Written: October 19th-23rd, 2014
Hello everyone, StarBoy91 here; passionate about video games, big retrophile, and fan of all things 16-bit. It's been such a long time since I re-reviewed a game (Super Castlevania IV) that I honestly never thought that I would do it again.
But I thought that if I were to make another Take Two Reviews installment, I figured it would be better for the game I'm about to review today. It's been a long time coming, but after much delay and hesitancy I decided to finally settle this once and for all.
Alternate Name: Card Master: Seal of Rimsalia [|O|]
Year: 1992 | Developed and Published by: HAL Laboratory
It's been almost four years since I made my old review of Arcana. There are countless reasons why I wanted to reevaluate this game, and frankly I'm a bit embarrassed about it. For starters it was back in the very old format where it was just a text review with barely any images inbetween. It was seven paragraphs long, but the way I sounded when talking about the game makes me sound like a repetitious rambler, with paragraphs being longer than they should've been. And for the final reasons that I wanted to re-review this game: I ended up giving it a 9. A 9, a freakin' 9! At the time I felt that it deserved it, but after my fourth (or fifth) playthrough I started to reconsider; that, and it may attribute to the fact that I eventually got to play Alcahest (my first ever Super Famicom cart); I'll get to why that's relevant later. It's been a long time coming, but five years after having gotten it (in July of '09) and five (or six?) playthroughs later, it's time to lay this to rest once and for all. Here is my newest review of Arcana.
A long time ago in the land of Elemen there was once an evil Empress named Rimsala that began an evil and dark reign. After having been sealed up by Card Masters, it seemed that Elemen would go back to being a prosperous and peaceful land, and it did... at first. There were often quarrels between the six kingdoms, and what were initially minor disputes became deadly wars which resulted in the lives of many.
Among them was King Wagnall, who got betrayed by the magician Galneon who launched a coup against him. The king had two daughters, but they disappeared in the midst of chaos and destruction. It seemed like the good times were dead to all of Elemen.
Oh, hai, Kirby!
|Journeying through these dark corridors|
A decade has since passed these events and during the commotion some have fled to where monsters do not appear as much. In the town of Galia a young boy called Rooks, the late Fanas' son, resides there practicing his card prowess for he is the last Card Master around; and if the evil Empress Rimsala is ever revived, then he alone is the only one that can stop her. Speaking of, it's at that point in the beginning where Rooks hears news of Galneon and minions trying to revive her at Stavery Tower. Not wanting the past to be repeated Rooks sets off with his card spirits and companion(s) to stop this process from occurring. So his journey begins, and later on he learns of three mystical items which are a requirement to defeat the Empress. Will he save everyone like his father before did?
Arcana was one of the first games that HAL Laboratory created for the SFC/SNES console in the early '90s, however it was also their first take on the RPG genre; except that instead of being viewed from a top-down perspective it's all viewed from Rooks' point of view. First-person RPGs aren't as common as bird's eye ones are, so movement might take a bit to adapt to. You can move forward, step backward, and turn around right or left at 90 degrees clockwise or counterclockwise. Once you got the movement down pat you're all set to take on the controls themselves. With the A button when you're out in the dungeon you can access the menu which will give you various options to choose from.
|Areas like these are so refreshing to look at|
Among the options are choosing the color of the dialogue box, customizing the formation of your party, looking at your characters' stats, equipping, checking your inventory, browsing your map, and looking should there be a chest in front of you. Seeing as it's an RPG from the early '90s, however, it's a given that there are going to be random turn-based battles. And in these battles your characters can either defend, attack, use items should the moment call for it, and conjure magic against them (should you procure a sufficient amount of MP). Each character has got their own set of magic, in particular Teefa and Salah with the healing and attribute spells, and Rooks who's got magic that impairs enemy attack or offensive capabilities (by about half). The Card Spirits also fight as well.
