Mystic Ark
  • Genre:
    • RPG
  • Platform:
    • Super Famicom
  • Developer:
    • Produce
  • Publisher:
    • Enix
  • Released:
    • JP 07/14/1995
Score: 80%

This review was published on 04/12/2014.

Mystic Ark is a role-playing game developed by Produce and published by Enix for the Super Famicom. It was released in Japan on July 14, 1995. The game was never released outside of Japan, but it did get some fan translations from the emulation community. Of these fan translations, the one by Aeon Genesis is probably the best. Many people refer to Mystic Ark as the sequel to The 7th Saga, which did get a North American release in 1993. While the two games are made by the same developer and bear many similarities, Mystic Ark isn't officially confirmed to be a sequel. Maybe it's more like a spiritual successor. Mystic Ark also has similarities to another Produce game called Brain Lord, but again, it's uncertain if the stories of these games are connected. Produce sure has produced a lot of games. Mystic Ark did get a PlayStation sequel on March 18, 1999, but that also was never released outside of Japan. It's not hard to see why Mystic Ark never made it to the West. RPGs weren't very popular in North America during the early-to-mid '90s, and 7th Saga didn't sell too well outside Japan. It's too bad, because Mystic Ark is a far better game than 7th Saga.

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The first thing you'll see is a scene showing various characters from different locations being transformed into tiny, wooden figurines by strange card objects. Then you're prompted to pick a name and gender for the protagonist, at which point the protagonist will become a figurine, too. All these figurines end up in a mysterious palace somewhere, wherein a voice speaks to the hero. The voice refers to itself as a goddess and transforms the hero back into a human form. Afterwards, the goddess mentions that the palace is on an island with doors that lead into other worlds. The goddess tells the hero to return home, but unfortunately, she doesn't know which door the hero's home lies. Some goddess she turned out to be. In order to actually open the doors, mystical powers known as Arks are needed. The hero then goes on a grand quest through many themed worlds in search of the Arks. If it feels like something is missing here, that's because there is. This game doesn't give you a lot of information about what's going on at first. Why were a bunch of people transformed into figurines and transported to an island with doors to other worlds? You find the answers to these questions and more as you play the game. Some might find the lack of explanations off putting, but it does inspire a sense of mystery that sucks you right in. One thing's for sure; the plot to this game totally blows 7th Saga's story out of the water.

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At its core, Mystic Ark is a standard Japanese RPG, but it incorporates a lot of elements from point-and-click adventure games. There is no actual pointing and clicking, though, as you simply move around in an overhead perspective like any other RPG of the time. First of all, this game loves menus. In order to talk to somebody or examine an object, you bring up a menu and pick the correct command. That's kind of archaic for a 16-bit RPG made in 1995, but it was quite common for 8-bit RPGs like Dragon Warrior. Luckily, you can press the L or X buttons as a shortcut to automatically talk to or examine the nearest entity, a feature 7th Saga sorely needed. The PC adventure game parts come in when examining objects. Doing so will take you to a separate screen with a closer look at the object and additional options. These options include things like using an item on the object, looking at the object, touching the object, taking the object, etc. That should sound familiar to anyone who's played an adventure game before. Many of Mystic Ark's puzzles are solved in this manner, by examining objects and trying different options. A lot of it comes down to trial and error. Thankfully, it never gets as bad as an actual adventure game. Having to constantly search objects amidst your journey does slow things down considerably, though. The examination mechanic does make Mystic Ark a little different from the average RPG, but the game would be better off without it.

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Structurally, Mystic Ark is similar to Super Mario 64. The island of mystery acts as a hub that connects to all the other worlds, all of which are thematically different. Instead of jumping into paintings, you get transported into other worlds by interacting with objects. One of the objects is a painting, though. The island has a lot of stuff on it besides the shrine, all of which could possibly lead to another world. Each world has its own map to explore, with loads of towns, dungeons, and the like scattered throughout it. When inside of a world, you can use the crystal that the goddess gave you at the beginning of the game to freely teleport to any locations you've been to. It's rather convenient and you have access to it right away. The ultimate objective of each world is to defeat its boss and acquire an Ark. What's so great about this setup is the amount of variety available, both in themes and in scenarios. Each theme is unique and some are quite creative. There is a desert world with grounded ships that have anthropomorphic cat pirates living inside of them, a world where people live in giant fruits, a world of fairytales, and much more. As you can see from the listed examples, the themes aren't your typical fire, ice, and water worlds. Visiting all these different worlds and taking part in their unique scenarios is maximally fun. The only problem is that, unlike Mario 64, the worlds can't be traversed in any order. Worlds must be completed in a linear order, with the worlds themselves being slightly nonlinear. It would've been cool to be able to visit the worlds in any order, but that's a minor gripe. Mystic Ark's multiple worlds are already cool enough as it is.

