|Platform:||PlayStation 3, Xbox 360|
Sega is on fire!
What a glorious couple of years they've had in the game trade. Valkyria Chronicles and Yakuza: Kenzan! in 2008. Bayonetta, Yakuza 3, and Infinite Space in 2009. Now 2010 brings Valkyria Chronicles 2 and the hotly anticipated Tri-Ace offering End of Eternity, aka Resonance of Fate.
On a scale of one to ten, all of the above games fall somewhere in the eight to ten window somewhere between "solid," and "epic," End of Eternity leaning toward the latter but falling a step short. Like Valkyria Chronicles, EoE is likely to be another unappreciated gem from the hedgehog-endorsing publisher, especially considering its release date. While in Japan EoE came out just in time for the late January FFXIII burnout, the March madness North American release is likely to ensure that the game is lost among the Final Fantasy / God of War kerfuffle.
I hope to be wrong about that, since it's a better game than FFXIII. Better graphics? Better music? Better story? No. But it's a better game.
Boom! Blow! Bam! Rat-ta-ta-ta-tat!
End of Eternity is a fun, innovative, and complex game that pushes the JRPG genre forward in ways that other seventh generation heavy-hitters like Tales of Vesperia and Lost Odyssey never dared. Pared down something fierce with only three weapon types, three playable characters, no magic, no summons, no crazy limit breaks, and a short main story, EoE instead invests heavily in the depth of its combat and item creation and for the most part succeeds gloriously.
The game is divided into 16 chapters each offering a handful of missions. Each chapter has one story mission and a selection of side missions. Once the story mission is complete you may choose to advance to the next chapter, although any uncompleted side missions will be lost at that time. EoE deserves credit for the variety and enjoyability of the side missions. With quests ranging from exterminating bandits to picking up cold medicine, there are always at least a few fun ones per chapter, and more often than not you won't want to skip any.
The interesting thing about this structure is that it allows the player to drastically alter the length of the game. I began skipping a few side missions late in the game because the rewards didn't interest me, and I found that several chapters are easily done in less than an hour if you only do the story mission. Go after every single quest, and EoE is 50+ hours for a typical gamer on normal difficulty. Take the express lane through story missions only, and you'll be done in under 20. This variability is important because EoE is a game that begs for multiple playthroughs thanks to a staggering ten difficulty levels, from NORMAL, to HURT ME PLENTY, to LEGENDARY, and beyond.
Thanks to a superb combat system, EoE is actually deserving of such endless challenges. More so than the vast majority of RPG's out there, EoE demands that players master the nuances of its battle system. Here's a breakdown for the uninitiated:
You've got machine guns, grenades, and handguns. The former weapon deals scratch damage while the later two deal direct damage. Scratch damage is easy to rack up quickly, but instead of killing enemies, it converts their life bars to blue in proportion to the amount of damage done. Dealing a blow with a handgun or grenade converts scratch damage to direct damage while also adding direct damage in its own right. Enemies also tend to have multiple sections, armored components, and destructible weapons, requiring the player to aim carefully. Thus EoE forces you to mix up your attacks and use all three characters on your team in most battles.
Combat actions come in two basic styles — standard and invincible. Standard movements will end your turn and may include a single burst of machine gun fire, grenade, handgun attack, or item use. Invincible attacks, on the other hand, are much more magical: You will dash and / or leap across the field while attacking one or more enemies multiple times while remaining invulnerable. They also look much cooler than standard attacks. Seriously, go check it out on YouTube right now.
This begs the question, "Golly James, why wouldn't you just always use invincible attacks?" The answer is, invincible attacks drain gems from your invincible state gauge. Once the I.S. gauge runs out, your goose is pretty much cooked, as your team gets all panicky and enters a painful-to-watch 'danger mode' during which their combat prowess is drastically reduced and will likely lead to their asses being handed to them in a matter of seconds. Thus it is prudent to learn how to refill your I.S. gauge during battle and mix up standard and invincible attacks.
I shan't spoil all of the other fun stuff like blast-ups, gauge cracks, smack downs, leader assaults, and resonance attacks, these being the most epic as they demand real strategy and planning and allow you to use all three characters at once. EoE's combat looks great and plays even better, and is even refreshingly challenging to boot. If you lose a battle you can pay for a rematch, so expect to lose a lot of money if you suck too long and too hard.
What a horribly suggestive clause.
Finally, EoE continues the Tri-Ace tradition of obsessive-compulsive item creation and customization. Gun nuts will be both delighted and disappointed. There is an insane amount of additional parts you can make to improve gun performance, but the execution is cartoonish (you can literally put six scopes, grips, laser sites, stocks, and sub-barrels on one handgun), and the actual appearance of the gun remains unchanged. Specialty rounds and status-muddling grenades add to the mayhem, as well as a super-cool world map that forces you to earn colored puzzle pieces to unlock new areas. You've also got the mandatory Tri-Ace battle arena and bonus dungeons for extra joyfulness. Measure for measure, EoE plays great on all fronts with my only disappointment being simplistic dungeons. More on that later.
A Fashion-Lover's Wet Dream
Graphically, EoE is three parts great success and one part disappointment. First the positives:
Expect detailed high-res graphics that can compete with any seventh generation JRPG. The style is more realistic and less anime than say Infinite Undiscovery or Star Ocean 4, Tri-Ace's other HD console titles. It is an interesting change of pace, having gone from the fantasy sci-fi design concepts of the previous two games to the grittier and urban environments you find here. I was impressed by the presentation of the great tower of Basel; it's a massive place with many floors to explore, each of them with their own cities, dungeons, and secrets.
