyone on the planet not listed in the end credits. (And if the final project is any indication, probably some of them, as well.) I first heard about it… God… years ago, when it caught my eye because I read that it was being made by part of the team that made Tales of Symphonia, one of my all-time favorite RPGs. I was even more encouraged when I heard that it would be localized by XSEED, one of the great up-and-coming video game localizers. The game came out in Japan last year to modest reviews… you know the kind. Eight out of ten, nothing amazing, “buy it if you’re a fan of the genre” type stuff. Given that I am still very much a fan of the genre, this didn’t dissuade me at all.

Then the game got delayed.

Then the game vanished from lists of future releases.

Then it was revealed that Ignition had somehow secured the localization rights.

Then the game got delayed again.

Then videos of the localized version began popping up, revealing that Ignition had opted for the tried-and-true “hire random people off the street to do the voicework” technique of localization that we all really hoped had died an ignominious death five years ago.

Then the game came out to mediocre reviews… “nothing new here, just more JRPG stuff, you’ve seen this before”, that kind of thing.

Still, through all this, I was sure that the game itself would be good, at least for me. (I can’t speak to its general appeal.) I’m more or less completely inured to JRPG ridiculousness at this point, and I still love their expansive quests, interesting battle systems, and flashy special attacks even as I grow increasingly bored with their paint-by-numbers characters and plots written by people who seem to have never read anything other than fellow JRPGs. I realize that a lot of people don’t, but I’m willing to set aside the genre’s mediocrities in order to get to the parts I still like. Besides, a lot of the criticisms that were being slung in ARF’s direction (ugh, worst acronym ever) had similarly been applied to Symphonia, and I loved that game in spite of its flaws. Plus, I was really jonesing for a console JRPG by this point. I was really hoping, when this generation of hardware was first getting off the ground, that the average, low-budget, workmanlike RPG in the Wild ARMs/Breath of Fire/Suikoden/Shadow Hearts mold would migrate to the Wii, where they’re cheaper to make, while the big flashy blockbuster franchises (Final Fantasy, primarily) would remain on the HD consoles. That didn’t happen, and as a result the JRPG is more or less dead on consoles right now, because they no longer have the audience to cover the costs of development on the HD systems, and the Wii’s casual reputation has killed it for serious games published by anyone other than Nintendo. And while portables are fine, I was really missing the spectacle that you can only really get on a console game. So Arc Rise Fantasia and I were on a collision course from the very beginning.

Let’s be clear here: Arc Rise Fantasia is not a good game. But it’s a not-good game in that grand, sweeping, close-but-no-cigar sense that makes it endlessly fascinating to examine and engenders a certain Stockholmish affection in people like me. If the game had just sucked, I would have put it on my shelf, mildly disappointed, and ignored it. But it was so close — had so many good elements — that I not only played it to completion despite not really enjoying it at any point, but thought about how it might have been improved for weeks afterwards. It could have been an excellent game, but its failure to do so is somehow more interesting to me than if it had.

I said at the time that Arc Rise Fantasia is in many senses the JRPGiest game you’ll ever see. It completely encapsulates not only the genre’s great strengths, but also its vexing, seemingly-inescapable weaknesses. The game has potential on both the gameplay and story sides, but is deeply flawed at both. I could write for pages on how it screwed up — so I will!

Spoilers ahead, if you care. You probably shouldn’t.

Story: Arc Rise Fantasia’s primary storyline conceit is that about a third of the way through the game, a few of your party members leave you and form their own party, parallel with but in opposition to yours. The idea is that there are two… gods, I guess. I forget what they’re really called in the game’s jargon, but it doesn’t really matter — they’re essentially gods. The two gods have a different idea on how the world should be run, and every few centuries they go to the creator god and make a proposal (called a Law) as to what should happen in future centuries. The creator god picks the one she likes the best, his proposal becomes the new Law, and the cycle repeats every few centuries. Each of the two gods has a male hero and a female priestess (again, these have fruity names within the game’s fiction, but I’m trying to keep things coherent here) who do his bidding in the physical realm, primarily by searching for the Rogress (summons), who all need to be collected in order to reach the creator god so that the Laws can be presented.

