Mystic Ark

(1995, SNES)



Only released in Japan, Mystic Ark is a JRPG with what I think is an 18th or 19th century fantasy setting. I don't think it's well known, but it's probably not unknown either. A complete translation patch is available, which is what I used to play the game. Now to get into the nitty gritty...

The game starts with the sound of waves crashing against a beach. A white building materialises out of thin air, then we see various characters in their homelands being turned into dolls. The main hero is changed back from a doll by a goddess trapped inside of a statue and told to find seven magical "arks" to defeat an evil power. I think this perfectly demonstrates the originality of this game. It's familiar for a JRPG, but slightly strange at the same time. The whole game has a sort of storybook feel to it. I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland, and The Neverending Story (or at least the second half of it). Unfortunately, I think people who play games for their story will be disappointed here since although the story is well done, it is simple, and a lot of it is told implicitly. I think its best to let your imagination fill the gaps with this game, it will make for a very good experience. Just as an example, none of the party members in this game are actually involved in dialogue or the main story. They are sort of there, but you do visit their worlds and learn a bit more about them just by observing the situation there. I will say that for me, this game really did capture my imagination, and by the end of my playthrough I had come up with character backstories on my own.

I think what makes this game truly special, is the art and sound. The character designs are by Akihiro Yamada and they are absolutely gorgeous. It's worth looking up Akihiro's paintings of them, in fact I'd suggest doing so before playing the game. The in game graphics are nice too, once again the game is familiar but slightly different. There is a resemblance to other games in the genre, but the impression I get is that a lot of effort and research went into making each environment. Overall the colour choices and sounds in this game are pretty powerful, it sets a unique vibe that I think justifies giving it a try. There are many nice touches I appreciated too, such as the menu sounds echoing inside caves, or the music not blaring in every single area. That said, the music is great too, enough that it can be appreciated on its own.

As for the gameplay, well it's a JRPG so there's not going to be much to say. Combat is turn based, with full-figure animated sprites, and you can use regular attacks, spells, and special skills during battle. Outside of battle, there are different worlds to explore, each containing towns and a number of dungeons. One of the more unique gameplay feature is how the monster encounters work. They aren't entirely random - you can actually see enemies as white dots on a large radar. Much like Dragon Quest though, there's not a lot you can do to avoid being constantly bombarded by enemies, it really only serves to give you the illusion of being able to escape. The arks mentioned earlier have a small influence on gameplay, allowing interaction with certain objects in the game world, and they can be bound to the hero's weapon to add different effects. The game does require a bit of grinding, but it's not too bad.

Overall, Mystic Ark is a good game, with a special place in my heart. It's not the most original in its story or gameplay, but presentation is everything here. It did get a sequel on the Playstation, but sadly the switch was made from 2d graphics to 3d, and the theme was shifted slightly. If I can find a translation patch, I might play the second too. If you love games with a special feeling, definitely give this one a try.