Ever wonder what it would have been like to balk authority in medieval France, and lead a religious revolution? Well, now you have the opportunity in the new tactical RPG from same great developers who brought us Dark Cloud. Jeanne d’Arc places players in control of the legendary battle maid, as she leads her friends and followers against orcs, gnolls, monsters, and English oppression.
The story opens with Jeanne and friends enjoying the fruits of a successful harvest at their village festival. Jeanne leaves to visit a nearby church, where she happens upon a dying knight. The knight bequeaths a sword and magic armlet to Jeanne, just as his attackers show up to finish the job. As Jeanne turns to face the monstrous attackers, she notices that they are lead by an English soldier. It is at this point that we have to pleasure of diving headfirst into a remarkably well done tactical RPG.
Combat follows the tried and tested method of most tactical RPGs. Battles take place in settings ranging from sequester churches and forests to French hamlets and even capital cities. A grid map appears over each level, allowing characters to see just how far they can move, as well as indicating what areas certain special abilities will affect. Each side of the conflict takes turns moving all of their characters in whatever sequence they wish. Characters may move twice, but can only move once if they wish to attack. Each level or mission has specific requirements for its completion, ranging from destroying all enemies to making siege and gaining access to certain areas, or making it to an escape point within a certain amount of time.
Characters in Jeanne d’Arc gain experience and level up as they progress through the game. With each level, characters gain bonuses to a number of different attributes that contribute to their effectiveness in combat, total Hit Points and Magic Points, and their ability to cast spells. Characters gain experience in a number of different ways. Each successful attack or use of a magical ability or skill grants the user a modest sum of experience, which is then in turn modified by a couple of different factors. For instance, if the target of an attack is a higher level than the character, more points are awarded. Similarly, if the target is lower level, then fewer points are received. Causing the deathblow to an individual also grants a higher sum of experience points to be bestowed upon the lucky warrior who lands this critical hit. Characters also gain experience points just for being involved in a battle, and are awarded for their efforts upon the completion of the level.
Skills, Spells and Special abilities are handled in Jeanne d’Arc in much the same way they are in other tactical RPGs. Similar to the critically acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics, skills and magic spells are accessible to characters through the use of equip-able items and stones. These stones grant the user access to the spell or ability they contain, requiring only an open slot to be equipped in and a modest amount of magic points. This system enhances replay quite a bit, as you will often find these stones left behind by vanquished enemies. This, along with experience points, gives greater reason to replay levels the player has already conquered. More levels, more equipment, more skills. Definitely a win-win situation.
As players progress through the single player storyline, more map locations become available for exploration. Each location contains an initial encounter which propels the story forward, as well as rewarding the player for their efforts. Additionally, these areas can often be re-visited. Upon returning to the site of a previous battle, the player will often find more monsters and other enemies lurking about. This provides a perfect system for leveling up characters and gaining additional equipment for use in those tough battles that we have all run in to.
Over the course of the campaign, many characters flock to Jeanne banner and become part of her Retinue of warriors. Although players initially only have access to Jeanne herself, within a few levels she is joined by many more characters, each with their own personalities and abilities. Once your cast of characters reaches a certain roster size, you won’t normally be able to use everyone in a battle. The average party size for each encounter seems to be fixed at 5, although for later stages I would be surprised if this still proved to be true.
Jeanne is a very unique character in and of herself.
The mystical and holy armlet that she acquires in the first stage of the game serves many purposes beyond just driving the story. The armlet gives Jeanne access to many powers. One of the initial powers involves calling on the armlets power to encase Jeanne in a suit of holy armor. Not only does this have the effect of raising the armor class of Jeanne; it also bestows another ability on her as long as the armor is maintained. Whenever Jeanne strikes a deathblow while in the armor, she gets to move again. Thus, a strategic player can set the stage for Jeanne to invoke the power of her armor, and then through successive moves and deathblow, clear the entire enemy force in just one turn. Although this sounds extremely powerful, it does take some thinking to use to its full potential. Additionally, the armor may only be called upon once per battle, and it only lasts for a set number of turns.
Graphically speaking, Jeanne D’Arc is middle of the road. While it is no slouch in the visual department, it is certainly nothing to write home to your mother about either. Characters are somewhat reminiscent of the bobble-head models that adorn many a dashboard. This is not unheard of in the tactical RPG genre. Levels are well done, offering graphics that reflect the local well. The configuration on each level also offers players many strategic decisions to make, based on where choke points are, where their escape route lies, and through control of higher elevations. Elevation not only affects how a unit can move, but also provides bonuses in combat; thus management of this is key to victory.
All in all, Jeanne d’Arc surprised me. I began playing expecting a hum-drum experience along the same lines as LOTR: Tactics. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. The battle system takes a well-refined formula and tightens it, allowing for ease of use as well as strategic depth. The storyline isn’t passable, and with the addition of animé cut scenes to help move it along, it does an adequate job of engaging the player. Bringing together history and fantasy, Jeanne d’Arc could very well be a sleeper hit for the PSP this year.