Reviewed: March 15, 2004
Released: February 9, 2004
Throughout her amazing lifetime Joan of Arc played many roles. As a warrior and leader she commanded great hosts of men, as a master tactician she helped mobilize and deploy the armies of France against a firmly entrenched English enemy and as a prophetess and self ordained vessel of Gods word she helped to bring the hope of spiritual redemption to a beleaguered and worn torn people.
With their latest PC release, Wars and Warriors: Joan of Arc, Enlight software is hoping to introduce players to all these facets and more, taking players on a whirlwind swashbuckling adventure as Joan and her (historically accurate) allies Jean de Metz, La Hire, the Duke of Alencon, the Bastard of Orleans and King Charles VII of France attempt to free their beloved homeland from the scourge of the English occupation.
In portraying a complex and influential historical figure like Joan of Arc and attempting to recreate the atmosphere of the Hundred Years War, Enlight took on a big challenge. Female figures in most video games tend to wind up in very marginalized categories these days, most falling afoul somewhere in between Pokemon creatures and Lara Croft’s heaving bosom. With Joan of Arc however the opportunity presented itself to portray not only a strong female heroine but an era rich in real drama, intrigue, politics and war. Were they up to the task of liberating Joan from the confines of history’s dusty scrolls and unfurling her pixilated fleur de li banner for a new and untapped audience? Let’s find out.
The historic Joan of Arc was a diverse character who manifested a number of different qualities commonly thought reserved for the male gender in 15th century Europe. She was the product of a variety of different religious, social and political influences exerting themselves at that time in France. In a very similar way, Enlight choose to chronicle Joan’s adventures in a variety of different ways, utilizing two different genres, each bearing a number of its own distinct influences.
For most of the game players will control Joan from a third person perspective, roaming the fields, towns and castles of worn-torn France as she attempts to move from one objective to another, often with allies at her side and multiple side quests to complete apart from her main goal. Combat and movement here is extremely intuitive. I usually have to change a game’s presets to suit my own style of play, but the control key mapping is straightforward and easy to learn, and with a quick click of the left mouse button players will find themselves chopping down enemies with little effort. The combat is reminiscent of The Two Towers, Return of the King, and even more distantly, Golden Axe. It’s quick, chop ‘em up swordplay, with options to block, use a ranged weapon and perform a strong attack. There’s even a finishing move (slightly akin to the ‘killing-move’ used in Return of the King) to strike when the enemy has fallen flat on his back.
Enlight didn’t stop here however. Integrated into the combat system is a complete RPG-like level up system, in which combo-attacks can be accessed, normal attacks can be powered up and character attributes - such as strength, dexterity, leadership and more - can be improved. This system is set up to reward experience and comes straight out of the Diablo II textbook – a right mouse click allows access to health boosters like chicken and apples while an easy click and drag moves resources and items to your allies inventory screen.
By emulating Diablo’s inventory system Enlight made it extremely easy for players to get to know their characters strengths and weaknesses, a definite plus; but lest we think that it is all imitative, it is important to remember that the leveling up system is unique – the ability to upgrade standard attacks themselves, making slashes and starting combos more powerful is a fun and inventive way to reward the experience of hacking through droves of English soldiers. Horse riding is another excellent addition to the third person combat system, something that should strike a chord with Zelda: Ocarina of Time fans.
The second way players experience the adventures of Joan of Arc is through an RTS system of click and command, ala Warcraft, Battle Realms or any other of your favorite real time strategy games. This portion of the game is vital to master in order to deploy troops correctly, liberate French towns and reduce English garrisons. Like its third person counterpart, players will find this style of play easy to master and fun to control. It doesn’t go into any especially excruciating detail. This is real-time strategy light, a diet version suitable to the games jump in and play philosophy.
