Review by Suprak the Stud
"The Minimalist Approach to the Strategy RPG"
"The Minimalist Approach to the Strategy RPG"
Initially, Luminous Arc appears to be a perfect fit for the Nintendo DS. While the new handhelds have served primarily as a venue for porting old RPGs with a shinny new graphics, Luminous Arc is a totally new strategy RPG for the DS that features an original story and cast while keeping true to the familiar SRPG mechanics that we all know and love. In fact, with such a formula it would be hard to disappoint the strategy RPG aficionado that has spent the past year replaying games he or she probably already beaten. And yet, there is something lacking in Luminous Arc that holds it back from being truly remarkable and becoming one of the classics of the genre that gamers can spend years replaying. It appears to have the makings of a great game, but early impressions build the game up to more than it pans out to be. Unfortunately, the oversimplification of the battle system combined with a myriad of story problems leaves Luminous Arc as a game that will most likely be quickly forgotten while gamers return to the gems of the genre that keep on meriting re-re-re-releases.
As the game starts, we find Alph and a group of his friends training to serve the Luminous Church. Unfortunately for Alph and company, this is not necessarily the safest time to be serving the church as a group of scantly clad, buxomous witches are apparently running amok, summoning monsters and causing teenage boys everywhere to hit puberty. While sexy witches might sound like fun, the church is less than pleased with this sudden reemergence as the hordes of unsexy monsters that seem to follow them around are causing lots of unsexy wounds to the villagers. Luckily for the church, Alph, his younger brother Theo, and a couple of other scrappy young do-gooders have been under the training of Sir Heath, Arc Knight and all around bad ass. Thus, when the Witch of Immolation begins running amok Alph and company are set into action to stop her shenanigans. While this might seem like a deviation from the conventional strategy RPG and is inspired by fantasy more than most of the genre, as the story progresses it becomes obvious that it really isn't straying that far from conventional strategy RPG themes and story lines. The plot in LA is very straight forward, and if you don't pick up on every major plot twist at least a couple of chapters before it occurs, you most likely just aren't paying attention. It isn't that the plot in LA is particularly bad, because honestly it isn't. However, partly because every supposed plot twist is choreographed out hours before it occurs, the story is somewhat boring and most of it is probably extremely familiar to those who have ever played an RPG before (or read a book, seen a movie, or had any contact with the outside world). Worse than making every twist blatantly obvious is that fact that far too many major plot points are never fully developed. Far too many aspects of the story are just dropped on you, and there appear to be more instances of blatantly obvious foreshadowing than actually developing most of the major plot points. It is a shame because the core story of the game, while borrowing parts from a plethora of other games and other media, has many instances where a lot of promise is demonstrated. The main problem is that the game does not tell the story very well, which is a shame as so many of the other elements of a good story are already in place. With the lackluster storytelling, the plot of LA is boring and there are times where you are going to have to force yourself to keep attentive to it.
While the plot itself might be somewhat yawn inducing, what saves the game from attaining true sedative properties is the decent writing and fairly memorable characters. Unlike many SRPGs, the units aren't some randomly generated, generic soldier units that you can hire at the local generic soldier and archer emporium. Instead, your traveling crew consists of a bevy of characters that actually bear relevance to the plotline. Thus, your interaction with most of the characters in the game actually extends beyond the battle sequences and you actually develop insight into the character's personalities and not just their battle stats. And, for the most part, the characters in LA are both enjoyable and memorable. Alph, the main character, is your typical RPG hero, complete with typical RPG appearance and altruistic outlook. As the game progresses, Alph becomes more of a leader figure to those around him. While his character is developed into something slightly more interesting, but he never strays too far from what has become the prototypical RPG hero. Unfortunately, some other playable (and nonplayable) characters fall into similar traps end up adhering to too many RPG cliches. Theo, Alph's younger brother, is as naive, innocent, and bloody annoying as you would expect a twelve year old kid to be (if he bothered me for an egg one more time I was going to cast mute on him), and most of his interactions with Alph border on cringe worthy. Vanessa, perpetual thorn in your side and possible recipient of severe cosmetic enhancement(s), proves to be a satisfactory antagonist although her character development is somewhat on the light side. While she does prove to be more complex than initial interactions might suggest, the strength of her character comes from her clever dialogue and not any originality of character design. There are a couple of unique and enjoyable characters, including a valley girl angel that loves to refer to everyone as cuties, and the zealous leader of the Zephyroth Knights, Andre, who takes every opportunity he has to brag about his HRGH MANLY BICEPS! While a couple of other characters do have their moments, with Cecille playing the role of the pure but conflicted priestess and Leon as the somewhat bawdy but goodhearted strongarm, many of these characters are based off of archetypes we've become intimately familiar with over the years. There are literally dozens of games with characters that parallel much of the main cast of LA, and many out there that have done a better job developing the characters. However, enough is done that the cast, despite being cliched, is still likable, and there are several standouts that should stick with you well after the game is over.
