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SummaryYou Take The Good, You Take The Bad, You Take Them Both And There You Have... Arcana
The Good--Colorful, cartoony character graphics --Interesting, creative monsters --An attempt to try a different look and style of play while retaining the classic dungeon-crawler set-up.
The Bad--Plot, dialogue and item/spell names are either translated awkwardly or not at all. --Dungeons have repeating tiles for the walls, floor and ceiling, making the corridors look completely the same. --Some things in the game are just useless, like spell cards, the overworld map, etc.
The Bottom LineArcana is a cartoony dungeon crawler that reminded me very strongly of Shining In The Darkness for the Sega Genesis. This is a good thing because I hold that game in high regard. I would even go so far as to say that Arcana would have made a much better sequel than the game that actually was its follow-up, Shining The Holy Ark. However, unlike either of these two games, Arcana, for all its cartoonish graphics doesn't have much in the way of humor. I'd go so far as to say the storyline is fairly dark to the point of it belying the graphic style. This is a shame, really, since the serious events of the game could have used a little comic relief now and then at the very least. Unfortunately, too, the storyline isn't helped any by the translation, which veers between awkward and laughably bad. I even pretty much gave up on following it after awhile (not that there's much story to give up on). Too bad too then that the game has to start so promisingly with an early betrayal that was definitely a bit of a shock. This really sets you up to think that there's going to be lots of twists and turns in the plot throughout the game. There really aren't any after that. Or rather there are, but you end up not caring so much. Party members tend to come and go faster than a karma chameleon and the only REAL reason for this is that you can only have a party of four and two spots are taken up with yourself and your card spirit. Oh I haven't mentioned the cards yet, have I?
In Arcana you play the role of a Card Master, someone who can use cards to summon spirit allies and to cast magic spells. Yes, you have a plethora of regular magic at your disposal, but you can also use expendable cards, up to three of a kind at once, to cast varying levels of spells. Unfortunately, the only spell you'd want to use this ability with is healing and THERE ISN'T A CARD FOR THAT SPELL! Thus, the whole system that this game is built around from the storyline to the graphics is utterly useless. It is entirely possible to go through the whole game without ever using cards in battle.
One set of items that actually IS useful are the status increasing items and they can all be bought at a regular store in town. They're expensive, but it's nice to see that you can customize your characters a little bit if you've got the cash. There's also the standard equipment: weapons, armor, shields.
It seems as though the game just wanted to fill out the town. Every town has the same buildings (mostly) and you'll only ever really use two of them: the item shop and the inn. You can buy all your items from the item shop save cards, which we've established as being useless, and then rest up to heal and save your game at the inn. The gypsy tent is where you can buy cards or bring back to life card spirits that have been "broken." Since you eventually get a spell that does this, you'll eventually have absolutely no reason to visit her ever again. The other shop is a tavern and the barkeep will sell you water, elixir and two kinds of food (creatively called "Food A" and "Food B"). He'll also happily gab about nonsense or tell you things you already know. Again, useless.
This brings me to my other point: Arcana feels like it was translated by fans and not finished. Numerous spells have very generic names, basically "Attribute" followed by a number. Keeping track of what they're good against and what they do is a chore, but thankfully one that doesn't need doing, since all the "Attribute" spells are offensive and the rock-paper-scissors of Water beats Fire beats whatever never gets to the level of Fire restores fire-based creatures. So you just cast a spell and hope it does a nice amount of damage. Most of them hit the entire party of monsters anyway, so picking and choosing spells is almost pointless.
I actually had a lot of fun playing this game up to a point. The first two-thirds of Arcana is fairly easy. The first dungeon you head into requires a bit of level-grinding just so you can get enough money for some decent equipment, but after that the game is mostly a breeze, for two-thirds of it anyway. Then you get up to the second-to-last dungeon and oh dear lord it is impossible! Yes, I beat the game, finally, so it isn't completely impossible, just very very difficult. What happens is that you're halfway through a tough dungeon and the game decides to take away your characters! So then it's just you and your card buddy. Since this happens after a random boss battle, you're pretty much in need of a good warp back to town. Doing so ensures that you have to slog your way through the entire, incredibly long, and very difficult dungeon with just yourself a card for company. Merciless, I say!
That's another thing: There are bosses hidden throughout the dungeons, lurking around corners, and there's nothing to distinguish that corner from the next. Sure, some bosses are behind big metal doors, but others just pop out at you! No warning, no nothing. If you aren't prepared, forget it. Did I mention that if one character dies, it's game over? Yeah, this game can brutal. There's no way to resurrect fallen comrades (who aren't call spirits), so if one of them dies, that's pretty much it.
Nothing to distinguish one corner of the dungeon from the other either because the graphics for the walls are just one solid tile that repeats over and over again. As cool as some of the graphics are (like the character portraits), most of it is fairly generic. Nor does it even make sense. Why is the first four levels of the dungeon stone-walled whereas the top four are wood-paneled? Why do the characters look like cards everywhere except on the (once again) totally useless overworld map, where they look like squat chibi characters? Speaking of that overworld map, does it even have a purpose? You don't get to decide where to go next. When you leave the town, you head straight for the dungeon, automatically. You can even skip the sequence showing your characters walking from the town to the dungeon. Why even include it? Just so you can set up a paradox whereby the characters are cards everywhere else but there?
I know it probably sounds like I'm nitpicking, or that I really didn't like this game, but that's not it at all. You have to understand the good points and the bad points because this game is really split down the middle in that the graphics aren't bad all the time or good all the time, the plot isn't good or bad, it's just a matter of taking in everything. I had a lot of fun with the game for about two-thirds of the way through. In fact, it was just the last few dungeons that felt tedious. I didn't really even notice that I didn't care about the characters until they start disappearing and reappearing and the plot didn't explain why in any way that made sense. Arcana is a fun game, and if you've played all the major RPGs on the SNES it's worth picking up. Just don't expect an epic, pitch-perfect game. Know what you're getting into before you get into it.