Released in Japan as Reiselied: Ephemeral Fantasia (the 'Reiselied' got dropped somewhere along the way to an American release), Konami's musical role-playing game has the distinction of being the first traditional RPG to appear on Sony's Playstation 2 gaming console. Of course, the road to the PS2 was not an easy one, as the game was originally slated for the Dreamcast (and maybe even the N64, depending on who you ask). Whatever the case may be, it's here now-ready to frustrate RPG-starved PS2 owners with its often-tedious gameplay and countless design flaws.
Why Konami chose this particular title to bring to America will forever remain a mystery, but one has to wonder just who approved this thing. If nothing else, it proves that while Japanese gamers may get more RPGs than us Americans, that's not always a good thing. Some games should just stay in the Japanese market. This is one of them.
Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it
The game starts off promisingly enough. You take the role of Mouse, a musician of few (well, none, really) words who also happens to be a thief. You've been invited to the island of Pandule to play a song during a royal wedding. Xelpherpolis is set to marry Princess Loreille (who thinks up these names?) and has selected you to compose a song to celebrate their holy union.
Seeing an opportunity to not only make some money but also rip-off some of the island's residents, you and your talking guitar Pattimo wind up on the island. While here, you'll discover that something is amiss on Pandule-time doesn't progress. It seems that you and everyone else on the island is trapped in an endless 'time loop'-a five day cycle that culminates with the royal wedding then starts anew with your re-arrival on the island. You and Pattimo must figure out how to break this vicious cycle if you ever wish to escape back to the real world.
Don't fear, though-you won't be working alone. You can recruit ten other trapped souls to help you in your quest-provided you're smart enough to figure out how to break the magic spell which keeps them from remembering their past.
Interestingly enough, the story of Ephemeral Fantasia is one of the more appealing elements of the game. Invariably, people compare it to the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, a movie where Murray had to keep re-living the same day over and over until he got it right. That same idea is the main thrust of Ephemeral Fantasia-only you'll keep living the same five days over and over until you figure out how to become strong enough to defeat Xelpherpolis.
As the weeks (or loops, as they're referred to in the game) progress you'll be able to change the flow of events thanks to your already having lived through them. Because of this, you'll be able to recruit other characters to aid you in your quest. Unfortunately, like Chrono Cross, most of these characters are never developed-they're simply bodies to aid you in battle should you choose to use them. A few will grow during the course of the game, but they're the exception rather than the rule.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that several elements of the game are reminiscent of the Final Fantasy games, particularly part 7. Rummy, the royal guard reminds me an awful lot of Tifa (right down to the large chest and fighting style), and it's no real stretch to call Xelpherpolis by the name Sephiroth (the long white-grey hair, etc.). Even the victory music after a battle sounds a little like the Final Fantasy music.
I don't think these are bad things, but they are worth mentioning. I guess if you're going to borrow from something, you might as well borrow from something good, right?
The translation is a bit of a mess, too. There is no shortage of grammatical, spelling, and word usage errors littered throughout the game. Doesn't anyone proofread this stuff anymore?
Stylistically, Ephemeral Fantasia plays something like a hybrid of Final Fantasy and Shenmue. Basically, what that means is that the game is a traditional-style RPG that also incorporates a clock into the plotline. The end result is an interesting idea marred by flawed execution.
For the first several loops, you'll spend the majority of your time attending events and trying to recruit characters to help you in your quest. In the first week, you'll be magically whisked to events that you need to see. By the second week, you'll still be getting whisked to some events, but not others. This is where the frustration begins.
The game never really lets you know which events you'll be taken to automatically and which you need to head to on your own. So, standing around waiting for a cutscene event to happen can go one of two ways-either you'll get taken to the event, or you'll have to reload your last save and schlep on over there yourself.
Making matters even worse are two things: first, your window of time for triggering these events is generally small. Arrive late at a destination and your opportunity is lost (at least for another five days, when time will have looped and brought you back to this same point). Second, navigating Pandule can be a nightmare because you have to find individual fragments of the map. The geography of the city is a mess, full of winding paths, areas with no path at all, areas at different elevations, and places that require taking the longest, most circuitous routes ever designed by man to reach them. Even with the map, getting from point A to point B can be difficult-and if you wind up in area where you don't have a map… good luck.
