I'm continuing my excavation of JRPGs you have likely never heard of (still going through this list). The latest title in this series was Jeanne d'Arc, a tactical RPG from Level-5. As the name suggests, it's a heavily rearranged fantasy version of the famous historical figure's story - i.e. it probably has next to nothing to do with the actual Jeanne. No matter, I didn't come here for the plot anyway - I find this a rather health approach to most JRPGs unless they have been specifically lauded for their story (e.g. Nier). I want to get some stuff out of the way before diving into the game's mechanics: my opinion is probably slightly biased due to the game's artistic style which I found a bit repulsive. I also don't have much love for Level-5 RPGs.
1. Classes, rocks, papers and scissors
Since it's a tactical RPG, we should start by going through some of its core mechanics. The game has loosely classed characters - in other words, classes are primarily defined by the weapon they use and their stats. The classes bear a strong resemblance to Fire Emblem - each weapon has unique properties that defines where it shines. Swords are the bread-and-butter, the most average weapon there is - nothing special to them but no particular weaknesses either. Axes are less accurate but deal heavy damage - certain axe skills can also lower defense. Spears are less effective but they hit two squares in front of the wielder, and also have access to a wide variety of area-of-effect attacks and long range jump attacks. Bows are what you might expect from them while knives are more accurate and have a higher chance to crit. Whips are the only melee weapon in the game that can hit diagonally and so on.
Now, unlike Fire Emblem, there's no rock-paper-scissors between the types of weapons. Yet the game does have a very similar RPS system: spirit skills. These are passive skills that grant the bearer levels in either Sol, Stella or Luna. If you guessed that each of these is strong against one other and weak against the remaining one, you would be absolutely correct. In this case Sol beats Stella, Stella beats Luna and Luna beats Sol. Most enemies in the game have been assigned to one of these aspects. Since the aspect is tied to a skill that can be freely equipped by any class at the start of the battle, actual character classes do not play a role in the RPS system. It is kinda good and bad news for the game. On the one hand, the player can customize their favorite characters to suit each battle while on the other hand, there is no real need to ever level up any extra characters. In Jeanne d'Arc though, I feel this lands more on the plus side.
The reason is that - just like the Fire Emblem RPS - these aspects severely increase and decrease both damage and accuracy. Especially later in the game characters are next to useless against the aspect they are weak against. This means that the player needs to examine their enemies and choose characters that can best deal with each threat - and then distribute spirit skills accordingly. In some battles the player can get away with not having one particular spirit at all, and in most there will be one spirit that is generally more useful than the rest. It is also quite common for the boss of a level to be of an aspect that is different from rest of the monsters so that whoever is designated to take the boss down won't be as useful against the rest. Overall this effect is similar to what you get in Fire Emblem - a careful plan is needed to decide who goes where and who is going to fight who.
Although there are numerous similarities between Fire Emblem and this game, the cost of using things is more akin to Tactics Ogre. Skills are fueled by mana that starts at zero and then regenerates every round. In Fire Emblem every weapon and spell has a limited number of uses. This allows even powerful weapons to be given out sparingly early in the game and using one is always a decision with some consequences because eventually it will run out of uses. There is still a cost to using more powerful skills in Jeanne d'Arc, because only the most basic skills and spells can be spammed every turn. Missing with a costly skill usually hurts quite a bit. I am not saying that Jeanne d'Arc should use Fire Emblem's system (if it did, the games would be really similar) - just that there is a clear difference in how "resources" are used - and that it is caused by the game's economy model.
2. Heroes and heroines
One of the most interesting features in Jeanne d'Arc are armlet wielders - heroes and heroines with a bit of extra oomph. Armlet wielders can transform into more powerful forms during battle. It's not the transformation itself that makes this feature interesting though - it is one of the special abilities all these characters gain in their secondary form. The ability allows them to take a full extra turn every time they defeat an enemy. There's no limit to the number of these extra turns - as long as they can dish out enough damage, they can tear through an entire group of enemies. They can also conveniently "bounce" from one enemy to another to reach an otherwise unreachable foe. It is generally easy enough to figure out when this power should be used. Nevertheless it is that little something extra I feel these games often need to keep my attention.
In order to maximize the number of extra turns and thus the damage output of your entire party, other allies should weaken targets for the armlet wielder. There is a downside to this strategy though. Just like in Fire Emblem, in Jeanne d'Arc bulk of the experience is granted to whoever deals the finishing blow. Furthermore experience gains are scaled by level, which means that constantly finishing enemies off with armlet wielders is going to result in diminishing returns. Therefore mopping groups of enemies at once should be preserved for situations where it is absolutely necessary. Fortunately such situations do exist are even somewhat frequent as a result of quite solid level design. A downside to the armlet wielders is that they are quite simply superior to every other character in the game which makes them too obvious picks to pass. Perhaps it would have been better to limit this power to the main heroine who has to be in the party anyway.
