IGN Review of Jeanne D'Arc
When it comes to French history, one of the largest legends for the country revolves around the tale of Joan of Arc. A young girl who believed she heard the voice of God, she managed to unite the country and eventually toss the invading English forces out of the country. But not many people know that she was aided with the help of mystical armlets, or that the English used hordes of monsters to subjugate the French countryside. At least, you wouldn't know it unless you played Jeanne d'Arc, Level-5 and Sony Computer Entertainment's alternate take on the classic tale, which is one of the best tactical strategy RPGs released on a handheld in recent history.''''The premise behind Jeanne d'Arc starts much earlier than the Hundred Years War with an ancient battle known as the War of the Reapers. Humanity joined forces to fight a demon lord, and it was only with the help of five holy armlets and sacred gems that they were able to seal the monstrous power and its army away. Unfortunately, the evil was never fully destroyed, and as centuries passed, the opportunity for the demon lord to return became easier and easier. During the Hundred Years War between France and England, the Duke of Bedford manages to release the ancient evil, placing its spirit within Henry the VI. Hoping to wield the spirit's power through the king, Bedford unleashes a horde of creatures under the control of English commanders to crush the French countryside and its army. One of the first villages to suffer this assault is Domremy, which is the home of Jeanne d'Arc. While the attack seems overwhelming, Jeanne discovers one of the holy armlets from the War of the Reapers at the same time she hears the voice of God. As a result, Jeanne decides to throw out the English from her country, rallying the people behind her.''''Fortunately, Jeanne finds that she isn't alone in her quest to rid her motherland of English reign. Initially, she starts out with two friends from her village, Liane and Roger, to help her spread the word, but she quickly gains allies that share her vision of a liberated France. Interestingly, not all of her party will be solely human; Jeanne will gain the help of mystical creatures like elves and beast men known as Therions as she battles across the land and eventually grows her allies to 14 distinctive warriors. Each one has their own unique personality quirks, such as a young archer that constantly bestows nicknames, a knife wielder that speaks with an over-exaggerated French accent, and a dog-faced Therion that sounds suspiciously like Scooby Doo. Each character has a specific weapon type they're allowed to equip, such as lances, axes or bows, which dictates various offensive attacks and limitations. For instance, lancers can attack from two spaces away, but cannot wield shields due to the two-handed nature of their weapon. The weapon classification also dictates the nature of the abilities that each character can wield within fights. ''''Whereas most strategy or RPG titles allow party members to acquire new abilities and powers as they level up their characters, Jeanne d'Arc takes a different approach to abilities. Characters never actually learn a static set of skills throughout the title; instead, their powers are enabled via magical items known as skill stones. There are four different colored kinds of stones that you can acquire: red, green, purple and blue. Red stones provide class specific attack abilities and finishing moves, such as multiple strikes with a weapon or specialized blows. Green stones imbue the user with magical abilities, such as the option to cast fireballs or lightning strikes. Purple stones provide class specific skills, such as the ability to immediately counter incoming melee attacks, while blue stones provide status boosts, such as increasing a character's attack power or increasing their hit points.''''Now, the skill system is incredibly flexible for two primary reasons. The first reason is that before every single battle, you can change and tailor each character's individual skill set to make them much more capable of succeeding in a fight. For instance, if you feel like making one character a support character, casting plenty of healing and defensive spells, that can easily be done. Of course, you can balance things out by providing each character with a measured amount of offensive and defensive skills and send them out to the battlefield, making minor adjustments before every single fight. These changes can be further augmented with the inclusion of spirit affinities, which can impart one of three different "elemental" powers: Sol, Stella and Luna. The three act in a rock-paper-scissors setup, such as Sol being stronger than Stella and weaker than Luna. By equipping one of these elemental stones, you can increase the power of certain attacks and decrease damage taken from enemies.''''The other reason behind the system's flexibility is that you can easily combine the skill stones that you acquire to gain new skills or abilities. Players that have been familiar with previous Level-5 games know that combining items is a major part of the game experience, and Jeanne d'Arc is no different. Cuisses, the French frog that becomes part of your party early on, can perform an action known as Skill Binding, where he takes two stones and merges them to form a new stone. The game will keep track of any recipes that you've created just in case you want to create another copy after you gained new raw materials. With more than 150 different Skill Stones that can be acquired via fallen opponents, stores, battle objectives or Skill Binding, there are plenty of skills to be discovered for use in battle situations, even if you are limited to a total of six equipped skills at any point.''''Speaking of battle, players will consistently find themselves taking on missions that bring them to battlefields in-between the various story events and equipping of characters at shops. However, not every mission is an eliminate all monsters on the field situation; Jeanne d'Arc mixes up the gameplay by throwing in different objectives, such as escort missions from one area to another, protecting specific items or locations or successfully getting your party to an escape point when odds are against them. You'll also be tasked with avoiding failure conditions, such as losing a single ally in battle. While that may seem somewhat normal when compared to other strategy titles, Jeanne d'Arc further keeps players constantly on their toes by forcing them to complete their objectives within a pre-determined number of turns. This prevents players from playing the game at a leisurely pace by slowly picking enemies off one by one, and ensures that each fight will be fast and furious, as well as challenging. Monsters will often use their ranged attacks, keep their weaker magic users at a distance and frequently go after your weaker party members, which will force you to rethink your strategy and placement if you want to survive a fight.''''Battles initially start by placing characters upon the battlefield, either to support pre-selected fighters or to tactically take pre-determined areas. Depending upon the mission, you'll be able to field up to seven characters of your choosing to fight for you. Obviously, players can choose to use their best fighters during every single battle, constantly improving their stats and strengthening these characters. