With Lord of Arcana, Square Enix is attempting to loosen the iron grip Capcom has over the handheld role-playing market. The scaly, claw-tipped fingers of Monster Hunter are wrapped so tightly around the genre, however, that it seems improbable that any other game could ever stand a chance. Capcom's multi-million selling RPG allows players to team up and slay behemothic beasts for loot and fame, and Lord of Arcana is largely the same. You have a hub world - a seaside village, like in Monster Hunter Tri - peppered with NPCs, shops and guild services. You take on quests, earn experience and pilfer loot from the corpses of your slain opponents. You then use this loot to create more powerful weapons and armour, proceeding to take on more and more powerful enemies. For those who invest the time, it's an addictive cycle.
It's not exactly the same, of course. Artistically speaking, Lord of Arcana is quite different - better, if I'm being totally subjective and biased about it. The character designs are distinctly Final Fantasy, with a range of attractive and incredibly cool looking characters available by mixing and matching parts in the customisation screens preceding the game. You'll still unlock hulking great big suits of spiky armour (which all great heroes in Monster Hunter wear), but capes, eye-patches and metallic implants give a different vibe to Lord of Arcana. There are also cameo monster appearances from other role-playing games, many designed in collaboration with well-known Square Enix illustrators. The boss of the first quest, for example, is a Nidhogg, a dragon that has appeared in several Final Fantasy games under different guises. Another beast I was pleased to lay my eyes upon was Bahamut, who can be summoned to unleash his signature Mega Flare attack, reducing his foes to piles of smouldering flesh. While I only got to see a small percentage of the monsters, they're every bit as impressive as their Capcom counterparts.
The opening quest pops you in the boots of a level 45 warrior. He's got max stats and all the cool abilities that would otherwise take days to unlock - a tantalising glimpse at the character you could become if you sink enough time into the game. This first level is little more than a tutorial, though, easing the player into the basics of combat. As you roam about the dank cavern in which this first level is set, you'll notice monsters milling about in front of magical gates. The idea is to defeat them in order to progress to the next room. Approaching an enemy will initiate a fight; the screen does that familiar swishy thing, and you're transported to an instanced arena alongside your foes.
Square is your go to button on the battlefield, prompting your character to swing his weapon: a sword, mace, two-handed sword, polearm or firelance, depending on what you chose at the start of the game. Circle is reserved for magic, L for locking on, and X for blocking and rolling, which you'll quickly find yourself relying on to survive scraps with tougher enemies. Once you've inflicted a satisfactory amount of damage on your foe, a 'coup-de-grace' finisher becomes available, performed by a well timed tap of the circle button. This makes dispatching of enemies a little more interesting, with flashy animations (and increased attack power) accompanying the execution.
Whereas most PSP games - rather sensibly - allow the player to rotate the camera with the shoulder buttons, Lord of Arcana forces you to use the D-Pad, which is in an incredibly awkward position to use in conjunction with the standard control scheme. Monster Hunter and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker both employ the same camera systems, but that doesn't stop it from being fantastically unintuitive. After getting to grips with the fundamentals of the game (and the vexatious camera), your skills, weapons and shimmering suit of armour are all taken away, replaced with the basic character you created in the customisation screens. You turn up at the village of Calioporto - a world away from where the first quest took place - as a level one nobody without a guild to call home or two coins to rub together. The first thing on the agenda is to rectify this sorry state of affairs by joining the Slayers Guild, the go-to place for those with a thirst for killing monsters.
After slaying the handful of goblins required to pass your induction, the doors to the rest of the guild's services are opened. This means you can start tackling subsequent missions with friends - the way the game was clearly intended to be played. I was unable to try out the social side of Lord of Arcana, but it seems all the features you'd expect from a team-based monster-slay-em-up are in place. Apart from online play, that is; it's ad-hoc only, I'm afraid. The experience is designed with four-player questing in mind, with many of the bigger, tougher enemies actually requiring that you band together with friends to win. I worry, though, as Monster Hunter has proved in the past, that western gamers won't embrace this idea. Considering the PSP's decline in popularity in the last few years, I doubt anybody is going to find enough other players to make the multiplayer worthwhile.
So how does it fare as a single player experience, then? Hard to say. The first few hours of play were entertaining enough, but even in that time the repetitive nature of fetch quests and simple combat began to grate. For those that enjoy the grind, however - the familiar cycle of combat, loot gathering and growth - Lord of Arcana ticks all the boxes. I'll need to check out the weapon synthesis, item creation and whatever else I didn't get to see in the preview code before forming a real opinion (you know, one I can assign a score to), but I certainly have no major problems with the game so far. Despite this, and the fact that it appears to be a solid, good looking take on the formula, I can't escape the feeling that Lord of Arcana will fail to be regarded as anything but a shameless Monster Hunter clone. We'll see.
Lord of Arcana is available for PSP on February 4, 2011.