"It's an extremely rare occasion when a game that spans dozens of hours keeps you entertained at the start, the end, and nearly every minute in the middle."
It's an extremely rare occasion when a game that spans dozens of hours keeps you entertained at the start, the end, and nearly every minute in the middle. How long has it been since you've played a game that really
challenged you? How long has it been since you've actually
cared about the characters you're tasked with keeping alive? How long has it been since you played something truly
original? Not only does Aselia the Eternal bring all these things to the table, it brings so much more with it as well.
The plot revolves around a young Japanese man named Yuuto. After the death of his parents, Yuuto and his younger step-sister, Kaori, are left to live alone and provide for themselves. Despite their sad past, the two of them live a fairly happy and ordinary life attending school and spending time with friends. One night, this all changes when the two of them are transported to a fantasy world known as Phantasmagoria. A greedy king holds Kaori hostage to use her as leverage to force Yuuto to fight in his service. Drawing on the power of a sentient sword bound to him, Yuuto fights alongside the female warrior Spirits, including the mysterious Aselia, to save his sister. These Spirits exist solely to fight for and to protect humans of the world. Most of them take joy in fighting or, at the very least, aren't bothered by it. As an Etranger (a non-Spirit warrior), Yuuto must lead the Spirits to victory in battle.
And, really, that's just the prologue. Aselia the Eternal spans a good 30-50 hours of gameplay depending on your skill in combat along with how quickly you read. Not only that, but there are eight different endings that would require well over 100 hours to fully complete. The plot begins at a lightning pace with a look into Yuuto's past and manages to maintain excitement the entire way through. There's a mix of political intrigue, character backstory, and developing relationships, along with new characters introduced at a solid rate. The story never gets bogged down in one place for too long, and the dialogue and characters are extremely well written and believable; there's rarely a dull moment. Interaction between characters is outstanding, and the relationships that are formed between Yuuto and the female characters are ones that you'll remember. The tough, but demure Aselia and the sweet, but no-nonsense Esperia are two characters you meet very early on, and you'll grow close to both over the course of your adventure. The story is perfectly paced, which is a pretty rare occurrence in the video game world.
The only major, but also the most grating, problem with the characters is the relationship between Yuuto and his step-sister Kaori. Kaori's age is never mentioned, but she appears to look much younger than she is. Regardless, not only is it completely unbelievable that she would cook, clean, and wash for Yuuto, but it just makes him come off as a jerk; not an ideal trait for a protagonist. As the game progresses, Yuuto's obsession over her heightens and, frankly, becomes annoying. Xuse tried too hard to hammer home the deep relationship between them and it instead becomes irritating and slightly creepy. This issue may bother you less if you don't have a younger sibling but, as someone who does, this unrealistic relationship damaged the rest of the game's extraordinarily realism.
In terms of gameplay, Aselia is a solid mix of heavy visual novel dialogue and strategic RPG battles. There's no field or overworld to speak of, but at certain points in the story you're thrust into battle. These battles play out as a mix between traditional RPG and a more strategic turn-based system. Each mission has a different goal such as occupying or defending a town, defeating a boss, or one of a few others. During your turn you can organise your squads with up to three characters, move them around the map, level them up, or begin building facilities in any towns you occupy. These facilities can increase the defence of an area, give you bonuses in battle, and more. During a mission, you move your squad icons around the map one space at a time. Once your turn is over, the enemy gets a chance to make their moves.
An actual battle begins when your squad meets an enemy squad on the map. Before battle you can choose which abilities to set and what slot to put your characters in. Each squad has three different slots: an attack position, a defensive position, and a support position. Certain types of Spirits are better at certain roles, but can fill any position when required. Green Spirits, for example, specialise in defence and can prevent the rest of your squad from taking damage. Red Spirits cast magic in a support role, and Blue Spirits are strong physical attackers. Simple enough, right? Once you start meeting unusual enemy combinations and making use of Black Spirits, however, your brain and skill will truly be put to the test. If you find yourself fighting a group with a strong Red Spirit, for example, it may be a better option to move your offensive Blue Spirit into a support role where they can cast an interrupt spell. A Spirit's position in a squad determines what skill they use. Once the battle begins, the action is automated and you can't do anything to change the outcome; it's all about preparation. Managing your Spirits wisely is vital in any battle and can prove a particular challenge in some missions. Unfortunately, early on it's often a case of trial and error until you learn exactly what each spell does and how it is best used.
During your first battle, the unique system is rather overwhelming. A ton of unusual gameplay mechanics and tutorials are thrown at you, and I mostly guessed my way through my first couple of fights. The large number of menus and numbers you need to understand to wade through each battle don't help. It wasn't until the third or fourth mission that I felt I had a good understanding of the way the whole system worked. The only real problem I encountered is that all skills have a limited amount of uses. Once they're used up, you need to return to a friendly town to have them restored. This can really slow the pace and force you to use many turns to backtrack. Often you have lower-levels skills you can swap in, but it's not really an ideal scenario. At the end of each battle you're given a rank based on how well you did and this increases the power of all the units who participated. There are a few dozen missions spread throughout the game and they provide a nice change of pace from the constant walls of text. After a few hours, the lengthy attack animations start to irritate, but you can speed them up by holding down CTRL. However, this also speeds up everything
, including vital information.
The rest of the game is a typical visual novel: reading dialogue and watching pretty pictures. There are good selections of dialogue options throughout that bring you closer to one of the heroines and also giving them bonuses for their stats in battle. Aside from the expertly written dialogue, what makes these sections particularly outstanding is the use of an original fantasy language. In the beginning, Yuuto doesn't understand the language and neither do you. As the story progresses, however, he begins to learn the language and, along with him, you're able to read the text. What's really special, though, is that the entirety of the game is actually voice acted in this language. So instead of listening to the characters in Japanese or English, you hear an entirely original language. Not only is it great for the atmosphere, but it gives Aselia the Eternal some real charm. Unfortunately, this is marred slightly when the characters begin to speak in Japanese during game tutorials, which ruins the immersion. There's also a bug during these tutorials if you press ENTER to skip text instead of left-clicking that occasionally skips entire segments; a little exasperating.
Xuse originally developed Aselia back in 2003 and, graphically, that fact is a little too apparent at times. The quality of art is lovely, but it's easy to see from a screenshot that it isn't a recent game. Even though it may not be quite as sharp as more modern games, the character and world design is excellent. Each character has a unique look, and there is plenty of different background images used to vary the scenery. Some lush, green forests are a particular standout. The 2D battle sprites are charming, but a little more variety in attack animations and battle sound effects would have been nice. On the down side, Yuuto's character sprite is extraordinarily ugly. His clothing seems to be a mix of feudal Japan, white sneakers, and just bad fashion choices.
These minor graphical problems are made up for by some talented voice actors and attractive background music. All characters from the most important to extras that join you in battle are fully voiced and done extremely well. Characters generally sound quite varied from one another and only one character's voice, a young Red Spirit you meet early on, is a little tiring at times. Music tracks are generally appropriate and a couple of the more relaxing, peaceful tunes are memorable. The piece of music used in the opening video sets an appropriate tone for the game as well.
There's so much more to the world of Aselia the Eternal that just isn't practical to cover in this review; not to mention the spoilers! Slightly aging graphics and a few minor issues with the controls and sound are completely outshone by an outstanding story and a great cast of characters. The combat is quite challenging, but rarely frustrating, and will provide some serious fun for RPG veterans. If visual novels aren't your thing, don't let the text-heavy segments of the game put you off; Aselia the Eternal is a hidden gem that should not be missed.