Arcana is an old SNES role-playing game that features the hero, Rooks, and his friends as they try to save the kingdom of Elemen and protect the daughters of King Wagnall. Rooks is the last Card Master of his race, and controls the power of elements. He can cast four elemental summons, Dao (Earth), Sylph (Wind), Marid (Water), and Efrite (Fire). Various friends of his join his party, but this is heavily determined by turns of the plot. Rooks begins with Teefa, a man named Ariel's apprentice. Later, he meets Salah, and her bodyguard, Axs. From time to time, he runs into an elf named Darwin. These four characters are playable in the game; the first two, girls, are better with magic, and the boys are better with physical fighting. Some of the non-playable characters that show up in the game are Ariel, Galneon, and Empress Rimsala, who are conspirators trying to bring the Reign of Evil over the empire of Elemen.
This game is one of the earliest RPGs that differs almost completely from the Final Fantasy series. It is played entirely in the first-person perspective, but contrary to modern first-person shooting games, you are centered in the middle of hallways, rather than higher up where the head would be. The game's perspective works flawlessly, as the majority of the game involves maze-like dungeons. Players can travel down hallways, making relatively realistic three-dimensional turns. Even towns are in the first-person, but they are mostly limited to one inn, a weapon shop, a healer, and alchemist shop, and an exit.
However, despite how archaic Arcana and its graphics may seem to be compared to modern RPGs, its gameplay is neither primitive nor does it lack challenges. One thing that is very different from conventional RPGs is an inability to return to previously visited cities. In other games, such as Pokémon (also produced by Hal America), new buildings and events are available in old cities as new cities are cleared. It is expected for the user to return to old cities for rewards and the like. However, in Arcana, each town has a single exit that leads to the current dungeon. There is no manual walking to the dungeon; you automatically show up inside of it. As there is no way of backtracking, once a player has moved on to a new area, often with harder monsters, there is no leveling up or battling elsewhere. Additionally, if any one player dies, the game is over. Because of this, users must keep all players up to reasonably health. The most frustrating complication, however, is how often characters randomly leave the party. Characters come and go freely, leaving Rooks alone just before most boss battles. Although there are reasonable plot-related reasons for why those characters decide to constantly desert, those reasons are no consolation once lonely and facing a dungeon or a boss. Not only do users have to put up with others' flakiness, but when they arrive, they have no equipment, so it is necessary to return to towns to purchase the latest equipment for the short duration these playable characters feel like sticking around. But, they do learn spells in their absences. Furthermore, random battles are truly random, making the difficulty extremely variable; there is no indication of whether there will be a single hobgoblin or seven spell-casting warlocks. Spells, for the most part, deal damages to all allies or all enemies, which is often frustrating. Finally, it is very common to walk into boss battles with no warning, but all of them are easier than expected, disparate from the final boss.
The gameplay itself is broken into five chapters. Each features a main town and a set of dungeons, usually inclusive of one to three primary dungeon areas. Dungeons often are connected by doors or stairs, and can be broken up into rising levels, usually up to twelve. As the player moves around on floors, parts of a very handy map are filled out. Once inside of dungeons, there are no savepoints or places to heal; users are dependent on purchases from the previous town. If any character dies, even on the last step in a dungeon, the whole party is transported to the last town. However, explored parts of the map are retained. Returning back to town is feasible with a Return Ring or by casting the spell Home, learned by Rooks fifteen levels in. The monetary system is GP, or gold points, similar to Dungeons and Dragons. Extremely useful items can be bought at the weapon shop and are divided into weapons, armor, shields, charms, and honeys. There are also the typical healing items, elixirs, and cards, but these are not as necessary. Honeys are interesting items that raise specific stats by 3, or either HP or MP by 5. By the end of the game, there is a lot of leftover money to spend on honeys, making it easy to max out stats (to 255) without getting to the max level of 60. This is something that certainly makes the game more enjoyable as it comes to a close. As for items found, monsters never drop items, only GP. The only time it is possible to find items in the field is to walk to the very end of corridors; treasure chests cannot be seen even two steps away. This can be frustrating, but treasure chest squares are completely free of monsters, making them useful for regenerating HP and MP.
The battle system is unique and card-based, but surprisingly unrelated to cards. All characters, summon, and monsters appear on card-like two-dimensional surfaces, but rarely do players feel as though cards are involved at all. Elemental cards can be played, as one time use magic spells, but they have relatively little effect, and the game can be easily beaten without them. There are magic spells, normal attacking, all of that great stuff, but the main focus here is on summons. There is always one of the four elemental summons at the forefront of the party during play, but they function exactly as any other character, with HP and MP, and an ability to attack, cast spells, or defend. The is always one present, but others can be called in its place without using up a turn during battle. Additionally, the HP and MP of summons regenerates with each step in a dungeon, making the clear space of treasure chests extremely useful.
As for the aesthetic quality of the game, it is primitive relative to the high realism in newer games. Despite this, it is entirely suitable for its purposes, and it lacks nothing. One interesting aspect of the game is that all the characters, summons, and monsters are two-dimensional while the maps and areas are three-dimensional. The plot is elaborated primarily by text, so graphics are not an issue. Nor are there any drawn-out FMVs for the plot twists; they are verbal, and described in dialogue. As it is first-perspective, it is hard to describe the game as having 8-bit characters that we are so familiar with; instead, there are two highly pixilated images of each character and summon, one close up (in general) and one full body (for battles).
The music is a bit old-fashioned as well, but this does not make it bad. It is of the typical RPG style, with synthesized melodies that vary only the slightest and repeat every half-minute. However, every song is very fitting for each area. The music inside the Icicle Dungeon exudes the atmosphere of being cold and lost in a magical and fascinating area.
In summation, Arcana has its irksome qualities, but is in itself a game that must be played before delving into the world of modern RPGs. All of the troubles in Arcana keep it from being less than challenging, and give it a unique character that takes role-playing games on a different branch that has been rarely explored since. The plot comes in fast-paced spurts, but has an appropriate depth that contributes to twists of the game. Music and graphics, both moving to a forefront of priority in the most recent games, are not aspects of Arcana that are lacking. It is not overly lengthy, as opposed to this review, but it is worth every minute spent.