In the course of the game there are four elemental Card Spirits that will join you; Sylph the Wind Card Spirit, Efrite the Fire Card Spirit, Marid the Water Card Spirit, and finally Dao the Earth Card Spirit. Each of them have got their own magic which not only grant temporary increase to a characters' stats (defense, offense, et al) but also to attack enemies with one of three (or four) variants of their elemental magic (since their physical attacks aren't their strong suit). The thing is that Rooks can only summon one so if you wanted to use another Card Spirit then you would have to call them, either when you're not doing battle or when the turn falls on Rooks. The more you move the Spirit Cards gradually regain their HP and MP one step at a time, but should they be shattered they must either be taken to the village fortune teller or be restored by Rooks with his Restoration of Spirit spell.
After every battle you'll receive experience points, and the more experience points you earn the more levels your characters gain, and the more levels your characters gain the more magic spells they will learn, even the Spirit Cards (but only if Rooks levels up every once in awhile). Most of the time you'll be heading to battle (unexpectedly) head on, but should an enemy (group) attack from behind you will know as you're forcibly turned around 180 degrees in which case they get the first move. You can only save your progress in the village inn, and the only way to go back if you don't wish to walk all the way back would be by either using a Return Ring or conjuring Rooks' Home spell (which will make the Return Ring obsolete once he reaches Level 15). You'll need to be well-prepared and well-equipped if you're going to survive this adventure.
|The fanfare in these chapter cards is sweet|
The soundtrack was composed by famed longtime HAL composers Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando, and it sounds absolutely superb. =) HAL Laboratory's games have always had some sort of customized sound samples when it came to the music from these composers, and Arcana is no different. The music does an impeccable job at lending atmosphere to the many areas that you'll travel to, and they pull it off so well. The title theme is mysteriously inviting, and the introduction theme sets the tone for the game with its brooding, eerie instrumentation. The fanfare that plays any time you see the chapter card screen is so soft and enriching as well despite its brief running time. The village theme sounds incredibly foreign, as if you were transported to a very different time and place.
The main dungeon theme sounds imposing in its own right, the Ice Mine sounds frighteningly chilly and appropriately eerie, and the theme for Bintel castle is dark and foreboding (it takes a bit to get to the good part, but once it reaches that point things get really good). The theme for Draven and Crimson Pass is a very upbeat and fun marching theme, and the Forest of Doubt has got such a soft-sounding and haunting beauty in its slow-driven composition. The main battle theme is good enough, but the boss theme amps things up due its heavy intensity and horn-driven melody. The final boss Rimsala has got two boss themes; the first has got an overwhelmingly scary aura about it, and the second one is one of the most epically suspenseful (and heart-poundingly nerve-wracking) final boss themes ever. =) The ending theme ("The Symphony of Elemen") when you beat the game is well-deserved and incredible (despite the game itself having a lackluster ending... more on that later).
One of the most fascinating aspects of Arcana is that mostly everything and everyone is represented by a Tarot card. Rooks, the Spirit Cards, and his companions have got good anime-like profiles when no one is attacking them (when they talk their lips move as well); but when they do fall in battle the characters get to their battle positions (with a solid one-frame attacking animation from them). The enemies and bosses themselves have got nice designs, and they even animate while waiting (one of the first RPGs to have animated enemies and bosses); sometimes later on you'll find yourself battling palette-swapped enemies who may be altered just slightly (i.e. a snake-like enemy who sticks out his tongue will have a similar-looking enemy who closes his eyes, and there's a snake-haired creature who sometimes will have legs but other times a tail). It's nice to fight different types of enemies every now and then; like blobs, skeletons, bees, zombies, thieves, warlocks, et al. There is one fire dragon Tarot card that looks so badass...
...that it's never seen again afterward. =( Boo!
