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Atlus has been wary about Flight-Plan. Up until this point, all they had released were handheld titles in the Summon Night series. They even skipped out on the phenomenal 2D Strategy RPG Dragon Shadow Spell. But, almost out of nowhere, Atlus decided to localize Flight-Plan's "Poison Pink," renaming it "Eternal Poison" for the North American release. Amazing, isn't it, that PlayStation 2 titles are still being released? In fact, as I write this review, I'm reading that Flight-Plan is developing another Strategy RPG for PS2, called Sacred Blaze. So the last-generation console isn't quite dead, and Atlus is complicit in keeping the console alive.
So the big question: is this PS2 title still worth purchasing in the current/next-gen market? The short answer is a resounding "yes." The PS3, and even the Xbox 360, are lacking in Japanese RPGs, particularly Strategy RPGs. The handhelds are dominating the RPG market, so if you want something on a console, the PS2 is still a good choice. And here's why...
If you don't do any research on the game's plot before you go into it, like I did, you find yourself thrust into a dark, medieval fantasy world, and depending on which character you choose to lead your adventure, you get a wildly different perspective of what's going on. The featured character, and assumed "main character" of Eternal Poison, is a witch named Thage. She, alongside "Raki" (full name Ranunculus, the Silver Wolf), are on a self-assigned mission to find the Eternal Poison. In the outset of their journey through the ancient city Besek (which appeared out of nowhere, in a fashion similar to Dracula's Castle in Castlevania), they meet a young silver-haired boy named Retica, who's also traveling through Besek despite being far too weak to survive. In a random act of, uh, randomness, Thage casts a spell on Retica forcing him to be her (reluctant) slave. And so, as the plot progresses, the dynamic of their relationship bounces back and forth from being a comedy of errors to a tense tragedy.
Eternal Poison is a multi-path, multi-perspective game, so you cannot glean the full story without multiple playthroughs. Whether you start as Thage, Olifen, or Ashley, if you invest the time in the game and choose to delve into the world of Besek, you will likely be compelled to play through the other two paths. Each playthrough only takes 15 to 20 hours, but each time through with a different character reveals a completely different facet of the game's world.
I can't even begin to describe how the plot works together because any attempt to give a fair picture ends up spoiling the content itself. All I can say is that, if you're okay with everything being enigmatic and vague until the end, you'll be sure to enjoy this. The plot is far better than any Summon Night title, as far as I'm concerned, so three cheers to Flight-Plan for pulling out all the stops.
Atlus' translation is strong. They chose to leave the term "Majin" in its native Japanese (as there is no fair English equivalent: it's sort of like "demon," but not necessarily in the Judeo-Christian sense). The characters each take on a vivid, multi-dimensional personality that is at times reminiscent of the Shin Megami Tensei series due to the concealed motives behind character. You can never be quite sure who is "good" or "bad," nor can you even be sure by what standards the creators meant for those primal concepts to be measured.
English-only voice acting: I thought it would be a source of woe and anxiety for me. Most of the small-budget publishers these days will offer up both English and Japanese voices, and since the English voices are usually delivered in a manner that is not in line with what the Japanese meant to convey, the disconnect is so painful that I'm left with no choice but to listen to the original Japanese audio. However, this isn't some cutesy anime affair. In fact, there was a fair amount of English written into the original Japanese game (Poison Pink). Of all of Atlus' releases, and certainly among Flight-Plan's gameography, this is the most European-influenced game in their respective publications. That said, the English voice acting fits much better than in other JRPGs. There are still a few characters whose voice actors just don't match up, but for the most part, everything was on point.
As for the soundtrack? Takashi Okamoto and a crew of excellent musicians (mostly piano and strings) got together to make some of the best chamber music that we've seen in a game in the last decade. Okamoto made a very techno-heavy score for his last work (Dragon Shadow Spell), but this score is the exact opposite. Dark, tonal, neo-Romantic era music abounds on this soundtrack. Some battle themes stray from this style, going for the aforementioned techno, synth-heavy genre that Okamoto has worked with in the past. But for the most part, there is plenty of reason to fall in love with this soundtrack. It's like Drakengard, but far less cacophonic.
The basic structure of combat in Eternal Poison is the same as what you've seen in dozens of other titles preceding it: Shining Force, Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics, Stella Deus, the list goes on and on. You know the setup: isometric grid, turns determined by character speed, one move and one action per turn. This basic gameplay is the foundation for what turns into a far more complex, and exponentially more challenging, Strategy RPG than many games we've played in the last decade.
There is a lot about Eternal Poison that is comparable to Fire Emblem, particularly in combat. For starters, there is no going back. You can't do any sort of training or level-grinding between battles, and you can't redo a battle after you've won it. This complete linearity requires that you level up your characters efficiently and effectively at every given chance. And, because experience is gained for nearly everything you do (including taking damage from an enemy), what matters most is that your characters stay alive on the field the whole time, and that they're always doing something each turn. If you can't attack an enemy, at least cast a restorative or enhancing spell. Doing any less results in one extremely challenging second half.
