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The Beginning of Something Great
By: Paul Koehler
In the not-so-distant past, the TRPG subgenre was limited to a small number of releases by companies which often put the games on an extremely limited run. Not any longer. With the phenomenal success of Nippon Ichi's Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, new distributor Mastiff decided to bank on the attributes of the Marl series of games and localized its prequel, La Pucelle: Tactics, for North American release. Comparisons with the former title are inevitable, and while La Pucelle is lacking in several areas, fans of challenging TRPGs will be glad to know that it delivers as an impressive title on its own right. This is all the more incredible due to the fact that it is actually Disgaea's prequel, having been released in Japan in January 2002.
La Pucelle: Tactics is played in a chapter format, where the party progresses through the story in individual battles that can be replayed indefinitely. While the 2D isometric format present in most modern TRPGs is there, it is limited as some maps intentionally do not allow 360 degree rotation, which can be cumbersome for placing units. Up to eight party members can be on the field at once, and adjacent characters can combine their efforts in combination attacks. La Pucelle shares a remarkable similarity to the Fire Emblem series once attacks are executed, as the view switches to a separate screen where the opposing parties duke it out. As part of this, the defending team always counterattacks. This causes players to consider whether to send a weak character against a monster that could easily kill it. Unlike Disgaea, all characters involved in a winning fight split the experience, regardless of whether they were able to damage the enemy or not.
Enemy AI is still laughable, although it follows some cardinal rules of TRPG combat: attacks from behind and higher elevations do more damage and the weaker characters are usually the first to be targeted. In addition to standard attacks, special abilities and skills are used to significant effect, and their effectiveness increases with each use. Physical abilities like Coup de Grace and King Slash can be used without an enemy counterattack, as can spells like Saint and Giga Fire. Rounding out battles is the presence of Dark Portals, which can be used and exploited as necessary. The main characters and some monsters have the ability to purify these portals, which seal them and level up all that particular character's items. Also, any enemies standing in the path of a purified portal will be damaged by its destruction. While these portals can be ignored, they will spawn new enemies, and also provide penalties to characters that stand with in their path. However, these paths can be used to the party's advantage in the form of Miracle attacks. These can be executed by purifying a chain of portals surrounding an area of at least 15 squares, and they are devastating to boot.
Character customization is open-ended, although each individual is best suited to a particular group of talents; physically inclined members can use magic, although they won't be particularly good at it. Monsters can also be captured and used as key members of the party, and if trained properly, they can help out with purifying portals as well. While characters do level with experience points, statistics are also leveled by equipping various items, which provide boosts to a character's speed, strength, intelligence, and the like. Directly related to these statistics are abilities that provide benefits to the characters, which can be used either in an attack or provide side benefits like extra movement or regenerative abilities.
All of these abilities can be had thanks to a wide smorgasbord of items, which can be bought through the famous Rosenqueen Co. Want a ridiculously overpowered attacker? Equip him or her with four weapons, and your attack stat will rise to ridiculous levels. It's entirely possible for characters to be wearing four swords and no armor, or four pairs of shoes for a ridiculously fast runner in the Dark World. This level of customization proves especially useful for some of the optional bosses in the game, which require optimal use of all of the characters' abilities.
For all of the features that the battle system has, the presentation of La Pucelle is decidedly low-key, especially compared with other PS2 titles. In the main town, the party moves through areas in a 2D environment, and that takes away a lot from the game. Graphics are also decidedly sub-par when compared to other efforts on the console, although the individual artwork for the characters is good.
This is appropriate considering the storyline of the game, which is much more substantial than Disgaea. RPGamers play as Prier, a novice demon hunter that works for "La Pucelle", a special unit attached to the Divine Church of the Holy Maiden. She is accompanied by her little brother Cullotte, and her mentor, Sister Alouette. Many cutscenes are devoted to explaining the relationship between these three and the various characters they meet throughout the game, and it's a rather fun plot, albeit with some serious moments and an impressive twist near the end.
Complementing La Pucelle's story is a wonderful soundtrack, with many familiar tracks from (or should we say continued in) Disgaea. Composer Tenpei Sato has been with the Marl series since Rhapsody, and he produces some of his best tracks here, especially the Dark World theme. The opening and ending themes are arguably some of the most touching so far this year. Following a wonderful trend started by the .hack series, RPGamers have the option of listening to the game with either English or Japanese voices. The English dub may be a bit much at times, but Mastiff should be commended for putting together a relatively talented cast considering their limited budget.
Sadly, that limited budget was also a main factor in their decision to "modify" some aspects of the game for North American audiences. These modifications were artistic in nature, but they stick out pretty badly at times. For instance, one of the characters, Croix, had his cigarette removed, but it is still obvious when he puts his hand to his mouth after battles. Also, crosses are non-existent in the North American release, being wiped out in everything from Alouette's earrings to Prier's staff. These edits are understandable due to the omnipresent threat of lawsuits, although the material is hardly as controversial as some previous RPGs seen in recent years, and the mere fact that they had to be made is a disappointment.
All cynicism aside, the fact that Mastiff even decided to go ahead with the localization of La Pucelle is a great sign for TRPG fans everywhere. It is perhaps a little unfair to judge this game in comparison to Disgaea, as La Pucelle is its immediate predecessor. However, this is a great addition to the series and a game worth picking up if you are a fan of the genre. With two optional bosses, a ridiculously difficult secret boss in the Cave of Trials, and a compelling story, La Pucelle has brought Nippon Ichi another winner in North America.
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