Another thing of note in this first-person RPG is that it's got a rather small playing field while the characters provide any of the spaces either on the left or on the right. I like the layout around the playing field, for it's got a neat look to it. And now to talk about what partially hurts this game: dungeon design. I'm not talking about the layout and structure but rather how they look. Seeing things through the eyes of Rooks is intriguing, but a lot of the times you'll see brick patterns. And that's fine in the first of five chapters because that's the start of the game; but later on you'll be seeing more of the same bricked patterns (albeit with different shades and hues) which can become tiresome to look at after awhile (the Ice Dungeon in the middle chapter is a lie, there is not a single trace of ice in it). =(
My favorite chapter in Arcana is the second one early on, largely because it's the only time in the game that's spent outside. The main highlights are that it's divided in two sections, the rocky passes and the tree-laden Forest of Doubt, each having a neat skyline with clouds whizzing by. The scaling is hit-and-miss throughout the game as you move and turn around; when surrounded by things it's fine but in moments where there's a lot of space and just one wall in a portion of it it can look rather iffy (seeing it in motion is the best way to understand what I'm getting at). The passes have got a neat fog-like effect in the far distance which slowly dissipates the more you move, and seeing the legion of trees and the ground beneath you is remarkable. =) More of that, please, more of that! But anytime I reach its end I'm like, "Nooo, I don't want to leave, I want to explore some more here; I don't want to see the same bricks over and over again!" <='( The other main highlight as far as areas are concerned are the elegant halls of Bintel Castle where it's draped in red carpet, but that's a case of too little-too late as it occurs very later in the game, and by then it's almost over. Aside from those three cases (and the minor times you see new stationary rooms) the only thing you'll be seeing are bricks and bricks and bricks; is it any wonder then why some people consider this game to be repetitive?
Arcana is viewed from a first-person perspective, except during the times when Rooks (and company) automatically walk to (or from) their destination from (or to) the village. The screen is just stationary from a top-down point of view but the character models look as if they've come out of a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest RPG, and even though they're essentially brief loading screens they're very fascinating to look at because they're so different from literally everything else that you see in the entire package. It's almost enough to make you wonder if HAL could've be capable of independently making an RPG viewed from the bird's eye perspective. The following year after Arcana came out, they did, but more on that later.
Upon the RPG's early '92 release for Nintendo's 16-bit Super console it was largely met with scrutiny from critics and gamers as well. There were many factors that attributed to this: one of them is the huge amount of random battles. Now, seeing as this was a pre-Robotrek/EarthBound/Chrono Trigger/Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars RPG random battles were fairly common at the time; but in Arcana's case many felt that HAL may have went too far. In late '80s-early '90s turn-based RPGs it was just the main character that was seen onscreen when the enemies took you by surprise because they were invisible; which is especially true in this game as you only see what's in front of you and won't see an enemy (group) coming until the screen stops and they appear right in front of you. But the battles were many and many felt that because of this it was an overwhelming amount. There is a way to go awhile without encountering enemies (pause, move a little, pause, rinse and repeat) but enemy encounters will be inevitable; the main exceptions are the bosses themselves who are placed (usually in very suspicious-looking entry-ways). But as heavy as it sounds, it's a requirement in order to level up.
Another thing that was unusual was the inventory. In most RPGs the same items are usually collectively grouped (i.e. "Potion x 5") but in Arcana if you get more of the same item they will be counted as separate items (i.e. "Potion", "Potion", ...). In the inventory the maximum page amount is six, with up to about eight items per page. But so long as you cautiously collect useful items (Tents, Gold Flasks, Medicines) and don't get carried away you should be fine. Area length: the first time you step in any dungeon it may seem like it's very huge and neverending in scope, but whenever you browse your map in the dungeon you'll notice that with each step the map traces the route automatically, which is actually very helpful if you feel that you get lost and want to take the right path. But because of so many enemy attacks it will seem like it's huger than it really is (especially the Ice Mine dungeon).
Card Master: Seal of Rimsalia was released in March 1992 for the Super Famicom, and it wasn't until roughly two months later that May that Arcana saw release for the Super Nintendo in America (like most turn-based RPGs at the time it never was given a European release). Considering that's a very short time between releases I think you can get a pretty good idea of how bad the translation is. Bear in mind there were nowhere near as many resources back then as there are now, but there are moments when its rushed translation is fairly evident. For instance there is a moment early on when Ariel (yes, that's an actual male villain name; it's hard to take seriously) is about to kill Rooks saying "Give up, Rooks!" and then out of nowhere the Sorcerer (actual name) shouts "It's dangerous!" (for no reason) before calling the badass Fire Spirit to save you (also only seen once). There is a time later when the dialogue has a contraction "doesn't" but while "doesn" is the way a line ends, there is a large space before another line begins with "'t", finishing said contraction (and it's a little distracting).
