Just after Level 5's gentle logo disappears, you find yourself transported into a grand and lonely cathedral basking in warm sunset glow. Curtains of dusty light filter through high stained glass windows, rows of lit candles burn gently on golden candelabras, while a haunting tune plays with the subtlety of a music box and the grandeur of a solemn choir. The title Jeanne d'Arc displays, and with it all notions that PSP games are console ports or small budget projects are allayed for a time. All seems set for it to be another proud title in its growing portfolio of quality original IP's, and might just be the big RPG PSP fans were waiting for.
The story however WILL strike some the wrong way, the historical Joan is a story not a few people have fallen in love with. With the real Joan on her way to sainthood, why choose to tell her story with orcs for English soldiers? Why represent the will of god through a bracelet letting her transform into a miraculous super Joan? Confused? Well the feeling gets better if fantasy anime retellings of tragic heroic history are your cup of tea. Picture the scene, the demonic forces from the underworld, long sealed away by valiant heroes, are unleashed by an evil vizier. During the ritual an evil spirit enters the young King Henry, now quite obviously evil as well. Cut to our young heroine. On the night of a festival in her rural out of the way village, she and her friend Lian come across a fatally wounded knight. The knight is dead, but something in his pouch glows brightly. Uncertain if it's unavoidable curiosity or if it's actually calling to her, she reaches towards the pouch when a golden ray comes from it and forms into the aforementioned bracelet on her arm. Not left long to wonder, pig like orcs find them and a mysterious voice beckons Jeanne to fight. After defeating them, their friend Roger comes and (stop me if this surprises you) tells them the village is in flames. Everyone is dead at the hands of the English orcs and Jeanne through the power of her bracelet transforms to defeat the murderers. The next day dawns, Jeanne and her two friends leave the ashes behind them, and set out to join the French army in the age of the 100 Years War.
Still with me? Good, you can appreciate the rest. Make no mistake, the presentation in Jeanne d'Arc is inspiring and reaches a high watermark that not enough portables dare to push. The animated cut scenes look good, the music sounds great, and the graphics are among the best the Tactical JRPG genre has seen regardless of console. Everything is polished to excellence, from the vibrant colors, to textures which read with great fidelity. There are sensational background effects like fog or burning embers rising through smoke, even weapons that change appearance with what you equip, and the voices of Jeanne and her allies as they swing their swords in battle. And the real world demands of a portable are all met. Loading times are generally moot and at any point during the turn based fighting, you can pause and save. It's all we commuters ask but it's sometimes easy for developers to forget.
Skip this paragraph if you've experienced a SRPG like Disegea or Final Fantasy Tactics before. Combat goes in turns, a player phase and enemy phase. You have an isometric grid like battlefield where often the odds are stacked against your small party typically by greater numbers or terrain working against you. Careful management of your companions movement and action are required if you are to see the victory conditions through. Outside of battle, you typically have a world map which boils down to selecting your next battle or purchasing items at the different cities. The importance of careful management outside battle is just as great as when you're doing the actual fighting.
There are more than a few new things which greatly affect the tides of battle and a couple of them can really shift power into your hands if carefully used. First and foremost, Jeanne's transformation ability IS your key to victory. Once every battle she can use this strategically induced miracle from on high. Jeanne's health and mana increases, her attack power practically doubles, her movement range grows, and after every monster she defeats she gets to take another turn. Like an unstoppable hopping checker piece she can singlehandedly wipe out a small enemy horde. It remains to be seen if this remarkable feat is tempered later by stronger enemies or similar abilities from your companions or battles where the checker hopping becomes improbable or inadvisable. The last has happened once in my play through, when after charging ahead alone defeating enemy after enemy Jeanne found herself running out of her super powers. Changing back she was suddenly vulnerable to the powerful enemy before her with her companions too far behind. Mission failed, load save, try again.
If Jeanne's ability is the key to the cupboard of victory, then consideration of "connection guard" and "burning sites" is the key to the whole house. Connection guard allows for any of your party members taking damage to gain defensive points from all the party members linked together. The effect chains out as long as characters are adjacent or diagonal from each other, so keeping close is more than wise. Even while attacking; it's good to chain up since the frequency of successful counter attacks is unusually high for the genre. Furthermore the addition of "burning sites" allows you to take offensive advantage of your close knit party. Upon a successful hit, the enemy's rear becomes exposed and creates a burning site in that area. Once in a burning site, the character's attack power appears to rise greatly. A tactical trick with it seems to be that you can take that burning site advantage and use it against a completely different enemy. In short, there are so many reasons to stay together one wonders if later the enemy will finally force you apart.
A third difference is that unlike the successful clear cut class systems found in other SRPGs, the game features an item based skill set based on "Skill Runes." Obtaining these runes is done by defeating enemies who drop specific runes, purchasing them from stores, or perhaps finding them hidden on the map. The skill sets give your characters new mana based attacks or healing spells, stat boosts, and changes to their element which affects how they react to characters with opposing elements. At this point, it appears to be a mere extension of the standard equipment changes. Trailer video promises more unique skills and attacks with splash damage, so hopefully more will become available to improve variety and allow for specialization.
But not least of all, a huge change to the SRPG genre is the introduction of an imposed turn limit to any battle. If you haven't achieved the objective within the turn limit (ten turns, or twelve turns, etc) the game is over. This does a number of things to the combat. Removing such fall back option of moving your team to an easily defended position, or waiting out turns to restore health before attacking, Jeanne d'Arc instead forcibly has you moving across the map at all times. Healing must be done on the fly, and exploration of the map for hidden items becomes a gamble against time.
With so much going for Jeanne d'Arc, it would be unfortunate to see this title fall to mediocrity by bad balancing and what could ultimately become a shamefully cliched story. A disclaimer, the version I am currently playing through is the Japanese release and I don't know a single word of Japanese. Through the grace of my Japanese friend, and a little knowledge of Anime and this genre of game, I am making headway through this title with great relish. Level 5's grand space opera Rogue Galaxy made its way to US shores with improved gameplay, English voices, and more places to explore. Here's hoping the same first class treatment graces Jeanne d'Arc on her way to the states. Though, I wonder how her reception in London will be.