RPGs and cute things go together like wine and cheese, unless you like neither of those, then it’s more like peanut butter and jelly. Or, I don’t know- peanut butter and pickles? Listen, I’m not here to judge your tastes. When images and gameplay of Arc of Alchemist were first unveiled, it immediately caught my eye due to the marshmallow-sweetness of character designs and its snappy, team-based action gameplay. Is this sandy action RPG going to be everyone’s cup of tea, however? Well, judging by what I’ve seen so far… not really. If you’d like to hear my initial impressions, feel free to read on.
Arc of Alchemist puts you in the shoes of Quinn Bravesford, a woman whose bleak outlook on life sharply contrasts her adorable character design. However, the state of the planet is not looking too great- years of environmental negligence has reduced the landscape to a dreary, dusty desert. Along with a cadre of colorful characters, you’ll plunge yourself into the dangerous depths of a demolished city. Along the way, you’ll attempt to ascertain an apocryphal apparatus that could ensure the survival of the world, but you’ll need to compete with wicked wildlife, aggressive automatons, and dubious doppelgangers. Okay, that last one was a stretch- they’re just people with similar motives, but I really like alliteration.
For the most part, Arc of Alchemist drops you off in its world and leaves you to fend for yourself… until you find a hint marker. Rather than condensing its tutorials into a lengthy segment, Arc of Alchemist instead has hint signs spread throughout this world that serve a dual purpose: they’re both cutscene triggers and tutorial screens. Sometimes you’ll come across a hint sign that teaches you a new and important gameplay element, sometimes you’ll hit one that starts a scripted encounter. It’s a bizarre design choice, especially in contrast with the very organic world design. These hint and event triggers are just sort of… plopped right in the middle of a field, with little rhyme or reason.
Except, when they totally do have reason, like when the game wants you to experience a very specific set of events in order so that you have a narrative thrust. This informs the world design, as well- there are some environmental puzzles that require completion if the player should wish to explore any further, as well as areas that bottleneck the player in order to make sure they hit a sequence of events in a row. It’s not very neat, but it is operable. Still, I can’t help but feel this reeks of sloppy design, and it breaks a great deal of the atmosphere.
Combat is very straightforward, possessing little nuance in comparison with many other Action RPGs. You have both a melee and special attack, as well as a tension-based special ability that is exclusive to each party member. What feels a bit surprising is that special attacks are actually linked to the equipped weapon, and they have such strong variety that getting a new one with each upgraded weapon is a bit jarring. However, this doesn’t add a great deal of complexity to the affair. If anything, the most unique aspect of Arc of Alchemist is the way its party members are all unlocked from the start, meaning you can create a number of different squad types in order to tackle its myriad of creatures. While all of these party members have a weapon type specific to their innate “class,” Quinn can wield any and all of them, meaning she’s a valuable asset for the team. Not all weapons are created equal, however, with some possessing slow startup and rigid mobility that severely hinders their potential. Things are very free-flowing, however, outside of the multiple event triggers and the base building mechanics.
Oh, right. I forgot to mention the base building. Well, in order to procure stronger equipment, trade for more valuable items, and sell your own collected materials on the market, you’ll need to strategically place facilities on a grid back at your base camp. The multitude of effects that this strategic behavior grants cannot be understated, as it extends even to the smaller campsites that you can establish out in the field and across the variety of character customization options. The base camp is also a place for boosting the stats and abilities of you partners, however each upgrade (which is separate from simple level-ups from combat in the field) costs an increasing amount of money, which is really where the core loop of the game emerges- you’ll hop back and forth from the desert to your base camp and vice versa, collecting material drops from spots littered across the map in addition to those harvested from the corpses of your foes, in the hopes of either selling them for cold, hard cash or using them to craft new facilities or materials.
It’s pretty dull, to be honest. But why is it dull, you ask? Well…
Aesthetics and Narrative
In terms of visuals, the desert wasteland is pretty oppressive. There’s caverns filled with billowing dust clouds, sandy plains, rocky ridges, and the occasional dilapidated building. There’s always a mixture of open fields and tight corridors, with the major difference between areas being their lighting and what I assume is a slight alteration of hue that occurs in each transition from one hub to the next, giving each “region” of the game a slightly different color. But this dreary locale is juxtaposed with its adorable inhabitants, which range from cute, three-tailed scorpions, to giant, but still delightful lynxes.
