My idea of a good tactical game hasn’t really taken shape yet. In my life of day-long basement excursions in front of a glowing television tube, I have yet to truly build a solid repertoire of these fairly controlled battle sims. That being said, I can’t imagine a better host for my tactical upbringing than N1 to acclimate me to the bolder, grittier and deeper side of square-based-movement combat RPGs. After all, Nippon Ichi has at least three potent titles of note that I could easily reference as variances and improvements on this most unique of genres, where combat is cerebral and story is key.
In La Pucelle, a mysterious underworld lord of quiet despotism is trying to crack the bonds of order by opening dark portals all over the land. Starting with a cavernous, long-abandoned castle near your starting point of Pot au Feu city, your small band of sassy and smooth convent cuties learn that the local disturbance may actually be part of something larger and globally dire. The story moves from there, and is pretty standard fare for an RPG premise. The moderate depth of the battle mechanics is complimented nicely with the diverse and sometimes caustic character personalities and interaction.
The primary characters are a brother and sister combo that react to each other in much the same way that many of you reading this can relate to: the constant irritants, the sibling competition, and the irrational communicative conflicts that arise from having a blood connection are all present. Prier (the 16-year-old firebrand) and Culotte (the sensitive 12-year-old brother) are young apprentices to the Church of the Holy Maiden, active in a demon hunting sub-division called La Pucelle. Inasmuch as this is a career path for Prier and Culotte, their history at the local orphanage due to a tragic accident involving their parents and a horse buggy (no lie) seven years previous is also a loose, but poignant tie-in to the overall development of their place in the story, the world, and their destinies. From the beginning, it becomes apparent that Prier has ambitions to become the “Maiden of Light”, a powerful deified figure said to have extinguished a great evil long ago. There’s really no mistaking the plot point after the player finds that out, but there’s still plenty of relevant filler to round out the meaty tale.
The overall story will unfold in chapters which outline a key objective before the next chapter can be opened. Locations that you play through in one chapter will mostly be available for revisiting even after you’ve extinguished the evil there. However, La Pucelle shows its roots to the 16-bit days of game structure experimentation and simplicity here especially. Level design and thin combat techniques conspire in the battle maps, which all but eliminates the compulsion to return to these areas and try anything new.
Battle maps are topographically small, but consist of some relatively diverse designs. Everything from blocky hillsides to elaborate sewer/dungeon maps look pretty natural, considering that it’s all pieced together from uniformly-sized squares. As with most RPG-tactical games like this, field adornment can be obstructive, so there’s not much of it, but that scarcity aids in viewing the combat. Rotating the battlefield map is a digital affair, and can be quite unforgiving if you can’t make either of two optional 90-degree perspectives work.
Before beginning the battle, you’ll see a map name and objective, which usually boils down to “kill everything”. But what spices up the action a bit is the presence of dark portals which exude energies of different types, and can spawn new monsters at random intervals. The energies these dimensional portals emit are elemental, meaning they carry an aligned nature force like fire, earth, or wind, and can be redirected with either a party member or an unwitting enemy character standing in the path of the energy flow. Ultimately, these portals will need to be closed through the act of “purification”, an ability that is inherent in the La Pucelle demon hunting ranks. Once a portal square is purified, the energy stream it emits can be used to damage enemies over a long distance, as the successive energy squares are eliminated one by one.
While not necessarily a center stage ability for the party characters, purification provides some background depth to what would otherwise be repetitive gameplay. The enemies encountered on the battlefield will, if purified enough times, be swayed to your ranks, which can eventually build a ragtag army of unlikely helpers, many of which could be needed in future battles. An even investment in the creatures’ training and loyalty (from the pause screen, of all places) can build them up to more than mere fodder, adding a rudimentary monster breeder aspect to La Pucelle. It’s not much, but sometimes those little enemy acquisitions can be a trophy case of strange and wonderful allies to fight beside the main characters.
Developing party members follows the staples of RPGs past. Fight, gain experience, level up. Each character has a four-slot holding area for items that can augment their attributes, and even refine what abilities will be their strongest. Loading up these slots with armor and weaponry will create a brutal fighter, while magic items and intelligence enhancers can produce a much more powerful wizard. The level of these equipped items can also be increased through the aforementioned act of dark portal purification. As the items become more and more powerful, the holder can absorb and master spells and special abilities attached to the items while they’re equipped. Those same spells and abilities are upgraded through their usage, so if you’re into kicking ass with a powerful ass-kicking spell, your ass-healing spell will end up as a limp appendix to your magic arsenal. A lot can be said for the simplicity in character/item/spell growth, toning the factors of advancement down to manageable numbers.While the developmental categories aren’t that wide spread in La Pucelle, their depth is befitting of a tactical game.
These days, it’s pretty hard to accept a game with uneven tiers of structure, cohesiveness, aesthetics and accessibility. La Pucelle almost breaks this holy alliance, but only in its anachronistic defiance of our current gaming expectations. Its weaker links – graphics, battle structure, tactical depth – balance out pretty evenly in its strengths of story, voice acting, character development, and atmospheric maturity. But it should also be said that many will find La Pucelle to be less than adequate compared to complexities and refinements that are present in some of today’s better tactical games.
All things considered, La Pucelle’s quirky premise, disparate character personalities, colorful world, and elementary battles will make this a sleeper hit with the cult fans, and a pleasant romp for anyone else who’d care to try it.