While the characters might be a little cliche, and the story is both somewhat boring and too predictable, the writing in the game is good enough that it ends up elevating both of the aforementioned categories. At times, the dialogue can be somewhat banal and listening to a twelve year old talk about how much he loves his brother ends up being more cringe-worthy than it is endearing. However, while there are a few of these moments, for the most part the script is well written and despite the serious tone of the game there are a lot of legitimately funny moments. The game typically does a nice job of balancing the serious, more somber main arc of the story with more flippant interactions with the characters in between the actual quest. Also, in the main towns of the game there are always a couple of characters you can interact with and a library you can visit to help you learn about the world around you. These interactions are always fairly helpful, and do a good job supplementing the story info given to you through the main quest. The writing really does help to compensate for some of the games shortcomings, as the dialogue is sharp enough that at times the interactions between the characters are clever and entertaining. However, eventually this initial charm wears somewhat thin, and these sort of moments aren't frequent enough to totally obscure the fact that this title is sorely lacking in originality. Thus, while the writing is enough to salvage the story of the game, it is not enough to elevate it to anything remarkable.
Similarly to the story and characters, the battle system of the game lacks ingenuity and feels somewhat confining compared to many modern SRPGs. Traditional fans of the genre should love this game; it is a straightforward approach to the battle system and both random encounters and story battles are approached the same way. Alph and his party are placed on a grid with his adversaries, and turns are allocated according to the characters speed and movement. Once an enemy characters comes into range (which differs depending on the weapon of choice for your party member), you can unleash your fury either by using a plain ol' attack, a magic attack, skill, or (if you're feeling particularly belligerent) a special attack known as flash drives capable of inflicting MASSIVE DAMAGE. These special attacks have to be built up over the course of battle, but typically are capable of inflicting increased damage over a somewhat broad area. This sort of basic system is implemented in many SRPGs, and unfortunately LA fails to do it as well as other titles. The main problem is that the game oversimplifies the battle system to the degree that it might bore those who are used to the more complicated, in depth approach to the battle system that newer games in the genre have taken. LA does attempt to implement a synthesis system, where new items can be crafted from old items and certain stones you pick up along the way. This really never pans out to much, as very little direction is given to you and the items you receive are entirely superfluous (the game ends up being too easy even without using the most powerful weapons). As such, most people will only end up using this option once or twice for its novelty before promptly forgetting that it even exists. Besides this, there is very little customization possible in LA, and the options for the growth of characters are fairly linear. As such, rather than developing your team as you see fit, you really have very few options other than which of your fifteen characters to send into battle. This is not necessarily a bad thing; games can occasionally focus so much on this endless amount of customization that they forget to implement a good, strong battle system. Unfortunately, LA lacks both of these things as the battle system, while not unusable, rarely is entertaining.
