SRPG is a genre that appeals not to the masses; and I for one will be quick to admit I am not an SPRG fan and probably never will be. Despite that, I have decided to give Jeanne D’Arc a try for three reasons. (a) The pre-release screenshots looked pretty darned gorgeous; (b) I am a sucker for anime-style characters which this title offers plenty of; and (c) this is made by Level-5. So, was playing this game a generally pleasant experience? You betcha. But did it change my opinion of SRPG forever? Well… maybe not.
Tied Loosely to History
Just in case you are one of those few who didn’t watch the movie “Joan of Arc”, the story of this game is based loosely on the historical exploits of Joan of Arc, the Saint who led the French army and won some vital battle against the mighty English soldiers. I used the word “loosely” because there certainly wasn’t any mystical armlet or evil demon when Joan took on the English, which this title has an abundance of. In many ways, Jeanne D’Arc is like Genso Suikoden, which took the story of the 108 Heroes of the Three Kingdoms and gave it a mystical spin. Though I must admit the latter did a slightly better job at keeping the plot interesting…
You must have gathered by now I wasn’t overly impressed by Jeanne D’Arc storyline. Sure it had the sound of an epic in the making, what’s with the story of a real Saint and all that; but somehow the plot of Jeanne D’Arc suffers from an all-too-serious approach in my opinion. The story begins with Jeanne picking up a mysterious armlet and hearing a voice in her head (whom she presumes is God). After that, it’s pretty much traveling from one town to another, picking up allies and battling the enemies. Perhaps it is just me but I have never been a huge fan of serious war story (such as FFXII) on an RPG, and Jeanne D’Arc is essentially just that. Though there are some plot twists thrown in for good measures, it is ultimately the journey of a heroine leading a bunch of warriors and taking down the big, bad evil empire. When I am playing an RPG I expect something further away from reality, and I didn’t get much of that from this title.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, Jeanne D’Arc does excel in one thing, and it is this element that kept me going throughout the game. Though I have heard many complaints about Jeanne D’Arc’s mediocre casts by other gamers, somehow I really liked Jeanne’s character as well as that of her comrades. To me, the developer has done a real good job portraying a girl who believes she is acting on behalf of God. Not only that, her allies consist of a wide range of differing characters: some you know will stand alongside her no matter what happens, some have joined her simply out of convenience, and some have dodgy agendas of their own. It is the need to find out what happen to these characters in the end that propelled me to keep on going. Too bad these great characters are offset by a much too ordinary story… it is a real shame.
Slow-paced Tactical Battles
As you know, this game is an SRPG and that means a battle system where your team members and enemies take turns moving and attacking each other on a grid-based map. Leveling up is fairly standard. You achieve a certain amount of experience points for executing an action, and a whole lot more for killing enemies. Characters’ skills are determined by the skill stones you equip on them. And as you level up, you will gain more slots to equip the increasing number of kick-ass skill stones you will get from fighting harder enemies. Also, certain members of your party possess mythical armlets that allow them to transform to beefed-up versions of themselves… though only for a limited number of turns.
Level-5 tries to make gameplay more interesting by introducing some unique battling features. The first, Burning Aura, is essentially the appearance of grids which increase your characters’ power while they are standing on them. These can be used to your advantage but take note enemies too can use such grids back on you. It’s sort of like a double-edged sword. The second, Group Defense, is a system that increases your character’s defense while they are being surrounded by allies. This makes you tread more carefully but the down side is you will tend to move your party members as a collective unit rather than try splitting them up and attacking from all fronts. Finally, there is also an affinity system which is essentially an A>B>C arrangement. Personally, I couldn’t be bothered with this but I suspect it would make battle a whole lot easier for those who spend the extra efforts sorting this out.
