La Pucelle Tactics PS2 Review
With strategy-RPGs being few and far between in the Western gaming library, the translation of aging PS2 title La Pucelle Tactics comes as a breath of fresh air. Following in the steps of Final Fantasy Tactics and (in the US at least) Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, the game has some stiff competition from these two highly polished titles. How does this title fare against these established competitors? Read on…
Cutesy colourful sprites dominate the game in the same vein as other strat-RPGs such as Disgaea: or FF:Tactics. While this never actually pushes the hardware to its limits, there is something undeniably appropriate about bold SNES-esque character artwork that suits the game down to a tee. Character profile pictures depicting emotions crop up beside the main dialogue boxes, which is a nice traditional touch.
The cut scenes feature the same artistic style, although some nice character artwork breaks up the formula. Sadly, for the most part the game does belie its relative age a little, and while the sprites don’t look out of place for the game at times they appear a little too fuzzy and dated, particularly when compared to Disgaea. Still, it is evident from the start that the emphasis is on gameplay rather than graphics, and so these remain minor niggles.
Your guide to the La Pucelle universe comes in the form of Prier, Demon-Hunter Extraordinaire (in her mind at least) and her comrades Culotte and Alouette. The team are recruits for the Church of the Holy Maiden, an organisation that deals with the exorcism of lost souls and the removal of other unpleasant beasties. Soon enough, the tale becomes one of corruption and drama, all compounded by the presence of the Angel Calamity and the Dark Prince who are hell-bent on wreaking destruction. While the story doesn’t reek of originality, it is carried out with a certain flair, and the enjoyable characters carry it all off nicely.
For anyone that hasn’t played a strategy RPG before, here’s a rundown of the basic game mechanics; battles take place on a grid, which may be made up of different levels with some squares taken up by obstacles. The goal is generally to move your characters in order to successfully defeat the enemy forces, all of which must be done within a certain amount of “moves”. The player and CPU take turns to move and attack with their characters, navigating terrain and danger until the scenario is completed. For this reason, planning is always the key; leaving a team-mate in a place where he can be surrounded and bombarded by enemy legions is never a good idea. Similarly, attacking enemies from behind or the side, or using elemental force against them, will all affect the flow of battle. La Pucelle differs slightly from the usual strat-RPG form in that the actual battles take place on a side-on arena, allowing for the best view of some of the special attacks. The RPG element hasn’t been forgotten here; winning battles levels up your characters, and even weapons can be boosted using the “Purification” ability which will be explained presently. Your team-mates, which can be obtained in the course of the game, are all selectable from a glowing “base panel” up to a maximum of 8; as each ally has different abilities, it pays to choose your backup wisely for each stage.
La Pucelle also features a rudimentary exploration system a lot like Disgaea, in which players may move around towns or buildings to a certain extent talking to characters and visiting shops. Unlike Disgaea, the system here is even more old-skool; your character can only move left and right, and so much move either above or below a character or door in order to “use” them. The exits to different areas can usually be accessed by moving to the edge of a scene. This gets a bit fiddly at times, as sometimes it can be difficult to see exactly where you can go; luckily, a handy pop-up at the top of the screen telling you what will be initiated if you press X indicates where you can go or who you can talk to. The game’s world map is navigated via the use of a cursor with which you can select various places of interest for exploration; these locations are gradually revealed by talking to other characters, and discovering clues.
While for the most part the battle is a traditional system of moving, selecting attack and a target and watching the ensuing chaos, another element surfaces in the form of Supporting Attacks. This again adds another dimension to the game; if a character attacks while a team-mate is in one of the adjacent squares, the ally will appear in the battle cut scene and can also deal a blow, increasing the damage for the same amount of “moves”. However, the fact that enemies can also use this technique allows for careful planning; not only do you not want to get surrounded by enemies, but you also don’t want them lined up anywhere near you.
