Luminous Arc review
Luminous Arc Shines Brightly
The various features of the DS bring about a whole slew of potential possibilities that the standard handheld console setup simply cannot provide. One of these is a more streamlined strategy interface. Luminous Arc is my first foray into the DS' library of strategy titles.
Things get off to a very good start with a distinct anime-styled appearance that is very pleasing to the eye. Cutscenes generally subscribe to the Fire Emblem school of thought, where character interaction occurs between character half-body artwork with changing emotional displays and static backgrounds. It's a shame that it's not full animation but despite that it still looks amazing. The art is crisp, clear and bold. Everything is so colourful and the designs are easy to see.
In fact, the designs themselves are generally excellent. The time period is typical magic medieval, and this gives rise to a few design types from the knights to clerics to witches. Outfits are often quite flashy and possess a lot of details and the overall flair is impressive. The way every character expresses themselves visually, such as shock or annoyed, really works nicely too.
Then we have the battle graphics, which take the form of 2D sprites on an isometric field. Despite the reduction in size for the characters each sprite is still distinctive enough to pick out exactly who each person is, with the appearance matching the larger cutscene artwork quite nicely.
The sheer quality of the animation is impressive too. Every one of them will walk around, dodge, strike forward, cast magic and use items with various animations to match. It all has a nice charm to it as these little people storm around the map fighting the enemy. The effects are also very nice, as the battlefield gets set alight with fire, water, light and explosions, amongst lots of other combat effects that really help to make the experience. The really special attacks even come with their own sweet animations and larger sliding character art too.
The battlefields are also very nicely crafted. You will find yourself performing combat in locations such as towns, forests, fields and forts, as well as some more exotic locations like a strange witches' lair filled with sparkling lights and energy veins. Each area is built up beautifully so that they feel perfect.
The visuals don't escape free of problems though. An isometric camera angle inherently brings about a problem of seeing exact character placements when units get grouped close together, and Luminous Arc is no exception. The inability to swivel the camera around to view things from a different side doesn't help. There have also been instances of slowdown in some battles, and while this does not impact the gameplay (considering it's turn based) it does the visual presentation no favours.
Sonically the game hits upon another success. The game opens with Brilliant World by Oda Kaori in an anime-styled opener that is not only a rarity in the handheld market but is such a beautiful opener as well. The song has such energy in it and it is the kind of song you'd have in your music player (which, incidentally, I do). The ingame music may not be as epic as that but the OST overall is a very good collection of tracks that work well with the action to engage the player.
Then we have voice acting, which kinda came as a 'wait, what' moment for me. It's kinda ToS syndrome, where some cutscenes have voice acting and some don't (often switching halfway through as well), but I think a handheld game actually having it at all is impressive and something I'd like to see more of. Some of the voices could be better, like Nikolai's is annoying to hear and Saki can be a bit too emotionless at times, but then you have some strong performances for characters like Alph and Lucia, so ultimately it is a very nice addition to the experience.
Luminous Arc's story starts out with the Garden Children - young kids raised to fight against bad guys and condemn the witches that are said to have brought destruction to the land. After a brief tutorial section you are sent off to hunt witches, and aside from an interesting (if somewhat predictable) plot point regarding Lucia everything else is pretty mundane so far. Then several battles later the 'twists' start coming. Well, you can probably see them coming a mile off, but the tale does become more interesting as the story develops and I can safely say that it supports the gameplay quite well.
Character interaction is of utmost importance and this works nicely too. You can see the inherent distrust of witches and those who are thought to be allied with them, and witnessing the struggles of the Garden Children and those around them as they fight those with their own agendas is great.
Even a priestess can kick ass when she needs to.
The game is one of those SRPGs that mix classic strategy elements with role playing game traits such as levelling up and equipment management. The genre holds some top tier titles and it seems that handhelds are especially popular choices to release these games on.
You have a number of units and can choose up to eight of them to enter various battles. Gameplay consists of turn based movement where each character takes their specific turn to perform an action. LA adopts a form of an AT system where character action times are measured by their own stats (as opposed to something like Fire Emblem where all allied units act in the same turn). Moving your troops around to maximize turn order is vital. This information is readily available by pressing X to toggle the onscreen display, although why this is not set to on by default is mind boggling.
Every character has a number of options to make use of. Moving can be done in addition to any other action, and can be done either before or after said actions. This gives you the freedom to attack and move away, or reposition yourself for a better assault. Each character also has a basic attack command. The available attack depends on the weapon type used (swords are close range only, bows can only hit at range, spears pierce two spaces etc) but no special points are used.
Stepping it up a gear are the special abilities. Spells and skills both use MP, but generally offer something regular attacking can't. Some moves are simply powered up attacks but you also have a range of other moves such as area effect attack spells, healing spells, powerup skills, status infliction or alternative attack methods (allowing a close range unit to strike at long range for example).
Generally the scope of these skills depends on how far into the game you are. Skill sets are unique to each character and are learned by levelling up. Because of this you'll find that earlygame your scope is quite limited as each character has few skills and it often seems better to just use normal attacks. However, later on when your skills have increased in number you'll find that you will be approaching command usage a lot more tactically. A regular attack may be fine but a powered attack might give you the edge to kill that unit now, and things like healing and stat boosts become a lot more important.
