It shouldn't surprise anybody that the story of Jeanne D'Arc (or, to us Americans, Joan of Arc) would make for an interesting video game. After all, it's the story of strong woman who hears the voice of God and is called to do something pretty extraordinary ... liberate France from the tyranny of the British. With its over-the-top characters, non-stop killing, huge battles and political intrigue, you would think that the story of Joan of Arc would be salacious enough to make for a great video game. But Jeanne D'Arc, the new tactical role-playing game from developers Level 5 (Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII), decided to go a completely different (and some may say crazy) route when retelling this story.
On the surface Jeanne D'Arc tells a pretty familiar story, it's 15th century France and the people of that country are locked in a nasty territory dispute with England. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, demons attack a local festival and start to ruin the day for a lot of the fun-loving French citizens. It's at this very moment that a young girl, Jeanne, hears a message from the heavens that tells her to kick the demon's ass, something she is capable of doing despite never wielding a sword in her life. Jeanne saves the day and realizes what she must do: Bring order to the rest of France and run out those nasty demons. Wait ... what?? Since when did the Joan of Arc story deal with demons, zombies and dragons?
I think it's safe to say that Jeanne D'Arc takes some liberties with the original story. While you will be fighting knights and enemy soldiers, the majority of your enemies consist of the undead monster variety. It won't take long before you get over the initial shock that this is not a historical retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, and once you do you'll be treated to the single most exciting tactical role-playing games currently available for the Sony PSP.
Like so many tactical RPGs before it, Jeanne D'Arc is played on a giant board divided up into a lot of little squares. You command a group of warriors over the terrain and take on your enemies in a turn-based battle to the death. Along the way you can use magic and items, as well as transform certain characters into god-like killing machines. If you've played this kind of role-playing game before then you should already know what to expect, Level 5 did not deviat from the tried and tested formula that has worked for games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre.
Comparing Jeanne D'Arc to those popular (and influential) tactical RPGs isn't that far off, especially since this PSP game tends to play exactly like those other titles. Level 5 hasn't really gone in and created anything new or necessarily original, what they've done is refined the gameplay into a wonderfully streamlined retelling of the genre. The best part of this role-playing game is that the missions are often quick and action-packed, not something you always say when describing a tactical role-playing game. A lot of the useless detail that ultimately slows down the action has been taken out, and it has been replaced with a game that is simple enough for new fans of the genre, yet deep enough to keep the hardcore fans entertained from beginning to end.
The game is split up into three dozen story missions that are spread out over eight different chapters. While most of the missions involve you exterminating all the enemies on that level, there are quite a few missions that revolve around you safely leading your team to an exit, protecting some computer-controlled character, and overcoming unfair situations. In short, there's enough variety in this game to keep you entertained through all of the missions (and the side questions). Best of all, Jeanne D'Arc features a lengthy campaign that will have you going for 30 to 40 hours (depending on how much of a completist you are).
The best reason to see Jeanne D'Arc to the very end is the incredible story. We already know that the story of Joan of Arc is one full of bloody combat and an over-the-top hero, but the supporting cast of characters is equally memorable. And better yet, the actual plot of the game twists and turns all over the place, constantly keeping you on the edge of your seat. In one moment you'll be ripping the heads off of zombie soldiers, while in the very next sequence you'll deal with the heavy emotion of losing one of your best friends. Despite the game's cartoony look, Jeanne D'Arc features a number of heart wrenching (and sometimes controversial) moments.
Early on the game mimics the story of Joan of Arc moment for moment, you are doing everything that the real person did and fighting in all of the locations she fought in. Obviously there are some difference (such as fighting zombie warriors instead of soldiers), but for the most part the game follows the original story word for word. And then it doesn't. Half way through the game Level 5 decides to completely rewrite the whole legend and makes up a compelling second half full of double-crossing, political intrigue, and a lot more enemies to massacre. The story is fascinating from beginning to end, but needless to say this is not a game that is strict about its historical accuracy.
While the game may not break any new ground in the tactical RPG genre, the controls and interface are all nicely put together. The controls are easy to learn and responsive, the interface is painless to navigate, and customize your character couldn't be any easier than it is here. On top of that, the game always lets you know where you're supposed to go next and go back and play through some of the previous levels (which turn into Free Combat areas once beaten). Jeanne D'Arc is just a very well put together role-playing game.
Outside of the basic combat and customization, Jeanne D'Arc does offer a few interesting ideas to the tactical RPG genre. For example, certain characters will be able to equip jewels to their armlets allowing them to transform themselves into even more powerful (fully armored) versions of their character. This is not only useful because it refills the character's life and gives them superhuman strength, but if you land an extra-powerful hit you will be given a second (or possibly third) turn in a row. It's possible to kill several enemies with one of these characters before the enemy turn even comes up.
On top of that you will also be able to equip special stones that act as the various magic and special abilities. These stones are split up into four different skills: Two different Weapon Skills (one that adds powerful moves to your weapon and another that contains latent skills), Magic Skills (magic that allows you to cast fire, ice, and even heal your teammates), and Status Up Skills (these can do anything from making you better are evading attacks or adding more health to your character). The trick is that you can only equip a few of these on any given character, so you have to choose wisely as to how you want your character to act and what kind of magic you want to be able to cast. This takes the place of the traditional magic system where you're character earns these mystical powers, this offers a bit more control over what kind of soldiers you want in your party.
As you progress through the game you will pick up a number of different characters, each with their own little quirks. Early on you'll be fighting alongside other humans (namely Liane and Roger), but soon enough you'll have a lion in your party, as well as a dog-like man and even a frog thing (at least, I think that's a frog). Along with all the different looking characters, you also get a few different types of weapons to play around with. Most of the early teammates will use the traditional sword, but as you attract new characters to your team you will have people who fight with their trusty axe, knives, lances, and bows. Like any good role-playing game (or adventure game in general) you can buy better weapons to make your character more powerful.
The presentation of Jeanne D'Arc is fantastic; the game's graphics absolutely shine on the PSP's widescreen display. The characters (both heroes and enemies) are presented with a cool cel-shaded look. Even when the camera is far away you can always figure out who's who and what kind of weapon the enemies are packing. Even more impressive are the short anime sequences that are used to introduce something important to the story. I would have liked to have seen more of these intermissions throughout the game, but I'm just happy that Level 5 decided to sprinkle these cinemas into the story.
While the anime sequences are full of dramatic music and fantastic voice acting, as soon as the cinema ends we're stuck with voiceless dialog-driven scenes where two or more characters will groan on about everything that is on their mind. The good news is that the script is well written and the dialog is fairly interesting, even if it does seem like it drags on a bit too long in some places. It would have been nice if the entire game was voice acted, I'm sure that would have added even more to the already spectacular presentation.
I had a lot of fun with Jeanne D'Arc, it's easily the best role-playing game currently available for the PSP. But while I loved going through this exciting adventure, I do wish that Level 5 would have been even more daring when it came to adding to the genre. As it is Jeanne D'Arc is just an excellent version of what has been done before, there's nothing here that stands out as being truly new and fresh. Having said that, what we have here is a brilliant role-playing game that will keep you glued to the PSP for many hours to come.
After a two year wait, PSP owners finally have a role-playing game worth bragging about. Jeanne D'Arc is everything it promises to be, even if it is a by-the-books tactical RPG. At the end of the day Sony's newest adventure game excels because of its fascinating story, fast-paced battles and fantastic presentation. At a mere $30 this game is a must-own for every PSP owner looking to get sucked into a great role-playing experience. While you won't find a lot of historical accuracy in Jeanne D'Arc, you certainly will find a whole lot of fun.