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I guess it just doesn’t matter if you’re in this country or half a world away. One rule holds true above all else.

Visual media based off of video games sucks.

“Arc the Lad”

Before I get into this one, a bit of background. “Arc the Lad” was a JRPG series that, in this country, was exclusive to the Playstation machines. Not surprising, therefore, that this anime was also put out by Sony. As far as the series went, it was a far cry from “Final Fantasy” and “Tales” series. Part of the reason is it was far more traditional 2D. When “Final Fantasy VII” came out, it pretty much set the new gold standard that JRPGs would no longer follow the top-down 2D look and would become much more like interior movie environments and focus more on 3D scale and beauty. Well, “Arc the Lad” failed to seize on that until its third entry, and even then it wasn’t true 3D but rather still a 2D field enhanced with 3D effects. Gameplay was pretty hard too. Normally JRPGs play out where if you work hard and devise a good strategy it’s just possible to win without anything special. This one focused a lot more on level-grinding and, even then, pretty much the only way to win was almost to “cheat”, having to rely on side-quest completion for special items that had narrow windows of opportunity. In its defense, it’s one of the few other JRPGs I’ve seen that relies on a “Final Fantasy Tactics”-like mechanic where position on the battlefield and number of hits per turn plays a big part, but it also make the game move a whole lot more slowly.

Pretty much the oddest thing of all is that the original “Arc the Lad” barely qualifies as an RPG in terms of story, scope, and gameplay. It’s an RPG that can easily be defeated in one setting and is very light on story and extras. The main purpose is to complete all of the side quests and missions you can in that game and get the bonus, then use that data to start a game of “Arc the Lad II”, which is a real JRPG and improves on almost everything at the first. That’s why you really can’t call “Arc the Lad” a stand alone game. In reality, it feels like a segment of “Final Fantasy IV: The After Years” or even the incredibly long pregame sequence in “Kingdom Hearts 2”.

Anyway, enough backstory…

While the series is called “Arc the Lad”, it’s really an anime series based off of “Arc the Lad II”. It starts at the same position. It starts with a member of the Hunter’s Guild named Elc who happens to be the last survivor of a tribe that worshiped one of the five elemental spirits that guards the world, namely the Fire Spirit (please, keep your references to the Fire Nation down until the end of the lecture…). His town was slaughtered by evil researchers working for evil men in power of a military nation named Romalia (or Soviet Naziland, whatever makes it more generic of an evil empire) who are trying to revive a dark god to take over the world in exchange for power. This evil force was sealed inside a sacred ark years ago by the elemental powers, so these men are trying to diminish their power to nothing by causing more widespread chaos and destruction so that the box will open and unleash the evil.

Anyway, Elc was sent to a research facility where people born with special powers, like him, were studied in an attempt to make “chimeras”, monsters that arise from transmutating people. He eventually escaped and was found by a shotgun-wielding ninja named Shu (don’t you dare point out how ridiculous that is to the concept of ninjitsu, you Naruto-fans you) who raised him to become a bounty hunter in the Hunter’s Guild.

If that’s enough for a second helping of backstory, while on one of his first jobs, Elc ends up meeting a woman named Lieza who apparently can talk to native monsters, and eventually he finds out that she’s being hunted by the same organization that experimented on him when he was a child. As the two pair up and decide to try and track down who was behind all of this, they soon uncover the world-wide plot by the evil men in power to turn the world progressively more hellish, and that these chimeras are part of the plan to mutate great numbers of people in the world into monsters and have them cause widespread chaos on a global scale. Yet in the course of trying to stop one mass attack against the people of his home city, Elc sees a massive airship called the “Silver Noah” come in and assist against the villains. However, he remembers this airship was the same one that oversaw the destruction of his village and on learning that it’s commanded by a global terrorist/outlaw named Arc and his band, he attempts to track it down and destroy it.

Eventually, he finds out that Arc isn’t the villain but commandeered the ship from the real villains, and that he and his group are out to stop the ark from being opened and save the planet. Eventually Elc joins in on their side and helps them on their quest to save the world. In other words, the stuff of RPG legend.

How does it do?

This was, at the time, the most explicit anime I had ever purchased after “Akira” and “Vampire Hunter D”, and for good reason. Some of the chimera scenes are rather horrific and disturbing. The worst one of all is Elc is tormented by the fact he had to abandon one of his friends back at the research facility when he was younger. When he finally returns to save her as well as to destroy the facility for good…well…let’s just say it’s already too late for her. Much too late, and Elc finds himself in a situation where the best thing he can do for her is put her out of her misery, which he does with his own bare hands. That’s a lot more intense than it was in the game. In the game, she had just turned “Tetsuo” and blew up at the end. A lot of the stand-alone episodes are rather tragic and focus on the essence of futility, which is never a very cheery subject in anime either.

