27 Oct, 2007

Luminous Arc Review

DS Review | A less than glowing experience.
Turn-based strategy role playing games are the one of the many cross-over genres created through the drug-induced ravings of designers struggling for new ideas. Rather than create something truly new or innovative, it’s frequently easier to just take a number of different genres, spawn a mutant mash-up, and hope for the best. While Final Fantasy Tactics is probably the most well known in this space, the genre continues to expand, fueled by publishers hoping to capitalise on a relatively unpopulated niche. Unfortunately, not all attempts are that successful. Luminous Arc is one of those, not quite bad enough to be painful, but frustrating enough to miss out on what could have been quite a good game.

The story is your fairly standard manga / anime fare. There’s various guys with spiky hair, various schoolgirlish cutesy witches, various women with improbably large bodily features that seem not to be able to afford decent clothing – pretty much the usual. Without spoiling the plot too much, it’s a rather predictable tale of individuals with hidden pasts, misguided leaders, unintentional enemies, and unfairly based discrimination. If your literary knowledge is based on Pokémon, there may actually be some surprises in here. Otherwise, one could probably substitute any number of other games without even noticing.

The story follows the experiences of the Garden Children, kids assigned by the Luminous Church to defend the realm against the evils of various Witches (capitalisation deliberate, natch), monsters, or other ne’erdowells. One would think that given the apparently massive threat these Witches present to the dominant institutional religion (complete with cardinals, knights, and numerous largely faceless monks), they might think about assigning someone with some battle experience to defending the land. Just make sure you’re ready for dialog. As in, lots of it. One wonders whether the developers played Super Paper Mario and thought, ‘You know what would have really made this game? More dialog. There just isn’t enough – Nintendo really missed an opportunity here …’

Intermissions actually provide a small break from the dialog ...

Intermissions actually provide a small break from the dialog ...
Advancing the story involves moving from location to location on the overall map, guided by limited paths and flashing signs effectively saying ‘this way to keep playing’. Should one feel like exploring the backstory or achieving various sidequests, it’s possible to backtrack and revisit areas, either to grind, have conversations with individuals to flesh out the story, conduct ‘research’ by reading books in various libraries, and so on. It isn’t necessary to beat the game, but it does extend the gameplay experience, should that be what one’s looking for.

The majority of the game proper takes place on a three dimensional, isometric battlefield. Characters are chosen for deployment and then controlled turn by turn, variously commanded to attack, move, cast spells, or use items. There’s the now very standard normal attacks, damage / healing / area attack spells, healing items (vitamints, apparently), and super attacks (the strangely titled ‘flash drives’) – anyone who’s played an RPG / turn-based strategy game from the last five years is going to feel right at home. Characters do differ in their core skills, classes, and abilities, but with a few notable exceptions, where they start is where they stay, albeit a little stronger over time. Every 100 experience points gained through the use of spells and dealing damage leads to another level, as regular as clockwork. In practice, this actually encourages riskier gameplay, as it’s very possibly to find oneself in a situation where an additional 22 experience points could be difference between pushing through and defeating a cluster of enemies or being taken down.

Unfortunately, the interface is somewhat lacking, especially given what it could have been. While we’re still waiting for the killer DS application to take RTS games to a new level, and while there have been some good attempts at using the touchscreen to provide truly intuitive controls such as Age of Empires: The Age of Kings, we have yet to get a StarCraft-class release. And, given Luminous Arc, we’re still waiting. In principle, how could the using the touchscreen possibly go wrong? You touch what you want to move, you choose where you want them to go, and you end your turn. Simple, right?

Unfortunately, not quite. There’s a noticeable delay at times between trying to select units and menu items and actually selecting them, significant enough to be consistently frustrating. And while an isometric perspective is the easiest way of representing a three dimensional playing field, it’s not necessarily the most effective way of actually selecting units via a touchscreen interface. While this reviewer may not be the most coordinated person around, the number of times he merrily slaughtered his teammates by accident in the heat of battle was depressingly high - when characters start hiding behind each other, it's a little hard to click on the one in the back. While some may eventually get the hang of the touchscreen interface, sadly, it seems more efficient and accurate to simply disable the touchscreen entirely and move across to solely using the d-pad and buttons. Unfortunately, it’s an either-or situation – one can either use the touchscreen interface, or one can use the d-pad. While a combination would have been appreciated (helping to quick-select menu items), apparently it was too difficult to implement.

Feel like slaughtering an ally? We've got you covered ...

Feel like slaughtering an ally? We've got you covered ...
The in-game sound actually achieves something quite novel in a DS game – it may make players feel like they’ve suddenly had their DS replaced with a PSP. Roughly a fifth of the game actually features spoken dialog, with almost all major scenes voiced by surprisingly competent voice actors. While it isn’t quite Hamlet, it’s noticeably better than most games. Otherwise, the sound is pretty much forgettable.

Overall, while Luminous Arc definitely isn’t a bad game, it just doesn’t quite achieve enough cohesion to really work. On the bright side, the story has a reasonable degree of technical delivery, thanks mainly to the voice dialog. While the plot won’t surprise anyone other than the most inexperienced gamer / anime watcher, it sure beats the heck out of the vast majority of offerings on the DS as far as story is concerned. The levels are difficult enough to encourage strategy, but the failure to include an autosave function is simply inexcusable in today’s games. On the down side, there are significant interface control issues, rendering the DS largely a glorified Game Boy Advance. And, while the game promises some degree of character customisation, it never really delivers – what you see is pretty much what you get. The levelling up is regular and provides an interesting gameplay mechanic thanks to the immediate healing it provides, but it just isn’t complex enough to offer anything other than what amounts to a largely linear, easily optimised gameplay experience.

Luminous Arc is one of those games that promises a lot and almost delivers. There’s far worse out there, but in the end, it doesn’t amount to either a genre defining game nor a must-have. What it does amount to is a quite enjoyable, if linear, Final Fantasy Tactics clone, one that may not be quite as polished, but one that also provide enough length and challenge to keep most gamers entertained. It’s one of those games that some will probably end up swearing by, most who are into the genre will probably enjoy, and a few will probably raise very valid reasons for strongly disliking it. Rent it before you buy it, but do check it out.
The Score
It's clichéd, it's hokey, and the design could have been far better - while nothing's individually or overly poor, the package just doesn't quite work. It isn't a failure, and it will appeal to some, but with the glut of DS games now available, there's better out there.
Looking to buy this game right now? PALGN recommends www.Play-Asia.com.

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  Pre-order or buy:
    PALGN recommends: www.Play-Asia.com

Australian Release Date:
  18/10/2007 (Confirmed)
Standard Retail Price:
  $69.95 AU
  Red Ant
  Action RPG
Year Made:

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