Reviewed: June 1, 2004
Released: May 4, 2004
La Pucelle: Tactics is a tactical RPG from Nippon Ichi, the company that made last year's sleeper hit Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, also a tactical RPG. La Pucelle was actually released in 2002 in Japan, so gameplay-wise it's a prequel to Disgaea. One can only assume that Nippon Ichi decided to release La Pucelle after testing the waters with a newer product to see if American consumers would buy it.
Unlike Disgaea, La Pucelle was released stateside by Mastiff (Atlus did the other game). It features over 120 hours of gameplay, an engaging storyline and a deep, interesting combat system. Read on to find out more about this latest offering to the lineup of tactical games.
The most important part of any tactical RPG is its combat system - even more, it could be argued, than the storyline built around the game's battles. Unlike a traditional RPG, in which battles are often random and rarely last more than a minute or two, a tactical game (La Pucelle included) allows players to field a band of fighters and place them strategically on a battle board to fight numerous enemies who also appear on the board. Battles are pitched and often last for more than 15 minutes, as players move their characters strategically and utilize special attacks to gradually wear down the bad guys.
This basic formula is as tried and true as biscuits and gravy, and yet La Pucelle manages to make it fresh and interesting with a combination of fine tuning and some innovative new concepts. Perhaps the coolest feature is the character recruitment system. Most tactical RPGs have one way or another for players to swell the ranks of their armies (and thereby their battle options) with characters from the game world. In La Pucelle, the recruitable characters are the enemies.
Your agency (La Pucelle, natch) is a sect of a church dedicated to hunting and purifying demons. Each of your main characters has a Purify command that can be used like an attack which, instead of dealing damage, wears down a monster's will to fight. If enough time is taken with this process (i.e., a lot of Purify commands are used on the monster), it will become eager to join your side. Defeating it in combat will then add it to your ranks. It's a great concept - turn your enemies against themselves!
It's fun seeing all the different abilities your monsters learn as they level up, too. Of course, the system goes a lot deeper than just recruitment. There's a non-battle Train command to discipline them and a Happiness meter for each beast that must be monitored carefully. But the basic gist of things is that you can convert monsters to the side of the light and they will then become valuable members of your party.
Other perks of the battle system include elevation-affected stats (as in Disgaea, staying on high ground gives your characters an advantage), a powerful formation system in which keeping characters side by side lets them fight as one, no matter how many actions any one of them has already taken, and battle board features called Dark Portals. These things emit streams of energy that adversely affects the strength and resilience of most friendly characters standing in its path. A Portal can be purified like monsters for a monetary bonus or have its energy directed around the battlefield before purification to generate powerful effects. They also generate new monsters every few turns as long as they remain unpurified.
The Dark Portal/Dark Energy subsystem is as intuitive as it is complex, and I have heard of nothing like it in any tactical RPG before or since. If you know the trick, they can even help in the opening of a gate to the Dark World, a series of challenging dungeons with great treasures awaiting within. All of this is hard to describe on paper. My recommendation would be to play it yourself and see what I mean.
The storyline is enjoyable if not terribly original. You control Prier ("pree-ay"), a buxom young demon huntress for La Pucelle, the action arm of the Church of the Holy Maiden. Prier and a few other young women are also in training to potentially become the Maiden of Light, a powerful incarnation that exists to do battle with the Dark Prince, a terrible fiend who appears periodically throughout history with the intent of destroying humankind. In the past, the Maidens have stopped the Dark Prince, but always at a terrible cost.
Prophecies that the Dark Prince will again return to this world have prompted the rigorous training, and Prier and company set off on an adventure that starts with a few simple missions and ends up surprisingly dramatic and serious. The characters' personalities are all likeable and their reasons for sticking together are well explained. I found myself caring about them more than I had expected to. Spot-on text dialogue didn't hurt, either (Mastiff did an excellent job on the translation).
As in Disgaea, the story segments are broken up into chapters. A neat aspect of this game is that there are always at least three (sometimes four) endings for each chapter, depending on how you interact with the world and what choices you make about the problems facing you. A good ending nets you more money and better bonus items than a normal ending would, and so forth. It lends a lot of potential variety to how events in the game will play out.
