Designer Trevor Chan has a reputation for making strategy games that slip under most people's radars but deliver very good gameplay experiences. In particular, though they might not have been best-sellers, Chan's Seven Kingdoms and Capitalism games earned great reviews from critics and strategy fans alike. Wars and Warriors: Joan of Arc represents Chan's first foray into the action genre. While it does incorporate strategy elements, the game is mainly an arcade action offering about France's most famous heroine. Though we wanted to like Joan of Arc, we found it burdened by a number of rookie mistakes, including a bad camera, poor pathfinding, and lackluster artificial intelligence.
With its emphasis on combo moves and hack-and-slash gameplay, Joan of Arc bears a lot of resemblance to the Dynasty Warriors action games for the PlayStation 2. In fact, it feels very much like a console-style action game, and Enlight actually does have plans to publish an Xbox version of Joan of Arc later this year. Though there's nothing wrong with this, you might get the impression that Joan of Arc was designed first and foremost as a console game, rather than having taken advantage of the PC platform's unique advantages.
You'll play as Joan of Arc and several other famous French military commanders of the era. The action takes place mainly from a third-person perspective--though you can switch to first-person when using ranged weapons like longbows and crossbows--and you spend most of the game running around looking for mobs of English soldiers to slay. These include pikemen, macemen, knights, and the dreaded longbowmen. Even though you'll often find yourself facing 30-to-1 odds or greater, you can usually beat all of your foes relatively easily. The key is in using combo moves and special attacks to keep knocking your foes down. Once they're down, you can use other combo moves to deliver killing blows.
The combo moves are rather easy to execute, and there are no mouse gestures required, like in the Jedi Knight games. All you need to do is click the left and right mouse buttons in certain sequences. As Joan gains experience over time, she can learn new combo moves, enhance old ones, or improve her stats and hit points. The combat definitely has a Diablo-like feel to it. Any time your health drops, you can pause the game by accessing your inventory. Then you can eat a loaf of bread or a fish, which restores your hits points. You can then unpause the game. It's the equivalent of hitting the F1 key to quaff a healing potion in Diablo during the middle of a fight.
The game takes place over eight missions, which doesn't sound like a lot, but these are huge missions. The latter ones average between three to five hours apiece, since you usually have multiple towns, villages, cities, and castles to liberate, as well as hundreds of Englishmen to kill. While the levels are huge, there are also invisible walls everywhere that limit where you can go. For instance, you can't go over a hill, even if the slope isn't that steep. Rather, you have to follow the path around it. Similarly, you can't cut straight through a forest. Instead you have to follow the mazelike paths through it. Everywhere is the invisible hand of the designer, who forces you to follow his path. It can be frustrating when you have to go around an obstacle that shouldn't be an obstacle in the first place.
The camera tends to be one of the most important elements in third-person action games. You don't even notice the camera if it works well, but if it works badly, you curse it a lot. The camera in Joan of Arc works rather well when the action takes place out in the open, though it does have the occasional nasty habit of suddenly cutting to a different angle in the middle of a fight. This, of course, causes you to momentarily lose your orientation. Aside from this minor annoyance, the camera has serious problems when combat takes place in the close confines of a city or a forest. It constantly swings around to different angles in a sudden, jarring, and dizzying manner. Solid objects, like walls and roofs, often swing into view and block the action. Though sometimes they're made semitransparent, they're still not transparent enough to actually allow you to discern what's going on. The only way out is to keep hacking-and-slashing so that you can bust out into the open, where the camera will return to normal.
You can ride and fight on horseback, which is one of the cool aspects of the game. Riding into a crowd of Englishmen is a lot like watching the cavalry charges in the Lord of the Rings movies, though only Joan can ride a horse. However, the horse controls are very awkward. As a result, riding the horse is a lot like trying to drive a bumper car since you run into invisible obstacles and have to back up and turn. Additionally, the camera has a way of bending out of position in a fight until it eventually presents Joan from the side. You need to constantly get off and remount the horse to reset the camera.
There is a strategy element in Joan of Arc, since you can toggle between the third-person action and a traditional top-down real-time strategy view. This allows you to lasso units with the mouse and then direct them on the map. Though good in concept, it's a bit clunky in execution. It's basically useful for moving large numbers of units from point A to point B. Yet this is hampered by poor unit pathfinding. Entire squads can easily get stuck behind a hill or mountain, so you have to hold their hands around the obstacles.
Enemy AI is rather simple, so soldiers will either run around randomly, or they'll stand around until you get close enough to trigger them. Then they'll swarm you from all angles, thus making it easier for you to knock them over like dominoes. The AI for bosses is utterly predictable, so all you have to do is allow them to get close and then dodge as they execute their special attacks. As soon as they finish, you can run up and combo strike them to knock them down. They'll get up and charge you again, so you'll have to repeat the process--about 10 or 15 more times. There's obviously no discernable cunning or intelligence at work here.
The graphics in Joan of Arc look good but don't incorporate any of the eye candy that we've come to expect from action games. There's no bump mapping, glittering water surfaces, or shiny suits of armor. The visuals do a fairly good job of rendering huge melee fights with more than a hundred warriors on the screen, though. Towns and cities are nicely rendered, but there's not a lot of interactivity with the environment. On the other hand, there's some excellent music in the game that captures the bombastic tones found in Hollywood movies such as Gladiator. However, the voice acting suffers both from bad delivery and bad mixing. Voices sound tinny or muted, and there are times when you can barely hear them over the music.
Joan of Arc does not ship with any multiplayer component, which is a shame, because there's the potential for some wild player-versus-player melee matches here. Since the official title of the game is Wars and Warriors: Joan of Arc, it seems likely that Trevor Chan plans on making additional Wars and Warriors games about other famous warriors. Hopefully, he and his development team can learn from their experiences and can consequently iron out the PC version's camera and AI issues for the Xbox version. Then, Chan will be able to build on Joan of Arc for future games.