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Jeanne D'Arc review
Vive la Différence!


Jeanne d’Arc (‘Joan of Arc’) is a turn-based, strategy RPG which has been woefully overlooked by the vast majority of the gaming population. The game follows Jeanne from her humble beginnings as a peasant girl to her taking up arms in the Hundred Years’ War, battling the English, striving to place Charles VII on the throne, and ridding France of Henry VI’s invading armies. Never heard of it? Depending on where you’re from, that’s not altogether surprising. In 2006, publishers Level-5 were relatively unknown outside Japan, and Jeanne d’Arc predates the company’s major commercial successes (including the Professor Layton and White Knight Chronicles series). For some bizarre reason, Level-5 never decided to release it at all in PAL regions (my own copy is an import). But in a genre where Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea serve as the gold standards, it testifies to the fact that steering away from the mainstream video game market can occasionally reward you with a hidden gem.

The gameplay will be instantly familiar to fans of the strategy RPG genre. The story is driven by your battles across the world map which will take you throughout virtually the entirety of France. Each battle will see you assume the control of between two and seven characters from your retinue and pits you against a variable number of opponents. The turn-based system permits each of your soldiers to make one movement and one action per turn, after which the opponent makes their moves, and so on until specific objectives are met and the battle is concluded. Your party members have relative strengths and weaknesses depending on the way you choose to equip them with weapons, armour and skills which are found or purchased throughout your journey. All the usual classes – tank, knight, thief mage, archer – are again here represented. A soldier participating in a battle will earn experience depending on their role, eventually levelling-up and receiving the skill bonuses thereby entailed.

Battlefield navigation is simple and virtually identical to Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea

It’s pretty stock-standard, but there are a few interesting mechanics that spice things up a bit. Throughout the game, certain characters will gain the ability to ‘transform’ into more powerful versions of themselves. Such transformations impart significant bonuses, but may only be used once per battle – the decision of when and how to use them can completely turn the tide for or against you. In addition, using a melee attack on an enemy will imbue the tile directly behind them with a ‘burning aura’, which will multiply the power of any attack made from that square. These simple additions nevertheless add elements which need to be taken into account to achieve victory.

Recently I criticised Deus Ex: Human Revolution for only presenting the semblance of control, when in reality the game mostly dictates your choices along a number of dimensions. The same’s true here in several respects. For a start, the ‘main quest’ is more or less linear. Every so often the game allows you to make a tokenistic decision on which path to pursue, but all this does is open up certain battlefields sooner rather than later. The story itself doesn’t change as a consequence of your choices. On the surface, there is a wide range of available weapon (sword, axe, lance, knife, bow, staff – even whip) and armour (heavy, medium, light) types. However, while you can make limited decisions concerning the choice of weapon and armour a given character uses, each character can only use one type of weapon and many armour sets are limited to only a few characters. Thus while veterans would be unlikely to field a mage clad in chainmail wielding a battleaxe, you can’t even if you wanted to. In fact most equipable items are slightly more or less powerful variations of each other, so unless you’d prefer heading into battle with less-than-optimal equipment, most of your ‘choices’ are no-brainers.

As a result, the RPG heart of the game is its skill system. Every character has a set number of skill slots to which particular skills can be assigned. These skills are dictated by ‘skill stones’ which are mostly dropped by enemies and obtained through battle. Different stones will augment your characters in different ways - for example, red skill stones award the bearer with new and powerful attacks, while blue skill stones impart passive bonuses to a character’s attributes (e.g., attack power leading to stronger melee attacks or defense which will reduce that character’s damage taken). Since a character’s skill slots are limited, decisions concerning which skills to give to which characters, in addition to which characters to use in a given battle, will have a major impact on the gameplay experienced. Furthermore, a ‘blending’ system allows you to combine two obtained skill stones to create a new and stronger one. Initially, blending will be completely blind until you achieve, through trial-and-error, a list of ‘recipes’ which the game conveniently stores for you. Grinding for components to ever more powerful skill stones is key to overcoming later battles, and particularly boss fights, which otherwise can prove quite challenging.

