This review comes really late. I acquired this game in late 2013, already years after its release in 2009 (2010 in North America). Back then I played it a bit and had a lot fun, but stopped playing because my japanese wasn't quite at the level required to comfortably play the game in its entirety. That's changed years ago, but I kept putting it off because there's been lots of sequels to big JRPG franchises coming out lately. I played Star Ocean 5, Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV back to back with bits of Shin Megami Tensei IV: Final in between, and then I had to consciously hold off on Nier: Automata to make time for this gem. Anyways, to say this much in advance: Out of all the games I've played in the past 2 years, this is the one I like most.
Arc Rise Fantasia hits a lot of tropes, but the story has some turns like I haven't seen them anywhere else. The characters feel surprisingly unique and multidimensional. I cared for my party more than I usually do playing a RPG. The plot is fast paced. There aren't hundreds of "quests" that only serve to pad playtime, and characters are further explored in optional skit events. Fur the uninitiated: skit events are conversations between party members that can be triggered by the push of a button while traversing maps. The skits in this game are well written and really add to the depth of characters.
Locations are connected by a world map and battles are turn based. The game fundamentally reminds of 90's era JRPGs, with a unique battle system that feels similar to that used by the Grandia titles thanks to a dynamic turn order. Characters share an AP value that's used to perform actions. You can divide those up as you wish - perform a strong attack with one character or do simple actions using all of them, for example. The AP value increases over time, allowing you more options with stronger attacks as you fight increasingly tougher enemies. There's quite a bit of strategy involved with positioning and making choices based on limited resources. Magic is scarce so you can't afford to go all out in each and every battle. Boss fights can be straightforward or near impossible depending on your playstyle and equipment, but the game is generally very managable if you really know what you're doing. Otherwise grinding a few levels doesn't take long if you're underleveled. Overleveling on the other hand takes forever because of diminshing returns on experience points when fighting weaker enemies. This game doesn't play itself for you.
The game looks great. The art is colorful and character models have proper proportions instead of being heavily stylized into a chibi format, which seems to almost be a norm for RPGs from smaller development studios. The proportional character model works even on the world map, to an extend it's kind of surprising that big developers refrain from using it in their HD titles.
Likewise the soundtrack is just as great. The world map theme almost gave me shivers with the feeling of nostalgia it invoked and it's by far not the only memorable track in the game. Overall it's almost on par with Xenoblade's soundtrack, if not as varied since it wasn't composed by an unusally huge team of musicians.
Because it's a new IP from a smaller dev I expected Arc Rise Fantasia to be a short adventure with lots of rough edges, but that's not the case at all. The game takes about as long as you'd expect an RPG to take, about 40-80 hours depending on how you play and if you bother with optional quests and the postgame. Cities are huge - a bit too huge for my liking - with dozens of NPCs that change their dialogues according to the flow of the story. You can tell they put a lot of effort into every aspect of this game. A lack of budget only shines through when you consider the costumes, which don't change the appearance of characters outside of the menu sprites. Further there are costumes which don't even have a sprite attached to them - clearly they ran our of time here. It doesn't hurt the game, but some alternative outfits are always welcome.
Apparently the US version's voice acting isn't the best, but some claim that they got accustomed to it over their playthrough and that it wasn't a big issue subsequenly. In case of need the voice dub can be muted in the options menu, so this issue shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying this title.
Putting it together: The battle system is excellent, with lots of customization and room for various playstyles requiring a fair amount of thought put into strategy. Quests are sparse and can be dealt with as you progress through the story, the game is well paced and doesn't rely on padding to rack up playtime for the sake of a high playtime. A lot of care was put into story and characters, so much that it's easy to look past the silly and tropy aspects of the setting. Not to mention the game features beautiful environments and a great OST.
Highly recommended for fans of the SNES and PS1 eras of JRPGs. People who only got into JRPGs recently with titles such as Final Fantasy XV and Persona 5 should play this too, to get a feel for what the genre is really capable of.