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about having a second string of useless warriors, as each unused character shares from a general experience bonus that you receive at the end of each successful battle, which will help to keep most fighters relatively close to each other level-wise. What's more, if you do decide to send a frequently unused character to the wolves, finishing off a monster or enemy soldier with them will result in an experience bonus, which may be useful for characters looking to quickly gain levels.''''One tactic that will help your party members, regardless of their level, is the Burning Aura support tactic. Whenever players attack an enemy, a circular aura of energy is projected behind the target, further providing a reason to initially attack opponents from the flank or the rear to gain an advantage in battle. The Burning Aura intensifies both the likelihood of successfully landing an attack on a target as well as the amount of damage from a strike. What's more, if a party member happens to be behind the target when a Burning Aura is triggered, they can pick up and carry the aura with them, allowing them to maneuver to the best location to use the augmented attack. There are two caveats to this system, however, that help to balance out players that consistently spawn these energy fields. The first is that you only have a limited amount of time to use the Auras before they dissipate. Each one lasts for a single turn, and while they can be saved to help power up counter attacks whenever the enemy has control of the battlefield, once you take the field again, any pre-existing auras disappear. The other tweak is that monsters can take advantage of any Auras that you inadvertently create, so you need to be careful of spawning too many, or they may come back to bite you.''''Fortunately, players can somewhat protect themselves from being decimated by enemy attacks or misplaced Auras by the use of the Unified Guard defense tactic. Simply put, characters gain a defensive bonus based on the number of friendly party members that are nearby. You don't have to be physically standing shoulder to shoulder in a line to receive this bonus either; characters can be diagonally nearby to one another in relative proximity to strengthen the defense against any melee attacks. While the Unified Guard doesn't protect against area or magical attacks, it can sometimes be the difference between life and death in most battles, particularly when you're waiting for your skill points to replenish themselves so you can trigger an attack, spell or innate ability. See, at the beginning of every battle, all of your characters are curbed to a set number of skill points, which dictates whether they'll initially be able to pull off a basic skill or not. As each turn continues, their skill points are constantly replenished, which forces players to wait a bit longer to pull off more powerful attacks.''''Similarly, characters that happen to have the holy amulets slowly acquire spirit points which can be used to unlock the power of the mystical devices, transforming them into holy warriors with special powers. These changing states, which are dictated by sacred gems placed into the various amulets, provide your characters with unique skills that allow them to land heavy damage at a high skill point cost. There is one bonus to transforming your characters, however; any enemy that is defeated by a changed party member provides you with a free turn to move that character into position to attack a different opponent. This means that if your party sufficiently weakens enough monsters around them, a transformed character can mow down multiple enemies in the same battle sequence. Even though the amount of time that a character can be transformed is limited to two or three battle turns, this is perhaps the one facet of the game that is radically unbalanced. A character can potentially smash through every enemy by themselves in certain stages, seriously weakening some of the challenge that you might face on a battlefield.''''Once you've cleared a battlefield and received that stage's rewards, you have the option to return to that area to take part in free battles. Unrelated to advancing the story, characters can take these fights to level up weaker characters or use them as a practice arena to try out new arrangements of skill stones for parties. For the most part, your parties should be able to walk through these areas rather easily, although there are some exclusive free battle areas that are designed to seriously challenge even the strongest party. While these fields come stocked with high-level monsters, there's a definite bonus to fighting your way through each space, as you can earn rare items and stones by successfully completing them (if you manage to survive, that is). The same can be said of the coliseum that you unlock midway through the game, which throws you into ten consecutively harder battles. While it's a challenge to survive these optional fights, the rewards are definitely worth it.''''Regardless of whether you embark on these optional battles or follow the engaging storyline from start to finish, you'll experience a visually striking anime-influenced world. Characters are eye-catching and distinctive, from their character models to their attack animations, including some special moves that project large shards of energy from the ground or propel characters into the air. The same can be said of the enemies that you face off against, with everything from obese dark elves and pig-faced orcs to massive dragons and towering golems. The game features a number of animated cutscenes that transition between in-game story elements, and while the cutscenes are incredibly crisp, some of the in-game visuals can sometimes appear pixilated, which throws off the beauty of the title. Most of this pops up when you're zoomed in tight on a character or during an animated attack that is hidden behind an environmental object, but since you can easily readjust the responsive camera, this isn't a serious issue.''''The voice acting also manages to back up the gameplay quite nicely, with a balanced performance from all of the characters. The actors manage to deliver their lines with a French accent that isn't too subdued or over-exaggerated. Since it's spread out between cutscenes, it's a nice addition to the gameplay. The sound effects are quite nice as well, with resounding clangs, crackles and other effects representing successful hits or spells being cast. If there were a fault with the sound portion of the game, it would have to come with the music, which can get a bit repetitive. The battle theme, in particular, you may find yourself becoming bored with after you've heard it fifteen or twenty times in a row.''''''
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