The party interface should be instantly recognisable to SRPG fans

The narrative is effective in driving the story forward, as should be true of any RPG worth its salt. The plot should be familiar to history buffs: in the early 15th Century, the Hundred Years’ War is in full swing. The English have invaded France and are terrorising the local populace. The world of a young peasant girl, the eponymous heroine, is thrown upside down when her village is burned to the ground. But she begins to receive divine inspirations driving her to rid France of English influence. The game follows Jeanne as she forms a small band of knights, strives to place Charles VII on the French throne, and reclaim her homeland from the child king Henry VI.

Oh, and er, Henry is possessed by an arch-demon, supplements his armies with hordes of mythical creatures and the war will decide the fate of humanity. I guess the textbooks must have left those bits out.

The game therefore represents an unusual blend of the historical and the fantastic. Admittedly, this is usually a dangerous approach to video game narratives. Fantasy fanatics tend to be put-off by the attention to contemporary detail while history freaks are frustrated by the obvious inaccuracies that inevitably ensue. Jeanne d’Arc offers both in multitudes. Even a novice student of the Hundred Years’ War will actually gain a fairly accurate insight into its major events, locations and figures. Most of the game’s protagonists and antagonists are interpretations of true-to-life individuals, and most of the story-related battles actually occurred – if not in quite the same way. On the other hand, you’ve got the game’s fictitious backstory of a demonic race called the Reapers intent on world domination through possessing influential figures and manipulating events from the shadows. Only through the actions of a chosen few, who bear ‘armlets’ imparting divine powers, can the evil be thwarted, clichés be eschewed, and everyone live happily ever after. Throw in the therion (basically Fire Emblem’s laguz), some token elves and orcs and a few thinly-veiled racial jokes (one of the playable characters is a frog) and you have a truly odd concoction that seems to have a foot in two entirely separate camps.

Cutscenes wouldn’t look out of place on Saturday morning television

But somehow, Jeanne d’Arc just works. I’m not even entirely sure how it pulls it off. Maybe it’s the cartoony familiarity of the medieval setting which makes the outrageously fantastical creatures forgivable. Maybe it’s the unexpected accuracy of the storyline which offsets the glaringly fictitious additions. Or maybe I’m just a tragic who feels such creative audacity ought to be encouraged rather than slammed. Either way, its bizarre take on a well-worn genre isn’t something that should put you off it whatsoever.

The game isn’t perfect, of course. The graphics, for one, really aren’t anything to write home about. Again, experienced gamers will know exactly what to expect, with cartoon rendering interspersed with anime-esque cutscenes. For those who place importance on graphics, this may be one of the major drawbacks of the game. In battle, animations are mostly repetitive and characters consist of obtuse angles and unrealistic proportions. Battlefields, like much about the game, tend to sacrifice detail for colour. Most sound effects could likewise be lifted from virtually any other game, with a Zelda-like tendency away from realism in favour of expression (‘Hyahh!’). The cutscenes are actually fairly well done, but relatively few and far between. Even the voice-acting of video game and anime veterans including Kari Wahlgren) is marred by its insistence on grating, stereotypically French accents. The rock-paper-scissors relationship between character elements (sol, luna, stella) also proves to be more of a headache than it's worth, and it's easier just to ignore it entirely. However, for those who think such considerations trivialities in the broader context (myself included) the game more than makes up for these shortcomings by everything else it has to offer. Particularly nice examples are genuine rewards for exploration and a post-game scenario which actually has incentives to continue playing.

Have at you! Protip: Equipping your party with sticks is inadvisable

Conclusion: If you’re not already a fan of the SRPG genre there are probably better exemplars out there which you ought to try first. But if you enjoy turn-based strategy, Jeanne d’Arc is a solid offering which provides a great alternative to the staples. You’re looking at 30-40 hours if you take your time to enjoy it, and the lack of industry hype means you can get it pretty cheaply. You might have to go out of your way to grab a copy, but it’s well worth it.

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