Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Arcana (SNES) Review

AKA Card Master: Seal of Rimsalia [JP]
1992 HAL Laboratory
10/23/14 NOTE: As of October 23rd, 2014, this initial review is outdated.  To read my current thoughts on Arcana, here's my newest review.

The first time I heard of this game was on FlyingOmelette's website years ago. I've read her review of the game several times prior to having experienced it, and it really sounded like it was a good game, and a unique one as well. One of my favorite video game genres is RPGs, and eventually I decided to try this game. Back in July of '09, this was the fourth game I ordered on eBay, along with the manual. At the same time, it was the fourth SNES game I bought (the other SNES games I played were either my cousins' or on the Wii Virtual Console). The concept of RPGs wasn't new to me, but the thought of viewing them from a first-person perspective sounded really fascinating to me. This was the first (and only, so far) first-person RPG I've ever played, and my first foray was one I'll always remember.

Long ago, the land of Elemen was being run by an evil empress named Rimsala. Unfortunately, under her Reign of Evil the land turned to chaos, and it got to the point where Elemen wasn't safe anymore. Some Card Masters had fought and sealed her to prevent any more uprising. A long time passes after that, and peace had prospered the land. Sadly, there is a dark side in all of this: fights broke out between the six kingdoms, and what was once minor disputes turned to disastrous civil wars and battles. The court magician Galneon takes this chance to launch a coup against King Wagnall, who ends up slain; his two daughters disappeared shortly thereafter. A decade has passed since these events, and news of a group who plan on reviving the evil empress reaches young Rooks, the sole remaining Card Master of Elemen, at his hometown Galia. It is up to you to prevent her resuscitation and save the entire land from the dark days before it's too late. There are moments where Rooks experiences moments of betrayal, surprise twists, and secrets; and he meets characters that may help him in his quest. Plotwise, not bad for HAL's first attempt at RPG storytelling. It's a game that had me spellbound from beginning to end, even if it had some translation errors (particularly the ending); and the atmosphere is just as good. You will be going through expositions like ruins, passes, valleys, forests, dungeons, and castles.
This game is a traditional turn-based RPG, except for one detail: it's all viewed from the eyes of Rooks. Moving forward is done by pressing Up, while moving backward is done by pressing Back, and pressing Left and Right will make you turn 90 degress clockwise or counterclockwise. Accessing the menu is done by pressing the A button, which will give you some choices; including looking at the map and changing formation. Battles are completely random, and you won't be combatting until just then. You won't even see it coming, as this game has random battles aplenty. The boss battles, on the other hand, are placed, and until you step into their position, you won't know that. Battle menus are like those of regular RPGs, except that Rooks has the Cards option as well, and he can switch between the four different elemental Spirit Cards on the fly (should you decide to do so). Each of these Spirit Cards vary depending on how powerful their magic is against certain enemies. The more you fight enemies, the more the characters level up; and the more the characters level up, the more abilities and spells they learn, most of which are rather useful. Throughout these five chapters you will find treasure chests (whatever contents lie inside them may either help or hinder your quest). Battle actions happen very quickly, but there's a random order as to who will launch the next attack: you, or the enemy. Sometimes you (or the enemy) will have two consecutive turns. In the overworld, your character(s) automatically walk to their destination. Saving your progress can only be done in the town inns. I find it very fun to run into random encounters.
Arcana's soundtrack is one of the best RPG soundtracks I've ever heard. It was composed by Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando (of Kirby fame), and you can easily recognize HAL's trademark sound throughout the game. It ranks up there with Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and SoulBlazer. The music in all the areas sound really fantastic; to name a few examples, the Forest of Doubt theme is very relaxing, the Ice Mine theme is ominously chilling, the dungeon theme is awesome, and Bintel Castle's theme is foreboding. The regular and boss battle themes really rock, and the final boss theme is truly epic and one that will make you feel like you're in the fight for all of salvation. The other music in the game is really fun to listen to as well, plus the ending theme is one of the most rewarding songs ever heard in a video game (and one of the best). The only grievance I have in this regard is that the music will start over after leaving a battle (either by winning or by retreating) instead of resuming from where it left off, meaning that unless you intentionally hold still, you won't be able to hear the song in its entirety. It's a shame, really, as the music is very splendid. The sound effects are really nice, too: the attacking sound is cool, and the sound for when the enemy is defeated is very interesting. The sound effects for the spells are really sweet, too, including the Attribute and Water spells. If you hold down the L and R shoulder buttons while pressing the B button in the title screen, you will have access to the game's hidden sound test.
