It’s tough out there for a console JRPG fan this gen. Pickings are slim and releases are few and far between, so I definitely feel a sense of gratitude whenever a smaller release in the genre makes it over to the States. Sometimes, though, the lack of effort in the localization and gameplay that legitimizes stereotypical complaints by people who hate the genre makes me wish the game had stayed on the other side of the pond. That way I could still have a faint glimmer of hope that it was great. Sadly, Arc Rise Fantasia is one of those games.
You play as L’Arc, a mercenary for the Meridian Empire who comes upon a naïve young girl named Ryfia. This eventually leads to him discovering hidden powers inside himself that he never knew about and a quest to save the world from destruction. This all sounds pretty humdrum and “been there done that”, and I would agree that for the first 10-15 hours it is. While he's on his journey, L’Arc meets a number of people that join him on his quest and they have a largely happy-go-lucky romp through the world. At some point, though, things change. Your group of adventurers changes roster and suddenly you are competing against a rival group within the story in every dungeon you explore. Philosophical debates arise about which group is doing the right thing and some dungeons have goals at the end that can be won by either group, depending on your actions. These parts of the story really helped me keep my interest through the latter half of the game.
Sadly, the story also has a good number of overly cheesy or failed emotional attempts that just hurt to watch. This is exacerbated by the worst voice acting of any game I have ever played. I am not kidding you - go and watch a video of Niko saying anything... ever, and tell me he isn’t the most annoying side-kick character of all time. His voice sounds like a horrible attempt at a Jerry Seinfeld impression and only a few of his lines didn’t make me cringe. You can turn off the voice acting, but his lines are still terribly written and the voice acting will still rear its ugly head during the cutscenes. In fact, a large number of the main characters have horrible voice acting, including Ryfia and to a lesser extent L’Arc.
Gameplay has similar issues, with the battle system being dragged down by poor, monotonous dungeon design and bad choices in general game design. The battle system is a turn based system which requires some strategic thinking during harder fights. Each character contributes to a general pool of Action Points each turn that you can use in whatever way you want. If you want one character to greedily use all of the group’s Action Points then you are free to do so, just know that there is a delay between each action done by the same character, so if you want to kill the enemy before they can get an attack in it's best to spread the love. Other than whaling away at the enemy melee-style, Action Points can also be used for magic, excel attacks, summoning spells, and some weapon specific skills that I never found useful.
What magic your characters can use is based on the gems they have equipped. Multiple gems can be equipped after purchasing upgrades which allow you to combine gems of the same or different elements. They either increase the level of spells the character can use or create spells of two elements combined, like fire and earth being combined to make darkness. When you go to use the magic during a battle you can choose between level 1, 2, 3, and 4 spells, each level having its own MP pool. At the beginning this will limit you to only being able to use a spell 2 or 3 times before you run out of that level of MP. This sounds all fine and good until you realize that the items that increase MP can’t be bought anywhere and are therefore precious. So now, whenever you go into a dungeon with a boss at the end (which is all of them), you can’t use magic during regular fights because you need it for the boss and you don’t want to waste the precious few items you have found for restoring it. This takes magic pretty much out of the equation for all but boss fights or grinding near an inn where you can restore your MP.
Excel attacks are what you’ll actually perform most often during the game, aside from your standard melee attacks. Every action you do will slowly fill up a meter which you can use along with some AP to perform high damage skills or other special abilities, similar to the classic limit break idea. Also, if you combine three different characters’ Excel attacks you can perform an even more powerful trinity attack, which is useful against bosses. Unfortunately the meter doesn’t fill up quickly enough for you to use it much more than every third or fourth fight, and the summoning meter fills up even more slowly, so for most fights you’ll just have to be content with beating up your enemies the old fashioned way. This is actually somewhat accepted for many JRPGs, but it was more annoying than normal because of how much time I was forced to grind in Arc Rise Fantasia. It seemed like every time I got to a new boss it would force me to grind a few levels before I even stood a chance. I think the main reason this happens is because the dungeons are all far too short. Even after killing every enemy on my way to a boss I would only earn maybe one or two levels, while the boss itself would require four or five.
To make matters worse, sometimes there would be a surprise boss fight without a save point nearby. Who out there is making the lives of these developers so miserable that they have to take it out on the people that play their games? Does anyone actually enjoy being side swiped by a difficult boss that turns your dungeon trudge into a complete waste of time? Especially considering that some of these bosses required character or equipment specific strategies that you really have no way of improvising; they require prior preparation. After a while I got so skittish that, any time there was a large open area up ahead in a dungeon, I’d run all the way back to the save point just in case. As Amy Wong would say: “Fool me seven times, shame on you. Fool me eight or more times, shame on me.” The battle system boils down to being pretty good to great during boss fights, but the excessive grinding means they aren’t even close to taking up the majority of the game.
One of the bright spots in the gameplay is the weapon customization. Each battle you win earns you not only XP, but also WP, which will slowly upgrade your weapon. As the weapon upgrades its abilities unlock and each ability or stat bonus has a specific shape, similar to a Tetris block, which you can transfer to another weapon as long as you have the room. If you can fill up the weapon’s space with abilities you unlock a secret stat bonus or ability for that weapon, which, combined with the weapons having little intrinsic difference in attack power, means that your weapon choice is a lot less obvious than it is in most games. Unlocking the blocks for each weapon to make them usable in your endless game of 'weapon Tetris' provides a great impetus to switch around the weapons you use and grind up each one at least a bit.
Visual presentation for Arc Rise Fantasia makes me come away feeling like there is a ton of lost potential here. Sure, the dungeons are all pretty one note and boring, but some of the landscapes and cityscapes are attractive, if you can ignore the jaggedness. Unfortunately the characters that are walking around these pleasant areas are a jagged, ugly mess. There is a sharpness feature in the game’s settings, but no matter how much I messed around with that as well as my TV’s own settings I couldn't get the game to look any better. It's obviously an issue with the game itself, because the still shot characters during dialogue sequences look perfectly fine. Couple that with massive framerate drops in a few areas, where apparently too much was on screen, and you have a pretty visually disappointing game. It just seems like the game wasn’t optimized enough or rushed out before the visuals were fine-tuned.
I’ve already mentioned the voice acting, which regularly made me think of shoving a pen in my ear, but the other side of the sound design isn’t too bad. Music is actually catchy and enjoyable and I found myself humming along regularly after hearing a song one too many times. Another testament to the score's quality is that I never got tired of any of the music, even after hearing it so often. It isn’t quite something I would buy a soundtrack for, but I had a good time with it.
I beat Arc Rise Fantasia after 48 and a half hours, and at a budget price of $40 that’s actually pretty good. However, there are no reasons to replay the game, such as multiple difficulty levels, and the extra stuff you can do outside of the main quest is nothing extraordinary. Considering how much of my time was spent doing things that aren’t at all fun though, like forced grinding and tearing my hair out because the game tricked me into a surprise boss battle, the overall value is good, but not amazing.
Arc Rise Fantasia is a game of unfortunate missteps that turn a pretty good JRPG into something decidedly mediocre. The presentation leaves a lot to be desired and some of the gameplay decisions make it seem like the developers are trying to test my credentials as a JRPG fan. I wish that the strategic nature of the battle system and weapon customization hadn’t been held back by all kinds of other issues, because those two parts of the game are actually pretty great, but when it all comes together Arc Rise Fantasia is decidedly “meh”. If you’re desperate for a new JRPG it isn’t terrible, so go right ahead, but otherwise you should probably just wait for the next hopeful contender from Japan.