If Xenoblade is the high-profile, must-play Wii JRPG everyone tells you to try, Arc Rise Fantasia is the underrated gem that time forgot.
It’s also hard as fuck. Jesus Christ.
Chances are you may not have heard about Arc Rise Fantasia, a 2009 JRPG from now-bankrupt developer Imageepoch (Luminous Arc, Fate/Extra, etc.), but if you have, it was probably in connection with its truly atrocious English dub. Like, I’m not even kidding. I generally tend to be a Japanese voices >>> English voices kind of person, but ARF was “blessed” with English voice work so below average that I imagine even hardcore advocates of western dubs cringed hard at some of the lines you’ll hear in the localized version. It doesn’t quite reach “bear my arctic blast” levels of bad, but my God, it comes close. It’s even more tragic when you find out that the JP voice cast is actually full of huge names like Ishida Akira, Konishi Katsuyuki, Koyasu Takehito, etc, and realize that the English dub completely butchered their original performances. (Btw, bonus for people who like good anime: the main heroine, Ryfia, has the Japanese VA of Misaki from Welcome to the NHK)
Anyway, the good news is that ARF is actually an otherwise very solid, and surprisingly enjoyable, JRPG. Hell, it might’ve been a much bigger hit with audiences had it not been for the fact that every single time the game comes up in a discussion, people talk about the English voices and how awful they are, lol.
Well, either that, or how insanely difficult some of the bossfights are in the game. And that’s true. This is very much a hardcore, back-to-basics type of JRPG in the sense that it simply does NOT fuck around. You forgot to heal up before the boss? Haha, get fucked, kiddo. What do you mean the boss does too much damage and you have no time to attack because all you do is heal? Maybe you should’ve applied your elemental defenses, eh? Or maybe you should’ve increased your max HP with a buff. Hello? Hello? Is anybody home? THINK, FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Aww, the wittle baby boy forgot to block with every character before the boss unleashed its ultimate attack and KO’d everyone, resulting in an instant Game Over? YEAH, LOOK AT ALL THE SHITS I GIVE. GO BACK TO MOMMY AND SUCK ON HER TEATS, MAGGOT.
You get the idea. Arc Rise Fantasia is Biff Tannen if Biff Tannen actually wanted to motivate you to get better and think on your feet instead of… well, being Biff Tannen. As in, a jerk.
Sometimes, though, even ARF can be a bit of a jerk. Like that one time I barely survived a boss by the skin of my teeth, only to be plunged into another bossfight immediately afterwards, without any prior warning.
Oh, wait! That happened at least twice! Haha. I hate life.
So, you see, if you hate life, you will like Arc Rise Fantasia. If you want a challenge, you will also like Arc Rise Fantasia. And if you want a fairly conventional JRPG plot with an unconventional twist, you will also like Arc Rise Fantasia. And this takes me to my next point, namely the characters and the storyline.
They’re actually not bad. Not bad at all. The first 15 or so hours sort of go through the usual JRPG motions, which might potentially put people off, but then a certain thing happens and the plot goes in a direction I didn’t quite expect. After that, ARF becomes pretty difficult to put down, and enters that “man, I really want to find out what happens next” sweet spot that so many JRPGs fail to find. It does have some predictable twists, but also ones you might not see coming. There are also a few cringeworthy characters, but they’re not prominent enough to hinder the overall experience.
The characters, though not outstanding, began to gradually grow on me during the adventure, with my personal favorite being Cecille, the hilarious and relentlessly upbeat Justice Loli who will shoryuken you into the stratosphere if you piss her off. I was also quite a fan of Leslie, the typical flirty oneesan who, despite being initially antagonistic, actually turns out to be really nice and kind-hearted. And Serge’s antics can also be amusing. Either way, most characters get some kind of development, have some sort of connection to the plot, or some form of painful, tragic past they’re dealing with… which is honestly par for the course for JRPGs, but hey, some JRPGs fail to even get this step right, so cut me some slack. At least they don’t feel like complete nobodies with zero personality.
And although the storyline, at its core, is pretty standard JRPG fare about saving the world, the narrative is peppered with just enough surprises, twists, and drama to keep your interest up. And like I said, it does go in some pretty interesting directions, even questioning the whole “you’re the chosen one” trope and dabbing its toe in the good ol’ “the end justifies the means” issue. So yeah, the storyline was a pleasant surprise. The opening 10-15 hours made me expect something way more clichéd and mediocre, but once that previously mentioned turning point happens and the plot gets going, it just keeps going and never slows down.