The visuals are pretty decent, as they are all viewed inside a small frame. The areas are well-detailed, though in most cases it might look repetitive, save for different coloring. The unique-looking areas in the game are the silent Forest of Doubt, the rocky Draven Pass, and the elegant halls of Bintel Castle. It's amazing how in-depth the areas are; it's amazing how the areas might scale, depending on whether you move forward or backward. What's very unique about this game is that all the characters, enemies, and treasure chests are represented by Tarot cards. It really makes them stand out. I also like how the characters have an anime look, and when the characters talk you'll see their lips move. The Tarot cards are nicely detailed. This is also one of the first turn-based RPGs where the enemies showed a bit of animation. Even if it's only a few frames, it is nice to watch the animations. When battling, the characters will zoom out in their battle stance. When an enemy (or a character) has been defeated, the card will be torn apart, and it's satisfying to see an enemy go down like that. But, if one of the party characters literally get torn apart, that's not really a good sight; luckily, it's not something that you'll see often. In the overworld, you'll see a top-down view of your party characters heading to their destination. Whenever you view the map, it really feels like you're viewing the map, because of how vintaged the map looks.
I've seen this game often touted as being challenging, and personally I have to disagree a bit with that. This game is rather linear, and once you reach the end of a chapter you can never come back to that place again. Filling out the map is a must, especially when there are treasure chests scattered throughout the area. Speaking of which, the auto-mapping system is very useful, so you don't have to worry about ever getting lost. The game has a bit of an increase in challenge depending on which floor you're on; so, if you're in the first floor, then you'll be facing weak enemies, but should you go up (or down) further, you'll face a stronger set of enemies. Battles, as aforementioned, are random. The boss battles are easy, really, even if ill-prepared. The inventory isn't like the one you'd see in Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy III/VI [NA/JP], where if you've collected more of the same item it's listed as "[insert item here]x[insert amount here]"; in here, every item, even if there's more than one of the same, is listed separately. So long as you don't overstock on items, you shouldn't have to worry about flooding the entire inventory. If you've equipped yourself with more powerful weapon and armor, then you'll be all set. Each chapter only has one village. If just one of your human characters, save for the Spirit Card, dies, it's immediately game over and you have to start over from your last saving point. No matter what, you must always keep your human characters alive. I've only gotten two game overs on my first playthrough, but in my second and third playthroughs I never once lost. I've beaten every single boss on my first try, including the final boss. My strategy is traversing the dungeons for a certain amount of time (i.e. hours), go back to the village (i.e. exiting, using a Return Ring, conjuring the Home spell) and get some supplies and better equipment to further my survival, rinse and repeat. Speaking of which, when attacking a horde of enemies, you might have to attack them in a certain order. When it comes to fighting Empress Rimsala, you'll need to stock up on Gold Flasks and Medicines, 'cause trust me, you're gonna need all the help you can get. I once talked with a friend (Vaynard) on NintendoLife (back when I used to go to the Chat portion of the site) about Arcana, and if I recall correctly he said he liked it, but thought it was short. Now, I don't think it's that short of a game, but I do see where he's coming from: five chapters doesn't exactly scream "Hey, I'm a very long game!!!" at you. Although, the way the dungeons are designed makes it feel a bit long, though that's not a bad thing. The Ice Mine dungeon is one of the most nightmarishly complex dungeons I've been in an RPG. Even with all of what I mentioned, I still don't find the game hard. It's got a couple of challenging parts in it, but overall, I find it a normal-based difficulty. I always enjoy the random battles, because they go by quick and because they'll surprise you.
This is a very enjoyable turn-based RPG, and after having beaten it three times, I still love it. Its powerful soundtrack is fantastic and the play control is good. The battle actions are quick, the random encounters are neverending, the first-person perspective is unique, and the plot is engaging (even if badly translated in certain places). The final boss battle is so epic, that it made me very nervous the first time around. The ending left something to be desired, in my opinion, but the ending music completely made up for it. For HAL's first attempt at making an RPG, it's quite good. The animation is nice, and the Tarot card theme is incredibly cool. I find Arcana quite underrated, and very obscure; more obscure than Kirby's Dream Land 3, which came out five years after this game, very late in the 16-bit console's lifespan. If you look carefully during the intro, you will see an appearance from Kirby (his first appearance ever in a video game). The manual was a very fun read, too. I find it neat how if an enemy botches up an attack towards your party member and if you double your attack, they will say "That the best you can do?" and "Take that!". Sadly, the fact that game overs are caused by one of your party members being killed turned some gamers off, which is why this game is not very popular. Don't let that scare you from trying the game, though, otherwise you may be missing out on what is a very unique RPG experience. It's got enough challenge to satiate RPG newcomers, and it's linear with only five chapters; however, those with enough experience may not have that much trouble. Plus, the more you move around, the more the map automatically fills up, so the feeling of getting lost is nonexistent. This game makes me want to try more first-person RPGs, though I cannot decide at the moment which one to tackle next. But I digress; if you can get past the fact that once one of your characters die, it's game over, you may very much enjoy this game. It's not perfect by any means, but what's there is really good. It might not appeal to everyone, but for those that do, it's definitely one I can recommend.


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