Jeanne d'Arc - Staff Review  

Vive la France!
by Jesse Cherry

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Very Difficult
25-35 Hours
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   Who would have ever thought that England's invasion of France was due to Henry VI being possessed by a demon? While this theory is absent from local high school textbooks, it is the fanciful premise of Level 5's turn-based RPG for the PSP, Jeanne d'Arc.

   Obviously from the title of the game, players follow the life of Jeanne, or Joan for the American readers, as she tries to free France from England's tyranny and their demon king. Jeanne is imbued with a magic armlet and the voice of what she thinks to be a divine being. According to history, Jeanne believed that this was the voice of God, but the truth is slightly more heretical. Sacrilegious plot points aside, Jeanne d'Arc's idea of taking a historical story and putting a fantasy twist on it is a fantastic premise, the only problem being that it stumbles with the execution. Much of the political intrigue in the game is simplified due to the stereotypical fantasy solutions. While Level 5 is able to create a viable world where ogres and orcs fit, the game's best moments are when human emotion is mixed with politics.

   Jeanne d'Arc's story is adequate, but it is in the combat where the game hits its stride. From the overworld map players choose which location go to next. After picking a destination they are moved to a grid-based map where battles commence. Whereas in most RPGs, characters gain abilities through leveling up, Jeanne d'Arc takes a different approach. Abilities are acquired through equipping skill stones. Theses stones are placed into four different color categories: red, purple, green and blue. Red stones are special offensive abilities that are tied to certain equipment. Purple stones are abilities which are always active like counter, but also depend on the character's equipment. Green stones supply magic spells, and blue stones are status bonuses. Starting off characters can only equip three skills at once, but this number will increase to a maximum of six through gaining levels.

   New skill stones are acquired from killing enemies and finding hidden item squares on the map. Another way to increase your skill set is by using the technique called Skill-binding. Skill-binding is when two stones are mixed together to create a new ability. This has been a staple feature in almost all of Level 5's games. Much like in Rogue Galaxy, these skills are mixed together thanks to the help of a magical frog. It seems that this frog is quickly becoming Level 5's Samuel L. Jackson: he's in everything. With over one hundred abilities to choose from, the customization options are almost endless.

Seems to be an uneven match. Seems to be an uneven match.

   A very select few characters are also able to transform themselves with the help of a magical armlet. Once during each battle and when the character has enough SP, those equipped with these armlets can transform into "super" versions of themselves. When transformed they are given a special ability and increased stats. Each time one of these characters kills an enemy they gain an extra turn. These transformations do not last the entire battle however; most only last for two to three turns. One SP is gained each turn and it takes at least three to use this ability. This feature does not result in an easy game with overpowered characters. It is amazing that Level 5 was able to balance out these abilities, while keeping them useful at the same time.

   Jeanne d'Arc provides players with a cast of fourteen characters to choose from by the game's end. It is always nice to have a large selection of playable characters, but many of them only differ from each other by the look of their avatar. Characters can only equip a single weapon type, which differentiates themselves from others, but all characters within that same weapon class are nearly identical. Because of these similarities and along with slightly more powerful armlet toting heroes, the cast of fourteen does not provide that many combinations of different teams.

   Like in Fire Emblem, the game carries an element of rock-paper-scissors. Players can equip each character in their team with one of three gems: Luna, Stella, and Sol, each of which are weak and strong against one of the other stones. Equipping the right elements before battle is essential to victory. Choosing the wrong gem can result in an attack about as effective as France usually is at war. The variation in the strength of these stones forces the player to use every member of their team, rather than dominating the mission with a couple of overpowered soldiers.

   Two tactics that really require players to utilize all characters on the map are the Unified Guard system and the Burning Aura. When characters are within a small proximity of each other they will receive defense bonuses; this is the Unified Guard system. The problem with bunching everyone together for the defense bonus is that now they are susceptible to area attacks. When a player hits an enemy with a direct physical attack the square behind that enemy will start to glow, creating a Burning Aura. Engaging in combat while inside these spaces results in more powerful attacks. If a character is standing on a square that has an aura around it, they will be able to move with that bonus tied to that character. These attack bonuses can also be stacked to create an even stronger effect. This increase in strength only lasts for one turn, so players must plan out moves ahead of time to use this tactic effectively.

   Because of all of the little twists to the combat and the well thought out placement of enemies on each stage, Jeanne d'Arc's is one of the most challenging RPGs to date. Most of the difficulty provided by the game seems fair and can be overcome with well thought out strategies, but there are times that the game will be overly cruel and cheap to the point of agonizing frustration. When enemy reinforcements appear in most turn-based RPGs it is usually on the edge of the map, but this game ignores this formula. Sometimes a group of several enemies will appear directly on top of the player's characters without any clue that it was going to happen. When a game is so challenging that a single move can result in victory or defeat, unpredictable events are only irritating at the least. There are also occasions where hit percentages seem to lie. It is also very odd when in one battle an attack with over 95% misses several times. It is hard to say if the game cheats, but it does seem to use some weird form of percentages that do not make any mathematical sense. Those two points aside, the game play is truly some of the best out there.

Jeanne Jeanne's quite a looker.

   The combat is accompanied by some decent looking graphics, especially for the PSP. None of the animations for attacks or spells are aesthetically outstanding, but all skill moves have short animation times. This is essential for this genre, because seeing a two-minute Knights of the Round summon for the 20th time isn't a good formula for fun. There are occasionally moments that the game will stutter to spin the disk, but these pauses are short and do not effect the speed of gameplay significantly.

   The battle stages are also very well done. Almost every stage has a different look that fits well into the world Level 5 has created. The only problem players may run into is that sometimes there are random objects, like trees, on the map that are hard to see which square they take up. If an object is in a player's line of sight the game makes that object transparent. This usually works well but it can also throw off the player's depth perception. Sometimes a spot thought to be right next to an enemy is actually one that is in between a big oak tree and the opponent. Sadly, this game takes place before the beauty that is the paved parking lot so their are plenty of trees to get in the way. This problem can be avoided if the player has patience and uses the L and R buttons to check all angles of the battlefield, but who wants to do that? Double-Checking is for wimps.

   Most of the game's dialogue is purely text, but there is a large amount of anime cut scenes with full voice acting in them. These cartoon interludes are well drawn and break up the silence of text bubbles. The one issue with these cut scenes is that they often end at awkward times. A character will be in the middle of a speech and it will go from a fully animated voice-filled presentation, to stagnant gameplay graphics with silent text.

   The music in Jeanne d'Arc is excellent. Much of it is appropriately French themed and fits perfectly into the premise of the game. After playing the same battle several times, the same song can start to become slightly irritating. Most of the music is subtle enough so that it does not become grating to the ears.

   Jeanne d'Arc is a lengthy title that will take most players over 30 hours to finish. There are several side missions and a coliseum mode to compete in for bonus items and experience. The high difficulty may turn off some, but those looking for a real challenge that is both satisfying but may leave a few gray hairs, this is the perfect game.

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