Not all games have enough marketing dollars to slap a mug shot on the side of a bus or produce a widespread commercial featuring a basketball player that’s most likely never grasped a controller. The big-budget releases with this much commercial influence can coast on their popularity by sticking to popular genre conventions while trying to appeal to the least common denominator. Yet, how do games that think outside the disk grab some well-deserved market share? Some titles can only achieve success through word-of-mouth, which still requires someone to be the guinea pig and throw caution, and a chunk of their paycheck, to the wind. Well, say hello to your own, personal obscure game tester. While I consider myself a very informed gamer who more often than not makes educated purchases, I love taking a good risk now and again. Hell, back when I had little interest in journalism or gaming culture, the key feature to the latest release on the shelves was how interesting the back of the case looked.
As you can guess, this type of buying has led me astray on multiple occasions. Yet, I’ve also unearthed some of my most memorable and frequently played games of all time through my old methods. These reckless habits, while diminished, still reside in me today, and I’m here to use them to your benefit. Through a string of articles, I’ll suggest some hidden gems that deserve your attention, even though the first few will not be on the current generation of consoles. So, all you online buyers, pay attention – many of these games can be found for less than a tenth of the price of a new release.
So, I may as well start this series off with one of my most cherished games that reminded me of what makes a memorable RPG: Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits. It’s the first game in the series to be seen on the PS2, but sadly, it was very difficult to come across the first three adventures outside of Japan. Arc the Lad I, II, and III were well-received PS1 RPGs, but they had limited exposure until a collection was released in the U.S. during 2002. When I discovered and purchased Twilight of the Spirits, I had never heard of this collection or even the name Arc the Lad. But hey – the cover was cool, it was cheap, and it was an RPG I hadn’t yet experienced on the PS2. What did I really have to lose besides a few dollars earned mowing the neighbor’s lawn?
It didn’t take long to pick up on the game’s overarching theme of conflict. The humans and the Deimos, an intelligent yet savage species, both rely on the same key resource: spirit stones. They have been warring over the control of the mines containing these stones for generations, and the conflict doesn’t stop there. Certain nations are pining for dominance among the human race, and various species of Deimos feel they are superior to others. In the present, the human army is shattering the line that once separated these two opposing people in search for not only a greater supply of this valuable resource, but the Five Great Spirit Stones that will grant unimaginable power to whoever obtains them. While the animosity among the humans and the Deimos is apparent, there is just as much vicious behavior within each respective party’s ranks.
The story is solid, but would be nothing without a cast of colorful characters. You alternately play as both Kharg, a human noble, and Darc, a Deimos slave. Each perspective is vastly different, and nothing is rehashed when switching between the two protagonists. What really makes the journey more interesting is the fact that the two heroes are brothers separated at birth, and the build up to their eventual realization is one of the many reasons to continue playing. Both characters round up a gang of warriors that travel with them as they fight to save their own people, and of course, the world. There are 14 characters in all, with a good mix of conventional and just plain strange personalities. Some will make you laugh, a few will strike an emotional cord, and then there’s Camellia. For all you JRPG enthusiasts out there, she’s an uglier version of Final Fantasy IX’s Quina. Yep, that’s possible. No matter your tastes, you will find someone in the bunch you will enjoy.
Though the story sticks to many JRPG conventions, it’s the combat that moves in new directions. It mixes both turn-based action and strategy to create something new and exciting. Each character feels different, and you learn exactly how to position your party on the battlefield to achieve the quickest finish. There’s no lack of challenge either, and I have to admit that the final boss battle took me quite some time to figure out, let alone conquer. I’m a sucker for a good turn-based game, and Arc the Lad is one of the elite.
What truly makes Twilight of the Spirits such a gem? While the combat feels fresh and is expertly crafted, it’s the dramatic narrative and character interaction that clinches the deal. There are some truly great moments planted throughout this long and fulfilling tale, and some cutscenes still resonate with me today. With no theater to replay these shining sequences, I’ve loaded up old saves on multiple occasions to experience the dynamic turning points again and again. Yes, many of the personalities seem generic and resemble archetypes that you have seen on multiple other occasions, but their development throughout the game proves they are so much more than ever expected. If you come to Arc the Lad: Twilight of the Spirits looking for a great combat system, you will be satisfied. If jump into the game hoping for a memorable story, you will get everything you paid for and so much more. At around $3 on Amazon, I cannot recommend it enough.