Arc the Lad has been around long enough to be a grown man by now. For nearly a decade, the Arc series of role-playing games has appeared on Sony consoles in Japan and the US. Past installments in the series have been fairly standard turn-based role-playing games set in a fantasy universe that threatens to implode every so often, unless a group of unlikely heroes comes along to save the day--which, conveniently, it always does. End of Darkness moves into new territory, as it's the first entry in the series to feature online play and an action-oriented battle system. Unfortunately, the new battle system is mindless and repetitive, and the online multiplayer does nothing to mitigate the weak single-player campaign, lifeless characters, and dull presentation of the game.
Approach the counter at a hunters' guild to take on tasks so you can earn experience and increase your rank.
Arc the Lad: End of Darkness takes place in the same universe as Twilight of the Spirits and is set five years after the events of it. You play as Edda, a young orphan boy who has, until now, led a simple but unexciting life on an isolated island. Eventually, Edda realizes that he's an exorcist who's capable of dispatching the evil darmysts, later known as malademons, that have been popping up to attack people throughout the world. These malademons are the manifestations of the "bad feelings" in the hearts of man, and the only way to destroy them is to exorcise the evil that pervades these beings. After an initial encounter with a malademon, Edda decides to join the hunter's guild to use his powers to rid the world of evil. As Edda investigates, he finds out there's a terrorist group known as Truth Sword that's threatening to "cleanse" the world of the destructive and ignorant humans. Edda also finds himself meeting up with an enigmatic and ill-tempered young woman named Kirika, who seems to have some connection to Truth Sword. As you progress through the story, you'll discover more about Edda's past, the origins of the malademons, and what has become of the characters that saved the world from ruin in Twilight of the Spirits. The story is generic and clichÃ©, and if you've ever played a role-playing game, you'll recognize all the worn-out themes present here. Amnesia, magic versus technology, tumultuous race relations, a dying world... It's all here, and it's wrapped up in one bland, uninspired package.
The story unfolds incrementally as you complete various tasks throughout the game. As a hunter, you can go to a guild where you'll be able to take on tasks from either the notice board or the counter. The counter tasks are short and are divided into classes based on difficulty. A more difficult task will earn you more experience points, but the risk is greater, because the spells you equip to your ALD--a wristband infused with special energy that lets hunters equip skills cards--will be lost if you fail to complete a task. Notice-board tasks are longer and multitiered, often requiring you to meet multiple objectives before the task is finished. Completing the notice-board tasks not only progresses the story, but it also nets you dignity points, which are required to level up. As with the counter tasks, notice-board tasks are classified according to rank, so you can only complete a veteran task if your hunter rank is veteran, and so on. Once you have 10 dignity points and 10 experience points, you can go to the hunter exam center to take a promotion exam to increase your rank. The exams consist of a series of three battles that must be completed within a certain time frame. As your rank increases, your stats will improve, and you'll be able to take on more-advanced tasks to further the storyline. However, the result of this task system is a storyline that feels disjointed, because it unfolds through several small, tangentially related events.
Whether you choose a counter task or a notice-board task, you'll have to be prepared to fight. The battle system is entirely action-oriented, much like the basic combat system found in games like Champions of Norrath. You'll only ever control a single character in battle, although with the right cards, you can play as other characters from past Arc the Lad games, as there are more than 20 character cards in all. These other characters can only be used when completing counter tasks or when playing online, because, unfortunately, most of these characters don't factor into the story at all. So the novelty of getting to see your favorite characters from Twilight of the Spirits again is fleeting.
While some of the counter tasks require you to capture a monster, arrest a criminal, or find an object, you'll still just be hacking and slashing monsters most of the time. All your items and skills are based on cards, which you can purchase at shops or find on the battlefield. You can assign specific magic or techniques to each of the four face buttons, and you can use them by holding R2. Using magic or techniques requires "card points," which are held in a tank that is replenished slowly by the card points stored in your subtanks. During battle, you can hold the triangle button to regenerate your card points faster, but doing so leaves you vulnerable to attack. However, in most battles, a simple attack will suffice. As a result, you'll just be tapping X repeatedly to perform slashes and combo attacks. And by tapping the X button three or four times, you'll perform a combo of two to four strikes that does more damage but leaves you open to counterattacks.
You can target enemies using the L2 button before moving in for an attack.
For the most part, battles are extremely easy, since most enemies aren't quick or clever enough to avoid your attacks. However, it's easy to get trapped in a corner where you'll quickly get pummeled by a group of enemies. When you get knocked down, you'll be invulnerable to attacks for a few seconds. However, you still can't run past enemies that block your path, so you just end up getting slaughtered due to some poor level design. Another source of frustration in battle is the camera. You can lock on to enemies using the L2 button, and you can sidestep around them with L1 and R1. And when you're locked on to an enemy, the camera pulls in close to the action, which can be helpful. But often the camera will get stuck behind a tree, a crate, or another part of the level. Subsequently, you won't be able to see what you're doing. Pressing L2 again either cancels the lock-on or switches it to another enemy. However, you don't always feel in control of the targeting system, so it's often easier to avoid the lock-on targeting altogether, unless you're using ranged attacks or magic.