The less-advertised benefit of armlet wielders is their ability to heal themselves to full HP through the transformation. Curiously enough, this is actually one of their strongest attributes. After all, healing always costs momentum - lots of it in Jeanne d'Arc - but transforming is free and subsequently increases momentum. Transforming also increases defensive attributes, thus increasing momentum even further. It is a definite tide-turner. Although it's just one feature, it defines much of the gameplay experience.
The importance of formations varies between tactical RPGs as do the mechanics involved. The basic concept of formations is to keep squishy characters protected and as much is true in most games. Jeanne d'Arc does go an extra mile to emphasize formations and positioning in general. This is achieved through two systems. The first and most useful of these systems is the unified guard. As long as characters are adjacent to each other they all gain a defense bonus that is relative to the total number of characters that are linked together. There is a drastic difference between being alone and standing somewhere in a chain of six characters in terms of damage taken. It even increases evasion, allowing characters to negate damage entirely. It is often more desirable to leave an action unused than it is to break a formation to down one extra enemy.
Another system that sees less use but is very powerful when it is used is called burning aura. Any normal melee attack against an enemy creates an aura directly behind the enemy. Attacking from this aura grants bonus damage. Auras only last until the end of the turn in which they were created which makes them sometimes hard to utilize - especially the super aura that is created when a character with an aura also makes a basic attack against an enemy. Once again the difference in damage output is quite drastic. This is especially useful against certain bosses in the game. Curiously enough, the AI of these bosses typically tries to put itself next to a wall to minimize the player's ability to surround it and make use of these auras. It is important to prevent them from doing so, because they typically have high HP regeneration.
As a side note, very high HP regeneration is an interesting mechanic to set the pace of a fight - the player needs to be able to sustain their damage output until the boss is dead. Basically all of the toughest fights in the game were reliant on this mechanic and I think it worked out fairly well.
4. JRPG bullshit rant part 1
As much as I love the genre, it has its share of bullshit. Jeanne d'Arc does not do any better. Let's talk about character development first because it's something the game shares with Fire Emblem. Here's the beef: stat growths are hidden information. Why this is bullshit? There's no way for the player to know the true potential of characters. Sure, there is a rule of thumb: the worse a character looks like when you get them, the more powerful they'll be by the end game. The problem is this is not a hard rule, and it is impossible to know when it holds. Even if this information was transparent this would still be bullshit because characters would not be very equal. Given that difficulty generally ramps towards the end or at least that's what you would expect (usually it's actually not the case - but in Jeanne d'Arc it is), choosing the characters who get most powerful by the end game is a no-brainer.
Then again, poor balance between characters is such a common problem that I've mostly given up on it - and I do prefer imbalance to too much balance any day. That said, hiding such crucial information from the player is just plain bullshit. At least the growth rates are granted in contrast to Fire Emblem where the rates are simply probabilities to have gains in a stat. Doesn't get much more bullshit than that. In Jeanne d'Arc I only learned about this by reading a guide after finishing the game and it turned out I had chosen my characters very poorly (more or less the worst wielder for each weapon). I still managed to beat the game but this still infuriates me because I could have just as well rolled a die to see how difficult the game is going to be for me. An uninformed decision is not any different from blind luck yet somehow I see this bullshit coming up in JRPGs time and again.
The nice thing about designing board games is that you cannot hide rules from the players because if you did, they could not play the freaking game at all. Here's another example from Jeanne d'Arc. There are several battles where enemies spawn and then get to act immediately. Naturally these are the very same battles where you have to protect a fragile NPC (one hit kills him). The game is giving you the finger, there's just no other way to describe this. There is no way to predict this happening at all, and if there was, there would be no information of when or where the new enemies will spawn. The only way is to take that guaranteed failure, wasting 15 minutes of your time and then doing the battle again from start. Fun times. This is like a douchebag board game owner who "remembers" a rule just before he is about to abuse the shit out of it. Seriously, game designers, some transparency plz.
This rant will get a sequel once I have finished what I'm currently playing. Stay tuned.
The usual JRPG bullshit and horrible graphical design aside, Jeanne d'Arc is tactical RPG that proudly stands on its own two feet. It has its share of distinctive mechanics, but most importantly its level design follows an optimal difficulty curve. Maybe, or maybe that was just because I had the worst possible characters in my party. The game does get a bit repetitive at times, largely because the pool of actually useful skills is very small, and most of the enemies can be dealt with using the same strategies. Still if you are looking for a solid TRPG and have already gone through the obvious choices, you could do a lot worse than Jeanne d'Arc.
There will be bit of a break in updates at least as far as digital game are concerned... the game I'm currently playing is effing long. I might write about some analog games next though!