All characters can also dip into the item store to use whatever items you have.These have the benefit of not costing MP, although while useful earlygame these seem to lose their importance later on when healing spells excel past the healing items. There's no limit on who can access what items though so that frees up some breathing room.
Then we have the ultimate attacks. Flash drive moves used up FP that build up slowly over the course of battle. Often these moves possess some range, deliver notable damage and may inflict either a status ailment or a stat drop. Like other skills these are specific to individual characters and are learned by levelling up. These are ideal for delivering some extra punch, but that said while I often used the Lv1 moves I found little point in the Lv2 and Lv3 flash drives. Typically these moves are only slightly stronger than the similar lower level flash drives, but using up more FP as a cost. I found that 2 Lv1 attacks was better than 1 Lv2 one, which seems to defeat the purpose of offering higher level flash drives.
There's also special synergy moves where two characters can unleash a combo attack on an enemy by being within three spaces of each other and both possessing 3 FP each. However, this I found relatively pointless, mainly because by the time you've meet the conditions the battle can almost be over and using normal flash drives seems a better solution. They do look cool, but just not practical.
It's also possible to set the direction a character is facing at the end of their turn providing you did not move and then act. This is supposed to affect damage and hit rates, as striking the rear of a unit will deliver more damage than striking the front. The instruction manual also boasts that height plays a factor in this. Honestly though I never saw a significant difference. The hit rate was always at 99% regardless of which side I attacked from, and while there was a damage difference it was very small, to the point of being rather pointless.
The maps you fight on are fairly interesting too. Terrain features consist of elemental affinities and bumpy terrain. The element setup never seemed to affect things much, but I liked how the field is not just one flat block of land, and navigating cliffs, walls and rivers works a treat.
The difficulty of these battles can actually be rather brutal at times. Part of this may be the kamikaze AI behaviour that causes even the bosses to rush your position (taking hits from the generic and the bosses is not an easy task) but generally you'll find that launching assaults is not that simple and especially later on you'll find that a reckless approach will leave your army destroyed quickly.
The visual interface of battles really helps streamline the experience. While the battlefield is on the bottom screen you can view status screens on the top screen of the currently selected unit. The shoulder buttons can also be used to cycle between various information screens. When you choose to view a character's status in closer detail these screens switch, so you can still see the battlefield (on the top screen this time).
For a ninja, Saki's flash point isn't as impressive as others.
What doesn't work so well is the touch screen control setup. I tried this control scheme at first but so many battles in I found it to be terrible. The big problem is that it is totally inaccurate. The game seems to have problems identifying which character you're trying to select, especially when several people are grouped together. It has led to the wrong characters being selected as the targets. The game does ask to confirm actions, but even so having to repeatedly cancel actions because the game can't tell who I'm trying to select is irritating. I eventually gave up and switched to the more traditional button input method, although that does seem to partly miss the point when it comes to the strengths of the console.
An extra bonus to battles is the intermission sequences. Upon completing a battle you get the chances to talk to one of the others that participated in the same battle. You get to learn more of whoever you talk to, and the correct response can raise the affection level. It's nice to learn more of the troops, although I have not seen a practical use to this feature outside of obtaining the odd free item.
Outside of battle you can travel around a world map that slowly opens up as the story advances. It's not as exciting as a traditional RPG, as you move around icons on the map and choose to enter locations. Some icons are encounter icons. The first time you pass over these you are forcefully dragged into a battle against some generics. Afterwards there is a chance of being dragged into battle, or you can choose to enter that battle again. These optional battles are a welcome addition, and the difficulty is generally lower than the story battles so they are a welcome break.
In non-encounter spaces you can often talk to set characters to learn more of the story and read information from a library. Some places also allow you to shop for items, such as purchasing upgraded equipment to boost your character's stats or restorative items to use in battle. LA does fall into the modern RPG trap of making money too easy to earn as you progress though.
However, I must lament the lack of actual exploration elements. While most Fire Emblem titles lack an actual world map or even a world environment outside of battle you were able to explore the battle maps, recruiting new allies during the action, visiting villages and heading to out of the way shops of special goods. Because your movement in the Luminous Arc world map is more limited and that the maps, for their tactical appeal, lack interactive elements the exploration aspect is not as good as it could be.
Saving the game is handled expertly. You have three save files that you can save to when on the world map. You can also save your game during a battle to a special suspend battle save slot. Reloading this doesn't have limits on it either (unlike similar titles in the genre), so it can be a good get out of trouble option for those difficult battles.
Luminous Arc's single player campaign is quite lengthy. There are quite a few chapters to plough through, and the battles themselves can take a while as you try not to get killed by the coming mob of enemies. The optional encounter battles and the world map exploration helps extend things even further. There's also a multiplayer component that allows you to take characters into player vs player battles, either through local wireless play or even across the WiFi online connection. As usual with this kind of thing, tackling human opponents is a fairly rewarding experience as you try to cope with a less predictable approach to combat.
My final thoughts are that Luminous Arc has a few issues but the whole package is a wonderful treat that any fan of the SRPG genre should seriously consider adding to their collection. Battles become intense with a lot of tactical thought entering the further you progress, and the level of presentation is excellent.
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