Traveling sucks. This isn't or shouldn't be news to anyone, but it bears repeating. There is little in this world as soul-sucking as coach seats and airport lobbies. Satan sends his minions to O'Hare every Friday afternoon at 4PM to learn technique from fast-food restaurateurs. The loneliness in the face of crowds is crippling. A few days of hotel-food and pretend jocularity, and poorly conceived TV commercials can move me to tears.
Thank heaven for hand-held games.
Gaming is the critical element of my travel survival. I've owned every portable gaming device since the invention of playing cards. Yes, including an Atari Lynx. But my fondest moment of travel-inspired acquisition lust was the first time I held a Sony PSP in my hands. It was black lacquer and sex, all wrapped up in a package that screamed "I've got so much technology inside me I'm going to explode!" I had a good run with that PSP. I played a lot of homebrews. I played Lumines until my eyes hurt and GTA: Liberty City Stories until my hands went numb.
But about a year ago I grew weary of it. There were simply no new games I really wanted to play. So I packaged up that sexy black box, all my games, all the random stuff, put it all on the white laminate of my second desk, took a picture and put it all up on eBay. To my surprise, the bundle fetched 80 percent of my actual retail cost.
I took the proceeds and bought a new Nintendo DS, a handful of games, and put the remainder into the bucket for the Xbox 360 games that ruled the roost for last year's holiday season. I was officially off the PSP wagon.
Some months ago, I first saw pictures of the new PSP - whatever the hell they decided to call it: the 2000, the Lite and Slim, the console formerly known as brick. I felt that technolust rising inside once again. I knew I had to at least hold one in my hands and feel the difference. But I hadn't been paying much attention to the release schedule, so there were no games I felt I simply had to have.
Then unbridled love for Jeanne D'Arc emerged from the ether, from people I trusted, people who I knew were cynical enough to hate everything, no matter how good it was. I was interested for real.
Here I stand. Stock still in the game aisle of Best Buy. I'm in a faceless town of the South West. I face a wall of games. I am tired. I am run-down and run-ragged.
It's 6PM, and I look ahead to another evening of eating alone at the bar, avoiding eye contact with strangers lest I have to engage in conversation, and finishing Terry Pratchet's "Making Money." I will then be alone, with the hollowness that comes from finishing a good book and having nothing to do.
There it is: a too-small box with a shiny silver PSP and various pack-ins I could care less about. Jeanne D'Arc sits next to it. It is the last PSP in the store, the last copy of Jeanne D'Arc on the shelf. It is a sign.
Back in my hotel room, I rip at the plastic containers of my newfound toys with frustration. Millimeters of plastic designed by mutant nuns in some subbasement of GE plastics fail to yield to my feeble attempts to stab the package open with a hotel-lobby pen. Finally, in a heroic feat of strength, the packaging yields. I slice my hand open on the tamper-proof impenetrable plastic condom. By the time I have the device in my hand, it has a smear of blood on the screen - a baptism of sorts.
It feels good.
It feels like having an old friend back, but a friend who is finally taking care of themselves, losing the extra weight, getting a better haircut, and hanging around with a better class of people.
I browse around the desktop, feeling out the old familiar corners of the interface, giddy at the brightness of the screen, the crispness of the sound, the presence of the thing in my hands. I sit down on the bed to see what Jeanne D'Arc looked like. 2 hours later I decide I should get something to eat.
Jeanne D'Arc is simply tremendous. It scratches the Tactical/Strategy RPG itch perfectly. It takes a somewhat ludicrous premise (Joan of Arc fights for France, against the demon hordes of England) and keeps it alive with a well written story, surprisingly good voice acting, unique and appropriate art direction, and engaging gameplay.
It's not revolutionary. The tactical combat pieces are derivative of everything from Advance Wars to Xcom to Tactics Ogre, yet it's dialed in just right for my latent grognard; I like having to worry about facing and unit-integrity. The JRPG elements are just thick enough to keep the story interesting (although the game features Anime tears in the first 10 minutes, which is nearly enough to make me dismiss any title). The skills and development system are unique and variable enough to be entertaining without being so complex as to be overwhelming. It gets 100 small things right, without being over the top in any one area.
If the PSP were to launch today - straight out of Japan, gangsta style, a surprise - Jeanne D'Arc would be it's defining launch title. Erase your preconceptions. Put yourself in the mindset of a Nintendo DS gamer. You've had your DS for a while, got a lot of mileage out of Advance Wars DS, and then you fire up Jeanne D'Arc.
How could you not be blown away? For a mere $40 more than a DS, you're getting a system that plays games that look like Jeanne D'Arc? And in a tight little package that includes all the other PSP whizbangery, like letting my 7 year old watch American Girl movies without annoying her brother or playing MP3s or surfing the web at molassastastic speeds? For $40? It's only in comparison to our preconceptions that the current PSP can be considered anything but an error-induced bargain. But because of its lull, because it seemed to fade from view in the crush of solid titles for the DS, I had written it off.
And the new PSP is simply tremendous as well. It's not different in a big way from the old version. It's just better, faster, cheaper and easier to use.