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by Working Designs

Most companies plan a series to be released over time. They get together an idea, put out a title, see how it does, and then proceed according to profit margins and quarterly forecasts. Don’t get me wrong, often the games that come out are great, and often they aren’t, but most companies don’t get so worked up about a project. That’s part of what makes Working Designs different.

Operating from their Northern California base, they scour the Japanese game market, picking by hand the titles that they bring over to us. Working Designs does not release the latest games, but choose to focus on the greatest. They have a particular taste – RPGs, shooters, and strategy. They like anime styling and big robots. They are videogame otaku, willing to put their all into odd titles that would probably never see a release date this side of the Pacific otherwise. Their titles are about great gameplaying experiences, not flashy graphics or high-tech requirements. They pamper their games, spending incredible effort on details like translation, story, and dialogue. They imbue their games with personality and vigor, and wrap it all up in a pretty, pretty package.

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The Arc the Lad Collection is the latest example of what Working Designs does best. Collecting four games from the Japanese series, Arc the Lad I, II, III, and Monster Arena, this box set surpasses in sheer volume past notable releases such as Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete and Lunar 2: Eternal Blue. The package includes the four games, a hardbound instruction manual over 140 pages long, a CD featuring "The Making of Arc the Lad Collection", and an omake (Japanese for "extra") box full of priceless doo-dads: 22 character mini-standees, a custom plastic memory card holder embossed with a character from the game, and four custom analog thumb button covers - three featuring the main characters and one with the Arc Collection logo. Pre-orders also receive an Arc the Lad clip-on watch which is tres chic. To properly accessorize the release, Working Designs has created a two volume, hardbound and full-color, official strategy guide for the Arc the Lad Collection.

Lunar and Lunar 2 were required gaming for any fan of classic RPGs. The Arc the Lad Collection is another installment in the canon. The games benefit from the love and affection they’ve received with Working Designs, and the Arc the Lad Collection is an intense RPG experience of epic proportions. The question is not whether you need to play this game, but whether you can sit still anticipating it.

Arc the Lad I

Flashback.jpg (5550 bytes)The first installment of the series opens as any classic RPG: Kukuru, the last protector of the Cion flame has been tricked into putting it out. The damping of the flame releases a great monster, and begins a huge blizzard. At the same time, Arc’s mother remembers the warning his father, Yoshua, gave so long ago. Upon departing, Yoshua prophesied the coming of this day, and he instructed his wife to begin their son on a journey to save humanity. Arc, hardly able to contain his restlessness, sets out on a journey that takes him all over his world. Along the way he meets seven compatriots, saves a handfull of Guardian spirits, and begins the ardent task of rebalancing the human and natural worlds.

Chongara2.jpg (6541 bytes)The story of Arc the Lad I is a classic example of the RPG genre. The world of Arc the Lad is that odd RPG mixture of medieval fantasy and apocalyptic sci-fi. Monsters have been unleashed on the planet, and government or military corruption is a major part of the landscape. As with so many Japanese RPGs, and anime movies such as Princess Mononoke, this is a quintessentially Shinto game that stresses the importance of mankind living in harmony with nature. Arc is noble in the extreme. His group works for the good of the world rather than personal gain, and they tell everybody about their pholosophy. Arc unites a wide variety of individuals from all parts of the world in a single, noble cause.

Faceoff1.jpg (7652 bytes)If the plot, characters, and setting seems familiar, that’s because it is. Arc the Lad I is a perfect example of the best things about genre gaming. It is familiar. It feels comfortable. The spectacular translation of the storyline, which comes across especially in the dialogue, is a large part of what makes the game so compelling. Throughout, there are sly jokes and witty references, but this isn’t what I would call a funny game. Somehow the game makes you want to take the melodrama seriously, or at least imparts some of Arc’s noble goals on the gamer.

Battle4.jpg (8778 bytes)Another reason why a fairly typical storyline is so enjoyable in Arc the Lad I is that the game is incredibly streamlined. Arc the Lad is a strategy RPG, which means that battles work in a way similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Working Designs’ other excellent title, Vanguard Bandits. At the outset of a fight, the characters and monsters are placed on a gridded battlefield. The battlefields vary drastically in their design and feature a variety of obstacles and levels of height. Each character on the map moves individually, and positioning becomes very important. This method of battle allows for several of the best things in Arc the Lad.

Farewell.jpg (8848 bytes)Strategy RPGs are known for being little more than a sequence of battles. Arc the Lad is not quite a typical example of a strategy RPG because it does allow for free movement sometimes. But for the most part, Arc the Lad is a series of battles intercut with hefty doses of story. This style of gameplay cuts out much of the wandering around and interrogating villagers. That may be a drawback for some gamers, but I’m more than happy to cut to the action and not have to hunt for the story. I like my stories handed to me on a silver platter.

Desert2.jpg (9613 bytes)The strategy RPG aspects also lead to more, well, strategy. Positioning is incredibly important. Whether you attack an enemy head-on or from the side or rear makes a big difference in the outcome of your attack. Characters have a wide variety of talents and attributes, and almost all can attack both physically or with magic. Spells vary quite a bit, and are generally cast over an area in a pattern, so positioning of both your allies and enemies becomes an issue.

Destiny.jpg (9983 bytes)The controls and menu interfaces are easy to use and available at all the right times. You maintain complete control over your characters during battles, which makes actions such as equipping different items an essential element of winning. There is a huge number of items that you can use, ranging from the classic herb to exotic antiquities such as the summoner’s pot.

Faceoff2.jpg (11289 bytes)If there is a downside to Arc the Lad I, it is the ease with which it can be completed. Once you get the hang of the battles, and if you approach them in the order indicated in the story, you can get through the game with little hassle in about 16 hours. Of course, this leaves out doing a variety of fun tasks such as becoming champion of the fighting school and vanquishing all the monsters. On the one hand I feel that having died so little was detrimental to the game, but on the other it kept me involved and progressing at a good pace. Make no mistake about it, Arc the Lad I is hard to put down.

Battle2.jpg (12722 bytes)The first thing I did after finishing Arc the Lad I was insert the second game. That’s a very good sign. If it were a standalone title, Arc the Lad I would be docked for brevity, but as part of a four game series, it provides the perfect entry into the world of Arc the Lad. This is classic RPG gaming at its best.

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Shawn Rider


Ups: Great value for what you get in the collection; incredible gameplay length overall; excellent story; really nice translation; addictive strategy RPG gameplay; a must have title for RPG fans.

Downs: Arena is a bit disappointing.

Platform: PlayStation