Providing you do actually make it where you need to be, and on time (which is no simple feat in the early going), you still might not be able to recruit the person or trigger an event. Some things happen only if you've done other things, or recruited other characters. To be fair, most of these requirements are at least somewhat based in logic. However, a few of them seem slightly arbitrary and can be nearly impossible to figure out without hours and hours worth of trial and error.
Another problem stems from the time concept itself. One second of real time equals one minute of game time. Unfortunately, like Shenmue, these games tend to play out one of two ways: either you find yourself busting your butt to get to a location on time, or you're standing around waiting for several hours to pass. This 'hurry up and wait' motif affects the entire game and becomes even more noticeable near the end, when there are fewer events to do in a week.
One can advance the clock by going to the inn and sleeping. Sleeping can be done in 1, 3, and 6 hour increments-meaning you'll be sleeping a lot if it's day 1 and you need to get to an event that happens on day 4. The inclusion of longer sleeping increments would have been nice…why not add one for 24 hours?
Unfortunately, if you're out in the field, or you've left early because you wanted to be sure to find a place well before the event happens (because, remember, navigating the island can be a real pain, even with the map pieces) you'll just have to wait it out or risk returning to town and finding where you need to be again. Why they didn't add a feature that allowed for clock advancement in the field is beyond me. I will admit that this becomes less of a hassle once you learn the 'powered jump' technique, which allows you to hop over to any map section you have in your possession.
While killing time, you can do one of several things. Running around and fighting is always advisable since it gives you more levels and gold.
Battling is presented in a real-time 3-D format. Each character has an active time bar (in the shape of a feedback bar on a stereo, which I thought was a nice touch), and once it fills the character can launch an assault.
You'll start the game with a single attack, and eventually it will level up and unlock new attacks. Each attack costs a certain amount of attack points, and using one with more AP will require a longer waiting period before you can attack again. The attacks themselves vary, with some being capable of hitting multiple enemies, some healing allies, and others increasing things like defense.
Mouse will also be able to occasionally learn new attacks from his cohorts. After watching certain characters use certain moves, Mouse will add his own version of the move to his repertoire. This makes it so that you have to use all of the characters available to you if you want to learn everything.
Each character also has three settings that can be adjusted to fit their strengths and style of battle. The settings are offensive, defensive, and balanced. Offensive is a good setting for those powerful guys in the party with a lot of hit points. Using it will allow them to do more damage, but also take more damage. Defensive is the opposite, and is good for anyone who's weak or uses magic (like Ano). Balanced is the middle ground, and the default setting.
The battle screens are your typical RPG battle screens-with one interesting twist. Ephemeral Fantasia breaks the field up into zones. You can surround the enemy, the enemy can surround you, etc. You can choose which zone to attack each turn, and depending on the number and kind of monster in that part of the screen, you can choose different attack strategies.
You can also use magic, provided that your character is capable of using magic. You'll want to keep a character with healing abilities with you most of the time, but other than that, you don't need a lot of the spells. Casting magic costs magic points; if you run out, you can't cast. It's really pretty basic.
The game does feature random battles as opposed to onscreen enemies that you can see and avoid. The encounter rate is fairly high (and seems higher in some areas than others) and can become extremely aggravating when you just want to explore an area or get to where you're headed. Fortunately, time stops during battles.
When you get tired of fighting, you can play one of Ephemeral Fantasia's numerous mini-games. The main one is the guitar game, which is actually quite fun even though it doesn't have much of an impact on the game itself. Basically, you play music with the controller. Colored bars scroll up the screen, and pressing the right button and pick at the right time makes you play the correct note. It's actually pretty challenging, particularly if you're not good at those games like Parappa the Rapper.
Other mini-games include a drinking game (where the goal is to get your opponent more drunk than you), a variation on dominoes, and a swimming race. You'll definitely want to check them all out-some are more fun than others, though. Oh yeah, and again, time doesn't move while you're playing the mini-games.
Moving on… every character has a single weapon that they can use throughout the game. This weapon can be upgraded at a local shop for a price (there are different ones for different characters, once again making you do a lot of traipsing around). Armor is non-existent in the game, so you don't have to worry about that. Defense and attack can be supplemented by gems and items that you find, which can be attached to your character.