Another interesting new feature to this game comes in the form of Dark Portals, and the subsequent streams of dark energy that they exude; while initially this seems like a rather clichéd concept, it is carried out to great effect here. The portals and their streams appear throughout different scenarios, and they must be “purified” in order to obliterate them; failure to do so may allow more monsters to appear, extending battle times and posing further risk to your comrades. Performing this deed will also allow you to increase the abilities of any weapons that you have equipped. Its not as simple as this however; the streams can be used to swing the advantage in your favour if used correctly. If a character stands in the stream, you have the option to redirect it in the direction of your choice; aiming it at either an enemy or a team-mate before using your divine powers on it can cause either greater elemental damage or even cure your characters. Forming a circuit of this dark energy summons a huge figure that can deal masses of damage to all foes; however, actually forming this circuits while trying to avoid getting killed is a big problem. A lot of the time its usually easier to simply attack enemies rather than mess about with the streams, which is a bit of a personal defeat for the game. Still, strat-RPG nuts will no doubt have a ball with the countless different ways that the streams may be manipulated to affect the way the game is played.
Along similar lines (and another neat concept in the game) is the ability to use your Purification skills to add to your army of demon-slaying cohorts; using the skill on an enemy before defeating them gives you a chance to convert them and add them to your stable. This isn’t as easy as it sounds; it may take several hits of Purification to sway a beast to your side, and while you’re doing this you wont be damaging any of the others demons on the grid. In a further stretch of originality, these enemies can be trained and levelled up much like the main characters; however, excessive training leads to a drop in monster “happiness”, and so a balance must be found in their development. While this sounds a bit like a glorified Tamagotchi in some respects, it does pay off to look after your minions; a well-looked after beast can help convert other enemies, whereas an unhappy one may abandon your team in disgust. These two elements are really what sets La Pucelle apart from other games of the genre, and should be sufficient to capture the interest of an strat-RPG fan.
However, in spite of these interesting innovations, the game is not without its flaws. Perhaps the most negative (or perhaps refreshing for some) aspect of this game is its slow pace. While strat-RPG veterans may sink their teeth right into this title, its unlikely to win over many new fans; battles can literally seem to take forever at times, particularly during the obligatory tutorial sections and later battles. Failing a scenario will often mean that the player must sit through any introductions preceding the level before they can play again, which can be similarly irritating. Combine this with the side-on “battle view” that shows your characters performing their moves for every attack-motion selected and you get an idea of how this will affect the pace of the game.
Another issue is at times the rather unoriginal and somewhat UNstrategic way in which the game calls for you to constantly level up in order to progress further. A lot of the time your enemies, rather than being cunning and tactical, will simply have masses and masses of HP; this means that, no matter how much effort is put into the formulation of an attack pattern, you simply cant defeat them without first returning to older levels and battling to boost your stats.
The cut-scenes that precede each level are voiced over appropriately with all of the usual anime-esque flavour, all of which manages to serve its purpose quite nicely. There is plenty of anime humour in the dialogue as well, all of which adds to a sense of personalisation to the individual characters; sadly, the voice-over doesn’t extend to the non-essential conversations. Also included for the less dub-enthusiastic is the option to play the game with the original Japanese speech. The in-game music is similarly serviceable, although some of the generic tunes begin to grate a little after battle has been going for a little too long.
Sluggish pace aside, this game certainly isn’t short on content; as well as the main story missions, which incidentally can be finished to obtain several different chapter endings, there is a veritable host of secret missions and sub-quests to conquer. As well as this, customisation features heavily throughout the game; everything from weapons to spells can be upgraded and synthesised. Whether or not the average gamer will invest the vast number of hours required to see all of this game has to offer is another question, and at times things seem repetitive enough to dissuade the player; however, its all there in all its glory for the willing explorer.
La Pucelle is a sound, if somewhat unspectacular, delve into the strategy-RPG genre; while it offers some new experiences for players, it can be for the large part too drawn out and too fiddly for newbies. This is a bit of a shame, as the Dark Portal system really has no limits to the extent that it can be manipulated, as has the enemy conversion system; they just probably wont be used to their full potential by most players, who may opt simply for battling their foes in a traditional manner.
As games of this genre are few and far between for Western gamers, I would advise anyone that has the remotest interest in the genre to give it a quick bash – “quick” being several hours in the La Pucelle universe – to see if this can capture your interest. This is perhaps the games largest drawback when it comes to attracting new players; you really do have to dedicate a lot of time to the game to see anything worthwhile that it has to offer. Newbies may appreciate the gentle breaking-in to the format that the game offers in its tutorials, but I would be sceptical as to whether or not this title will win them over immediately. For those willing to invest time and patience into La Pucelle, a massive (if slightly shallow) adventure awaits.