The original Arc the Lad was something of an early success for the PlayStation, managing to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in Japan alone since its release in June 1995. Considering this was at a time when Sony’s upstart console was still an import-only curiosity for the rest of the world and the game (as well as the hardware) was going up against genre stablemates on the deeply popular Super Famicom so universally praised they’d practically go down in legend – which is an overly-enthusiastic way of saying “Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest VI both came out that very same year” – that’s an incredible achievement that can’t simply be put down to the game being the biggest RPG in what was then Sony’s very small RPG pond.
And in spite of numerous purchases over the years, from rather scruffy Japanese originals to factory sealed PAL PlayStation 2 releases to that unbelievably late Working Designs set, I’ve never been able to understand the appeal of the series, even though I can see there’s nothing strange enough to need understanding about them at all. They’re generally straightforward SRPG-likes – a genre I’ve always enjoyed – and every last one of them’s made for consoles I’ve always been fond of using and have always had to hand. Not being able to see the joy in something I should like bothers me far more than deeply disliking a game I feel I should love (see: Resident Evil VII) because at least in those cases I’ve reached a decision, even if it’s not the one I’d hoped for.
Which brings us in a roundabout way to Arc the Lad: Kishin Fukkatsu, a WonderSwan Color/Crystal exclusive set three years after the conclusion of the third Arc the Lad that co-stars Elc, the hero of the second PlayStation game, alongside the all-new time travelling protagonist Finia. This is the one I keep coming back to more than any of the others, sincerely hoping each time this’ll be the one that finally makes me understand what all the fuss is about and sets me off on a grand Lad’ing complete-a-thon. There’s just so much in here I know I should like: While not the absolute zenith of WonderSwan pixel art this is clearly a beautiful game created by people who knew exactly what they were doing, and there are plenty of times Kishin Fukkatsu impresses with expressive little touches; characters will visibly kneel or pant, squinting through the pain, when they’re low on health in battle and regular attacks can become extensive multi-hit combos when a character’s experienced enough. High-level spells can involve large special effects and well animated attacks, engulfing enemies in fiery swirls or bathing the party in magical light. The characters are a mix of returning friends and enemies from the main trilogy enhanced by a bleak-future time travel twist, and various events that could have been wearily dragged out for superficial drama’s sake – meeting and then teaming up with Elc, bedridden amnesia following a traumatic event – are swiftly dealt with and free of the predictably-written angst they usually entail. On the whole the game’s keen on getting to the point and giving you do something specific to be getting on with, and I’m grateful for it, all set within a sort of techno-fantasy where you’re just as likely to find metal hallways and armoured robots as you are fluffy clouds and volcano-themed dungeons, the SRPG-lite battle system ensuring you have to worry about buffs, equipment, and positioning concerns just enough to keep things interesting.
Interesting… but not amazing – not that any game has to be amazing to be worth playing – but even so; I know I should find this interesting.
But somehow I just don’t. I tried. I promise I really tried – who doesn’t want to enjoy playing a game? I tried playing it wherever I liked on my SwanCrystal, I tried playing it on an emulator for some worry-free progression (Arc the Lad does restart the current battle with your improved XP/levels intact if you die before you clear it – there’s something else I should like – but it is nice to not have to worry about batteries and save points), I cheekily used the pre-existing level 99 end-game save the previous owner had left on my cart (each cart allows you to save in any of three independent slots – oh! Their save at that point had around twenty-five hours on the clock, if you were wondering) in case I was missing the part where the plot blossomed into something incredible and the battle system had transformed into an unmissably beautiful tactical masterpiece. It hadn’t. It was just more Arc the Lad.
And I’m so frustrated with myself for thinking that way. I’d say maybe it just wasn’t for me, but it’s clear that everything in here would struggle to be more for me even if it tried. So maybe the awful truth is Arc the Lad was never that great in the first place, and it only kept doing well enough to secure funding for the next sequel because everything bar this entry (I believe there was a mobile game too) was made exclusively for what were at the time the most popular consoles on the planet by a very large margin, even the smallest slice of that global pie guaranteeing enough of an audience to justify its continued existence.
I don’t want to believe that – I just don’t know why. Kishin Fukkatsu isn’t helped by the fact that as an SRPG it’s outshone even on the WonderSwan’s compact library by the likes of Front Mission, Namco Super Wars, and Blue Wing Blitz – games that all manage to excite and entertain without any head-scratching effort on my part. Perhaps the issue – or maybe even the lesson – here is that being good enough isn’t, well, good enough. There needs to be a spark, a change, that special something that turns a collection of sprites and dialogue triggers into a story, a grid and some NPCs into a battle.
I just can’t see that in Arc the Lad.
But I have a funny feeling I’ll keep trying.