Released 6/30/1995, developed by G Craft, published by Sony
- Turn type: Speed based system
- Maps: Medium, Terrain bonuses.
- Character Customization: None.
- Character Development: Standard XP/level system.
- Party Size: Max 8
- Equipment: 4 accessory-type items.
- Game Flow: A series of required stages in order, but there are free battles to fight as well.
- Saving: Outside of battle.
- Death: Defeated characters are removed from the battle but return afterwards.
This is the first SRPG for the Playstation, which had come out in 1994. It was the first in a trilogy of games; they were not released in English until 2003. It seems that this was not originally intended to be a series, but Sony felt that the Playstation needed more RPGs to compete with other consoles. So Arc the Lad was released in basically an unfinished state; the main quest is very short and ends in the middle of the story, to be continued in Arc the Lad II next year.
The graphics are quite good for the time; the sprite work looks like improved late-Super Famicom graphics, the backgrounds are lush and well done, and the small number of FMVs fit well into the whole. What I find interesting about these early Playstation RPGs is that they were clearly following the Super Famicom model rather than the PC Engine model. The PCE had to rely on a lot of voice work, orchestrated music, and visual cutscenes to make up for the inferior graphics capability of the system. But early games for the PS1 like this have no voicing in the story sequences at all. Arc the Lad has a limited amount of voicing in the battles when the characters act and use their moves, although other games like Suikoden and Final Fantasy VII have no voice at all. This is in contrast to the shortlived PC-FX, which built on the PCE's success -- games like Der Langrisser FX and Power Dolls FX are fully voiced.
I used the Mednafen emulator, which I have already been using for the PCE and Saturn games. The game ran flawlessly on my 4-year old laptop and used a modest amount of the CPU.
The battle interface is streamlined and overall easy to use. You can move directly with the D-pad, attack with the circle button, and end your turn with the X button. You only need to open menus to use items or spells. The X button ending turn is tricky for someone used to most other SRPGs -- I kept accidentally ending my turn when I intended to take back my move instead (you don't really "take back" a move in the game, you just move somewhere else).
Each character has a basic attack, but then also has a number of special abilities that they learn -- mostly by levelling but a few characters learn by finding them instead. Arc is a basic fighter, Kukuru is a healer, Gogen is a magician, Poco has mostly buffs and debuffs, etc. The abilities level up as they level. It's a nice system that keeps each character different. Chongara has summon abilities which produce units that can create platforms, heal, or do other things.
My biggest problem with the system is the balance. This shares a quality of several other SRPGs -- due to something about the damage and stat formulas, a character who falls behind by a few levels becomes nearly useless in battle. It is possible to simply ignore this and only use a few characters. This is what I did, relying almost entirely on Arc and Gogen, with Kukuru to heal. This works, but I don't like having to do this. I think that you basically have to grind to avoid this. To the developers' credit they did provide a number of things to do other than the story battles -- there's a 50 floor optional dungeon, an arena, and a training center. So if you do want to grind your characters, you don't have to just play the same maps over and over.
The game takes place in a steampunk type world, although the steampunk elements are somewhat muted. You have airships to take you around to different places, but none of the main characters use any guns or anything like that. For the most part you can't explore towns, and maybe if you could the steampunk elements would be more evident.
The story begins with the mayor of the starting town tricking Kukuru into extinguishing the Cion Flame, thus releasing the Ark Demon into the world. Later, the main character Arc tries to fight the demon but gets wasted. A mysterious spirit gives him the power of the guardian spirit, and he sets out on a quest to find out more about his father and hopefully stop the monsters who have come into the world. The story is fine and has some nice developments and twists, and the cast is limited enough that you get to know all your companions. It's hard to say too much about it because this is only the first part of the story -- although it does finish after a climax point, you could probably beat this game in 5 hours if you knew what you were doing. If you do all the extra stuff that's probably another 15-20.
Arc the Lad II was released the next year; it's game 72 on my list so I will be getting to it before too long. The game allows you to carry over some things from the first to the second game so there's a continuity -- this is a feature that was enabled by the use of memory cards to save games. Did the PC Engine or Sega CD have any games that used the internal memory to enable a carryover?