When I play an RPG Maker game, I try to keep my expectations reasonable. I expect the battle system to be generic. I steel myself for random encounters. I ready my ears for repetitive tunes. I forget everything I know about advancements in graphics. What I really hope for is to be told an interesting enough story to get me to the end, and if an RPG Maker game can just deliver that much, I consider it worth playing.
Ella's Hope doesn't just deliver this much. It delivers enough to make me want to play it again.
From the very beginning, the game relies on the charm of its setting and its protagonist, Ella, to suck you in. Ella reminds the player straightaway of Cinderella – she works as a maid/servant for a not so nice lady, and the game brilliantly eases you in to the world of Estis, which is practically the picture of the pastoral lifestyle. You start your adventure by running some mundane fetch quests, but these serve not only to introduce you to some key NPCs, but also the beauty of the world that you'll eventually be fighting to protect.
While performing her daily chores, Ella discovers that there is testing going on in her town for the "Guardians," a group that gets to live among the clouds with angels and traipse about the world solving problems. I don't think I'd be spoiling too much to say that Ella joins up with this group to the surprise of everyone but the player, but despite how generic this appears, the job of the Guardians is decidedly not generic. You'll note I said it was the job of the Guardians to "solve problems," not necessarily "combat evil."
It is here that Ella's Hope really begins to distinguish itself, storywise. You and 7 other playable characters have been admitted into the Guardians on a trial basis, and as such you find yourselves dealing with problems that aren't exactly your run of the mill RPG fare. For example, your very first task is to see if you can get a wedding to go off without a hitch! It's extremely refreshing to not discover that you are the chosen one 10 minutes into the game, and that's why the Dark One burned down your village and killed your foster family.
If this sounds boring, rest assured there is plenty of combat if you are looking for it, but the gameplay/combat is not where Ella's Hope shines. It is the playfulness and charm of the game that really sets this one apart. I can say with all honesty that the quest to help a city made of ice keep from melting due to a dragon on holiday is one of the most memorable pieces of video game storytelling I've seen in awhile. The small publishing really gives this game a chance to try some plot elements that may not have come off in a larger, mainstream title, and the game is better for it.
At all times while playing, you must remember that Ella is being evaluated by the Guardians for permanent membership. In addition to the main job that needs sorting out in each of the scenarios presented, there are other smaller side quests to assist people for the discerning player to find. The more of these you do, the better it will be when your performance is finally evaluated – and believe me, the Guardians ARE paying attention. On my first playthrough I breezed through the quests as quickly as possible, but missed a lot of things along the way. This didn't just deprive me of some of the more charming side quests, it had a direct impact on the ending. As I mentioned at the beginning, as soon as I finished I wanted to start again to see what I had missed.
All of the charm and goodness of the story aside, the game suffers in some sections from 2 distinct problems. The first is pixel hunting. At least half a dozen times, I found myself stuck and wandering around trying to find something to trigger the plot progression. In hindsight, every single one of these things made perfect sense, but it happened often enough that I feel it is worth mentioning since a great deal of this game involves fetching/carrying or trying to find the right NPC. The second is the combat, which is really mediocre at best and sometimes got in the way of the story for me. In particular, I found it odd that in the aforementioned ice city I was speaking with NPC dwarves in one instance and fighting them in the next without any discernible difference between them. On the plus side, however, if you are annoyed by the very generic FSRI (Fight-Spell-Run-Item) combat, you can reduce the difficulty and breeze through the foes without much problem. Also it is worth noting that you can actually SEE the monsters so you can try to go around them if you like in most cases, but in the end the combat is clearly not a major selling point.
There are plenty of original graphics in the game which is always a plus for an RPG Maker title. You'll see some familiar elements, but the character models and a number of tiles are new. Most importantly, the overall look and feel of Ella's Hope does an outstanding job of putting you in the right mood to play this game: whimsical, light hearted, and filled with an overall sense of joy. There are also intro screens for the various chapters containing some nicely drawn character portraits to enjoy, and the matching character sprites really do look like those portraits, helping to bring the characters to life.
Likewise, the music is a cut above typical RPG Maker fare and serves to emphasize the charm of the experience. I found at least one or two of the themes a bit repetitive during sequences where I was engaged in the aforementioned pixel hunting, but this probably had more to do with my own frustration at not being able to find what I was looking for.
You'll note I've used "charming" or some derivation thereof a lot in this review. That's because there really isn't any more appropriate word I can think to describe the overall impression of the game. Taken in the context of an RPG Maker title, Ella's Hope isn't just good, it is fantastic. Playing this game is like sitting down with a loved one and an ice cream cone on a summer day; it may be familiar, it may be cheesy, but man does it make you feel happy. I recommend it for all but the lactose intolerant.