Version tested: PSP
Arise, amnesiac hero, the time has come! For you are the Chosen One, and it's down to you to defeat the eight guardians of the power of Arcana so that you can rule the realm. I'm deeply disappointed that a story so distressingly normal could emerge from the studio behind Deadly Premonition.
Lord of Arcana very consciously casts itself in the Phantasy Star/Monster Hunter mould of multiplayer-friendly monster-slaying action games. You head out on quests, tooled up with weapons and armour crafted from slain enemies, and attempt to stick your sword through a range of ever-bigger and toothier boss monsters. There is nothing wrong with what it's trying to do; Monster Hunter hasn't had a real competitor in years, and Arcana initially looks like it might be a more accessible, action-orientated take on the formula rather than a rip-off. Initially.
The illusion is short-lived. Lord of Arcana pulls one of the dirtiest tricks in gaming by giving you a glimpse of power and then taking it all away. The opening level sends you, clad in shimmering steel and a blue cape, after a massive dragon, and the combat system seems really promising.
There are six interesting weapon classes and pounding them into the dragon's various limbs sends up showers of blood. Finishing moves explode smaller monsters satisfyingly into crimson gobbets of gore, and quick-time-event duels cause massive damage to the bigger ones. Praise be, there's even a lock-on – though it's a bit choosy about what it targets.
But then, after that brief taste, you're predictably dumped into a village in shorts and a grubby t-shirt, and Lord of Arcana begins to display a chronic lack of ingenuity. Everything down to the character models is strikingly reminiscent of Monster Hunter, but instead of a bustling little village with pigs in babygros and merchants offering bug juice and swords, there's a desk for quests, a desk for the blacksmith, a desk for items and nothing else at all.
This bland functionality extends to the quest environments, too, which are sequences of connected corridors, usually inside a cave, dotted with unexceptional monsters. There's no living ecology, no beautiful waterfalls or natural vistas. Even the big bosses are a boring compromise between Japanese and Western fantasy aesthetics.
But there are deeper problems. On closer examination, the combat system is much more limited than it first seemed.
Lord of Arcana passively levels your weapons up as well as your character, unlocking new abilities at arbitrary points. This would be a good way of drip-feeding new special moves, perhaps, but even your most basic abilities are reliant on that invisible number, making the game practically unplayable at the beginning. You can't even swing an axe twice in a row until you've improved your weapon proficiency by killing imps and goblins. As for six-hit combos and all those magic spells, they're hours away.
And should you ever fancy a weapon change to liven up boring between-boss hunting quests – perhaps a quick go on a gunlance or a mace instead of a greatsword – you're back to square one, unable to muster up so much as a two-hit combo until you've trawled around in caves for an hour or two. The game cripples you for wanting to try something new.
And you'll be desperate for something new. If you persist with Lord of Arcana, combat starts to warm up again, but that just makes you realise that it was never all that good to begin with. There's an enduring lack of interesting monsters to fight or enviable weapons to poke them with. Crafting relies upon materials that only have a slim chance of appearing after you chase pathetic enemies around the map into specific 'Arcana zones'. There's just no reward for the grind - it's like saving up your wages for months and months for a new car and only being able to afford a second-hand Ford Fiesta.
It's not even particularly difficult at any point – just repetitious. A chirpy, well-translated script offers occasional moments of levity, but otherwise it's grind, grind, grind, and the process is slow.
Enemies run around free-range during quests, but you're put into a separate circular arena for combat, breaking up the flow with loading and a cut-scene every time you accidentally bump into a skeleton. Over hours of play, those seconds of wasted time add up. If I'd picked up a book for 10 seconds at the beginning and end of every single fight instead of hammering X through the battle intro in irritation, I might have finally finished Gravity's Rainbow by now.
You might have noticed that I've not commented on how Lord of Arcana works in multiplayer – that's because it's been impossible to test. Lord of Arcana doesn't have online multiplayer. I'm willing to bet that if I can't find anybody else to get together with for a game when many of my friends play the things for a living, you won't be able to either.
Playing Lord of Arcana has made me acutely aware of the differences between games that embrace the grind and games that abuse it. Certainly, you have to kill the same beasts more than a few times in Monster Hunter, but doing so sharpens your abilities. You have to repeat yourself a lot in Demon's Souls, but every time you fail, you learn something. These games limit you not by your level, but by your skill, goading you into bettering yourself. Grinding should be about improving your playing instincts, not arbitrary numbers on a character sheet.
Lord of Arcana, though, holds things back from you for hours with no good reason, and in doing do it destroys the appeal of the games it's trying to emulate. All the components are there – the quest structure, the big monsters, the oversized weapons and screens full of trinkets looted from dead goblins – but all the challenge and complexity are gone, leaving behind an abandoned shell.
Lord of Arcana isn't all that bad, really, but it certainly isn't good. It's barely got any good ideas, and the few it does have are not its own. It could have been a Monster Hunter Lite, with more emphasis on big bosses and gory finishing moves and less on collecting raptor talons and moss to make into a hat – but instead it's just a hollow, characterless echo of the game it's trying to be.
5 / 10