Developed by Produce! and published by Enix in 1995, Mystic Ark was only ever released in Japan for the Super Famicom, although an English fan translation does exist, making the game playable to Western audiences. And it is a very good RPG, well worth playing now.
Mystic Ark has been described by some as “The 7th Saga II“, and while it does share some similarities with The 7th Saga (by having a circular monster radar and also featuring some of the same monsters) it is not really a sequel as it plays quite differently.
You begin the game by choosing either a male or female character, and naming them, then watching a strange cut scene showing some characters being turned into figurines by a rotating monolith type object. These figurines actually play an important role in the game, although you don’t get to see that until you’ve completed the first chapter of the game, which takes place in a desert world where two factions of cats are warring against each other from grounded sailing ships.
You actually start the game inside a mysterious shrine with a talking fireplace (!) and a statue that gives you advice about what to do. The shrine acts like a hub that connects the various worlds, and the doors to access them are found hidden inside objects that you can manipulate. These seemingly mundane, but important, objects are shown as still images when you examine them and are accompanied by a text-based menu of actions.
After the first act you eventually acquire an Ark – a magical source of power – that can make figurines come to life and act as your allies. You can also use the Arks on certain objects to make them usable.
One good thing is that just carrying the figurines in your inventory allows them to gain experience during combat – you don’t actually have to fight with them – although using an ally during combat will speed things up and even make tougher battles more winnable. Your allies also learn new magic spells as they gain experience (just like you do), and they also require that you upgrade their weapons and armour as you progress. The down side to carrying figurines around with you is that you have less space in your limited inventory to carry other things. That said: each character in your party does have their own inventory so when you acquire some allies your carrying capacity will go up. You can also easily trade items between your characters using the inventory system.
If an ally dies in combat, or if you return to the shrine, the Ark leaves them and they return to being figurines. You can even turn certain monsters into allies by capturing them as a figurine during combat.
Graphically, Mystic Ark is a little drab to begin with. Use of colour is limited and the environments are a little plain, and enemies are somewhat repetitive, but it does improve as you progress.
Gameplay-wise Mystic Ark is very good. I found myself absorbed from the outset and grew to like the game more as I played through it. When I got to the stage where I could summon allies, my interest went up a notch and I found myself unable to put it down. It’s a game I could happily play until I completed it, although it does have some weaknesses early on (like the early boss battles, which are too easy in my opinion).
Of the three Produce! Super Nintendo RPGs (The 7th Saga, Brain Lord, and this), Mystic Ark is my favourite because it is the most refined and engrossing. All three are worth seeking out and playing, though.
A sequel to this game, called Mystic Ark: Theatre of Illusions, was released on the PlayStation in 1999, although it’s more of an adventure than an RPG.
More: Mystic Ark on Wikipedia