Reviewed: June 13, 2005
Released: June 14, 2005
Arc the Lad: End of Darkness is the latest installment in Namco's long-running RPG franchise. It features offline as well as online gameplay, a radically revamped combat system and a cast of dozens of characters, new and old. It's set in the same world as the last ATL title, the well-received Twilight of the Spirits, and features over two dozen playable characters - well, sort of.
The Arc the Lad games have never been hugely popular (and I'm sure the name doesn't help things, Namco). They've done well enough that the developers keep making them, but most people fall into one of two categories regarding the series: die-hard fan or couldn't care less. It's unfortunate to have to write this, but the ranks of the faithful may very well shrink after End of Darkness hits store shelves.
This game, though it tries valiantly, is trapped somewhere between its awkward dialog, its generic story and its uninspiring combat system. Arc the Lad: End of Darkness has, ironically enough, turned out to be one of the darkest (read: poorest) chapters in the franchise's history.
The game begins with Edda, an odd young man who lives on a remote island after being washed ashore there from a shipwreck in his early years. I say odd because he seems to flip effortlessly from being one way to another, as the story dictates. At first we think, "Ah, here is a gentle, caring, simple soul!" as he returns a book to a young woman claiming it to be hers, and doesn't understand why she's so surprised that he didn't question her. This is the first side of Edda: doing good deeds because that's the way things ought to be done, helping out perfect strangers with no expectation of reward, silently listening to the troubles of others with a benevolent smile in his eyes.
The story then careens awkwardly into Edda's singularly violent relationship with a hideous midget-like friend of his named Hemo. Hemo is a Slothian, a portly, neckless humanoid race who are despised and reviled by humans the world over, except on this island where they coexist peacefully. Edda and Hemo are discontent with life on the island (though the "why" of that is never developed) and have been working together to see if they can't build a raft to go adventuring on.
The two of them are constantly squabbling and threatening to hit each other. Hemo in particular becomes immensely annoying early on, as the character who's supposed to be "lovably brash" - in other words, he second-guesses everyone, even when he has no idea what he's talking about. And he usually doesn't.
This second, apparently Hemo-influenced side of Edda is shown in jarring proximity to his gentler side constantly throughout the game. He argues with and pesters everyone who'll let him get away with it, and is completely polite and subservient around everyone else. This just doesn't make sense, and takes a lot away from making Edda a believable character.
The story is poorly executed, as well. The basic plot, while certainly clichéd, isn't any worse than those of the bulk of nondescript RPG’s produced in the last six or seven years. What is definitely sub-par in End of Darkness is the execution of that story, though stilted plot points and bad dialog. Several times, the plot is advanced by someone telling Edda, "I have seen the future. You are destined to save us!" or "You are the only one who can do this or that thing. It's because of your bloodline".
Edda's parents, apparently, were Exorcists, a term this game reserves for people who can utterly erase a monster from existence via purification. The whole "special birthright" thing has been done to death and back again. It is the refuge of those who cannot think of a compelling reason for a character to do what he or she must do to advance the plot. A better storyteller would have made Edda's wanderlust his primary reason for leaving the island and dedicating his life to eradicating "malademons," with the whole question of genetic heritage as a flavor additive, nothing more.
"Malademons" are the main focus of much of Arc the Lad: End of Darkness. A malademon is a regular monster possessed by negative energy. That negative energy comes from the hearts of humanoids. Malademons are so strong that normal Hunters, people who fight monsters for a living, tend to avoid them at all costs. But Edda's ability to exorcise malademons gives him a unique advantage.
In combat, a malademon shows up as a regular monster surrounded by thick black smoke. By stunning the malademon (through a series of strikes), Edda can prepare it for cleansing. At that point, executing his special attack (which takes a couple of seconds to charge, so watch it) will cleanse the malademon, completely eradicating it for good. Boss enemies also tend to be malademons, albeit larger, more intimidating ones.
The combat system in this game is boring and repetitive. It's all in real-time, so the ability to time your attacks well will save Edda's life on many occasions. However, a supremely confusing button layout prevents this from being easy to master. To target an enemy, hold down the L2 button. You can then push L1 or R1 to dodge around it, but heaven help you if you're fighting a large group of monsters: the L1/R1 buttons only do that while L2 is depressed.
Otherwise, pressing Square will let you do a quick back-dash, which becomes a forward dash if you happen to be holding down a direction on the left analog stick. Since you're usually moving somewhere rather than just standing still, the square button can get you into all sorts of trouble.
And as if that weren't enough, special abilities (equipped between battles and learned through collectible cards) are only available while holding down the R2 button! The overall effect is unnecessarily complex and counterintuitive. And even when you do finally master the battle system, most fights are just a matter of mashing X (the attack button) over and over again, mixed in with the occasional card skill.