The combat animations are also amazing. This is John Woo in his Chow Yun Fat era. Every battle is a dazzling display of outrageous gunplay as Zephyr slides and spins while duel wielding SMG's and Reanbell cartwheels across the field busting caps in fools along the way. Switching weapons and acquiring new skills reveal more stylish techniques and aerial wire-work, as characters literally leap across the field, twirling and unloading along the way. It is hard to think of an RPG with more stylish action than this.
The third area where EoE really soars is in its fashion. The three playable characters can be customized down to their gloves, belts, and individual eye color (you can have two different color eyes if you want to be cool like that). The variety is beyond outrageous, and your designs carry over into cutscenes and dialogue. Whether you want to put Zephyr in a ridiculous shirt with a choker or put Reanbell in cat ears and a pantie-flashing skirt, EoE accommodates. White Knight Chronicles is the only JRPG that is in the same league in this respect, yet EoE wins out thanks to its greater variety and creativity.
My one graphic gripe is the dungeons. They are really boring, alarmingly so. Each of them is really just a series of battle rooms with zero differentiation in style or presentation. You could not tell them apart by looking. There is very little exploration in dungeons, zero puzzles, zero variety of terrain or room layout; they are all just big squares. This no-nonsense approach to dungeon design works if you're loving the battle system and do not want to waste time back-tracking and pushing statues around to open hidden doors. Visually, however, it is boring and beneath the rest of the game's standards.
Successful Sakuraba is Successful
EoE's effects, voicework, and soundtrack are all delightful. It's like there's a party in your ears, and everyone's invited!
Battle sounds and gun blasts pack the requisite wallop. I like that each gun has a unique discharge sound, and the crunchy percussive effects of blast-ups and grenade attacks always bring a smile to my face.
The voicework is solid all around thanks to a number of great supporting characters. Barbarella, Peter, Garigerrnon - all of these relatively minor characters offer not just missions, but irreverent and memorable vocal performances. The leads are less inspired with Vashyron being the only standout. Zephyr was written like any teenage wannabe badass and Reanbell feels equally done to death. Vashyron, however, is just stupid funny. He has a great deadpan delivery for some of his more absurd lines.
The music is really where EoE shines, however. Sakuraba and Tanaka have really raised the bar for themselves. The game is chock-full of rich and evocative string music. Track by track, EoE has some of the best orchestral atmospheric music ever done in a JRPG. Whether you are just killing time in the menu screen on the world map, or exploring the cities of the lower levels, expect memorable melodies throughout.
The rock selections are no match in quality, unfortunately. Battle themes may remind you of Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile, but not in a good way; you'll wonder how the disparity in quality can be so different given the similar style. There is one funk track that kicks in for some of the dungeons around the game's midpoint. It's pretty sweet. The rest, not so much. Still, it is a soundtrack worthy of purchase in its own right if only for the classical selections.
Bang Bang, He Shot Me Down
EoE's story is good enough to make you wonder if it was really developed by Tri-Ace. Aside from Valkyrie Profile, the developer has struggled in the plot department for years. With EoE, that struggle seems to be at an end.
For one, EoE has a great concept. Set in a future in which mankind is on the brink of extinction due to a wrecked environment, EoE takes place within a gigantic tower, humanity's final refuge. In spite of the extraordinary circumstances, the setting is modern and familiar. The story opens with a young girl throwing herself off of a high building, supposedly to her death, then fast-forwards to the three protagonists' home.
We meet Vashyron, Zephyr, and Reanbell, a team of mercenaries who will take any job they can get. The trio makes for a decent ensemble cast. In particular, Vashyron, the leader, is well conceived. He is at once serious and zany, effortlessly transitioning between stoic leader and creepy horndog. Zephyr and Reanbell are less successfully developed and take much longer to show any sort of depth. Zephyr is just another moody teenage male MC, and Reanbell is just another cutesy female support character. That is, until the intriguing second act.
The chapters of the first half of the game feel like isolated episodes in an anime about mercenaries (Cowboy Bebop with a less hip soundtrack). It works, though the pacing may annoy folk who want to see some semblance of a point to all the innuendo and sideways glances before the twenty-hour mark. Once it unfolds, EoE offers a part mystery, part religious epic tale of revenge and redemption. I wasn't blown away by the ending, but the game holds your interest long enough to get there at least.
End of Eternity needed a couple of things to go from that really good eight-ish category into the holy-crap-this-is-awesome nine-ish sector. For one, a tighter main story with better developed villains. Secondly, more variety of weapons and, dare I say, characters. Semi-automatics, SMG's, and grenades are not the end all be all of modern combat. Also, with only three characters and scant differentiation in how they play, a bigger cast with character-specific skills would have been a big plus. I have visions of EoE with secret characters, shotguns, assault rifles, and melee weapons, and when I put it all together in my imagination, I stare longingly at the game's box and dream at the glory of what could have been.
.....Ok, maybe I don't do all of that. Even with the above gripes, however, EoE is more than worthy of your time. First and foremost, it is original; I guarantee you have not played a game quite like this one. When was the last time you could say that about a JRPG? Sega has had a good track record in the originality department lately, and with End of Eternity, the tradition only continues.