Each of the three main characters wields a special weapon: a book called a Librum that can capture the Majin for a variety of uses. Majin can be summoned for one-time use in battle, sold to traders, or grinded into a machine named Camellia that turns the Majins' ground up bodies into skills that you can attach to your characters' equipment. Capturing each and every Majin is an extremely difficult task, as some Majin only appear in a stage by meeting some optional criteria. To make matters more complicated, one of the three character paths (you should be able to guess which one) has multiple endings depending on whether or not you collect all the Majin into your Librum. It's hard enough just getting through the game; making sure you collect all the Majin is a truly hardcore challenge. Why? Because to collect a Majin, you have to "overkill" him. On the attack that kills the enemy, you have to do significantly more damage to get "Overkill" (this number varies and is defined, per creature, in their status). If you don't reach overkill status, the enemy dies. If the enemy is overkilled, a big pink triple-cross thing is driven into the creature's body on the field, and then you have to select the "Capture" command from another character to capture it. Alternatively, you can attack the bound creature again to finish it off rather than capture it. Also, enemies that take up four squares (2x2) on the field require having two characters in a special placement for the capture to work successfully. Considering each confrontation with a monster on the field is generally short, as most units (be they ally or enemy) will fall within three or four attacks, the utmost care must be taken to accomplish all your goals in one playthrough.
There's no two ways about it: this game is hard. But if you're frustrated, there's plenty to do during your off-time. Customization of skills, equipment, and party lineup is all done in Besek's protected quarters, led by Count Duphaston. Between almost every battle, you return to this den of safety to regather supplies and get ready for the next push forward through Besek. One of my favorite things to do during this time was playing the Stones of Fate minigame. The game takes place on a 33-square board (a 3x3 center with 2x3 wings on each of the four edges), and there are 50 stages to complete. On each stage, a certain amount of pieces are put on the board, and it's your job to reduce the number of pieces to one by having them jump over one another. If you've ever been to the Cracker Barrel, it's like that triangle game, but on a different board and with a variety of setups. Each stage you complete unlocks concept art in the game's gallery, which is a wonderful bonus (we'll talk about that later).
Eternal Poison is an excellent Strategy RPG, but I cannot emphasize enough how difficult it is. Do not even begin to play this game unless you're willing to take on a challenge with a lot of Game Over screens. Flight-Plan didn't pull any punches, and frankly, I'm happy about it. We need some difficult (and not broken) games in our RPG libraries.
Camera control is simple, manageable, and useful. Menu navigation is simple. The only problem I have is that, after moving and taking an action, your only option left is to "wait" and then face an ending direction. But you have to enter a menu to select "wait." If that's your only option, why not be auto-prompted to that option, then select your direction to face and move on? This is the only control flaw I recognized.
Here we see a huge disconnect between potential and actual. If you've seen the 2D concept art, you realize that this is one highly stylized game, and in my opinion, it is quite beautiful. Atlus knew this too, as they released a limited edition version of the game with a full artbook. Also, an unlockable art gallery exists within the game, and it's one of the best parts of the game in terms of visuals.
Why do I say there is a huge disconnect? Because the transition from 2D to 3D was something Flight-Plan simply wasn't prepared for. Not by a long shot. These graphics look more dated than Final Fantasy X, which was released at the beginning of the PS2's life cycle. The FMV sequences are decent, except for the facial expressions and other detail-oriented features of the people in the game. In-game 3D looks acceptable on the field, but the in-depth "action" cut scenes that you have the choice to watch or turn off (similar to Fire Emblem) simply do not impress. If you like interesting art styles, and you're into graphic novels and more "mature" (not necessarily sexual) manga, you'll enjoy the concept art. But the in-game 3D is a whole other ball of wax, and Flight-Plan is going to need, at minimum, a bigger budget to provide a decent 3D title in the future.
It's not a great game, but Eternal Poison is a game that I have no major complaints about. And if I had more time, I'd definitely invest it in this game over many, many others to do a second or third playthrough. If you can't get enough of Strategy RPGs, you have to get this one, because it provides a unique challenge that you cannot find elsewhere. Otherwise, weigh your options before adding this to your library, one of the last PS2 games we'll likely see in North America.
One final comment before I finish this review, and it goes to Atlus. There are already far too many RPGs that abuse a variety of big, enigmatic buzz-words like "Eternal" or "Infinite." Though it may not make for great marketing material, the original name "Poison Pink" is far more original and memorable than the bland "Eternal Poison." If you guys localize another game and choose to change the name, please avoid these words. I'm just tired of playing "eternal" games that, for all intents and purposes, are anything but.