Taking on quests, killing monsters, and slowly advancing from a relative weakling into the greatest warrior the realm has ever seen. It's the stuff of legends passed down from generation to generation, and when it's done right, it's the stuff of thrilling video games, too. But alas, though a journey from zero to hero is at the heart of Lord of Arcana, the thrills are absent. Instead, the road to becoming a well-equipped, powerful fighting machine in Lord of Arcana is paved with frustration and tedium.
After you create your character by selecting from a modest assortment of faces, hairstyles, and the like, Lord of Arcana begins by giving you a small taste of life as a powerful warrior. Fighting your way through a dungeon, you cut through goblins with relative ease and summon the devastating magic of the massive beast Bahamut to aid you. This trek culminates in a battle against a "Dragon of Murderous Rampage." But no sooner do you earn victory over this monster than you find yourself in a temple, stripped down to level one, without any of the powerful gear or magic you were just wielding. You have sacrificed all your strength and your memories to be transported here, to the seaside village of Porto Carillo, to test your fate and prove yourself to be the worthy successor to the ancient king of the land of Horodyn. A few early cutscenes set the stage for the tale, but for the most part, story takes a distant backseat to the business of embarking on quests, strengthening your character, and acquiring better gear.
To embark on a quest, you speak to the woman at the counter for the Slayers Guild in the village. Once you select a quest from the available options, you're transported to the area where the quest takes place, be it Neumellow Woods, Ahbor Desert, Kamma Wind Cave, or some other region. Then, it's up to you to complete the quest objective within a set time limit. Quests can involve killing a certain number of a specific type of enemy, gathering a certain item, or defeating a boss monster. No matter what the objective of your quest is, however, you can bet that completing it won't be much fun.
Combat with the ordinary monsters who roam each area is dull for a number of reasons. For one, monsters behave according to obvious, repetitive patterns, making each encounter with a given type of monster feel the same as every other. The various types of goblins you encounter frequently on your adventures, for instance, always do a happy little dance that lasts a few seconds before they attack, giving you ample time to guard or dash out of the way. Skeletons have a habit of guarding constantly, so fights against them become a continuous attempt to get behind them and attack where they are vulnerable. The little plantlike creatures called mandrakes have the irritating ability to summon monsters to aid them that may be more powerful than you can handle, but no matter. You can just escape from battle and then attack the mandrake again, hoping that this time you kill it before it calls for help. There are a few stylistic flourishes that liven combat up a bit, like the brutal finishing moves (called coups de grace) that you perform with the push of a button and that result in your foes exploding in a bloody mess. But such moments of gory visual glee can't stave off the boredom that quickly sets in. Lord of Arcana invites obvious comparisons to the Monster Hunter series, but fails to imbue the hunts with any sense of thrill whatsoever.
This remains true when tackling boss monsters. Agni, a flaming rock giant, rolls up into a ball, speeds around the arena for a while, and then stands up, woozy and disoriented, giving you an obvious chance to strike. This repeats again and again and again, for far, far too long, until at last he falls to your blows. The storm god Takemikazuchi has the ability to shrink you down to a minuscule size, which makes your attacks ineffectual and tremendously slows the rate at which you can cover ground. As a result of your slow movement, trying to track down the floating keystone you need to strike to return to normal size becomes an exercise in frustration. This trick is doubly frustrating when you encounter it again as you fight the regal horselike creature Kirin, whose speedy charging attacks are just about impossible to avoid when you're tiny. Boss battles culminate in flashy quick-time events called melee duels, but like the coups de grace, these can't redeem the tedium that precedes them. And when a boss finally falls to your attacks, you don't feel victorious so much as just relieved that it's over.
There are five types of weapons to choose from, and at least they feel significantly different from each other. One-handed swords allow for relatively quick attacks and let you wield a shield in battle. Maces are slower and heavier but let you unleash powerful charged strikes. The ludicrously huge two-handed swords take time to swing but do heavy damage. Polearms let you respond to enemy attacks with counterattacks. And firelances are pikes that fire projectiles, which makes fighting some enemies a joke, because you can stand in one place and chip away at their health from a safe distance, and they are seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Regardless of your choice of weapon, none of them can make the combat enjoyable.
Teaming up with a friend or three via local multiplayer on your quests can make the combat less painful, but only because suffering with friends is better than suffering alone. Enemies don't become any more interesting to fight, and boss battles don't become any less tedious and frustrating. The lack of online multiplayer severely limits the amount of use you are likely to get out of this option, and the fact that only the host saves any actual mission completion data and quest progress makes tagging along with others a much less attractive proposition.
A number of other minor issues contribute to the general unpleasantness of questing. For one, each area is divided up into a number of very small sections, and you're treated to a loading time almost every time you exit one section and enter the next. (These can be offset somewhat by installing the game.) For another, locking on to enemies requires that you keep the L button held down, which is an unnecessary design decision, since a toggle would have worked just as well. And as you gather the torn leather, clean water, starch spuds, bog moss, and other items scattered around each area, you must press the button and wait a moment for your character to bend down and pick up each individual unit. There may be three cypress staffs in one spot, but you can't save time and grab all three of them at once. Individually, issues like this aren't terribly significant. But combined, they make the whole experience of playing Lord of Arcana even less enjoyable.
There's more to Lord of Arcana than combat. As you quest, your character becomes stronger, learns new weapon strikes, very slowly gains magic attacks, and gathers all kinds of items that let the blacksmith in town forge better equipment for him or her. And seeing your character develop as you sink time into killing monsters, earning experience, and completing quests carries with it a sense of satisfaction like that which you'd expect to find in just about any role-playing game. The problem with Lord of Arcana is that the things you need to do to make that progress are extremely tedious, repetitive, and occasionally infuriating. The whole point of getting stronger and acquiring better gear is to make you more effective on your next quest; rewards along the way can't make up for an unpleasant journey. On top of that, the game's not much to look at. Your attacks look powerful, but your enemies are so lacking in detail that you'd probably never know the skeletons were skeletons if you weren't told, and the arenas in which you do battle are about as bland as bland can be. With all the frustrations and all the boredom this game dishes out and with so many similar, better games available for the PSP, there's no reason to embark on this quest. Becoming the next lord of Arcana just isn't worth it.