Does it work? Most of the time. In many ways this style harkens back to the older days of Robin Hood: Defender of the Crown (Designed by Kellyn Beck for the Commodore 64), a game that took players through a medieval adventure in many different modes of play, but none of them too overly complex. Taking a hybrid genre approach is laudable but risky. Taking too soft an approach in one area can end up leaving another feel overly done or, even worse, too simplistic. In this case however Enlight managed to include enough of each genre’s “fun-factor” in order to keep the game play brisk and lively.
Joan of Arc faced a formidable foe in the English – they were as numerous as they were tough. Enlight must have kept this in mind during production, producing a graphics engine that can handle a surprisingly high number of enemies on the screen at one time while still maintaining visuals that are pleasing to the eye. Joan of Arc doesn’t sport outrageously detailed graphics or voluminous shadows (in fact there aren’t even any resolution settings in the options menu) in the manner of Splinter Cell or upcoming games like Half-Life 2, but what is does offer is a colorful, vibrant and rich visual experience that most will find quite pleasing.
The outdoor settings are beautifully detailed – tall trees and green fields mingle naturally with fields of flowers and flowing rivers – and the castles loom impressively over Joan and her companions like majestic stone redwoods, silent yet visually powerful. Looks are great, but the outdoor terrain does present some difficulties. In certain instances I was unable to run up hills or fall down small slopes to engage the enemy even though it looked easy enough to do so and logically should have allowed the player access.
The limitations are apparent here – the graphics engine considers these areas more like walls rather than open terrain, and at times my movement felt a bit hampered, a bit too linear. Other times the engine would start to render grassy fields a little bit too “on-the-fly”, i.e. green fields would seem to materialize right in front of me as I ran or rode.
I’d also liked to have seen more diversity in the features of bystanders in various towns and villages. Most of the time however you’ll be much busier hacking down foes than scrutinizing the facial features of NPC’s, and Joan of Arc’s graphics do a great job making the task easy on the retinas.
A good job done here by both the sound effects department and musical score composer. The music accompanying Joan’s adventure is quite enchanting and the sound effects detail the clang of swords and chinks of armor sufficiently well. Some areas could use improvement – the whoosh of arrows, the battle cry of each hero, the rustle of trees in the wind - some of the smaller typically overlooked areas could use bigger, bolder sounds.
The voice acting ended up being a rather interesting mix of American and French accented English. Personally I would have preferred the entire voice cast to use faux French accents, with the exception of English opponents. When Joan yells, “Come on there’s a country to save!” she is much more reminiscent of Annie Oakley rather than a devout warrior woman of god and it doesn’t fit somehow when Jean de Metz pronounces Orleans like a true Californian when The Bastard of Orleans refers to his own home in a manner more befitting Pepe Le Pue. Such critiques are relevant from a point of historical accuracy and cultural consistency, but thankfully each line is performed well within its context, and, regardless of inflected accuracy, is still consistent enough with the game itself.
Joan’s adventure is a straight-laced single player campaign with no multiplayer options attached. There would be, without a doubt, great difficulties in translating the main facets of Joan of Arc’s gameplay to a multiplayer state, and there are assuredly those who would vilify Enlight for not making the attempt just as there are those who would thank them for not adding a half-hearted multiplayer incarnation that would go unused by players anyway.
I personally fall somewhere in between the two, and although I would have liked to have seen a multiplayer component (it would have added to the game’s life tremendously) I am also of the opinion that Joan of Arc’s single player campaign is quite sufficient to entertain players. The next Wars and Warriors series should consider a multiplayer component, though.
Tackling the subject of Joan of Arc is not an undertaking to be considered lightly, and in attempting to bring to the events of The Hundred Year’s War to life Enlight has made a considerable effort to balance history, different types of gameplay and all around fun. On the whole they succeeded, bringing a raucous blend of third person action gaming and light real time strategy to a package that is enjoyable, intuitive and immersing.
Joan of Arc has a lot to offer, and for those players who have yet to experience a game with different modes of play Joan of Arc comes highly recommended.