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Much like 7th Saga, monsters are not visible on screen, but will show up on radar when in dangerous areas like dungeons or outside of towns. As one would expect, touching a dot on the radar initiates a turn-based battle with an enemy. Battles retain the behind-the-back perspective of 7th Saga, but they did away with the Mode-7 backgrounds, instead opting for more standard stuff. Visually, the battles look great, with large sprites and a fair amount of animation. The battle music is pretty good, too. Mechanically, the battles aren't anything special. You select commands to attack, defend, use magic, and all the things you'd expect out of such a battle system. Battles will be very boring at the beginning of the game, as you only have one character and all you can do is attack. Fighting does get a bit more interesting later on when your options increase, but it never gets too interesting. The only thing worthy of note here is that the game has a fairly in-depth AI customization system for battle automation. It's almost on the level of Final Fantasy XII's Gambit system, though not quite that complex. You can even do things like set priority to targeting enemies that cast instant death spells or healing magic. Due to the simplicity of the battles and the complexity of the automation options, it's unlikely you'll ever have to enter any commands manually. Whether that's a good thing is another matter entirely. Advanced automation options aside, Mystic Ark's battle system is as generic as they come.

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There are a lot of puzzles in Mystic Ark and they're very puzzling indeed. In fact, the game starts throwing a number of mystifying puzzles right out the gate. Lots of the puzzles simply involve locating the correct item and using it in the right place, or inspecting an object and running through the list of options, or pushing stuff like rocks. Not all puzzles involve inspecting objects and pushing stuff, though. Some puzzles are done on a separate screen with a cursor. There's a tough, optional puzzle early on involving chess pieces, which should be a boon for chess masters, but a nightmare for chess novices. Another puzzle shortly after that has you flipping coins. The game has quite a lot of puzzles and it throws them at you pretty often. It's very easy to get stuck in this game, but never fear, because the talking fireplace is here! Yes, there's a talking fireplace and it gives you hints on what to do next. These hints are cryptic, though, plus the fireplace has grammar issues. It's not a fault of the translation, as the original Japanese text has the fireplace speaking with poor grammar, too. Solving puzzles and figuring out where to go is very satisfying in Mystic Ark, because unlike similar RPGs, there is logic behind everything. It all comes down to trying to comprehend that logic, which can be challenging, but never unfair.

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So what actually is an Ark and what does it do? Well, Arks are kind of like spirits, and they do a number of different things. Arks can be imbued into things like items to give them special properties, they can be used to solve certain puzzles, and they're the primary means by which you obtain additional party members. That last one is easily the most important, because traveling alone sucks. There are six figurines in the shrine of the mysterious island that can be transformed into extra party members when imbued with an Ark. You can't actually gain any party members until you earn your first Ark, which doesn't happen until after completing the first world. Once you do, though, you instantly gain access to all six characters at once. Characters can be carried around as items in figurine form, and then transmogrified into living beings when inside one of the worlds, provided you have an Ark handy. Any character that's on you will gain experience points in battle even when in figurine form, though characters that actually participate in battle gain more experience. You can have up to three characters in your active party and can swap them at any time while in a world if you have their figurine on you. Each character has his or her own unique stats, equipment, spells, and abilities, so there are plenty of choices when building a party. A few annoying things about parties in this game; characters return to the shrine as figurines when they die, and active party members revert to figurines when exiting a world. You'll be going back and forth between the shrine and other worlds frequently, meaning you'll have to constantly bring out the party members you want every time you enter a world. The Ark system is cool besides those minor annoyances.

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For an RPG, Mystic Ark doesn't have much in the way of side quests. It does have one that's pretty big and involving, though, and that's the Monster Arena. The hero has an ability that can be used in battle to transform monsters into figurines. Those monster figurines can then be used in the Monster Arena to win fabulous prizes. To get prizes from the Monster Arena, you need platinum, and platinum can only be earned within the arena itself. There are two modes of play in the Monster Arena: betting on other monsters, or pitting your own monsters against the enemy. In both cases, you'll watch the monsters battle each other from the sidelines, not being able to control any of the action. Figurines obtained from strong monsters will do better in Monster Arena battles, so it pays to pick the strongest monster you've got. Winning at either of the modes nets you platinum, which you then use to exchange your monster figurines for items. It's kind of confusing, because you're not only losing a prized monster figurine, but you're also spending the platinum you just earned with it. What kind of prize you get depends on the monster figurine you trade in, with stronger monsters giving better prizes. Prizes include items that permanently boost your character's stats, rare gear, and other goodies. The Monster Arena is one of those things you can dump a ton of hours into, but it's totally optional and completely unnecessary, so you can ignore it if this isn't your thing. Still, it's there for those who want it.

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Mystic Ark is mystical, indeed. Graphically, musically, story wise, it's all drastically superior to 7th Saga and the game is just good in general. The soundtrack is especially amazing and is worth a listen on its own. Mystic Ark achieves a great flow with its combination of exploration, battles, and puzzles. What really stands out about Mystic Ark is its variety, however. The themed worlds work well and are a delight to explore. Mystic Ark is also decently long, as each world takes a while to complete, and there are many of them. As for the negatives, the battles are a bit on the mundane side, the point-and-click adventure stuff bogs down the game, and it's fairly linear. These issues prevent Mystic Ark from being up there with the best of the best in RPGs, but they don't prevent it from being an above average RPG. Mystic Ark is worth checking out if you're into RPGs from the 16-bit era.

Word Count: 2,260

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