I quite enjoyed the tactical aspect of the battles but not so for the pace. To put it simply, battling is SLOW as it usually takes 30 to 60 minutes just to finish one fight. Every action of your characters takes about 6 to 10 seconds to load; and when you multiply that by approximately 7 party members and 20 enemies plus around 15 turns per battle, that’s a lot of time just for a handheld console game. But then again, this is an issue that I had with almost all other SRPGs I played, so it would be inappropriate to point fingers solely at Level-5. Still, I really hope they could have experimented with other options to make gameplay faster and not so tedious…
One thing I noticed about the gameplay is that it is pretty hard for first-timers or casual gamers who just want to play this game from start to finish (without the need to revisit some of the past locations for leveling up purpose). Most of the time, I found my party members under-leveled at a new location, which practically forced me to the previous battlefields to level up my characters. In some of the battles, there are certain goals (like getting all team members to the exit or protecting a certain person) and you have to do it in a certain number of turns for no reasons whatsoever. Too often I had to start over because my turns have run out when I was just steps away from achieving my goal. So effectively I’ve wasted 30 to 40 minutes for nothing. It is things like these that make me just want to throw my PSP out the window.
But it is not all doom and gloom. For experienced SRPG gamers, you will most definitely enjoy the tactical challenge presented by Jeanne D’Arc. After all, there is nothing more satisfying with successfully rounding up the enemies’ boss with nothing else than a bunch of under-leveled warriors and your tactical brilliance. In fact, some gamers have even told me they found Jeanne D’Arc much too easy, and I find that disturbing on so many levels…
Gorgeous Anime-Style Graphics
Graphically speaking, the graphics of Jeanne D’Arc looks Great with a capital G. The cut-scenes are mouth-wateringly good and they are by far the closest to watching an actual anime on the PSP I have ever experienced. It’s pretty obvious Level 5 also spent a heck of an effort in designing the characters too; giving them the unique looks and sounds which reflect their differing personalities. Graphically, this game is practically faultless for an SRPG. After all, I myself was attracted to this game just by looking at the screenshots.
In the sound department, I really liked most of the voices except those that sounded overly “French”. The theme music are nicely composed (though I must say, not very memorable) and you do get to hear effects like armor clanking and spell blasting during battles. It’s everything you expect from a modern SRPG so no complaints here either.
Caution! Fatal Point of No Return Ahead!
But it’s not all praises. I have a big, big issue with Jeanne D’Arc’s potentially fatal save system. To begin with, Jeanne D’Arc has an interface that does NOT allow you to get out of a first-time event or battle when you enter that area, yet ALLOWS you to save at the preparation screen right before the battle commences. For gamers who only use one save per game (like me), this spells potential disaster when you realize you are grossly under-leveled AFTER getting killed in the battlefield, yet has no means to get back out to the world map. Worse still, your only save point is IN the preparation screen of the battlefield itself. Your only option at this point of time? RESTART.
My personal experience with this potential trap was at Chapter 3. I remember happily proceeding into a new free battle area, saving my game at the preparation screen, only to come face to face with a couple of 800HP dragons against my helpless level 26 Jeanne and gang. After trying some 10 times and got my butt kicked to kingdom come, I had no choice but to restart, thus wasting more than 10 hours worth of gameplay.
Yes, yes, I should have read the cautionary texts that appear whenever I try to save within a battlefield. But my memory card was running on a low and the text didn’t really warn me against whoop-ass dragons in the next area. It would have been far simpler just to allow me access back out to the world map. I hope you are listening to me, Level-5.
Good Replayability for Experienced Gamers
If you are one of those who love replaying an RPG, you’ll in for a treat. Unlike most RPGs that are over and done with once you get to the end, Jeanne D’Arc gives you additional battlefields and events on your second run of the game, making for good value and replayability. Though this is good news for PSP owners as original SRPGs are hard to come by nowadays, I suspect casual gamers might not have the stomach to re-live some of the 1 hour-long battles again. Or is that just me?
Are you Game Enough?
After all the wows and high expectations, Jeanne D’Arc is ultimately a standard SRPG featuring beautifully crafted graphics and great characters. As of all SRPGs, it is still slow-paced compared to the other genres and you won’t get much joy if you just want a game to play during a short break from work or school. But whether you are an avid SRPG fan or a first-timer, you will definitely appreciate the amount of efforts put in by Level 5 for the innovative battle features as well as for making the game attractive to the eyes and ears. If anything else, the effort alone in making an exclusive PSP SRPG is worth a full thumb’s up.
Judging this title from a casual gamer’s standpoint, PSPHyper gives Jeanne D’Arc a respectable 3.5 out of 5. Most of the points deducted are attributed to the slow-pace of the game and to a certain fatal save feature.