Review: Jeanne d’Arc

JeanneDArc.jpg Platform: PSP
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Level-5
Release Date: 8/21/07
Genre: Strategy-RPG
Players: 1

Level-5 can do no wrong in my book. Dark Cloud, Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII, Rouge Galaxy – these four titles are among the greatest RPGs from last generation, and have combined to put Level-5 on the map as one of the premier RPG developers in all of gaming (and I’m sure True Fantasy Live Online would have been up there too had it been completed, it’s a real shame that got cancelled over such petty reasons). Continuing upon the Japanese RPG giant’s winning tradition is none other than Jeanne d’Arc, a brilliant new PSP-exclusive strategy-RPG that should go down as one of the platform’s all-time classics when all is said and done.

As you should have picked up on from the title, Jeanne d’Arc is a game inspired by the timeless tale of Joan of Arc, the legendary teen who led French armies on a crusade to recover her homeland from the English during the Hundred Years’ War and was later executed for heresy. Following history, the game takes place in the 15th century amidst the Hundred Years’ War with the French and English squabbling over territorial control. Despite the historically-based setting, though, Jeanne d’Arc puts a fantasy twist on the tale with demons, magical armlets and exaggerated characters, all wrapped up in a beautifully rendered cel-shaded world with the unique and colorful art direction and endearing heroes you’d expect from a Level-5 production.

A combination of in-engine text scenes and stunning pre-rendered anime movies move the story along, complemented by a solid cast of voice actors (for the movie scenes only, sadly) and a strong score. All of these elements are blended perfectly, making for an epic history-meets-fantasy narrative that is as memorable as it is long (it’ll take you at least 30 hours to finish; 40+ if you spend time on the side completing free battles and such).

If you’ve ever played a strategy-RPG before — Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea being two of the best – you’ll feel right at home with what Jeanne d’Arc has to offer in gameplay, as it follows genre conventions very closely. Combat takes place on grid-based maps with you commanding your army of characters (upwards of seven at a time) into place turn-by-turn and square-by-square across the field of battle, requiring tactical thought before each and every move as to put your units in the best position to deal out damage and guard against fatal attack when the opponent’s turn comes around. Once in position, units can attack, cast spells, unleash special skills and use items, with position on the targeted enemy and the surrounding terrain directly impacting chances of landing a heavy blow – an archer firing from higher ground or attacking an enemy from the sides or behind, for example, are far more deadly.

Time is of the essence too, as each stage has a turn limit that requires you to complete the given objective – kill all enemies, defeat a boss, safely reach escape points, escort defenseless allies, defend important objects, etc. – before the allotted number of turns expires.

Thankfully, Jeanne d’Arc does try to do at least a little more than strictly retread these staple mechanics. Level-5 has implemented a few minor touches of its own that give the game a distinct feel. The spirit affinity system, for one, lends a rock-paper-scissors note to the strategy. Each of the game’s three spiritual affinities is strong against one and weak against the other, so it becomes important to mix and match amongst your army. Jeanne and a couple other key characters also have the ability to use their magic armlets to transform into heavenly beings of sort for two turns. While transformed, their stats and abilities increase and powerful new skills open up. Chief among these is a power called Godspeed that instantly grants the hero another move after they’ve killed an enemy. Timing is key to using the transformations, especially in tough battles. When used in the perfect situation, you can run through a killing spree of four or five enemies with only one character, which can turn the tide of battle in your favor in the blink of an eye.

Team-based skills like Burning Aura and Unified Guard are vital tactics to take advantage of too. After an attack, the square directly on the other side of the enemy becomes inflamed with a Burning Aura granting a boost in attack power to any unit occupying or moving into that space, thusly setting up for the opportunity to string combos together with extra punch. On the defensive side, Unified Guard simply grants protection bonuses to units standing side by side in adjacent squares. Therefore it’s always best to keep your troops in close range of one another so they can watch each others’ backs, unless of course you’re up against a mage with area-of-effect spells.

Character customization is an area where the game takes a small departure from the norm as well. Instead of characters being placed in specified classes or jobs, each has a preset weapon specialization that vaguely defines their suited role (swords, axes, bows, staves, lances, etc.), but after that they are basically left as blank slates for you to mold how you see fit. To give a character his or her abilities you must equip them with special skill stones looted from deceased enemies, purchased in shops or personally crafted using the skill binding system. Some stones grant stat and affinity boosts, some weapon-specific attacks and others general magic spells like fireballs, cures, lighting bolts, blizzards, poisons, magic shields and so on. Best of all, skill stone sets can be switched as much as desired outside of combat, so you are always able to redefine your units to adapt to each and every battle situation.

In a genre that is normally quite plodding and patience-demanding, Jeanne d’Arc’s pleasantly brisk pacing and flawlessly balanced difficulty give it an accessibility edge over other SRPGs and make it much more suitable for portable play. That’s not to say it’s an easy game, because it is surely not, but there’s never this sense that a battle is impossible or the AI is being cheap like many other SRPGs tend to have. If for some reason you do find yourself a little confused, however, there’s also an in-depth library of tutorials always at the ready to help you along.

Jeanne d’Arc may not push the genre forward with any ground-breaking innovations, but it’s so expertly crafted with its compelling story, fantastic presentation, tight, balanced and fast-paced gameplay, and the few subtle-yet-unique concepts that have been sprinkled in that it just doesn’t matter (what is there to really innovate on with SRPGs anyway?). At the end of the day, a great game is a great game, and that’s just what Jeanne d’Arc is. Simply put, you won’t find a better RPG of any kind on the PSP right now, and that’s that. Go buy it now!

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Pros:
+ Great historically inspired story with a fun fantasy twist
+ Beautiful cel-shaded visuals
+ Exquisitely balanced turn-based gameplay and pacing

Cons:
– Ummm… nothing really

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!