It makes a number of changes from the game too besides the one I just listed. In the game, Elc eventually gains his own “crew” which unites with the original one from “Arc the Lad”. In this one, they sort of figured that was character overload. They keep all of Arc’s gang, but Elc has ones who either have vastly reduced roles or are written out all together. Oddly enough, it never finishes off all of the major villains, namely the “four generals” from the original game. It takes out one or two and the others…well…just kind of “disappear” when the anime is done. I know that’s not necessarily unique to this anime in particular, but it’s very bizarre to me how the writers always seem to just “forget” about those guys, especially when it’s not like they’re orcs or trolls from LOTR but major villains…just not as major as the main villain.

On that note, the series has a totally different main villain. The villain in the original game was the “Dark One”…who kind of looked like an egg with an eyeball or a fetus. Hmm…well, the “Dark One” in this is kind of that black stuff from the “Little Nemo” movie, whereas the main villain is actually a nerdly researcher named Clive who, toward the end, ended up manipulating everything behind the scenes. I give that points for originality, letting a minor underling end up pulling a Hijacked by Ganon. But…he’s not that remarkable. Nothing you haven’t seen before in other villains who make deals with evil for power.

Most of the characters who are still in the series, like I said, are mostly placeholders. We never really get into any of them or their backgrounds other than Elc, Leiza, and to a lesser extent Arc. Since Elc and Leiza are the focus, they also ramp up the romance between the two of them quite a bit. In the original game, yeah…there were hints of it…but it kind of fell apart. There’s a scene in the game where Leiza talks to Kukuru, a shrine priestess who happens to be Arc’s own sweetheart, while Elc is injured and Leiza is hanging by his bedside saying she doesn’t know what to do if he dies. Kukuru asks her, in turn, if she really wants to be that dependent upon another person for the rest of her life. And what happens? Leiza doesn’t talk to Elc for the rest of the game for the most part and goes independent. In the sequel, “Arc the Lad III”, she and Elc barely seem to know the other exists. That was kind of weird…but the anime goes the completely opposite direction. Not only is Leiza made a damsel in distress, but she’s also made a sacred shrine priestess or whatever Kukuru is as well so that she has far more plot importance, and what ends up happening is Clive brainwashes her to do his bidding, which is more akin to what happened in “Lunar: Silver Star Story”, another JRPG, than “Arc the Lad”.

So most of the changes aren’t for the better, but there is one change from the game that I kind of like…namely that the ending doesn’t totally suck.

Seriously.

The original game ended pretty damn bad. The ark opens, Kukuru is eaten alive, the world is turned into a hellish, post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Arc defeats the Dark One only to discover that the Dark One is both invincible and unstoppable, and ends up killing himself as well to seal him in his sword…which we find out in the next game only lasted ten years before the Dark One broke out again. Arc’s home country is completely annihilated as is most of the friends and NPCs you made throughout the game and the only thing left to anyone in the plot is the fact that they’re alive, more or less, to try and crawl their way back from apocalypse.

…What kind of crappy ending is that? Especially since the game isn’t easy?

By comparison, the ending of the anime is much better. The ark opens and appears to consume Arc and Kukuru, but the Dark One is forced back inside and the box shut, and the two are still alive while Romalia and all of its allies are struck down. Arc returns to his home country and becomes its new ruler as he was originally supposed to due to line of succession, and everything ends happily pretty much.

Ok, one might argue not everything always ends well. Not everything always goes as one planned. Happy endings aren’t always realistic. But…damn. The entire setup for the game was that everything could be “undone”. That there was still hope in the midst of all of the chaos and everything going wrong. And then the game just kind of dashes that all by having an ending where the villain literally succeeds in every single possible way except getting to rule over the hellish world he created…and then only for ten years. Pretty much any ending, no matter how perfect, is better than that.

But comparisons to the game aside, how was the series really? Well…not that good, to be honest. Like most 26 episode series, it’s painfully generic. Part of the interest to good RPGs is being able to get into the diversity of characters and their interactions. The rest of it is strategy and playing that the gamer themselves carries out. And…well…this series had none of that.

I give the series a lot of credit for doing one thing I pretty much haven’t seen anywhere else. The main character is not the main protagonist. Arc is the main protagonist. This is his war; his conflict; his destiny. Elc is just a friend of his. He’s not even as strong as he is or as noble or focused. Yet pretty much the whole series is from his perspective. That’s…actually not a bad plot device. It’s like playing “Final Fantasy VII” from the perspective of Red XIII or Barret. I mean, it may not be the best choice, but it’s different. It’s new. And it gives the sense of where there’s a main character but no real “main character”, kind of like how “Final Fantasy VI” did.

But that aside, there’s not a whole lot to this. Nothing that isn’t done better in other series. And aside from a few shocking visuals, nothing that really sticks with you. Is it entertaining enough to hold your interest? Well…yeah, but that’s about all. You’re not going to rant and rave about it to your friends. The best it might make you do is try to pick up the original game to fill in the “holes” you see in this anime, and then you’re really in for a shock when you see the ending there. Not to mention you’ll realize one of the coolest bonus characters ever to appear in a JRPG was omitted from it.

This one is another “nothing bad but nothing good” to me.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

If animes were RPG characters, the best this could manage is “that one NPC that had something useful to say in that town”.

What You Should Do With This DVD:

Get it cheap, then test out your fire-spirit-given abilities on it after one viewing. Or just set it on fire…whichever comes easier.

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