The downside of making a Japanese story accessible to Western audiences is that there will be things that are lost in translation. =( Some moments lines are said that either make no sense or were a part of a conversation which seemed to have been cut; one time Ariel captures Salah making you attempt to go fight him when all of a sudden he's like, "Wait, the princess is dying! I wonder, Rooks." before departing. Who talks like that? Or how about the time in Stavery Tower where Rooks and company stumble across a door in one of the middle floors when the dialogue goes like this? "Wait, it's a door!" "Be careful, it might be a trap." "If it is a trap, then I will fall into the trap" I don't recall Final Fantasy IV's first English translation being this bad. You get the idea! It's not 100% badly translated, but there are moments that make me wonder if it really was like this in the Japanese original or if it was altered somehow;... like the ENDING!!!
Another aspect that was scrutinized, believe it or not, was the story itself. If the translation wasn't enough, then the essential plot was. Honestly I don't think it's that bad of a plot for HAL Laboratory's first RPG, though I will admit that there are moments that are blatantly based on or inspired by The Lord of the Rings. I mean think about it: a young warrior thrust into the unknown, a pint-sized but experienced dwarf, a wandering elf, a journey to stop an evil force that will try to turn the world to darkness? It's not coincidence, and some areas do seem similar (passes, forests, castles, towers) but I wasn't too phased by that as to detract my enjoyment of it. Aside from the mistranslation and the ending (which I'll literally highlight so as to avoid immediate spoilers) I personally thought the plot was fairly decent.
I already brought up how many of the dungeons look the same, but what I didn't bring up is how the game should be progressed at a slow pace. Another issue gamers had with Arcana was its slow and deliberate pacing, and while it can test peoples' patience (I'm not going to lie) it is a requirement. The slower and steadier you go the fewer battles you will have to face (if you're careful) and you should not go any farther in the dungeon unless your characters have leveled up just enough times. You can always go back to the town after awhile and save the game after resting up in the village inn so that way your progress will be saved. And it is mandatory that you have the proper equipment and inventory in order to progress forward. At first the area will be unknown to you, but once the map is filled you'll be able to easily maneuver around the dungeon.
And now, the thing longtime gamers have been waiting for me to address, the main issue many gamers have with Arcana: the game is over should just one living character die. =< I am not even joking! You will be brought to the title screen if even one living character should lose all their health (the Spirit Cards don't count). Talk about harsh! This is why you should go at a slow and steady pace. This is why you should properly equip yourself. This is why you should save often: because there is always the risk that you are going to die if you are not careful. And it is because of this that Arcana has gotten the reputation of being "difficult" or "unreasonable" from many that played it. By rushing through the game people (first-timers, in particular) will just make the game difficult for themselves, which is why you should be cautious when playing. I don't consider the game to be either hard nor impossible myself; but if anything makes the game seem overtly challenging it's the fact that you must keep your characters alive at all costs. No matter what! =<
Now there are ways to ease the difficulty a bit during your journey. Steadily level-grinding is one way, and another is by equipping powerful equipment and selling the weaker ones in order to get money (because later on there will be much costlier weaponry and equipment). When attacking enemies the Spirit Cards (or Teefa, Salah, and Darwin) are your main source of magic; and should you fight much powerful bosses you can halve their attack and offense impair (should you have enough MP) and the Spirit Cards can either attribute every character with their element or increase a characters' stats (Efrite can double the attack power, Dao can double the defense, and so on). If you use a lot of magic make sure you have just enough Gold Flasks at your stead, and before facing a boss you should consider resting in a Tent to fully regain every characters' magic and health. And while it may be time consuming you should try looking at every nook and cranny of the dungeon (at your discretion) for you never know if you may stumble upon treasure chests with useful items in it.