Anyway, the way the game shakes out, the hero L’Arc and the mysterious girl he meets, Ryfia, are the hero and priestess for one of the gods, and his best friend, the imperial prince Alphonse, and his childhood friend Adelle (who has a freaky stalker crush on L’Arc) are the hero and priestess for the other god. After realizing this, Alf and Adelle kick L’Arc to the curb, taking all the cool party members with them, and run around having their own adventures (mostly independent of L’Arc) for most of the rest of the game.

The interesting part here is that most of the world sees Alf’s party as “the good guys” and L’Arc’s party as imperial stooges. Which is even kind of true! L’Arc is basically a solder — he’s technically a mercenary, but really, he’s a soldier. He believes very strongly in the chain of command and always follows orders if it’s reasonable to do so. He spends most of the first act asking Alf what to do, and most of the second having his strings pulled by Alf’s older brother, the crown prince, and the obviously evil church, of which Ryfia is an unwitting pawn. Arc Rise Fantasia can be read as L’Arc learning to step up and impose his own will on the world rather than allowing himself to drift along under the control of others — in the third act, he decides that both of the proposed Laws are ass and that he’ll make his very own Law (with blackjack! And hookers!), which says that humanity’s fate will be in the hands of humanity, not gods.

The problem is that this development is handled extremely clumsily. Nothing really happens that changes L’Arc’s perspective here; he just up and decides at a certain point in the story that gods are dumb and he’s not going to take them any more. One of L’Arc’s neater characteristics is that he has a very practical, down-to-earth personality — he spends most of the first half of the game worrying more about the geopolitical repercussions of what’s happening, rather than the supernatural. (You can practically see him frantically checking the exits whenever Ryfia starts rambling about Laws and Eesa and the Rogress.)  This is true until about the halfway point, when, as easily as flipping a switch, suddenly dealing with the Rogress is the most important thing on his plate and it’s all he cares about. I think the story would have been much more interesting if L’Arc had come to the conclusion to remove the gods from the picture as a result of being forced into a divine power struggle that he didn’t really understand (or even knew existed). And who knows? Maybe he did. But if he did, it’s not shown in the game. His character growth is not natural — it’s manufactured, very transparently, to serve the plot.

The other party members are mostly secondary to the story… yes, they’ve got their backstories and their personal drama, but mostly they’re there so that L’Arc doesn’t have to fight everything by himself. They suffer from a different problem, though, and it’s what I like to call “paint-by-focus-group”. Each of them has a real personality and a real backstory and a real character arc… but each of them also has a generic anime cliche plastered on them for no real reason I can determine, except that maybe every other game in the genre does it. Serge is a womanizer, Niko’s a lovable coward, Leslie is sexy and likes teasing men, Rastan is the stoic swordsman with no sense of humor, Cecille has a hero complex, Ryfia is the dumbest human being on the face of the planet doesn’t have any experience with the outside world. Problem? These “hilarious” quirks are not integrated well into their personalities. You’ll go for hours without seeing any of them (except Ryfia’s stupidity innocence, which she bludgeons you with constantly), and then suddenly they’ll pop up in a skit as a throwaway joke. I really do get the impression that the writers wrote out the entire story, then decided that their characters needed some humanizing eccentricities and picked some at random out of the anime cliche grab bag.

To put this another way… the Tales series (which is very clearly Arc Rise Fantasia’s ancestor from a storyline/characterization perspective) uses a lot of cliches, but it (usually) does so intentionally and to a purpose, often to deconstruct the cliche in question or to create an interesting clash of characteristics. You never get the sense that the writers threw in a cliche just to avoid having to try. Arc Rise Fantasia exudes that sense, to the point that Serge randomly remembering that he’s supposed to be a pervert once every ten hours is more distracting than anything. Actually, this is fairly characteristic of the game as a whole — it’s trying to copy the Tales series’s aesthetics and feel without really understanding why or how it does what it does (and let’s face it, the Tales series is not so great that a shallow imitation of it is worth playing).

What else… the world is too small, resulting in filler missions where you have to go back to dungeons you’ve already completed. One mid-game quest requires you to ferry proposals and counterproposals back and forth between nations during a diplomatic negotiation, which, while probably more loyal to the actual diplomatic process than Final Fantasy VI’s banquet scene, isn’t the most compelling gameplay in the world. I’d rather have a 30-hour quest without the filler than a 50-hour quest with, but what I really want is a 50-hour quest that is constant forward momentum. Impossible? Prove me wrong, developers.

