Arcturus: Never judge a game by its cover

If the screenshots of Gravity’s Korean-born PC RPG shown below look familiar it’s probably because you’ve spent some happy time with their best-known work, the phenomenally successful MMO Ragnarok Online. The same standard of spriting excellence found in their long-running online game is found in equal measure in this single player title, Arcturus‘ art remaining as much of a joy for anyone’s eyeballs now as it would have been on its 2000 release. Characters at all levels of importance are uniformly well animated and highly detailed, possessing not only the expected range of victory poses and weighty sword swipes but also bespoke animations for specific scenes and separated body parts, allowing for more nuanced head movement than would be possible with one single solid sprite. “Briefly turning to look the way you’re about to run” isn’t in any danger of sounding like the most exciting graphical feature to ever come out of the industry, but it does give our heroes that little bit of extra fluidity and presence 2D characters living in an isometrically-viewed 3D world sometimes lack.

soundTEMP’s work on the soundtrack will also make Poring-pummellers feel right at home, their work as eclectic as ever. It’s… an acquired taste. Every track sounds good in isolation, but when they’re brought together to represent one single experience it doesn’t quite work. The genres skip between everything from church organs to smooth lounge music to what this audio amateur can only describe as “The sort of track you’d hear backing a goofy action scene in an Eighties OVA“, making it hard for the music to ever really feel like it truly belongs to the game regardless of its quality.

The specific release shown here is Falcom’s 2003 PC exclusive localisation – part of the same experiment that also gave Japanese speakers easy access to The Rhapsody of Zephyr (amongst other titles) – and if internet murmurings are to be believed the legendary RPG developer was apparently so impressed with this game it had a direct influence on their own later work. This is an entirely reasonable assumption to make as there are many broad mechanical and tonal similarities between Gravity’s Arcturus and Falcom’s Trails in the SkyHowever: assumptions and similarities are all we really have, and Arcturus doesn’t really do anything so different that Falcom’s later releases couldn’t also be judged to have drawn upon something like Grandia for battle system inspiration instead, or even be nothing more than a natural evolution of their own earlier entries in The Legend of Heroes series. This isn’t said to “defend” Falcom as some sort of unassailable bastion of originality (and I’d argue a company that didn’t look around and try to learn from their peers was only holding themselves back), but simply to offer pause before sincere and sensible attempts to compare the two turns into unquestioned internet “facts”.

Anyway, back to Arcturus. The game’s beautifully detailed polygonal environments allow you to freely rotate the camera in many areas, in theory providing a good view of your surroundings… but also potentially leaving important doors and NPCs hidden from sight thanks to either the current angle or an over-enthusiastic tree in the foreground obscuring the view. Combatting this confusion is Arcturus’ incredibly helpful compass, one that will direct you to every significant building if you’re in town or if you’re out in the field point you towards any connected areas – just hit F4 to cycle through the list. Need to find an inn? The weapons shop? Ready to head to the next town? No problem – and you’ll be able to do it all without getting lost or pulling up a map. Press F5 and you’ll access a North-orientated overhead view of the area too, helping you to quickly and easily keep track of everything in what could have otherwise been a confusing and important-NPC-hiding landscape.

You’ll soon find yourself grateful for the ability to make a beeline for points of interest when you butt up against the slender range of options on the Game Over screen (that’ll be “Reload Latest Save” “Reload A Different Save” and (paraphrasing here) “Bye then“) and realise with horror that Arcturus relies entirely on manual saves. Were you pushing ahead with the story, only to die an hour later? Caught out by a critical hit? Remember the game absolutely hates it when you ALT-TAB a second too late? Too bad.  Alone it’d be a minor irritation, but coupled with the way all saving – all saving – is restricted to inns and select luminous save points out in the field that the game isn’t especially careful about making sure you have easy access to and… it’s enough to make even the biggest Korean PC RPG fan give up and want to play something else. Perhaps worse still are the moments where you find yourself skimming over scenes that could have interested you because you’re short on time and have no idea if the next save point’s just around the corner or over half an hour, a HP-sapping timed event, and a big fight away. We could try to rush to the game’s defence here – it is over two decades old after all – but the number of similar titles that actually restrict you to this degree even on older and less advanced formats is a distinct minority. Arcturus could’ve been more flexible and would have lost nothing in the process – it just chose not to.

The most frequent reason why you’ll be grumbling about saves is thanks to the enemies you battle along the way, the game not shy about throwing scripted scrums you have no way of anticipating in amongst the usual roaming monsters on the field. Fights in Arcturus in many ways resemble Grandia’s time-based turn system (although in this case skirmishes play out exactly where you stand rather than on a separate battlefield); there’s a bar at the top with icons on both sides split between allies and enemies, both heading towards the middle “Ready” marker at their own pace. When the icon reaches the middle that person gets to perform an action of their choice – simple! Ah. The Arcturus difference is that what happens after a decision’s been made also contributes to an attack’s success, so if you select the magical spell Fire Bolt, cast it, and by the time it goes off the target’s moved (either due to an attack or by choice) – it’ll miss. On the other side of the coin if an enemy initiates an attack and you have enough time to select Defend before they reach the character they’re aiming for your character will block the hit.  It’s a little wrinkle that’s interesting enough to cause the exciting kind of trouble without being so unpredictable you’re fighting constant interruptions or feel landing a hit is down to luck rather than judgement, and really does live up to the game’s “Half Real Time” titling of its battle system.

You may have noticed I really haven’t said anything about the characters or the plot yet and there’s good reason for that; in the time I spent with the game (and all the time I had to play and re-play certain sections thanks to the rigid save system) the story just hasn’t done anything to really make me sit up and pay attention. The enticingly gothic artwork adorning the box and the pile of dismembered angels shown in the key art on the manual’s cover promises at least in the abstract a dark and enticing adventure… unfortunately the game itself opens with a cute village surrounded by lush green pastures and crystal clear waters, swiftly followed by a barrage of RPG clichés: In no time at all you’ll have seen children run away from their family homes via boat, an evil and definitely not Catholic corrupt church have someone dragged off, have Friends With Attitude inflicted upon you, and watch mysterious robed figures discuss thoroughly evil matters in spooky dark rooms. It does get better as it goes on (even if the quasi-religious references mashed up with ancient sci-fi technology “twist” happened to be old hat long before Arcturus was committed to optical disc), but between the merely adequate opening and the painful saving system getting to those later scenes further in takes more patience to get to than they should, especially in a genre that at the time was already well stocked with less unforgiving examples that make a better first impression, or flawed titles that proudly unleashed their weird energy within minutes of starting a fresh save. I’m glad Arcturus exists and I’m glad Falcom decided to use the not inconsiderable cultural weight attached to their good name as well as their popularity to get more eyeballs on otherwise overlooked Korean and Chinese/Taiwanese RPGs, but considering this is still not an easy purchase – and possibly not even an easy download – in 2021 (it does at least install and run on Windows 10 without issue so long as you don’t ALT-TAB away) I can’t honestly say this title’s definitively worth the disproportionate amount of effort most people would have to expend to play it.

[Ko-fi support made this post a reality! Thank you so much!]