When battling specific enemies or bosses, rather, it's best that you experiment which Spirit Card's magic is more effective against them. One thing I found rather neat was how some enemies would lose more or less damage depending on which Spirit Card's magic you used against them; for example, the skeletons in the Ice Mine are more likely to lose damage from Sylph's lightning than they would from Efrite's flame. Experimenting is key, and learn them well. One more thing: whenever you find a stat raising Honey (i.e. health, magic, strength) inside either a chest or if you buy them at a weapons store for lots of Gold--I'm not kidding, you can actually do that here--give them all to Rooks. And the reason for that is because every chapter begins the way that it ends, with Rooks on his own. Whenever the companions split up from you they always leave behind their equipment, which makes me wonder how the hell they could (or can) manage to survive on their own. =/ Weird.
When Arcana came out it was received badly: I mean, really bad. Its critical failure must have impacted HAL Laboratory heavily, because it was the last game for which they were given publishing privileges. Ever! Since then they have always had another company publish their games for them, mainly Nintendo, though they have developed some games with other companies (EarthBound and the Super Smash Bros. saga coming to mind). Nowadays this game has garnered a tiny bit of a cult following from fans, which I'm glad about because I don't consider it to be as bad as some people make it out to be,... buuuut at the same time I don't think it's as great as I once thought it was several years back when I first played it.
Kirby fans will recognize Arcana as the first game that everyone's favorite puffball would make an appearance, albeit as a very brief cameo in the introduction sequence.
Shortly after this first-person RPG's release HAL Laboratory created the very first platformer where Kirby would get a starring role for the Game Boy, Kirby's Dream Land, with Nintendo acting as publisher (it was from that game onward that HAL would require other companies to publish their games). Due to its charm and fun nature it was a success among gamers and would be the start of a brand new franchise, though that may also have attributed to the fact that it didn't demand a lot of challenge from gamers like Arcana did before it.
In 2011 the Nintendo DS received its Kirby swansong entry Kirby Mass Attack, which included several mini-games, one of them being a huge surprise to longtime gamers.
While the gameplay was very different, the fact that HAL went out of their way to partially pay homage to their first-person endeavor with Kirby Quest was really remarkable. You could say that this was their love letter to Arcana fans, which I find rather sweet. =) It's too bad, then, that its initial failure makes it all the least likely for it ever to get a remake or a digital rerelease for some gamers that cannot afford an SFC or SNES console in order to play it (not to mention the fact that Arcana was HAL's own published work). =(
At one point I genuinely considered Arcana to be one of the best non-Kirby games that HAL Laboratory worked on (as well as one of the best SNES games ever); it was also my fourth SNES cart that I got from eBay (after Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Busts Loose!, Ys III: Wanderers from Ys, and Mr. Nutz, the last one being the first ever SNES game that I bought) when I was eighteen back in July of 2009 (also the first game from eBay I got alongside a manual), so I've got a lot of fondness for it. The first time I played it I was sold from its first-person perspective, Tarot card system, the fantastic soundtrack, and its take on the turn-based formula and plot (at least when it didn't have mistranslations). At the time I loved it a lot, and I still like playing it; but as I got older its flaws were becoming more apparent to me.
Arcana was my first first-person exclusive turn-based RPG that I played, and to this day the only first-person turn-based RPG that I experienced (I have not decided whether to try other similar games like Dungeon Master or Obitus yet). I loved the soundtrack a lot, but I didn't like how the song would begin all over again after a battle has been cleared or finished (this game had to have been made before Final Fantasy V), meaning that the only surefire way to listen to the whole song without interruption would be by either holding still or by listening to it to your heart's desire by accessing the in-game sound test (by holding both shoulder buttons and pressing B while you're at the title screen). The very first playthrough I did of this game I only had two game overs occur to me: both in the same Ice Mine chapter (3), both from enemy group attacks. Since then my second playthrough onward I've had zero game overs, despite moments that came close.
I did not lose a single time to a boss fight, even when I first played it over half a decade ago. Part of that had to do with the fact that even when I was ill-equipped I still managed to escape the battle just fine. Even Rimsala, the main final battle, I beat on my first try, which was a real rush. I found that with every playthrough I learned something new which made the experience a little easier for me (though not completely); eventually I learned to not only alternate between Spirit Cards but to also use the Impair magic on bosses when it mattered. I was at Level 50 when I first fought Rimsala; the highest that I beat her in was Level 57 but the lowest was at Level 42 (or 44)... the fact that I managed to survive the battle at such a low level was really miraculous, which is why I'm never making that reckless decision again.
