System: Super NES Publisher: HAL America Developer: HAL Laboratory
Genre: RPG Type: 1st-Person RPG Circa: 1992

RPGs with a first-person perspective are somewhat of an enigma. Despite having menu-driven battles, they usually aren't that much like traditional RPGs, emphasizing open-ended exploration and character creation over story. Arcana, on the other hand, is a game that combines the familiar elements of traditional RPGs with a first-person view. Like many modern RPGs, Arcana has characters with real personalities. Once you're placed in a dungeon, it's yours to explore, but you can only go through the dungeons in the order that they're presented, because the game follows along a storyline. So even if you've never liked a first-person RPG, there's still a good chance that you could become enrapt with Arcana, much like I was.
One of the first things I noticed about Arcana's graphics was that just about everything, and everyone, appears as a tarot card. This includes characters, enemies, and treasure chests. It's a little hoaky, but at least it's original (and it's cool to see an enemy card tear apart when it's defeated.) Character portraits are drawn in a colorful anime style. Check out the scar on Rooks's face or Darwin's two different-colored eyes!

Unlike most RPGs of its era, Arcana features lots of animation. Not only are all the enemies animated, but so are their attacks, and the animation is pretty good. Sometimes, when enemies are palette-swapped, instead of just merely changing their colors, the animations are slightly altered as well. One example of this is a green lizard-like enemy called Sauropod who is animated flicking his tongue. The Sauropod later appears as a grey Bajis enemy, who is not only flicking his tongue, but also covering his eyes with his hands.

The backgrounds, shown in a first-person perspective, are rich and colorful, but are a bit repetitive in some areas. The rocky cliffs of the Draven Pass and Crimson Valley look particularly inviting, as do the foggy mists that enshroud the serene Forest of Doubt. But many buildings, such as the Stavery, Balnia Temple, and Ice Mine, use the same tiled bricks over and over again, with only minor palette-swapping between them. Although this seems a little dull, it doesn't really detract too much from the overall appeal of Arcana's visuals.

SOUND: 8.5/10
Arcana's music is almost Final Fantasy-caliber in its quality and style. The mesmerizing title and intro story themes open a doorway into Arcana's world that brings us to the village of Galia, where the strange town music is reminiscent of a spinning carousel. While some themes, such as the map and shop music are less successful, the menacing bells of Balnia Temple, the flutes echoing the winds of the battle theme, the chilling strains of the Ice Mine, the eerie calm of the Forest, the blaring horns of Bintel Castle, and the intense boss music flesh out the score to rival the best that game soundtracks have to offer. The moment I first heard the final boss music kick in is something I'll always remember. Music sometimes changes to suit situations at hand. Whenever the wandering Darwin joins your party, the background music will change to a somber traveling tune (which I dubbed "Darwin's Theme").

The sound effects, especially the thunderbolts of "Attribute" spells, are very well-done, too. Some of the effects are kind of funny, especially the Sleep spell's whistle sound. My only minor nitpick is that I wish the background music didn't restart from the beginning every time you come out of a battle. This means that unless I have my party stay still and do nothing, or play with the Sound Test (Hold L + R and press B on the title screen), I almost never get to hear the pieces in their entirety! (I think that Final Fantasy Mystic Quest may have been the first RPG I played that continued the music from where it left off after finishing a battle.)

CONTROL: 8.5/10
Arcana's control is easy and simple. Like most menu-driven RPGs, a cursor is used to pick commands from a window. It's fast and keeps things moving at a good pace. Movement in dungeons is accomplished by using Up and Down to move forward and backwards, and Left and Right to make 90-degree turns.
Arcana's intriguing tale begins with a brief history of the land of Elemen, where war has waged for centuries amongst disputing kingdoms. Long ago, the hero Fanas used the power of the elemental spirit cards to seal away an evil entity, thus ending the wars. Now, ten years later, an evil wizard named Galneon has defeated the king and ascended the throne. He is now making preparations to revive this ancient evil. Only a true Card Master can thwart his plans, which means the duty falls upon Rooks - the son of the legendary Card Master, Zahan. Of course, Rooks's journey will be fraught with many mysteries, betrayals, and surprise twists.

Unfortunately, Arcana suffers a bit from a weak translation. It's not uncommon to witness dialogue such as:

"It's a door."