End of Darkness has a complex set of systems relating to the synthesis and application of cards, but the details aren't worth going into right here. It should suffice to write that, at the end of all the card hunting and combining, you'll find that the basic battle strategy of X, X, X, X, repeat hasn't changed much. It certainly doesn't help that the battle stages are completely isolated from the rest of the game, or that the world map is only representative and not explorable at all. From almost the beginning, the entire world is at Edda's fingertips. There isn't much available in the way of discovery with such a setup.
Online gaming is always an option, as well. For the first time in an Arc the Lad game, End of Darkness allows players to go online and team up with a group of four heroes for collaborative missions, or fight against up to eight players in a versus battle. I guess the real question here is, would you rather play a short match in a flat, boring arena against other people who are pretty much smashing the X button, or just pick up Champions of Norrath instead? I rest my case.
With mind-numbing battles, a retread storyline, flat characters and corny dialog, Arc the Lad: End of Darkness is playable, but not much else beyond that. There's some minor satisfaction in reaching the next plot point, but so much of the game wanders aimlessly that it's almost not worth waiting around for. In the end, this new installment in the Arc the Lad pantheon will disappoint fans and most likely turn potential fans off to the older games for good, which is a shame.
At its base, Arc the Lad: End of Darkness has nice-looking, if not outstanding, graphics. For a relatively low-profile series of RPG’s, they're more than passable. However, they can't compare to the raw quality of games like Final Fantasy X (which was released a few years ago, to boot), nor the superior visual style of the Shin Megami Tensei games. All in all, it looks like what it is: a generic PS2 action-RPG.
While the in-game rendered cutscenes look pretty good overall, the game is annoying to look at during regular play because the camera is so zoomed out from the action that it's hard to tell what's what. I'll grant that the zoom isn't quite as severe as it is in Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, but at least Ys has a decent battle system going for it. While this never hindered gameplay in any way per se, it certainly would have been nice to have at least a basic dynamic zoom capability, so that townspeople didn't look so much like tiny, faceless lumps.
There's also the issue of character design. Slothians aside, is Edda the president of the Tidus Fan Club or something? He's wearing a short orange open vest with a white hood, stylized shorts and a hairdo similar, if not identical, to that of the hero of Final Fantasy X. Some of the deimos (demi-humans) sport interesting designs, at least until you see a dozen of them and realize they all look almost the same. However, human characters are at best forgettable and at worst, downright generic.
Speaking of human character designs, the 25-plus "playable" characters in the game are the best chance you'll get to see most of them. Some of you may by now have realized, however, that Edda fights his fights alone. So how did Namco make so many other characters playable? In short, skin-swapping. When certain cards are obtained and conditions met, players can fight with a different character instead of Edda. However most of these other characters never appear in the main storyline, never have a line of real dialog and have absolutely nothing to do with the story. It's the RPG equivalent of choosing between Mario or Luigi.
I'll be quick about this. The music is forgettable and at times quite annoying. It rarely turns into anything I'd want to just sit and listen to. Sound effects? They're all right (footsteps are always a nice detail), but hardly worth writing about.
The voice acting is barely passable, mostly because there is none outside of battle. Those who expected End of Darkness to be voice acted in the same way that Twilight of the Spirits was are going to find themselves disappointed. During battle, Edda will occasionally spout one of a few phrases completely unrelated to what's actually happening. Though this makes for some unintentionally funny moments ("you'll have to do better than that!" Edda shouts triumphantly as he is murdered by a swarm of bees), it's mostly just annoying and seems shoddy.
If you can stand to endure the dull battles until it becomes plausible to occasionally mix them up with some decent special abilities, you might actually end up halfway liking Arc the Lad: End of Darkness, at least enough to want to finish it. A basic run-through takes about 18-20 hours, short for a traditional RPG but passable for an action-RPG.
And the open-ended nature of the game's missions allows players the opportunity to go back and complete everything before the end, which adds a respectable 5 or 6 more hours onto the game. And there's always the option of going online, though as I previously mentioned, you'd be better served by a game more specifically geared to online play if that's what you're looking for.
The main question is not whether or not there's a good amount to do in End of Darkness, but whether it's worth doing. The game is boring and it has a monotonous battle system. The main character, Edda, isn't likable enough to want to spend all that time with, anyway, in my opinion.
And the fact remains that whatever you genre of choice, there are better games on the market right now. Looking for an action/RPG? The aforementioned Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is far from magnificent but it's decently entertaining. For a straight-up RPG, try Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga or Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana. And for an online experience, the Champions games await.
I went into Arc the Lad: End of Darkness, my first Arc the Lad game, with high hopes. As the game progressed through the first few hours, I found myself waiting for the point at which all this setup would finally congeal and pay off with a great finished game. When I finally realized that there was no setup and that this was all there was, I knew it wasn't the game I'd hoped it would be.
There is some obvious care that has gone into the game. The difficulty curve of the enemies is clearly defined, and the graphics are nice, all things considered. In the end though, this game feels like a throwback, or an experiment gone wrong. Die-hard ATL fans should rent this first - hate the score if you want to, but just trust me and rent it first. Everyone else should save their money for a more worthy title, and pass this one up.