Oh, and the dub is ass. The industry has advanced, Ignition. This sort of shit is not acceptable any more. There are perfectly serviceable voice actors who will agree to be in any game or anime regardless of terribleness, so don’t pretend you couldn’t find any. And you can’t even mute them (like you can in Baten Kaitos 1, which has a horrible, horrible dub), because…


…you need them in battle. But we’ll get to that momentarily.

Arc Rise Fantasia’s battle system is unique, flexible, interesting, and strategic.

It is also horribly, horribly broken in terms of being fun to play.

ARF’s battle system works kind of like a heavily modified version of Skies of Arcadia. You’ve got a pool of action points which refills at the beginning of every turn, and your entire party must draw from those points to do anything at all. The flexible part is that characters don’t have to act, unlike in Skies. If you want your best attacker to use all the points and attack multiple times, you can. If you want your best mage to heal someone and cast a powerful attack spell, you can do that too. You can have your meatshield taunt the enemies then, at the end of the turn, heal himself.

Problems? It’s not really functional in random battles. And it’s not really functional in boss battles.

In random battles, you don’t really want to do anything except use physical attacks (because you want to save your resources for bosses). This is manageable in the early game, but by the end, you’ll have enough action points to attack something like ten times every turn. This means at least twenty clicks per turn per battle. The game tries to help you out here by including an autobattle function, but it’s borked — the computer constantly wastes extra attacks on enemies that would die anyway, giving them an extra turn to whup your ass. You’ll end up autobattling anyway just to not have battles take so fucking long, but every time L’Arc uses five attacks on an enemy with a sliver of health left you’ll want to punch through your screen.

The irritating part about this is that there’s an easy fix: Magic, which deals tons of damage and shreds minor bad guys. But magic is broken in this game: It uses a FF1/Suikoden-style spell-charge system, topping out at nine charges for each of the four levels of magic. But you can’t actually have the full nine charges for every level: You have to buy each additional charge in the form of a modification to your magic-holding thingy. But you can only modify your magic-holding thingy so many times before it’s maxed, meaning you have to settle for nine charges at one level, something like five or six at another, and a trivial number for the other two. You pretty much always want to max out level two, as the best general-purpose healing spell in the game, Regeneration, sits there. There simply aren’t enough charges available to tear through a dungeon and still have enough to deal with the boss at the end. (Needless to say, magic recharging items are not freely available in this game.)

But okay, random battles are random battles. Surely you’re trading breezy random battles for really in-depth, strategic boss battles, yes?

Well… kind of. Boss battles in Arc Rise Fantasia are hard. Really hard. Harder than you could possibly imagine. The first boss in the game is a complete douchebag who will kill you at least twice before you can even begin to figure out how to approach him — and it escalates from there. Status effects. Infinite minion summoning. Two-part bosses who cast re-raise buffs on each other. Attacks that penetrate your guard and cannot be preempted… it just goes on and on, with each boss looking to one-up its predecessor in sheer assholery. It gets to the point that when you reach the requisite undefeatable boss, you can’t even tell the difference until you don’t get a game over screen after you lose. (Also, you can’t skip dialogue in this game — a game that requires at least one loss to every boss in the game.)

It’s tense, I’ll give it that… it really feels like a chess match, not in the sense that you’re moving pieces around, but rather that you really have to ponder every move you make, your fingers hovering over the buttons as you debate whether to risk an attack or not. A single error results in a TPK almost uniformly. There are no grand comebacks in this battle system.

The issue is that for all the system’s versatility on the micro level, on the macro level there is but one strategy for killing bosses, and that’s Trinity Acts. (And Trinity Excel Acts, which are the same thing but more powerful.) A Trinity Act is a combination attack that is activated when all three characters use a powerful offensive super move on the same target as their first action in a turn. They are, quite literally, the only way to kill bosses with any speed. Every other aspect of boss battles is turtling up and hoping you don’t get annihilated in between TEAs. (This is why you have to leave the voices on — the characters will warn you when the boss is about to use a ludicrously powerful attack so that you know when to defend.) For all the options and choices, all roads in Arc Rise Fantasia lead back to Trinity Excel Acts, and that’s immensely frustrating, especially given how difficult they are to charge up. You have to spend the whole fight carefully micromanaging around this one technique (which you’ll usually have to perform at least three times, and sometimes as many as five or six, in order to win), but the boss can drop your entire team like rocks any time he feels like it. I don’t mind challenge; I just wish there was more than one route to victory here.

