What excitement, what wonderment, what… the heck is even happening?
Investment: PSP or Vita, Cost $15, Time to complete 30-40 Hours
Jeanne D’Arc is a tactics game set in the early 1400’s during The Hundred Year War between France and England. The team at Level-5 has done the story of Jeanne quite a bit of respect. Many of the levels and major early events follow the actual history closely, if a bit stylized. And by stylized I mean that, while this setting seems rather grounded, the game itself takes many, many artistic liberties. There are magics, elves, dwarfs, dragons, and half humans; things notably missing from the records of that time. The voice of God is kept as a motivator early on and while that may seem like another artistic liberty it was a well documented (though obviously unprovable) quirk of our titular hero.
The story follows Jeanne D’arc, a common villager who, after receiving a magical bracelet, starts hearing the voice of God. The English King Henry VI, a small child, has been possessed by a powerful demon and has infused his armies with fiends of many kinds. So the obvious choice of action is to follow the voices, abandon your home, and join the French military to free your countrymen. The game starts off with this simple concept but grows more expansive with each encounter. You have the ability to see most of the map from the beginning of the game, though it is devoid of nearly all levels at first. Soon though, cities start filling out the map and the amount of encounters and unique levels they cram into that small space is astounding. I found myself constantly surprised as more and more was added.
The tale of Jeanne D’arc is also full of surprises. While it takes a few hours to get going, and does start from a very typical JRPG opening, it quickly blossoms into something more. The historical story of Jeanne is already an interesting one but the liberties they take with the story half way through flesh it into something more than just a reenactment. Characters come and go, you are betrayed, rejected, forced into combat with your fellow French and all the while it avoids many of the pitfalls of anime-style storytelling. Level-5 has embellished the tale in such a way that it remains captivating throughout and (spoilers from 1400 AD) even remains powerful after Jeanne’s death. This is mostly because, instead of focusing the story around the a world ending catastrophe the entire time, they instead gave time to let the characters breathe.
Lovable characters is another sheen to this already shining game. To be fair it is not the most intricate character development ever created that makes the characters so great. It is that they are all so charming in their individual ways. Your elf speaks entirely in alliteration, La Hire (A lion-man) boasts of his prowess is the third person, and Jeanne is a single minded mad-woman that inspires those around her through bullheaded courage. They all mesh and clash in wonderful ways giving life to a story that could have been as exciting as a Wikipedia page. The small touch of having characters respond to the actions of others during combat gives the impression that these characters are more than exposition spigots. La Hire will laugh after being hit or cheer on an ally after a successful strike. Most comrades will thank you after a healing spell while some others will curse you, claiming they do not need your assistance. It is easy to fall for the story’s wiles and I was thankful that I did.
That is all well and good, but how does the game play? Well think of it as kind of “My First Tactics Game.” It starts off very simplistic, offering bonuses to rear and side attacks, your typical tactics fare. Quickly the added wrinkle of Burning Auras, which appear opposite the side of an attacked enemy, is introduced. When a character stands in the Aura they receive a substantial bonus to their attack or magic capabilities. Some of your characters can also transform into sleek-armored warriors. These champions have their own unique attack and, if they can fell a foe in one strike, get to take a second turn. These edges in combat are essential as the game ramps steadily and deliberately to become a real challenge later on. The “My First Tactics Game” motif sheds and Jeanne D’arc transcends into something far more dangerous. The last few hours of the game put me in situations where I had to thoughtfully plan out every attack and burn through most of my most valuable consumables just to stay alive, much less ahead.
The game also does not solely rest on killing everything. Many encounters are switched into things like defending yourself while fleeing or prioritizing a target so that the battle ends at their falling. One level even has you corralling dragons, without killing them, which was a real turn on any tactics I regularly used. And with the exception of one escort mission, I enjoyed every last quest my team of heroes went on. I mentioned that the game expands far beyond its initial impression and the encounters are no exception. There are more of them and more variation to them that I expected there could be.
All of this praise aside there were a few failings of Jeanne D’arc. Character customization in particular; this part of the game is quite possibly the most lacking but this issue is relatively minor. While you are offered a a fair few options with your skills and magics you are also quite restricted. Each character has set stats and weapons that they use. They get stronger with each level but at no point can you start crossing classes. While La Hire can wield an axe like you would imagine a lion man would, he seems unable to cast an effective fireball. To an extent this is a good thing because it forces you to think in a more tactical manner. Though it would be nice if it gave you more flexibility to cross classes or boost stats in a meaningful way. As it stands La Hire will always be my axeman and effectively useless at long range. Thankfully there is enough character variety that you can make up for the shortcomings of your team with a little forethought.
My one major complaint about the game is how it resolves. The story takes some very interesting twists and turns through your play. Characters leave, betray, die, or come to your aid in awesome ways. The final hours of the game can be fairly intense. The last few encounters are especially challenging, pushing your team to their near limits. (Unless you grind out a bunch of levels, you weenie.) So for the ending moments of the game to fizzle in such a mediocre way is disappointing. It is certainly not a deal breaker as the rest of the game is really quite spectacular. Just do not expect some intellectually challenging or unique ending as this story is far more about the journey than the destination.
Fun to Play
Story fizzles in the last moments
Too little character customization