Long ago, a powerful king beat the crap out of a bunch of monsters, which somehow lead to the creation of the land of Horodyn. Then the king mysteriously disappeared almost as quickly as he’d arrived. Each of the defeated monsters was sealed inside an Arcana stone, waiting for a warrior strong enough to give them a thorough spanking to come around so they could lend said warrior their powers. What the Arcana power is all about and why it’s so important for this hero to acquire it is a big mystery; one you probably won’t care about in the slightest.
You would think that because Lord of Arcana is a Square Enix title, there might be a bit of an emphasis on story here. However, much like Monster Hunter, Phantasy Star Portable and other similar games, the story exists purely as a means of context for slaying the shit out of various fictional beasts. Some of the dialogue you get when opting to chat with the background NPCs is clever, and there are a few funny moments to be had if you take the time to talk to the well-dressed pieces of scenery (many of them nameless), but chances are you won’t care about any of these characters at all. Especially your silent and personality-deficient protagonist.
It would be easy to simply dismiss Lord of Arcana as Square Enix’s attempt at creating their own Monster Hunter clone at first, and in a way that’s pretty close to what they’ve done, but it really is more than just a Square-ified version of Capcom’s massively popular franchise with a lock-on button. That won’t keep me from making constant comparisons between the two, as they’re way too similar to ignore, but I figured it was worth a mention. Both involve climbing your way through the guild ranks, gathering various materials from felled beasts and the field to craft gear and items, multiple weapon types, large and imposing creatures, multiplayer for up to four players (via Ad Hoc, of course), cutesy little mascots and will eat up all your free time. Although Monster Hunter is the clear winner in the mascot and time-sink categories.
That’s not to say that they’re exactly the same. Lord of Arcana does bring a few different features to the table, aside from the aforementioned lock-on button. Repeated use of any weapon in a class will net you experience for that class, eventually unlocking longer combo attacks and various special moves. Magic is also a thing that exists, and can be leveled up in a similar fashion to your weapon classes. Combat is flashier, faster paced and includes fancy, satisfying finishing moves for all of the different creatures. But by far the biggest difference between the two is the fact that your character actually gains levels. Just like a real RPG. And also just like a real RPG, sometimes you won’t be able to progress until you gain a few more.
The upside to this is that you can generally tear through your opposition once you’re X number of levels above them. The downside is that it sometimes brings your climb to faux-godhood to a screeching halt. Chapter 3′s fight with Bahamut (Square Enix, remember?) is a prime example of this. I’d been progressing steadily through the early portion of the game. The first two main bosses were difficult at first, but eventually I learned their attacks, found my openings and killed them, much like Monster Hunter. Then I had to fight Bahamut and I came within a hair’s breadth of giving up on the whole damn thing. His irritating and cheap attacks with almost no tells were one thing, but he was also much more powerful (proportionally) than I expected him to be. After several attempts and roughly three or four hours wasted, I went back and fought the previous bosses over and over until I gained a couple of levels and gave it another shot. It wasn’t pretty, and I’d used up all of my healing items, but I finally beat him, whereupon I gained another level. After that he was a cakewalk.
And that is the second biggest issue I have with Lord of Arcana: Beating a tough enemy is more about numbers than player skill. If your gear is decent and you’re a high enough level, you can essentially stop worrying about your target’s attempts to hurt you, as it will merely chip a little away from your overall health. There’s no real satisfaction to be had when you can steamroll over enemies with hardly any effort once you gain a few levels.
The biggest biggest issue? You get locked into your combo attacks.
Anyone who plays action games will tell you, a game that throws multiple (and cheap) enemies at you all at once, but won’t allow you to block or dodge mid-combo is committing one hell of a big “oopsie.” I’m not talking about the inability to interrupt an attack when you see an insta-kill headed your way, but the simple act of seeing an attack coming while in mid-swing and being able to do something about it without launching into a second swing because you pressed the attack button more than once. There have been so many times that I’ve taken damage, gotten flung around like a broken toy or been knocked out because of this. I understand that not all action games will let you interrupt your own attacks, but why the hell would anyone think it’s a good idea to cement players into a combo?
One final similarity to Capcom’s wyvern genocide simulator I should mention is all of the equipment you can create. There’s a pretty robust selection of weapons to choose from within the five basic types (swords, maces, two-handed swords, firelances and polearms), but the armor selection is a bit more limited. There’s still a good amount of gear to choose from, it’s just that the armor is more about upgrading for better stats than making brand new sets. Depending on your preference, you may get more enjoyment out of sticking with one set you like and just upgrading the hell out of it, but I would personally rather have a larger selection with different sets for different situations. Although sometimes I’ll stick with a particular set despite its obvious failings because the “better” options look hideous. Regardless, attempting to gather the materials for all of this stuff, especially in the more advanced tiers, is where things begin to come apart.
Defeating an enemy will usually yield a few monster parts or other materials used in item and equipment creation, as I mentioned previously, but it won’t be long before you’ll need to start grabbing monster cores. Getting cores from a boss is much like getting a rare carve from a wyvern in Monster Hunter: there are no guarantees you’ll get what you want, but there’s always a possibility. Of course it still sucks when you spend way too much time farming a boss, only to have the Arcana give you squat multiple times in a row. Acquiring cores from the lesser beasts manages to be even more of a pain in the ass, mechanically. The only way you can do it is to fight them in an area where Arcana power is “active.” First, you’ll have to either luck-out and stumble upon the enemy you want in one of these “active” zones or stand around waiting for the zone you and your chosen target are in to switch-on. Once that happens you’ll also have to kill your creature of choice, then hope the Arcana power turns it into a core instead of meat chunks. If you’re lucky again, you get the core. If not, you just wasted your time.
At this point it probably sounds like I hated Lord of Arcana, and for a while (before slaying Bahamut) I almost did, but eventually it just clicked. For all of its similarities and frustrating differences, Lord of Arcana is not Monster Hunter. Once I finally realized that, I was able to enjoy it for what it was: an action-heavy RPG with satisfying finishing moves, an emphasis on grinding and lots of irritatingly cheap monsters. Mostly the griffins. I really hate those fucking griffins.
Things We Liked: Flashy action. Some nifty monster designs. Take-downs are always satisfying. A good number of weapons types to level-up and master, ditto for spells. The way the camera tilts when locked-on to an enemy that’s near death and just about ready for a take-down.
Things We Disliked: A surprising number of enemies aren’t so much challenging as cheap. Some lame monster designs. Gathering materials, especially cores, can be a massive pain. No pause feature. The lock-on actually makes some fights harder, especially when fighting up-close against large creatures. Getting trapped in a combo. All the time.
Target Audience: Monster Hunter fans who are on the look-out for something a little different. Anyone who enjoys a good action RPG and doesn’t care about the story. People who felt that Monster Hunter was a good idea, but too tough/slow/uncompromising. Whiners who wanted that damn lock-on feature.
(Lord of Arcana – Developer: Access Games. Publisher: Square Enix. Available for PlayStation Portable. A copy of the game was provided by the publishers for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)