Luminous Arc

Game design is a tricky thing with a wide number of schools. The east and west, in particular, have split heavily in how designing a game is approached, with RPGs as the most common example. While western games of the genre tend to emphasize player choice, action and customized styles of play, JRPGs have experimented more with linear story telling, visual novel elements and strategy based battle systems. Luminous Arc is definitely one of the most basic examples of the JRPG/Strategy genre, from the story told to the mechanics. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the game finds something charming in that simplicity.

The game's plot follows the garden children, a group of orphans raised to fight witches, the sources of chaos and suffering in the world. They work for the Luminous church, a Catholic like religion that effectively runs the whole world and keeps the peace, and have absolute faith in the teachings of god. That is until Alph, the unofficial leader of the kids, meets Lucia, the dawn witch. She saves his life and begins to shake his sense of faith, although the destructive actions of Vanessa, the witch of immolation, end up making the issue far more confusing. As the story goes on, the lines between right and wrong start to blur as the children get closer to the real truth.

If you're even the least bit familiar with the common clichés of the JRPG genre, you've probably already started to figure out where Luminous Arc ends up going. It's a predictable game in a lot of ways, yet I was surprised by it the first time I played through it. The first few chapters do a good job at selling one of the witches as a major villain, creating a much grayer situation than it actually is, and the slow development of the kids learning about the nature of the world is well paced out. It does a good job at putting you in their mind set, while the later parts of the game focus on introducing new villains and situations to keep the path to the end interesting. It's a bit impressive how much care the writers put into the game, despite offering rather plain material. Even the simple characters work well, giving several their own arcs.

Everything else about the game follows the same design philosophy as he story; simple. The game plays out as a strategy RPG, having you pick locations on a world map to trigger story events (and a few special events late in game), enter set battles against monsters and enter certain areas to shop or talk with villagers and your allies. Towns have very little reason to exist here, offering only bare bones extra dialog before triggering a story point and a shop here and there. Shops become very rare in the second half, meaning most your team will have outdated equipment very fast, which kills some game balance; some characters have significantly lower stats than others and require the use powerful equipment to be of real use. This is balanced out a little with an item crafting system introduced around the halfway point, allowing you to mix gained vatie to grant new bonuses to armor and weapons, but it requires additional weapons so you can switch out equipment of party members.

There's little that interesting about any of the systems in the game, outside leveling up and the battle system. Your party gains experience whenever they perform an action on a target (including themselves), with healing actions on other characters granting thirty experience every use, making level grinding characters with healing abilities much easier. Otherwise, attack experience is based on the difference between levels from your side and the enemy. Leveling up completely restores health and magic points as well, making it crucial in battle strategy. This can also make things a bit too easy, however; healing characters almost never run out of magic points if they heal constantly (even when a target is at full health), making it very hard for characters to die in combat. Performing actions in combat also increases the flash drive bar, which fills with three flash points that can be used for flash drive attacks and synergy moves between characters, which are incredibly powerful and can turn the tide of battle. Synergy moves, however, take a ton of points to use and require close proximity between all involved in the move, making situations where they're needed almost non-existent. I only used a single synergy move in my years of playing this game on and off, and that was just to see what the attack looked like.

The game has a very uneven difficulty curve at times, and it can easily be overcome with grinding, which in itself can be a bit of a mark against the game. Avoiding grinding in extra battles can result in some frustrating battles with high damage dealing enemies, although this is occasionally a problem with grinding anyways due to a lack of item shops in late game. Taking time from the story to grind out experience can be tiring for some, but I didn't mind it so much. Luminous Arc's simplicity is its greatest strength, because you always understand most every variable. There's no overwhelming feeling here, just good old fun fighting monsters and bandits with whatever characters you want. The game works perfectly for a portable system, because you can easily save anywhere and spend a few minutes in a simple battle to kill some time. It's never too demanding outside story battles. The result can be addictive, or at least this was the case for me.

There's also the intermissions you can try to complete. After every battle, your main character, Alph, can talk with someone who was just in battle with him. There's a set amount of these moments with every character, and answering correctly improves your relationship with your party, which fills a heart meter. At certain points, characters will give you different gifts, and reaching the max gains items that half the cost for spells, useful for the tons of magic users present in the game. This is nice, but the benefit in battle is almost non-existent. When Alph is next to a character he has a relationship with, both characters get a bonus of accuracy and evasion. However, most every spell in the game hits targets next to each other, so this creates a conflicting design where the last thing you want to do is have characters paired up next to each other. There's never a moment where this bonus is particularly helpful.

The presentation is simple but effective. All the menus are easy to move through and understand, the sprites are properly detailed, the maps are easy to follow, and the music is never intrusive. There's even some surprisingly good voice acting in here (and I swear that Saki and Johannes are both played by Michelle Ruff). Battles can occasionally get hectic, however, as characters bunched up together can block one another from site. This is an issue with the touch screen controls, as the entire game is mostly handled with touch screen and no buttons. This can result in occasional moments in battle where you can't touch the proper square or target, although I only encountered this just a few rare times, and it may partly be blamed by my aged DS. The best assist here is easily the character portraits; Kaito Shibano's designs are all filled with life and energy, especially for all the witches, giving them overblown and instantly memorable outfits and hair styles, all without going too silly.

Luminous Arc has a good number of problems, including some technical issues during battle, but it has a rough charm. This was a first release by rookie studio Imageepoch (who have gone on to make some very fine games since), and you can tell that they really cared to make something special. They didn't quite exceed at making something great, but they made something memorable and enjoyable. Don't get Luminous Arc expecting something mindblowing, just go in expecting something simple and entertaining.


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