Though the PS2 is transitioning into the last stage of its life span, Namco is using this final period as an opportunity to bring us a new installment in the Arc the Lad series, which has been around since the introduction of the original PlayStation. Subtitled End of Darkness, the latest entry will act as a sequel to 2003's Twilight of the Spirits, with lots of familiar characters and locations to anchor the game in the series' arcing storyline. But that familiarity will likely take a backseat to the sweeping gameplay changes Namco has made to End of Darkness' combat engine, which is certainly shaping up to be something other than what you'd expect from an Arc the Lad game.
To put it simply, End of Darkness is an action role-playing game, not a traditional turn-based one. You'll go on short missions in dangerous territory, leveling an assortment of standard and special attacks against the various enemies that populate the levels. You'll control your character in real time with the analog stick, with each attack corresponding to an individual button press. Yep, sounds like an action experience to us. Stalwart fans of the old turn-based games shouldn't fret, though, since our brief hands-on time with the game's combat proved it to be solid and accessible. In addition to using your basic attacks, you'll be able to equip up to four special abilities before a battle--these range from directed or area-of-effect offensive spells to healing and other restorative bonuses. You'll even have AI companions helping you out on occasion that can perform abilities similar to yours. The game hasn't lost all its RPG trappings--you'll at least get to see numerical representations of damage you deal and receive during battle.
The character-development aspect of End of Darkness is more in line with the game's RPG heritage than the combat. As you quest through one enemy-infested area after another, you'll build up a collection of new equipment--everything from pieces of armor to magical trinkets--that you can use to improve your character's attributes in various ways. More importantly, those four special abilities you can take into battle will be drawn from a pool that will eventually grow to more than 100, so you'll certainly have plenty of new things to do in combat as the game progresses.
Though End of Darkness' gameplay will require some adjustment for longtime Arc the Lad fans, at least the storyline will put them in familiar territory. The game is set five years after the end of Twilight of the Spirits and will take place across the same six continents as that game, with many familiar towns and other locations making an appearance. You'll take control of a new main character named Edda, who will rise up from his life as a humble boy in a boring fishing village (as per RPG convention) to become embroiled in a world-threatening conflict. It seems the factions left in the wake of the previous game weren't content to rest easy and enjoy peace, so you'll have to get involved and try to do something about their destructive squabbles.
The good news is that, while you'll initially start off playing as Edda, a whopping two dozen characters from all of the previous Arc the Lad games will become playable as you travel through the game. This includes everyone from Arc himself to Kharg, the hero of Twilight of the Spirits, and a vast array of different people in between. Aside from the obvious nostalgic value for series fans, these characters will offer notably different combat experiences. We started out playing as a martial arts-trained character who fought primarily with close-up melee attacks, then switched to a quicker female character who used a yo-yo-like weapon with greater speed and range to strike at enemies more nimbly. Of the various equipment and special-ability upgrades you'll amass throughout the game, certain ones will be more applicable to some characters than others, which should give dedicated players a good incentive to obtain and try out all of the playable characters.
The story-driven quest will purportedly last around 50 hours, according to Namco. Though the game features a linear plot, exploration and combat will apparently be open-ended to the extent that you can usually visit extra locations peripheral to the storyline to look for optional side quests to undertake. Given the number of playable characters and massive wealth of equipment and ability upgrades available, we imagine exploring these side quests will be essential for those who want to collect everything the game has to offer.
There will be more incentive to power up your characters than just flattening the last boss, too. In addition to the single-player quest (and in a first for the Arc the Lad series), End of Darkness will feature full online support. You'll get to take your characters from the single-player game directly into the online portion, and you'll be able to quest with up to three other players in online missions, which there will reportedly be about 200 of (many of which are exclusive to the online mode). The game will also let you engage in a four-on-four competitive match, though further details on this mode weren't available. Thankfully, full headset support will be included so you can easily communicate with the members of your party.
End of Darkness is certainly recognizable as an Arc the Lad game, even if it doesn't play exactly like one. The graphical style is highly reminiscent of that seen in Twilight of the Spirits, such that veterans of that game could probably look at this new installment and immediately know it's a sequel. As mentioned, you'll visit locations from the last game, which have undergone changes to indicate the passage of time but should be recognizable to fans. The game will also feature some truly sizable boss monsters, such as a massive ice dragon and a plant creature that we got to see during our demo.
Though the gameplay has changed significantly, End of Darkness' familiar faces and places and its continuation of the last game's storyline should ensure that Arc the Lad fans will want to check it out. How it will stand in the decade-old pantheon of Arc games remains to be seen, but the game is due out in June, so we'll find out soon enough. Stay tuned for more on End of Darkness as it happens.