A lad becomes a man.
If the Arc series were a movie trilogy, it would be something like Back to the Future. Implausible time travel might not be the stuff from which epic trilogies like The Godfather or Star Wars are made, but it's still entertaining..
Likewise, the games of Arc the Lad Collection are inescapably dated, yet still fun. While the actual storylines don't claim any new ground with their old hat 'good vs. evil' plots, the manner in which the stories are told is interesting. Add in a battle system that is at once direct and peppered with a nice amount of strategy and a total quest taking up more than 100 hours, and you have a pretty solid collection.
The product is nothing if not robust. Arc The Lad Collection contains full versions of Arc I, Arc II, and the new Arc III, as well as the faster paced Arc Arena. That's three RPGs in one handy pack.
Arc I tells the story of Arc as he quests to recover elemental spheres and seal the evil Dark One away forever. Arc II takes place right after I, but re-centers the story on the young Elc, a mercenary Hunter. Despite their different focuses, Arc I is so short and Arc II is so long that you are better off thinking of them as one game. In the original creation of the first Arc, development times were cut short, so it was decided to serialize the game into two parts. Arc I took me around 10 hours. I poured in around 45 on Arc II.
A small problem in Arc II is the drawn-out ending. Right when you think you've finally made it to the 'ultimate' evil, it turns out "the princess is in another castle." The dangling-carrot pacing, which repeatedly sets you up for a final encounter only to force you back down near the end, can drive you bonkers. It's nice having a long adventure, but this one's a little too long.
But of all the games in the collection, Arc II is also the most engrossing. A large cast of characters is balanced with a moving storyline that transcends the other Arcs. Though the maximum number of characters you can take into battle is only 5, the whole game feels more polished than its predecessor.
Arc III is the follow-up adventure featuring a different protagonist. This time it's Alec, yet another hero with an oddly similar name, a would-be Hunter who again must save the world from certain peril. The game is steeped in science fiction elements, with the duplicitous "Academy" taking center stage as the baddies.
The third adventure is less epic in scope and more lighthearted in its drama than the older games. Characters from the other Arcs make more cameos than a full season of VH1's "Where Are They Now?"
The combat works on relatively the same turn-based system for all three games. Characters have limited movement across the battle map and their attacks work within certain strike zones. It's straightforward and classic.
The strategy is simplified further in III, as most attacks cover a wider range and don't require a central grounding character. While there's more to do with item and weapon combining as well as 'monster capturing', the battles feel too easy. Your total number of characters in battle is reduced yet again down to 4.
The other big change is in the graphics, which in Arc III have shifted to polygons. Frankly, in this kind of game I'll tale the warmth of the classic sprites over the colder yet sharper polygonal environments. Even though the sprite graphics of Arc I and II are heavily dated, they work fine and capture a distinct style. The taller, non-deformed Arc III looks a little silly in comparison.
Arc the Lad Collection allows continuos character growth. Saved games from Arc I can be converted to Arc II, and then Arc II into Arc III. The characters will thereby have adjusted stat boosts from your earlier adventures.
The big bonus disk is Monster Arena, which allows you to fight the monsters you've captured from Arc II. If you can get a friend to start capturing creatures as well, you can fight one another in bloodied battles ala Pokemon. It's like a big mini-game more than a full game on its own, but it's a decent addition.
While I love the idea of deluxe packaging and think that more American companies should offer these sets like they do in Japan, the Arc extras are middling. Paper cutout standees and analog stick covers are boring to me. There's also a memory card case that at the very least is useful.
Plus, the price is still a major consideration. Arc the Lad Collection retails for 75 bucks - that's more than the cost of the PSX itself. It's very hard to recommend Arc the Lad Collection at that enormous price point, especially considering the fact that we're talking about the PSX, a system that's on its way out. Most PSX games these days cost about 20 bucks. Is this worth 4 of them? It might be very robust, but I'm not sure it's that burly. If you can find it for cheaper - and I'm sure you can - then this turns into more of a steal and less of a wallet burner.
Price notwithstanding, Arc the Lad Collection offers a good amount of role-playing depth. You get a real sense of accomplishment saving the world with three generations of heroes. All in all, this is a solid collection that is worth a look, provided the price is right.