Wednesday, September 18, 2019

La Pucelle: Ragnarok

La Pucelle: Ragnarok Box Front

L’Art pour l’Art

Japanese game developer Nippon Ichi has a storied history, stemming from their early games, the Marl Kingdom series on the Sony PlayStation, its first installment localized in North America by Atlus as Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, although its sequels would remain in Japan. When the series moved to the PlayStation 2 with Angel’s Present, N1 wouldn’t fully take advantage of the hardware and retain two-dimensional character sprites alongside three-dimensional environments, which they would do with their first outing in the tactical roleplaying game subgenre, La Pucelle, this game remaining in Japan during its initial release.

It was not until Atlus had success with the North American English release of Nippon Ichi’s second strategy RPG, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, when the game’s spiritual predecessor would receive attention, particularly from independent publisher Mastiff Games, which translated La Pucelle for Anglophones, giving it the odd one-word subtitle of “Tactics” (La Pucelle: Tactics). Fearing crucifixion from North America’s moral guardians, moreover, Mastiff purged the English release of all Christian symbols. While the game would receive an enhanced port for the PlayStation Portable, La Pucelle: Ragnarok, this would remain in Japan, a shame given its improvements.

The protagonist, the mouthy member of the eponymous demon-hunting church group La Pucelle, Prier, yearns to become the Maiden of Light, although she competes with fellow trainee Alouette for the position. The cast of characters, some of which includes a group of anthropomorphic felines headed by Captain Homard, is generally likeable, with decent backstory for most of the characters, some good twists, themes such as religious corruption and brotherly love, and so forth. There are occasional hackneyed elements such as time travel and amnesia, but the storyline is generally a draw to the game.

Fortunately, solid gameplay backs up the plotline, with Ragnarok, like the original PlayStation 2 version, being a tactical RPG, dungeons divided into grid-based maps, and the player drawing up to eight characters from a “base” tile to battle enemies. The player can move characters around the battlefield, with a number of options available to assault to enemy, such as standard physical attacks, allies adjacent to the main attacking party member participating in a combination attack occurring on a separate screen where the PCs and foes exchange attacks (adversaries able to execute combination attacks too).

Alternatively, characters can use SP-consuming abilities that empower with repeated use (with skills such as magic eventually receiving increased ranges of effect), in which case the game also takes players to a separate screen where the skill executes, albeit without a counterattack by the targeted enemy or enemies. The player’s characters and the enemy have separate turn sessions akin to the Fire Emblem franchise and Vandal Hearts, with the extermination of all foes resulting in a victory and a reward of money used to purchase new items from shops, and the obliteration of Prier’s party yielding a Game Over and unceremonious trip back to the title screen.

Killing enemies earns the character(s) responsible for doing so experience for their stats (with up to four equippable items dictating stat growth) and standard level. One major improvement over the original version of the game is the ability to turn off the scenes players need to sit through when their characters and the enemies attack, accounting for increased battle speed and faster grinding for experience and money if necessary (somewhat the case for the endgame battles). Another feature that may appeal to those who normally don’t enjoy tactical RPGs is that in standard dungeon maps, the player can have one of their characters exit the map for saving if necessary, with experience preserved.

Other notable features of battle include characters such as Prier being able to “purify” elemental portals to get an extra boost of movement across the battlefield, with purification power sometimes boosting with increased stat levels. However, during battles that follow story scenes, the player can’t back out, and are consequentially stuck until they either win or lose it. There are other issues with the gameplay such as the endgame grind and that characters are stuck in their current battlefield position after using SP-consuming abilities (and can in instances get stuck on the player’s base tile). Overwise, the game is generally a good spiritual predecessor to the Disgaea series.

Control is generally good, with easy menus, crystal-clear direction on how to advance the main storyline, a generous save system, minimal loading times, skippable cutscenes and dialogue, simple dungeon navigation, and an in-game clock viewable most of the time except in the middle of combat. The only real issues are that changing equipment and “fitting” it on characters while shopping only shows stats increased or decreased instead of previous stats and new stats together, not to mention the lack of an equip-best option. Otherwise, Ragnarok generally interfaces well with players.

Perhaps the strongest aspect is Nippon Ichi composer Tenpei Sato’s soundtrack, which consists of a few vocal pieces that serve as central themes, many remixes of which occasionally make themselves heard throughout the game. Most tracks have a general sweet, happy, bouncy feel to them, and are rarely out of place, some standout music including the overworld theme, which is basically an instrumental version of “Princess Kururu” from Little Princess (the untranslated sequel to Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure). The Japanese voice acting is also good, with no miscast characters, although the performers often struggle with the French names that populate the game. Regardless, Ragnarok is an excellent-sounding game.

Likely the weakest aspect of the port is its graphical presentation. Perhaps the strongest area, however, is the prerendered scenery visible during cutscenes and in towns. The art direction is good, although Nippon Ichi’s character designer admitted in an interview that he had to compromise his designs to accommodate the developer’s refusal to move to fully-three-dimensional visuals. While the three-dimensional scenery in combat has good colors, there’s a fair bit of blurry and pixilated texturing, and there are occasional discrepancies between character portraits and their sprites, such as Captain Homard’s eyepatch changing eyes depending upon the camera angle. The game isn’t an eyesore, but there are definitely other strategy RPGs that look better, such as Stella Deus.

Finally, with the ability to turn off animations in battle, the port takes significantly less time to complete than the original version, one to two days total, with plenty of side content in the form of the Dark World and a New Game+ mode, with different modes selectable after completing the game a first time.

Overall, La Pucelle: Ragnarok is a solid port that hits most of the right notes, given its tight gameplay and control, enjoyable story and characters, and excellent soundtrack and voicework. While the art direction is good, however, the visuals are technically weak, and prevent the game from excelling. Whether certain audiences will actually enjoy it, moreover, is a bit of a paradox: those who really enjoyed the Disgaea games, mayhap consider them infallible, might not appreciate it, while those who didn’t care much for Nippon Ichi’s future tactical offerings will probably like it far more. N1’S North American branch was definitely mistaken to overlook the game’s definitive version for localization.

The Good:
+Great gameplay mechanics.
+Tight control.
+Good story.
+Excellent soundtrack and voicework.
+Plentiful lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Graphics haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
A great rerelease Americans were unfortunate to miss out on.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 8.0/10
Story: 7.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.5/10
Graphics: 5.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Moderate
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 8.0/10

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