I still like the gameplay as the battles felt like they were going at a fast pace, and the soundtrack and plot were what kept me going despite the largely same-looking scenery. I didn't mind its slow-pacing for the most part, though I would be lying if I said I wasn't sometimes annoyed by it on subsequent playthroughs (mainly due the constant random battles), but I put up with it in order to fill up the entire map as well as leveling up just enough. Despite the flaws that partially plague it I still feel that Arcana's final battle is one of the most intensely suspenseful in a turn-based RPG ever. And while I no longer feel that the game is great I do still like it for what it is: HAL's experiment at crafting a turn-based RPG, and I felt that for the most part they did a good job; had some polish and some notching off of the difficulty been done, it would've fared better I believe, but as it is it just wasn't meant to be. ... Then they created Alcahest the following year and a half. =)
Not quite as turn-based as Arcana, this action-oriented take on the RPG genre (published exclusively in Japan by SquareSoft) more than proved that HAL could be capable of single-handedly developing a very enjoyable and more than highly engaging story-driven game with the fast-paced Alcahest (despite its more linear arcade-like nature). As short as it is it's more than made up for with four difficulty settings and a very satisfactory ending. It wasn't until my fourth or fifth playthrough of Arcana that I finally came to the conclusion that Alcahest was the superior game of the two back in 2012, which is why I decided to update my thoughts on Arcana.
HAL Laboratory's Arcana is definitely not a game for everyone, which I've eventually come to accept; and I've learned to be more cautious when recommending it. Its slow pacing and difficulty is enough to scare some gamers, but those that are willing to persevere and face the challenges head on (and see how HAL took on the RPG genre) will find a very good game experience while it lasts, but chances are it won't reach your top list of all time. It's not as good as Final Fantasy V, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, or even Chrono Trigger (at one point I thought it was; I was younger); but as far as I'm concerned it's better than Robotrek. It's better than Breath of Fire II. And it's better than The 7th Saga, let me tell you (the Japanese counterpart, Elnard, I've still yet to determine). But I digress; if you're looking for an interesting RPG, there is a lot that is interesting about Arcana, but if you're looking for an easy RPG then this game is not for you. I will always have a soft spot for Arcana, and I like playing it once in awhile, however it'll take a lot of patience and perseverance in order to succeed in it.
My New Score: 7.5/10
P.S. At last! I've updated my thoughts on Arcana! Now that I've given it the proper score that I now feel it deserves I won't have to be haunted by that 9 I first gave it in November 2010 anymore! YAY!!!!!! ^(^o^)^
P.S. 2 I didn't play the Japanese version Card Master: Seal of Rimsalia so I don't know how much has been changed for the American version. I'm not in the mood to find out right now, though; maybe in the future.
P.S. 3 The Solint Mail that is seen on page 12 of the manual? Doesn't exist anywhere in the game. But the manual is fun to read (despite a few hiccups here and there; like how it makes it seem like Ariel is a playable character when it's really Darwin).
P.S. 4 In the in-game sound test there are a few sounds which aren't heard anywhere in the game, such as the sound of a bird chirping or the sound of said bird being shot by an arrow (at least it sounds like that to me).
P.S. 5 Off-topic, but HOLY SHIT, did anyone check out The Avengers: Age of Ultron trailer?? That was awesome!!! =O
Thank you for reading my review, please leave me a comment and let me know what you thought. I hope you have a great day, take care! =)
So the ending for Arcana that I brought up? This is it:
After the defeat of Rimsala ten years go by since then where the land of Elemen goes back to its prosperity and peace and the only ones that remember the hardships and troubles are Rooks and his companions. Lame! Although, at least HAL actually gave an epilogue (as bad as it is) to the ending here unlike Treasure's Gunstar Heroes' ending, where after the big dramatic moment it just stops and cuts to the credits. I don't like it when video game endings aren't satisfactory! >=(