The game itself is far too easy, as only one battle requires any legitimate strategy at all and most can be won by simply charging the enemy and bludgeoning them to death. There is no need to grind (which many probably consider a good thing) because the battles are so simple that leveling up tends to be an extraneous exercise. Furthermore, due to how easy most of the game is a lot of battle options become essentially worthless. While both the skills and magic options will become critical in your success, the flash drives and combined special attacks tend to border on overkill. While the special animations that accompany the combined special attacks are pretty nice, they are so cumbersome to use and deal so little damage compared to the time it takes to set them up that you will only use them once to see what it looks like before promptly forgetting that they exist. Also, the control scheme using the stylus is frustratingly unresponsive, so I would recommend switching over to conventional controls as soon as possible (for the safety of your DS). Thus, not only is this a complete minimalist approach to the genre, removing so much of the customization that hardcore SRPG fans have come to crave, LA lacks a strong, cohesive battle system or a general sense of challenge. As such, the battles become somewhat boring and repetitive, and it isn't until late in the game when the challenge finally starts to pick up that even fans of the genre will start to get excited. Worse than the main game battles are the random battles that make it difficult to navigate back and forth on the map. Want to go back and see if any sidequests have opened up? Hopefully you don't mind wading through hordes of laughably weak monsters in battles that you can't avoid. Once you reach a random encounter area, the monsters there never change. Ever. You can buff up as much as you want, but you're still forced to fight this group of pitifully weak monsters that lack the common sense to avoid you and your giant sword. It just become somewhat of a pain to go through these redundant battles over and over on the same boring maps with so little reward given to you. As such, some will avoid exploration all together, and end up missing out on some of the sidequests in the game. It should be noted that towards the later part of the game (when you actually have to pay attention to the battles), that strategy becomes more important and fans that enjoy classic SRPG gameplay and don't mind a very linear approach to the genre should be satisfied with what unfolds. Unfortunately, LA most likely won't appeal to anyone outside this niche and many will end up quitting before the game starts getting interesting.
Outside of the main quest, there are a couple of supplemental quests that end up being more enjoyable than the main story arc itself. After each battle, Alph will have the opportunity to converse with a character of your choosing (stay away from Theo; he has nothing to say that won't make you want to smite him any less). While some of these conversations really just serve as space fillers that don't add anything to character development, a lot of these have the potential to be rather humorous, or end up enriching the characters featured in the game. You have three options to choose from, where there is a good answer, an okay answer, and a choose only if you want to make the other character sad answer (save the last one for Theo). While you do get a few items throughout the course of these conversations for answering correctly, there is just as much fun to be had from the responses themselves. Either by picking the good answer and developing a more thorough relationship between Alph and his cohorts, or by picking the bad answer and watching some pretty funny responses, the interactions are pretty entertaining. In addition to these supplemental dialogues, there are a number of side quests (fifteen in total!) that can be completed to learn more about the characters, the world they come from, and partake in some extra battle sequences. These side quests are character specific (unlike most battles you don't get to always choose who you take to battle) but they really help to flesh out and feature the supporting cast, who for the most part are fairly strongly designed. These battles range from serious in tone to laugh out loud funny, and are a great distraction from the main quest. Almost all of these battles are integrated so well into the game and do such a nice job of developing some of the characters that it's a shame that most of the story battles aren't this effective. Regardless, the side quests end up being some of the highlights of the game's story, which can be considered both a good and bad thing. There is also an online mode, where you can bring in your crew to battle someone else's and receive some loot in the process. This turns out to be a great addition, and the maps are better designed that those in the main game. Now, there are some in the community that have taken the fun out of this mode by hacking the game and giving their characters impossible stats. While this does at times take the fun out of this great addition to the game, it is not the fault of the developers and is a feature I would love to see more handheld RPGs in general implement. There is a lot of fun to be had battling a friend, and strategy becomes a must if you have any hopes of winning. It was a surprise to see a feature like this included, and an even greater surprise to see it included well. Finally, there is one last optional dungeon after the game is completed that can be unlocked for some additional exploration. This twenty-five level behemoth of a dungeon is really only the same five levels recycled over and over (with progressively tougher monsters) and the spoils you get at the end are not worth the effort it takes. Still, for those looking for a challenge in this fairly easy game, this is where you'll get it. It is somewhat of a shame that more time wasn't spent designing this area or that more unique enemies and bosses weren't featured (although the last five levels turn out to be very interesting), but as far as extra content goes, LA does a fairly nice job providing some extra stuff to do outside of the main quest.