Another praise-worthy aspect of ARF is the battle system. It’s turn-based with customizable auto-battle functions, but what’s more interesting is how it treats special attacks. For example, magic in this game is super limited. Like, in the beginning of the game you’ll have like 2 or 3 MP. That’s two or three uses before you’re out. Really. You’re able to upgrade this, but I think it only goes up to 9. What’s more, there are separate MP values for your four levels of spells, so, for example, if you want to cast a Lv3 Fire spell, you need to have Lv3 mana. I enjoyed how magic served as sort of a last-resort type of resource that you’d usually have to conserve and save for boss fights; instead, most of your fighting will be carried out via character-specific skills (both offensive and defensive) that consume a certain gauge that can be filled up by dishing out/receiving damage. So basically, the battle system is built upon the balance of a flexible gauge and the rigid MP levels, which is a pretty neat system, overall. It kinda reminds me of how SaGa games separated HP (health points) from LP (life points), if you’re familiar with that series.
Weapon customization also plays a fairly key role. It’s basically Tetris. Weapons don’t have stats, only specific unique skills that define them, which you can then further customize by inserting Tetris block-shaped gems into their slots. Some of these Tetris gems give stat bonuses like Atk+5, while others trigger a unique effect (for example, restorative items will heal more, etc.). If you manage to 100% fill out a weapon’s slots with carefully placed Tetris blocks, you’ll unlock its hidden bonus, which will further enhance your characters. Anyway, the key is finding the weapon and the Tetris blocks that work best for your particular needs.
In battle, you can also perform various trinity attacks by unleashing three special attacks in a row with three characters, and honestly, this is something you’ll have to get used to pulling off, because it’s going to save your life in many a bossfight. You really have to wait for your opportunity and plan out when to launch a combo attack for maximum potential damage, otherwise you’ll just be chipping away at the boss’s HP. The battlefield is also littered with various elemental crystals that enhance your magic: so for example, if there’s a fire crystal (or crystals) nearby, your fire spells will become more powerful. Great, right? Well, here’s the kicker: enemies take advantage of them, too. Which means that in certain circumstances, the right strategy is actually to destroy said crystals before the boss makes use of them and mops the floor with you via a powered-up spell. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, y’see.
And now, with the subtlety of Arnold Schwarzenegger when he said he’d be back and then drove through the police station’s entrance with a truck in the first Terminator, here’s an out-of-nowhere segment about some stuff I didn’t like:
1. Backtracking. As in, going back to the same towns for the nth time for a plot event. Bleh. 2. Guild side quests. They’re mostly bland MMO-esque “go here, kill 15 of this” type of quests, but thankfully, you can skip them, and besides, there’s plenty other optional content in the game, including arena fights, a casino, and even a bonus dungeon. 3. Not being able to actually explore the interiors of NPC homes. Instead, you just get a visual novel-esque segment with a static background and text. 4. Adele. 5. Costumes being (almost) completely useless. They only change the character’s portrait on the stat menu, and have no effect on their in-game model. Some of them are pretty cute, though (I especially liked Cecille’s detective outfit), which makes it even more disappointing that we couldn’t see them in 3D.
At the end of the day, though, Arc Rise Fantasia is a genuinely good game. It’s like a cook who was given some pretty average base ingredients to work with, but with a bit of creativity and honest effort, managed to turn it into a notably above average dish. Sure, the classic JRPG tropes are there, the “X was actually Y! Gasp!” types of twists also happen, there’s even a silly love triangle… but hey, it keeps you engaged and entertained from start to finish. The battle system is solid and the bosses are refreshingly challenging, though a few of them can be a bit too much, which might lead to frustration or some people quitting before the end. And I can’t even blame them, since some of the late-game bosses are just… brutal. Hell, even I got stuck on the final boss and still haven’t beaten it at the time of writing this (before you ask: I just watched the ending cutscene on Youtube…). But if you’re the type that refuses to give up, if you want a surprisingly decent storyline where stuff actually keeps happening (after the first 10-15 hours, at any rate), and don’t mind getting stomped into the ground a few times by tough-as-nails bosses, Arc Rise Fantasia is going to be worth your time.