The DS has seen some fantastic RPGs released this year, with Valkyrie Profile, Nostalgia and of course Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, and Luminous Arc II keeps the standard high with a quality Japanese RPG package that is sure to please anyone looking for a tactical fix.
The game’s story takes place in the kingdom of Carnava, which has seen peace for over four thousand years, but now lies in turmoil as the deadly Beast Fiends have reappeared. Even worse, a high-ranking witch of the Magic Association has gone rogue, threatening the ever-more delicate balance between good and evil. As usual in strategic RPGs, you control a squad of differently skilled characters, with healers, archers and swordsmen, but your main character is a knight named Roland who possesses the unique ability to Engage with other magic users to gain elemental spells and attacks, but more on that later.
The general flow of gameplay is fairly standard, with dialogue sections, shopping and battles all present in various combinations. There are no free-roaming towns or map sections; you select your next destination from a list of options on the touchscreen before selecting an available action such as “gather info”, “go shopping” or “begin quest”. The interface has been completely overhauled from the original Luminous Arc and feels a lot smoother for it, with fewer menus to navigate and everything generally laid out more logically. In dialogue-heavy moments you can even press R to have the game automatically advance the conversation, or if you’re really pressed for time holding L will fast-forward it all.
You’ll learn to use L and R pretty quickly in fact, as you’re hit with an absolute mountain of text when you first start the game, amounting to a good ten or fifteen minutes of reading before you get stuck into any battling. Even then the battle tutorial lays everything on you at once, leaving even the most ardent Japanese RPG fans reeling from information overload. Once you get past the initial barrier of exposition, you’ll find a clever and engaging RPG underneath.
As in all good strategic RPGs, both sides of the conflict are noble enough to divide the battleground into squares and take it in turns to move. Units with higher Move stats move further and receive their turn more quickly, and units can also jump a certain number of squares to travail steep ground. Attacking your opponent from above gives you added power and decreases your enemy’s accuracy, so seeking out the high ground is always a good plan, as is attacking units from the side or rear to deal extra damage. There’s no weapons triangle as in Shining Force III or Fire Emblem, so you don’t need to worry about attacking a lance with a sword, although there is a similar system for magic users, so be careful about using fire magic against water types.
There are a few nice tweaks over your usual turns-based RPG system, though. Each action performed boosts your character’s Drive Points, granting you the ability to increase the potency of your special attacks as well as open character-specific Flash Drive moves, which are super-powerful attacks that can turn a battle around in an instant. Your squad leader Roland can also Engage with the mages on your team to acquire their element – Engaging with Althea will grant him the power of fire, allowing him use of the Fire Bullet technique as well as granting extra physical damage to units weak against fire. The engagement can only be used with active units on the map and only once per character per battle, and it only lasts a few turns, but it adds an extra layer of strategy when you’re in a tight spot and transforms Roland from a fairly bland lead to a diverse and powerful attacking force.
The battle system has other influences on the storyline too, other than simply who wins and who loses. Before certain battles, when deploying your units, you’ll notice some have heart symbols next to their heads, and this indicates those characters with whom you can share an Intermission after the battle. These Intermissions are short conversations where you can choose from a list of comments, with your decisions altering how fondly your teammates think of you, potentially netting you items or other rewards in the process. There are even multiple endings depending on how often you Engage with certain characters and how you respond during Intermissions, and the characters are interesting and funny enough to make you want to respond rather than skip all the dialogue. There’s also a decent amount of voice acting, which is crystal clear and genuinely amusing in places, and certainly a notch above the standard in RPGs.
Luminous Arc II also excels in the area of graphics and sound, with some fantastic work on both fronts. Portraits are well-drawn and full of character, with various emotional expressions to accompany the dialogue, and the battle sprites animate well and are packed with detail. For those gamers who are fond of classic 2D RPGs, there’s a huge amount to enjoy here, and although the DS isn’t exactly pushed to its limits it still shows off some pixel-perfect magical attacks and clear sprites.
On the audio side of things, the sound effects are functional and rarely intrude upon the excellent soundtrack crafted by Yasunori Mitsuda’s Procyon Studio. You might recognise Mitsuda’s name from the excellent Xenogears soundtrack, and Luminous Arc II’s audio presentation is of a similarly high quality, with relaxing piano tracks and empowering battle marches perfectly matching the atmosphere at every turn. A special edition of the game featuring a soundtrack CD is available on both sides of the Atlantic, although the DS speakers do an admirable job of reproducing the orchestral tunes.
Once you’ve got the hang of the battle system and have progressed beyond Chapter 16 in the story mode, you can take Luminous Arc II online to battle against other users worldwide. Although it isn’t the most well-populated online mode, it’s certainly a welcome addition and is something fun to dip in and out of when you come up against a roadblock in the story mode.
Luminous Arc II is a clear improvement over its predecessor, with the new Engage system and improved interface drawing your eye away from the fact it’s still a straightforward strategic RPG. It may not be part of a classic, well-respected series such as Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, but it takes itself far less seriously than either title and is as likely to make you chuckle as hatch a master battle plan. It sounds great and although the graphics could have been achieved on a GameBoy Advance it’s charming and detailed, and clarity is most important in isometric RPGs.
With well over forty hours of gameplay, multiple endings, online battles, great music and a solid battle system, Luminous Arc II is recommended to anyone after a strategic RPG built to last.