Let's get this out the door first, as for the many would-be portable adventurers out there, Lord of Arcana will almost certainly be a hard quest to swallow. Developed by Access Games and published by Square Enix, Lord of Arcana is an action adventure title for the PSP that's heavily mixed with RPG elements, class and weapon based level progression and your cut-out greenhorn-becomes-hero story.
Lord of Arcana follows the tale of an adventurer that has been chosen to fulfil the prophecy of becoming the one to wield the powers of the almighty Arcana, mythical stones imbued with powers untold. The story is a weak one at best, to say the least, and merely acts as a catalyst for pushing the game forward. It's not engaging in the slightest. So those looking for a great story-driven adventure may probably want to look elsewhere. After a brief cutscene describing the ancient story of a ruler from another world that came and conquered the monsters of the land of Horodyn in a mere nine days before vanishing without a trace, players are promptly thrown into the character creation menu where they can create their own custom adventurer.
The character creation tool is as standard as they come, players cycle through a plethora of preset faces, hair and whatnot before deciding on a weapon class of their choice. Choosing a weapon won't set it in stone for the rest of the game as it can be changed whenever players feel the burning desire to try something new. There are five weapon classes, each with their own supposed unique qualities. Swords are fast but deal little damage; great swords are heavier and slower, but deal quite a bit of damage; maces are somewhere in between; axes have a farther reach and deal the most damage and finally, the pole-arms, which fire range projectiles.
The game holds nothing back and immediately puts players into the thick of the action. Starting off in a cold, musty looking cave, players are treated to a quick glimpse of what the latter parts of the game will offer. Starting off with a higher level, weapon and magic proficiency and even being equipped with an ultimate spell, you'll definitely feel slightly overpowered. However, this is all soon taken away once the boss of the dungeon - a Master Guardian - is defeated. It's all part of the story where you lose all your memories and skills of a great adventurer as a sacrifice for being transported to the lands of Horodyn, where the quaint little town will act as your main hub of activity.
With such an incredibly uninspiring plot, you'd think that the game would excel in other aspects like gameplay mechanics, character progression and customization. Being very quest-driven, players can pick up a variety of quests at the town's guild house or hook up with other players to take on a quest via local ad-hoc.
However, Lord of Arcana's game design simply feels uninspired. Players can explore dungeons that are sectioned off into smaller areas, although there really isn't much to explore in the first place since the majority of the game's level design is disappointingly barren. Worse still, battles do not take place on the field map, instead players will have to come into contact with monsters before being transported to a large circular arena where the actual battle takes place. Unfortunately, this really takes away from the dungeon crawling experience as the environment and level design no longer plays any real role in combat. Instead, players are restricted to a generic circular field where they can run circles around monsters.
The combat also feels really sloppy and sluggish. Combos can be performed, but the timing feels so nit-picky that most will likely end up button mashing instead. Proper combos can be executed by hitting the attack button the moment the prior attack lands a hit, but as I said, it's so finicky that it just doesn't work most of the time. Moreover, while there is a quick dash evade manoeuvre, that too doesn't work as well as you'd think, usually resulting in laggy evades and loss of health.
In addition to normal attacks, players are armed with what the game calls Battle Arts, special abilities that deal more damage in more stylish attacks. This eats up stamina, represented by the Pulse gauge. Run out of steam and you won't be hitting anything for a while. Players can also cast magic spells, depending on what magic card is currently equipped. Holding down the circle button ensures a powerful spell with area of effect. Hit an enemy long enough while locked on activates a one-button quick-time event called a Coup de Grace. It's a finishing move that varies depending on monster types. For Master Guardians, the Coup de Grace is separated into two segments. Deal enough damage to a boss and you'll enter a Melee Dual mode where you mash the circle button to fill up a gauge as much as you can in order to deal massive damage. The final part involves some impressive acrobatic manoeuvres and attacks via a quick-time event. This is really one of the only highlights of the game's combat.
Character progression is separated into three main categories: character level, weapon and magic proficiency. With more use of a particular weapon type, the more proficient you'll become and the more damage and combos you can deal. The same idea applies to magic proficiency.
Despite, the sluggish controls, there is a certain charm to the game's customization. Although not as deep as the competition, there is still an attraction to harvesting loot in order to build your armour and weapons. Equipment can also be enhanced further by gathering the necessary items. However, in order to make equipment and weapons, you'll need Monster Cores, gems converted from the remains of a specific monster fought in an area of the map where Arcana power is especially strong - these areas pop up at random during quests, making culling these cores more of a chore than anything else. In addition, it isn't guaranteed that the conversion process will be successful, resulting in a glorious explosion of blood and flesh.
Speaking of which, the game is not shy on the gore as pretty much all monsters explode into bloody clumps of fresh meat when felled by your blade. The visuals themselves aren't especially impressive, with disappointingly bland and generic level designs. The monsters, on the other hand, have relatively interesting designs with Master Guardians based on both Western and Eastern mythologies. However, the game lacks variation when it comes to the more common cave monster that appears to inhabit the majority of dungeons.
One of the game's saving graces is its musical score. Composed partly by Nobuo Uematsu and Hitoshi Sakimoto, there is a great balance of contemporary rock and epic orchestral scores. There are points in the game that sound reminiscent of epic fantasy tales like Lord of the Rings and most of Square Enix's Ivalice based titles like Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. It is unfortunate that the experience is hampered greatly by the disappointing gameplay and cut-out plot.
As mentioned earlier, Lord of Arcana is just a difficult adventure to swallow. There is certainly potential for great things in what it tries to achieve, but simply falls short of delivering that epic experience thanks to its sloppy and sluggish controls and overall bland and uninspiring design. Kudos to the lovely musical score and blend of both Western and Eastern aesthetics, however it is simply not enough to warrant a purchase when there are better titles on the PSP. It's a tough cookie to recommend, and unless you have the extra cash and nothing else on your PSP queue at the moment, or you have a burning desire for a dungeon crawling experience heavy on character customization, it's probably better to just ignore Lords of Arcana.