La Pucelle: Tactics
For those of you keeping an eye on the Playstation 2's RPG scene, a little title came out last year for the machine to little fanfare. Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, a fun, fresh strategy RPG title became something of a sleeper hit for Atlus (who localized it for the U.S.) and Nippon Ichi (who hadn't had a hit in the U.S., but has been steady churning out titles since the original Playstation days). In the wake of Disgaea's surprise success, Nippon Ichi announced that its latest title, Phantom Brave would see an American released shortly after debuting in Japan, which seemed an obvious move. More surprising was Mastiff Game's announcement that they were going to localize Disgaea's predecessor, La Pucelle for an American audience. Retitled La Pucelle: Tactics, Mastiff's gambit seems to have paid of artistically, but it remains to be seen if Mastiff will have the monetary success that Atlus did with Disgaea.
La Pucelle (literally "The Virgin" in French) takes place in an alternate history France, where numerous Churches are dedicated to the gods. As the game opens, we meet three members of the Church of the Goddess of Light, Prier, Culotte, and Alouette. While the Church is there for worship, its main goal is to track down demons, using the crack La Pucelle team. However, a number of unusual run-ins with demons leads the La Pucelle team and a group of their friends to the ultimate battle between good and evil. The setup is not unlike that of Disgaea; the game's story takes place in episodes, with each episode featuring a number of maps to be cleared in an isometric, board game like RPG battle.
Indeed, the whole game seems to run on the same engine as Disgaea (or Disgaea runs on the La Pucelle engine, since the latter came first). The battles are set up in largely the same way (with one notable exception), and the games seem to share music and many sound effects, not to mention a lot of small conceits (the shop in both games is the Rosenqueen stores, and many items have the same names). Despite this, La Pucelle feels like a very different beast than Disgaea for a number of different reasons.
The most notable of those reasons is that the isometric battles have two views, similar to games like Robot Taisen. The characters move around on the isometric grid, like Disgaea, but when you attack or cast spells on another character, the game switches to a 2-D screen with the action characters(s) on the right and the characters acted upon on the left side. Compared to Disgaea, the battles are thus conducted a little more slowly.
There are a few other differences in La Pucelle. In Disgaea, playing the game normally leads most players to have an ultra-powerful main character and then a string of strong humanoid demons, then monsters, whose uses are limited. One could capture monsters in Disgaea, but monsters were limited in practical use and difficult to capture. In La Pucelle, you can't create your own army, and two members of La Pucelle are more mage-like than tanks. Thus you'll capture enemy monsters by "purifying" them until they convert to your side. In my play-through, my main tank isn't the main character Prier, but is instead a bear that you can pick up early in the game who is right now four levels ahead of anyone else in my party. La Pucelle also takes away some of the rampant abuse available in Disgaea; in Mastiff's game, you cannot have a character participate in a group attack, then recall them and have them attack on their own again. Both of these factors change the character of battle in La Pucelle, making it more difficult and harder, especially in the story mode.
As mentioned above, group attacks are available in La Pucelle (where a character attacks and any friendly characters directly behind, in front of, or beside the attacking character will help), helping to defeat strong enemies and level up weaker characters. Like Disgaea, the boards in La Pucelle feature candy colored blocks, but this game includes dark portals and dark streams. By using your purification skill on the dark portal, you can close them, causing the stream emanating from them to explode, damaging enemies in its path. Not purifying dark portals allows for more enemies to spew from them, but playing a level several times without purifying opens the door to the Dark World, a place with ultra powerful enemies who deliver a lot of experience and rewards (much like Disagea's Cave of Ordeals or Alternate Netherworld).
All of these features combine together for a satisfying tactical RPG experience. Other features add to the value of the package. Although Disgaea, popular because of its adorable character art, and La Pucelle don't share the same artists, La Pucelle is adorable and slick; in your adventures you meet a slick gunman, Croiux and cat pirates, the Chocolats. Somewhat like Disagaea, special attacks can yield character art to pop up, but the 2-D character battle screens are also very detailed. As with Disgaea, La Pucelle is a long game and ferreting out all the secrets can take numerous play-throughs and anywhere from 70 hours on up.
Since Disgaea is the spiritual sequel to La Pucelle, there are a number of refinements in the later game that La Pucelle doesn't have. For example, Disgaea allows you to skip cinema scenes, especially helpful when that level 200 demon whips your backside and you have to play a level over. La Pucelle doesn't, so if you lose, many times you'll be stuck watching a scene play out again. In Disgaea, a character can only equip one weapon, but in La Pucelle a character can equip all four slots with weapons (or any item) to boost a particular stat. Also unlike Disgaea, characters have a set weapon (Crouix always uses his gun, for example), no matter what you equip them with. Although La Pucelle wants you to level up to crazy heights like Disgaea, the Dark World isn't as helpful and available as the Item Word in Disgaea, which was a great place to level up items and characters easily. When replaying a finished map in Disgaea, if there was a boss or story character on the map, it was replaced with an ultra powerful version of a common enemy. In La Pucelle, the boss is simply removed - since the game emphasizes gaining experience so much, those ultra powerful enemies are sorely missed. Disgaea seems to have had more spoken dialogue as well.
Having said all that, La Pucelle does have a couple of advantages over its sequel; first and foremost is the branching story line. In some episodes, you can earn different endings based on your actions through the episode. You can also open up new paths or even skip entire parts of the episode. For example, in one episode, Prier's party, along with the Chocolats, fights an enormous monster. Your goal is to defeat the head of the Chocolats, but you can choose to kill the monster, which ends the episode and gives you the bad ending. Taking out the Chocolat captain, Homard opens up a new location and three more battle maps. Locations can have battlefields that are unnecessary for winning the episode and can be skipped, but coming back and defeating them yields much needed extra experience. Additionally, the story characters in La Pucelle can learn double techs, a special spell or technique that relies on two of the characters, a small, but often welcome addition.
Mastiff's localization of La Pucelle is better than Atlus's in Disgaea. Setting the audio to Japanese puts everything, including battle dialogue to Japanese (even in Japanese, the American version of Disgaea had English during battle). I wish the company would have had an option for Japanese text as well, but that's unavailable. There is also an English language track available on the game, but I didn't use it very much, but it sounded competent enough. Outside of a few odd translation choices, the localization is rock solid. One slight censorship issue crept up; the game featured numerous crosses, many of which Mastiff took out (some of them very poorly, as you can see them between shots and scenes). Normally I'd go to town on a company for doing something like that, but in this case, I blame more the bizarre American Taliban fundamentalist jerks than I do Mastiff.
To anyone unfamiliar with Disgaea, I would recommend picking that game up first. It's a little less frustrating than La Pucelle for strategy newbies and it is a little more polished. Fans of last year's little SRPG, however, owe it to themselves to get La Pucelle. If you enjoy SRPGs like I do, then La Pucelle has no real faults. The drought of SRPGs in the U.S. has turned now into a torrent of good titles. And let's face it, games like La Pucelle are the reason to own a Playstation 2. Stop wasting time and go get this title so you'll have enough time to play it before Phantom Brave comes out. Considering the bang up job that Mastiff did with La Pucelle, I rather wish that they were localizing Phantom Brave too.