The character development systems have a similar wasted potential. I’ve already ranted about magic, but even the weapons have their own unique system — think materia from FFVII. Here’s how it works: Each weapon, on its own merits, is of exactly the same strength. The sword L’Arc starts the game with is precisely as strong as his hidden bonus weapon just based on statistics. Where they differ is in their Arms Forces — little doohickeys that can be attached to a weapon on a 4×4 grid, al la Tetris, and which grant abilities. Some, like Dragon Bane, are passive, some increase your stats or grant a buff at the beginning of the battle, while others, like Steal or Taunt, have to be used. All weapons have a black Arms Force and a hidden Arms Force, as well as another one. The first one is locked in, the second one is automatically triggered when the grid is completely filled up with Arms Forces, and the third one can be detached from the weapon and moved around… eventually. See, to unattach an Arms Force from a weapon you have to level it up… and this takes forever — hundreds and hundreds of battles if you don’t grind at one of the WP farming spots. It is beyond depressing how much time I spent grinding on Crimson Scythes to level up weapons I never used to free Arms Forces I never used. Most of the Arms Forces are entirely useless, either because their effects are too minor or because they’re awkwardly shaped, meaning it’s difficult to slot them in to an Arms Force grid. This is yet another system that could have been excellent, but was squandered by poor execution and lack of testing. This system really needed more small pieces that could be used to fill holes, and the weapons needed their WP requirements cut by at least half, and preferably three-quarters. As it is, you squeeze a useful piece into your weapon and fill in the blank slots with filler.

Man, I’m really wearing myself out with this article. Still, I’m writing this to purge my system of this game, so I suppose it’s okay if it goes on too long. One more thing: A list of brief, not-worth-its-own-rant notes.

  • The dungeons in the game are pretty bad, but not on the level of Suikoden Tierkreis or Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light. They’re just boring, is all — a disappointment given that the Tales series has excellent dungeons.
  • The graphics and music are nice enough, although not eye- or ear-popping. I like the visual design well enough, but some areas (and especially the overworld) are just too busy.
  • There’s something off about the special attacks. Too much down time where the character just stands there, maybe? Too much of a reliance on the “waves of damaging energy” visual device that has become so overplayed in recent years? I dunno. There’s an art to creating properly overblown RPG special attacks, and Arc Rise Fantasia doesn’t have it.
  • One of the villains has an army of gothic lolita assassins. That is definitely something, all right.
  • The costumes should have been cut. If you’re not going to change the character models or battle models, why bother? Nobody goes after costumes in Tales games because they change the profile portraits.
  • I loathe quest systems in RPGs. Damn you, MMORPG (or Monster Hunter, depending on who you want to blame) boom! Arc Rise Fantasia has an entirely unremarkable variation on it, so of course it annoyed the hell out of me. Fucking cat’s claws. At least it’s not as bad as Dragon Quest IX’s “jump through this flaming hoop while riding a llama and singing the German national anthem” quest system.
  • Whoever decided that laughably-out-of-depth enemies should just be hanging around in the open where any player might stumble upon them should be shot.
  • The game is horribly linear, to the point where L’Arc actually mocks you if you try going someplace you’re not supposed to go.
  • There’s a bonus dungeon and a whole slew of bonus bosses that I don’t have nearly enough enthusiasm to go tackle. I’m pretty sure I’d need to grind for something like twenty levels to even stand a chance, and who has the energy? Bonus bosses should be doable, if difficult, by a normal player who has reached the endgame.
  • The identity of Leon was pretty well-done, I think.

Gonna stop there, I think. Usually I buy games with the intent to replay them, but I can’t feature myself picking up this one again. Then again, maybe two or three years from now I’ll forget the bad parts and convince myself that the game deserves another look. I’ve replayed Star Fox Adventures twice, after all. Hopefully then I’ll remember this article and talk myself out of it. Hey, future self! Arc Rise Fantasia is garbage! It’s not going to be any better now!


1 Response to “10 for ’10: Arc Rise Fantasia”

  1. 1 Lord Crump June 24, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I know that this is really old and everything, but I just wanted to say that holy shit. You hit the nail on the head. I’ve been seriously puzzled the whole time I played this as to why I wasn’t really enjoying it as much as I thought I should be. I loved Tales of Symphonia so much, and this has so many similarities to it and yet I can’t get into it nearly as much. It’s because of this stuff. Awesome review thingy.

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