Working Designs’ Arc the Lad Collection may fall victim to its own ambition. Beginning in Japan back in 1995 as a two-part RPG series on Sony’s PlayStation Arc the Lad quickly became one of the most popular the console has ever seen. The three chapters of the story were developed along with a pre-Pokemon monster-battling game across the next four years, and eventually there emerged a demand for the games in the United States. To do justice to the continuity of the series, Working Designs set out to bring the entire saga to the U.S., and, to this end, [I[Collection is the result of over two years of work.
The potential problem here is that Arc originally gained massive popularity while the PlayStation was still the console of choice. While the PlayStation 2 is backward compatible to most PS1 games – Arc included – the market has shifted, and the length of time it took to localize [I[Arc the Lad Collection places its release in the twilight of PlayStation’s success, a time when many gamers are only looking to the future.
However, newer does not necessarily mean better. Think of it this way: this series has been a hit on one side of the globe already, and it’s only gotten better.
Arc the Lad starts off this massive anthology, sets the stage for the games to come and establishes a very likable cast of characters whose personalities received just as much attention as the storyline. Contrasting with the rather basic-looking graphical style of the game is a deep and often dark story that tackles topics like greed, compassion, the value of nature, and the destructive tendencies of humankind. Other stalwart RPG features like life, death, and saving the world also make appearances, but not in a way that dilutes the rest of the story elements. On top of all that, the climactic ending of Arc I really, really got me wanting to start Arc II as soon as possible. The excellent soundtrack, performed by the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, has one of its finest moments at this point as well.
Arc the Lad II, while housing a considerable chunk of the evolving story, seemed a little off the mark. The music wasn’t as consistently good as that heard in the original Arc and the writing didn’t feel right, either. The story felt a bit forced and awkward, even cheesy at times; the characters lose their sense of purpose when the cast really begins to grow; pop culture references are thrown in all over the place, ranging from Ghostbusters to Aliens, but they didn’t fit into the feel of the game.
One of the biggest sticking points occurs with the character Chongara. While in Arc I he was not only playable, but also had a very peculiar and amusing dialect; however, in Arc II he’s not playable at all and his speech seems a lot more forced, like something was lost in the translation from English to Chongara-ese. Also, once Arc and his companions rejoined the party, I went back to using Arc, Tosh, Poco and Gogen most of the time, foregoing the majority of the cast unique to Arc II. Minor annoyances aside, the game is respectably long (expect around 60 hours). It also adds a lot of little touches that add longevity and non-linearity to the story (monster taming, the Hunter’s Guild, item/weapon creation and modification), but none of them are really essential to the game’s completion. In many ways they feel tacked on and really just give you something to do for killing time. In a sense, this is where Arc Arena comes into play.
In Arc Arena, players can use monsters they’ve captured and customized from Arc II to battle CPU opponents or other players with their own monsters. This game generated enough enthusiasm in Japan that there were official tournaments held where players from all over the country would come to test their monsters’ mettle against others. Again, arriving this late in the PS1’s life, Arc Arena will likely never reach this level of popularity in the States. Arena offers players more ways to customize and improve their monsters, but at the end of the day, it feels like just something extra – a minor diversion if you will. There’s nothing really here for non-Arc players.
Arc II was meant to be the end of the series, but fans clamored loudly enough for a sequel that the developers had to listen. You’ll be glad they did. Arc the Lad III truly stands on its own as a well-crafted story set against the backdrop of the heroes, legends, and myths established by the first two games. This works incredibly well because it relies wholly on a new cast of characters, an entirely new adventure and even a slightly different world. The cataclysmic event towards the end of Arc II known as ?The Disaster’ has caused people to become more compassionate and has brought them back to nature, but The Academy comes along to ?improve’ life through science, regardless of the consequences. Despite all the conflict, the characters remain endearing, and reading their internal monologues onscreen offers some great levity at all the right moments. On the whole, the writing for Arc III feels perfect, with just the right amounts of drama, insight, wit and humor.
Arc III uses the Hunter’s Guild as a direct vehicle to carry and progress the story. This means you must get intimate with the workings of the Guild, the various Societies (Monster, Item, Weapon) and the tendencies of all the characters, including many who never join your party. The Cardish system is much more rewarding than simply capturing monsters as it gives a nearly limitless supply of monster summoning spells, all of which are unique to watch and a blast to use, even more so if you have an amazing stereo. The sound effects, voice clips, and especially the music go back to their roots, remixing some songs from the first two games, and are a big improvement over Arc II. The new visual effects in this installment are really impressive, and the computer-animated cinematic sequences are simply gorgeous.
If nothing else, this package is a lesson in evolution. The quality of everything about these games just keeps improving the further you progress. It’s also one of the few gaming series I know of where every chapter is directly tied to the next. Playing through all the games in order not only feels familiar, but is also encouraged since saves from each game unlock new features, events, and items in subsequent titles.
There are a ton of extras in this package including custom memory card holders, a 150+ page hardcover leather manual, analog stick thumb covers(!), character standees, and a ?Making of’ disc offering insight into the history and creation of Arc the Lad Collection. Perhaps the only thing missing is the inclusion of a soundtrack disc – as Working Designs did with their excellent remake of Lunar: The Silver Star a few years back. Music this good deserves to be enjoyed more than once.
Despite the limited appeal of Arc Arena and personal hang-ups with the story and lack of character depth in Arc II, when combined into one package, this series shines as a high-watermark for the RPG genre. If you never play Arc the Lad Collection, don’t let it be because it’s not ?cool’ to buy a PS1 game anymore. You’ll be the one missing out.