Version tested: PSP
The Independent recently reported on a survey's findings that 50% of the British public do not believe in the historical reality of William Wallace. The same survey revealed 57% of UK citizens think King Arthur was real, 27% are convinced Sherwood Forest really was once darkened by a Robin Hood, while a small, but endearingly hopeful 5% believe Conan the Barbarian actually existed. One percent (that's around 607, 762 people if we do the maths for you) apparently believe the TV series Xena the Warrior Princess is a biopic.
Far more terrifyingly than all of this, 11% of Britons are certain Adolf Hitler is a fictional character, a more shameful display of ignorance and damning indictment of the British populace one can scarce imagine outside of Southend high-street on a Saturday night.
Concerned historians hoping that Level 5's latest Strategy PSP, focused upon the life and times of 15th Century French freedom Fighter Joan of Arc might help redress our pitiful lack of knowledge of this country's past will be sorely disappointed.
The game plots the story of how the young King Henry VI was possessed by a legion of demons summoned by the incantations of a wild-eyed Duke of Bedford. While the Duke of Bedford was the man responsible for burning a 19-year-old Joan of Arc at the stake for heresy there's been a mighty dollop of creative license in painting him as an occultist mastermind - particularly one whom can only be defeated by way of a magical gold amulet and a talking frog. Who says videogames are lowbrow?
Jeanne D'Arc is a Strategy RPG, which for the uninitiated, is a type of game that requires its player to manoeuvre a handful of troops, turn by turn around a grid-based environment in an effort to overcome an opposing handful of AI controlled units. The game's visuals are, as you might expect coming from Level 5, sumptuous and colourful but the underlying mechanics are decidedly vanilla to veterans of the genre. There is none of Nippon Ichi's extrovert complexity here and the game is far closer (and in many ways more conservative) than the decade old Final Fantasy Tactics which also debuts shortly on the handheld.
But that isn't necessarily cause for concern because the mechanics the game is built upon are mature in the sense of being solid and reliable rather than rusty and broken. Which is just as well as there's not much else to hold your attention here: no multiplayer modes, mini-games or bonus quests to distract your attention from delivering the French people from the tyrannical grip of a boisterous and demonically augmented English military. Instead, you work your way from point to point on the London tube-like interconnected map, driving the narrative forward with cutscenes before playing out the self-contained mission. It's possible to revisit stages to level up your 14 characters in between the main thrust of the story but this will not be necessary for the most part as the game is, to put it bluntly, easy.
That's not to say it's not fun and doesn't require some strategising (after all, this is the reviewer who beat the director of Final Fantasy Tactics in a head-to-head match in Japan earlier this year -- though we don't like to mention it all the time or anything). Turns are, in the Advance Wars style, divided into two parts. You move a unit then you choose an action which is then immediately executed. Actions vary from the delivery of a potion to heal a teammate through to the jabbing of a man in the neck with your spear. Whatever you choose for your move you earn experience points which then level up your character making them stronger. Once you fell an enemy, he'll probably leave behind some money with which you can purchase some stronger armour and sharper weaponry.
The deeper level mechanics are equally straightforward. When you attack an enemy the square behind the target aquires a swirling animation. Manoeuvre another character into this mini-tornado and they'll gain a temporary attack upgrade. Attack an enemy from behind and you'll inflict greater damage while positioning your characters next to each other will earn a defence up in a very, very diluted take on Nippon Ichi's work in Disgaea.
Characters also have skill slots which you can fill with spells or specific special moves. These skill moves require the use of MP which, contrary to convention, must be built up from the start of a stage, each move you make filling your gauge bit by bit. Lead protagonist Joan can, in another example of the developer taking a liberal view of history, change form into a Valkyrie-like angel of death once per match. This transformation allows her an extra move per turn should she fell an enemy and generally makes her hard as 6-month-old brie.
Environments are bright and lush and look fantastic on the machine. Animations are a little disappointing, displaying a weightless but overly exact quality that bespeaks tight budgets and short deadlines. Nevertheless, the overall look and feel of the game is exemplary and the a-hoh-hee-hon French voice acting does a good job of pulling you in to the narrative to the point where you'll soon be siding with the French underclass as they rail against the evil bastard invading Brits. The music is good but not nearly as good as Final Fantasy Tactics' and, while this game stands out as the stronger title visually in a direct comparison, almost every other element pales next to the majesty of Square's forthcoming classic.
That said, this is an excellent videogame. The Strategy RPG suits travelling play very well and, the easy going, clear and detailed presentation make Jeanne D'Arc an excellent buy for the PSP. Unfortunately that mightn't be so easy. The news last week that Sony has dropped the game for European release, forcing gamers to import the multiregional US version, is sad. This is exactly the kind of title the system needs to be promoting, even if, in all likelihood, it wouldn't sell very well.
But for those willing to put a little effort in to tracking down a copy this is a worthwhile experience. The storyline, while clearly bonkers, makes a refreshing change to the standard RPG fare, if only because it draws at least superficially, on historical characters and events. Likewise the mechanics are deep enough to be enjoyable for veterans while also serving as an excellent introduction to what is one of gaming's least approachable genres. If nothing else, at least the game might account for some decidedly more colourful and rip-roaring GCSE coursework in the coming months.
7 / 10