"It could be a trap."

"If it is a trap, then I will fall into a trap."

And no, I'm not making fun of the game, that's an actual conversation between two main characters. Other times, the dialogue seems inappropriate, such as when Galneon gloats that he killed Rooks's parents with his "bare hands" and Rooks's response is, "That Galneon!" Despite being somewhat cool in the idea, the plot is relatively simple, too. Just see how anti-climactic it is when the characters fight and defeat the main antagonist. Afterwards, they act like it's no big deal.

Despite its flaws, I liked Arcana's simple, but enjoyable story. The characters have a lot of charm and the environment is engrossing. The manual is particularly entertaining, too. I think it's funny how it gives an in-depth description of a character named Reinoll, even though he's only seen in one short part of the game.

Consistently, RPGs aren't the most difficult genre of games, but for what it's worth, Arcana provides a decent challenge. The one factor that makes this game so tough is that you have to keep all of your party members alive, with the exception of the spirit cards. If any human character dies, the game ends, and you must start again from your last save.

Many battles in Arcana will require lots of strategy to win, and I don't just mean boss fights. Regular enemy parties often consist of monsters that can cast powerful spells that hit your entire party at once. Surviving these onslaughts will be a matter of choosing the best magic to retaliate with, and deciding which monsters to have your strongest fighter(s) take out first. Enemy parties are often quite varied. You may encounter a single demon in one battle or several monsters of a like kind, and in the next, you may be attacked by five completely different monsters. You never know what to expect.

The auto-mapping feature makes the dungeons easy and fun to explore. There isn't much of a chance of getting lost, even in dungeons with multiple floors, and you always have the "Home" spell, which sends you back to the safety of a town. But the farther you go in the dungeons, the tougher the enemy parties will get. If a dungeon has 10 floors, then Floor 1 may have simple monsters who pose no real threat, while Floor 10 has enemies that could spell your doom at any moment. These gradual increases in difficulty gave me a sense of progressing through challenging levels, rather than just "exploring a dungeon".

The boss fights tend to be very easy as long as you're leveled-up enough and have the best equipment available. However, there's never any indication as to when and where you'll run into a boss. They are positioned at certain places in the dungeons, but you won't know that they are there until you actually walk into those spots. But even in the circumstances in which I found myself ill-prepared for a boss, I still didn't have much trouble. Although, I will admit that the final boss completely kicked my ass the first few times I tried fighting it!

FUN: 8/10
Arcana's battle system may seem simplistic. It was standard for RPGs at the time of its release, but HAL added a few extra features. In keeping with the "card" theme, you can buy elemental cards and combine those of a like kind to use in battle as a weapon. However, I've finished Arcana 4 or 5 times now, and I've never found this feature to be particularly useful. Much more effective is Rooks's ability to call up to four different kinds of elemental spirit cards to aid in battle. If you're fighting a group of enemies that use fire-based attacks, you may want to call the water spirit card and attack with its water magic. Most spells, when used properly, are very effective.

The best thing about Arcana's battle system is the speed at which it runs. Since the encounter rate is relatively high, it's a good thing that commands are executed almost instantaneously. Though there is quite a bit of animation, it is all very fast. HAL even spiced up the battle dialogue by replacing common terms like "Critical Hit" and "The enemy missed" with trash-talk from your characters such as "Take that!" and "Is that the best you can do?"

Arcana's brisk pace never requires hours of tedious level-building. Since it's so easy and fun to explore the dungeons (and curiosity often leads to hidden treasure chests), I find that just by having explored every nook and cranny so that my map completely "fills out", I would have fought enough battles to be well-prepared for the challenges ahead. (In fact, I strongly suggest doing this, since once you leave a chapter, you can never go back to previous dungeons!) Arcana doesn't feature any true puzzle-solving, but it's ever-changing host of enemies and the fun of exploring new areas of the dungeons keeps the game exciting and fresh at every turn.


Arcana is an enjoyable and (dare I say it?) overlooked RPG. In a day and age when RPGs are becoming more and more complex, and battle systems are getting more and more bogged down with options, animations, and loading delays, Arcana whisks me back to a simpler time when games were more about the bare elements of fun, challenge, and exploring than whether or not the hero falls in love. When the cards are laid out on the table, Arcana comes up a winner!
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 8/10



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