La Pucelle: Tactics really has the best of both worlds: an interesting storyline and a fresh, deep tactical battle system. About the only downside to the game is the non-combat, non-story stuff. The World Map looks and feels like it was created in RPG Maker (1, not 2) - in fact, I wouldn't be half surprised if it were. And the towns and so forth, while nice to look at, feel awfully restrictive: Prier just walks on a straight line from one end to the other while you press X to either talk to a character or go inside a storefront. There's no element of exploration whatsoever outside of the battles, which is too bad.
All things considered, though, La Pucelle is mostly battles tied together with storyline, and the battles and story are its strong points.
Not to sound like a snob, but the graphics of La Pucelle have been decidedly outdated for some time now. All of the character and monster models are sprite-based, to begin with. The battle boards are low-count polygonal isometric creations, while the non-battle backgrounds are all "pre-rendered" - that is to say, hand painted.
The special particle and light effects are likewise of low technical quality. And perhaps my biggest complaint is that there were no anime-style cutscenes. La Pucelle feels and looks like an anime, and cutscenes could have added so much to the game's coolness factor.
However, not all is bleak. For starters, the character models, while obviously sprites, are so painstakingly designed and animated that they look more like little anime characters themselves, cut out of their animation cels and dropped into the world of the game. And the painted backgrounds, for all that they are an archaic element, still look pretty and add as much to the mood of this game as similar backgrounds did for the likes of Final Fantasy VII.
A pleasant fringe benefit of utilizing simpler graphics is that La Pucelle also has very fast load times. Most importantly, the whole world and characters of the game manage to have their own unique visual style despite, or perhaps because of, the dated visuals. While nothing technically impressive, the graphics in La Pucelle: Tactics are nonetheless nicely done and thoroughly enjoyable.
The music in La Pucelle is, unfortunately, quite forgettable by and large. A couple of the songs reminded me of songs from other games and movies. It's never a good sign when a few chords of music cause a theme from Final Fantasy 1 to get stuck in your head instead of the song you're actually listening to. Similarly, sound effects aren't really worth mentioning and don't add any real depth to this game.
Like Disgaea, La Pucelle features a lot of voice acting. On the whole, the American voices are par. They aren't great (some deliveries made me cringe), but they're decent and quite passable. However, this game can be listened to with Japanese dialogue, as well - a rare treat and one that Mastiff was smart to include. The greatest thing about Japanese voice work is that unless you're a native speaker, it's always going to sound good. This was the one thing that raised La Pucelle's Sound score above an otherwise very average five.
To follow Prier and the gang from one end of the story to the other, most gamers will be looking at about forty hours of play. Within that time, not a huge amount will actually happen story-wise, but the number of endings (Bad, Normal, Good and sometimes Special) for each chapter and the random enemy/portal layouts during battle lend the core of La Pucelle some decent replay value.
However, the bulk of the game's playtime comes in the form of one massive, multi-tiered side-quest: that of defeating the dozens upon dozens of battle boards hidden within the Dark World. Doing this nets you lots of weird and way cool items, including (eventually) one that lets you recruit boss characters into your party like regular monsters. To completely exhaust all of the game's secrets will take, in all honesty, over 120 hours for most people. La Pucelle is so much fun to play that it never stops being enjoyable to do all this extra stuff, either.
La Pucelle: Tactics is a tactical RPG fan's tactical RPG, with a cool combat system and some innovative and fun takes on standard genre concepts such as recruiting. That's not to say it isn't for anyone else, though: This title is intuitive and streamlined enough for anyone to play without being a tech head or strategy game aficionado. It combines the storytelling techniques and character designs of a quality anime with a deceptively simple combat system and a plot that can be quite captivating at times.
Unlike its main characters, La Pucelle: Tactics probably won't convert anyone who dislikes this genre into a true believer, but for the rest of us, it's a very worthy and very satisfying game that will more than pay itself back in hours of engrossing play.