The results for the technical aspects in the game are highly mixed. In terms of graphics, most of the characters are designed very well, and when speaking to a character an anime style picture appears near the text. Their faces change according to their emotions, and the art is impressive. The opening cutscene really sets the tone, as you are treated to an anime FMV showcasing most of the games main characters. Once again, these graphics are crisp and wonderfully colored, and I ended up watching the scene most of the time the game opened because it was so well done. However, despite these nice touches, most of the in game graphics are entirely blah (technical term). The animation done for the battle is unimpressive by game boy color standards and the sprites used just don't look nicely done at all. Even worse, most of the maps for the game are generic and forgettable, and very little detail is put into any of them. The game also tends to be somewhat glitchy, and when more detail is put into the levels the game starts to freeze and stall (I'm looking your direction, obnoxious boat level). Also, when switching profile pictures during conversations, occasionally a weird glitch occurs where part of another picture can be seen temporarily. It really isn't that big of a deal, but serves to demonstrate the general lack of polish that occasionally appears with the game's presentation. The music and sound in the game follows a similar pattern. Nearly all of the game uses full voice overs, something that is almost unseen on a handheld (or most console RPGs, for that matter). Even more astonishing is the fact that most of the voice actors are actually fairly good. There are a few characters that are going to make you wish that spoken dialogue was not included (Theo) and some of those that are laughably bad (robotic sounding Saki's failure to emote would get her kicked out of a high school play). However, most of the cast is surprisingly capable for a low budget handheld RPG. The actors and actresses for Vanessa, Vivi, Andre, Leon, and others do a nice job supplementing the text and they don't sound like they're just reading the script. Unlike the voice acting, the music featured in the game is at best forgettable. The opening song is song annoying by video game standards, and there isn't any other music that is memorable from the game.
LA is one of those games that falls just short of being truly special. A lot of the necessary components are there, and if certain changes had been made to make the story less predictable or if the battle system had been better implemented LA would have been one of those stand out titles for the DS that could have easily attained cult status. The characters are fairly well designed, and a lot of effort actually goes into making them memorable and significant. Online mode being included was brilliant, and battling other's characters is actually more fun than you might anticipate. Additionally, the story is by no means terrible, and if a couple of key plot points had been developed more thoroughly and if the writers hadn't tried so desperately to ruin every surprise before it occurred with painfully obvious foreshadowing, the story would actually have been enjoyable (despite the fact that it is somewhat cliched and concepts that appear are overused in the RPG genre). Just like the story, the battle system, graphics, and sound all show so much promise. The battle system is particularly unrewarding, but by remedying some major problems with it, including a lack of difficulty and an oversimplification of the game engine, the gameplay could be drastically improved. The characters and writing are solid enough that it should provide enough motivation to complete the quest, but these end up serving as the main motivation towards playing through the game. Battles quickly become more of a chore than anything else and end up detracting from the game. As LA ends up falling short on many fronts, it is likely to be a game that will not appeal to the general gaming crowd. Even SRPG enthusiasts might want to think twice before purchasing this title, as there are better games on the market and LA is likely to disappoint hardcore SRPG aficionados. However, if you're looking for a more casual SRPG experience and don't mind an overly predictable story, LA is worth checking out. Hopefully, these problems are remedied in the sequel, because if they are LA will be a series to be reckoned with.
Luminous (THE GOOD):
+Good cast of characters, most with a likable personality
+Writing in the game is solid and there are numerous humorous interactions
+The game is almost fully voice acted, and is done surprisingly well for a handheld
+Satisfying amount of extras, including lots of sidequests and a buffed up dungeon
+Simple game mechanics should attract novices of the genre
Dull (THE BAD):
-Story for the game is far too predictable, and important plot points are developed fully enough
-Music and in game graphics are disappointing
-There is a serious lack of depth in the battle mechanics, making the core of the game not entirely enjoyable
-Battle maps are boring and synthesizing system is unnecessary and uninspired
-Game can get somewhat glitchy, and major slowdown can occur in later levels
Pitch Black (THE UGLY):
I've seen a lot of strange things throughout the years I've played video games, but assisting a walrus to find some sort of pleasure toy for his master (also a walrus looking creature) pretty much tops the list of crazy stuff that will give me nightmares for months.
THE VERDICT: 6.25/10.00
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 01/20/09, Updated 06/26/09
Game Release: Luminous Arc (US, 08/14/07)
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