Monday, August 16, 2010

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits

Here it is, my first steps back into the games I abandoned long ago. We begin with Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits, and a personal warning; never trust GameStop employees to actually know what they are talking about.

Now, I'm not knocking the knowledge of your average PawnShop register jockey. Many of them are perfectly intelligent people, capable of conversing with you in-depth regarding wide-ranging subjects. GameStop is just a temporary layover for many who are aiming for that advanced degree, but also happen to love video games and money.

Truly, they are giants of culture and intelligence.

So I, as a young college student in the early 2000s, was avidly seeking more RPGs after getting all hopped up on Suikoden II and Star Ocean: The Second Story. Thus when the Arc the Lad Collection was released, and this subsequent PS2 follow-up, I asked my local GameStop employee if I should take a hit. The response I got was something along the lines of "Yeah, I mean, they're not great, they're more like action games, you know?"

I should point out at this time that for a period of a year or so I actually did work for GameStop, or more accurately, for FunCoLand as it was in the process of being assimilated into the vast GameStop network. I got asked what games I had never played or even seen were like all the time. So I did what the guy I was talking to did; took a look at the cover, then the back, looked for key words, and bullshitted my way through the conversation.

"This game? It's about . . . John Madden . . .
trying to eat the Minnesota Vikings."

In any case, action games were a far cry from what I was after, and so I left both Arc games alone, only purchasing Twilight of Spirits two years later when it was the last copy at Best Buy, and in the bargain bin. It sat amongst my game collection for nigh on five years after that, until I opened it up and discovered the base lies I had been told. According to the time stamp on my save file, I got 16 hours into this game before putting it down. In the last week I've added another 12, and for the most part enjoyed them. The most jarring experience has been getting back into a game I put down 2 years ago. Jumping in at the middle meant that I had just flat-out forgotten a lot of the plot details, specifically with the supporting cast. The more I played, the more I was able to infer things I couldn't remember, but much of the first hour or so of putting this back in was me peering at each character wondering who the hell they were.

Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits is told through two different viewpoints. The world in this game is divided into essentially two halves; one side populated by humans, and the other by humanoid monsters called the Deimos. You play as both Kharg, a human teenager growing up as a respected and admired member of his community, and Darc, a Deimos the same age as Kharg, growing up with his abusive and uncaring foster mother in a society which shuns him for being half-Deimos, half-human.

Wait, what's that? Darc is the same age as Kharg, and is both half-Deimos and half-human? The neon arrows will point you to the twist if you didn't already see it - Kharg and Darc are long-lost twins. Apparantly their mother, the Lady Nafia, just loved getting freaky with the Deimos, and as a result these two were born. Unfortunately, interracial marriage is still a pretty hot-button issue in their world, and so is stealing ancient Deimos relics, which is just what their parents did. While running from the horde of angry Deimos, their father, Windalf, gave his life so that Nafia could escape with the infant children. It half-worked, and she made it out with Kharg, but not Darc. So Kharg, who looks completely human, was raised with love by his mother, and Darc, who looks like someone whose mom got knocked up by a demon, was raised with hatred and disdain.

The kind of face only a mother could abandon.

You don't need a picture of Kharg because that's him on the cover of the game, in all his shining, not barbarically tortured humanness. Nafia, of course, tries to impart some tolerance into her son, but humanity just flat out hates the Deimos, and not listening to your mom is practically the coolest thing a teenager can do.

So cool.

It doesn't help things when a Deimos attack leaves Kharg's mentor, who also happens to be his best friend's father, dead. He swears a crusade wherein he will bring all the humans together and eradicate the Deimos once and for all. By this time, Darc has finally flipped out after one betrayal too many, and killed his foster mother for attempting to sell him into slavery. Then he kills the leader of the Orcons, a Deimos tribe, just for good measure. He vows that if the only thing the Deimos respect is power, he'll become the strongest Deimos there is, unite all the Deimos tribes, and wipe out the humans.

So, in playing this game from both sides, you get a pretty good idea of what motivates everyone. And that's racism. Every single human you encounter wants to wipe out the Deimos, every Deimos wants to kill all the humans. It's so ingrained they don't even consider it racism, it's just the way things are. The most tolerant person in this world still dreams of burning down Deimos orphanages.

"I have a dream . . . of killing all Deimos."

In fact, the most progressive-thinking person in the game is the leader of the evil Empire oppressing both humans and Deimos. To him, both are merely a means to an end. That is the most enlightened viewpoint in the game.

Now that I've put more time in it and made it much further, I can tell you that the story definitely keeps you wanting to learn more. The big pay-off would be, you'd think, Kharg and Darc finally coming face-to-face, but I can tell you that part is only the beginning. It's a solid script with characters whom all get fleshed out enough to really get into. Oh, there's also the fact that in their journeys, assembling allies as RPG lead characters are wont to do, Kharg and Darc manage to recruit only people who have reason to hate someone on the opposing brother's team. The first meeting between the two groups has all the makings of a Jerry Springer brawl with the amount of grievances which get aired.

In any event, I can safely say that as of right now I intend to finish this one and permanently take it off the backlog. The story compels you to keep playing, and the gameplay is nice enough that you don't get overly bored or frustrated with the battles. Every character gets a nice bit of development, and it's got a big enough villain that even preventing mutual genocide seems less important than putting a stop to his plans.

It's not the best game in the genre, as there are certainly others with better stories and more intriguing characters. However, it is just well-made enough that if you settle in and give it a chance, it will almost assuredly grow on you. If I had to name two complaints, the first I have would be that sometimes combat is easy enough that the random battles seem repetitive and unnecessary, and don't really help contribute to leveling up or learning new skills. The second is the voice acting in combat, wherein characters tend to repeat the same two lines for practically every action, be it grabbing loot, performing an attack, or just acknowledging that it's now their turn. There's also a scripted bit and mini-cutscene for every single special attack and spell. Fortunately, it never approaches Shining Force Neo levels of annoying.

What's that coming my way Meryl? Is it hot stuff? I don't think
I heard you, better repeat yourself thirteen times.

So if it's so fun, why did I put it down in the first place? Well get ready, because you're going to be hearing this answer a lot;

I played this game pretty much constantly from just after it's American release until late last year. Now, I get competitive playing single-player games. If I don't unlock every secret, max out every character, and kill absolutely every enemy, then I might not be as good at this game as some schmo typing on GameFAQs who doesn't even know I'm reading his posts.

I hate him so much.

Final Fantasy XI, except for the few odd months here or there when I'd attempt to quit or just didn't pay for it, ate up all my gaming time for the better part of a decade. It's probably only because I finally kicked the habit that I'm even able to attempt something like The Backlog. I am proud to say, however, that Arc the Lad: Twilight of Spirits will no longer count itself among the abandoned. Another hard-fought victory, here at The Backlog.

Until next time.

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