Even the robots designed to murder intruders possess an endearing quality, and that’s before you even factor in the designs of the main cast. As a fan of Etrian Odyssey, I firmly believe in the ability of cute character designs to also come across as badass, but the end result here is just too saccharine to be taken seriously. There are characters of varying age, gender, height, and bust size (seriously, the mage in this game is letting it all hang out), but most possess expressions and facial features designed to make your heart melt. It’s a shame that they feel so intangible, due to the odd image quality of the port that makes the screen look as if it were smeared with Vaseline.
Likewise, the game seems determined to get you to take these characters without an degree of seriousness with small vignettes that appear sporadically when you return to your base camp, depicting the banal musings and daily life of the expedition team. You’ll hear about their various relations, activities they perform in order to pass the time, and even a little bit of meaningful backstory here and there, but the majority of the more grounded and serious material falls flat due to the visual aesthetics and the vast amount of scenario writing. I mean, Quinn is adorable- when you hear that her greatest aspiration is to have a meaningful death, you want to squish her with a hug just as much as when she’s panicking about the magic show she’s putting on for the troops.
It’s the game’s insistence on drip-feeding story and lore consistently via its event markers in the field and these vignettes back at base camp that eventually becomes grating, as it seems the game is determined to slow the momentum of exploration to a crawl at every opportunity. It feels as if Arc of Alchemist is willing to give you the freedom to explore- or at least, gather materials- to your heart’s content, but its own secret desire is to rip that away from you whenever possible.
The music gives off a decidedly sixth-generation feel, akin to the midi tunes developed for titles like Tales of Symphonia and games of its kind, but its desert tracks are mostly subtle and fall away every time you enter into combat with the enemies peppering the field. I’ll be honest, there are some very catchy tracks, but when enemies have a tendency to teleport from combat and cause themes to perform multiple fade ins-and-outs, as well as some pretty quick loops on the whole, it doesn’t leave a great impression
Performance and Conclusion
One of the largest sour spots was the game’s performance in both docked and handheld mode. I have previously bemoaned Compile Heart releases for gameplay that feels weightless and performance leaning towards unstable, but Arc of Alchemist is a surprisingly disappointing affair. For a game designed around open exploration and spotting details on your massive map, the frequent dips in framerate do the game no great service. There are a number of interactive elements to be found throughout the field, such as lanterns to light, chests to open, turrets to destroy, and giant walls that randomly pop up out of nowhere. Any time you come across one of these elements, your game’s framerate is likely to dip, and when you need to combine these elements with a combat puzzle, the game’s performance and flow can be reduced to such a mind-numbing pace that it almost feels like an eternity.
Except, the game really isn’t all that long. The lack of a substantial difficulty curve makes Arc of Alchemist a measly eight to ten hour experience- not feeling very befitting of its price point. You can spend a fair amount of time seeking out treasure, gathering loot (a process that you can reset at field campsites), and managing your base, but it’s all a bit superfluous when the challenge is almost nonexistent. Despite being able to play as any of Quinn’s quirky team, there’s no need to do so, or to even experiment with the combat tactics features, as the game has positions for specific party members already programmed in.
So much of this game feels inconsequential. You can level specific character stats up back at your base camp for oodles of money- that’s fine, I guess, but they keep growing independently of these investments. You might want to buff the rank of your base camp, but the steps required to invest into this feature are so convoluted and tedious that it rarely feels worth the effort. You might want to explore, but the worlds are actually a it barren once they’re stripped of their hint markers, with gathering spots being the only remaining and purposeful reasons for returning. One of the game’s trademark mechanics, the Lunagear, is an odd device used to interact with specific areas of the map, and can be combined for combat usage, but it’s barely relevant outside of the palsy narrative.
As a big fan of squad-based Action RPGs, I cannot tell you how disappointed this game makes me. I’ll continue to search for a Crystal Chronicles-like experience, but for now, I urge you to reconsider whether this aesthetically adorable but barebones Arc of Alchemist should be your next purchase. I strongly believe this is not the case. Though playable (and most definitely replayable), it lacks the finesse that can be seen in great amounts elsewhere in Action RPGs on the Nintendo Switch.