Items can be purchased in stores or found by opening treasure chests in dungeons. Since you're also a thief, you can pilfer goods from people's houses, too. There's a wide variety of items in the game, the most useful of which is a fog sphere. Games with random encounters should incorporate this item, which decreases the frequency of random encounters. It's one of the best things in the game-but you won't be able to buy them for a while.
Late in the game you'll finally start to encounter some dungeons-and the next phase of the nightmare begins. The major dungeons are all large, maze-like affairs that require an even better sense of direction to navigate than the island itself. Making it more complicated are the non-descript graphics and lack of landmarks to help you keep track of where you are. In short, run around aimlessly and you're looking at spending a lot of time trying to find your way.
I'm old school enough to remember RPGs that required you to draw a map to find your way. Personally though, if I wanted to draw maps, I'd have become a cartographer. The dungeons are challenging, but not entirely impossible. Some of them require you to push switches in a certain order to get to the next phase, which requires backtracking, which requires even more random battles. It all just gets a bit tedious after a while.
Persevere and you'll find yourself battling one of the game's ridiculously easy bosses. I didn't spend any extra time leveling up, and I beat most of these guys in three turns-without suffering major damage. Honestly, some of the fights against five or six star spirits were far more difficult than the majority of the bosses.
After beating one of the bosses and finishing a dungeon, the game pulls its most annoying feature of all-it requires you to run back through the dungeon in order to exit-fighting even more random battles along the way. Why is this necessary?
It's little things like this that quickly add up and make Ephemeral Fantasia a frustrating experience.
Finally, a word about the challenge: this game is difficult. It's not difficult in that 'the final boss was a nightmare' sense, but more in the 'what am I supposed to do now' way. The game is very non-linear, meaning you can do a lot of different things at different times. There are pre-requisites for certain events, but a lot of the stuff can be done in whatever order you want. The time factor only adds to the challenge, because even if you are doing the right thing, doing it at the wrong time or on the wrong day will leave you with nothing for your effort. It's hard to imagine being able to figure out everything without a FAQ or walkthrough-but if you're looking for a challenge, this game's worthy of your consideration (provided you can get past all of the annoying flaws).
Graphically speaking, Ephemeral Fantasia is nothing to write home about. The game's visuals are simple and pleasing enough, but they're hardly what one would expect for a next-gen RPG. This lack of major textures and polygons makes one wonder exactly why it is that the game has to load so frequently.
The load times aren't hellaciously long, but each time you exit one section of town/dungeon/castle, you'll be greeted with a black screen and a 'now loading' logo. They didn't bother me, particularly, but it is worth mentioning. If load times make you crazy, then prepare for some aggravation.
The character models are both good and bad. They're comprised of relatively few polygons with some simple texturing and topped off with anime-style faces that sometimes seem incongruous with the bodies. Factor in that Mouse and Loreille have noses sometimes and not others, and the whole thing just reeks of an early PSX title. Seriously, this game isn't even as pretty as some of the first generation Dreamcast games.
One odd thing is the fact that many of the female characters appear as though horny teenage boys designed them. Rummy, for example, spends the entire game fighting in a thong and halter-top combo that doesn't really resemble a soldier's uniform. Loreille also spends much of the game in a really skimpy outfit that just seems strange for a princess. Claire gets to wear some pants, but even she has to wear a short-sleeved jacket that shows off her purple bra. Were the character designers twelve or what?
The environments are the same-serviceable, but not anything overwhelming. The fact that so many of the locations are bland only adds to the apathy one feels toward the game as time progresses. There's just not much diversity here. The dungeons are even worse because they're completely generic looking. Honestly, the dungeons look like something right out of a 16-bit game. It's not pretty.
Yet, for as under-whelming as the character models and locations can be, they're absolutely art compared to the monsters. Not only will fighting random battles become tedious in its frequency, it'll also become tedious because there are only a few different varieties of monsters in each area. Most areas seem to have six or so varieties of enemies. The monsters are relatively plain-looking, comprised of even fewer polygons than the regular characters and almost completely nondescript (except for the Quartz monsters in the castle who bear an uncanny resemblance to Giger's Alien). Worse still is that most of the monsters are just variations on other monsters. The game just becomes more and more redundant as you go along.
Battle animations are decent, although spell effects are laughably simple. Following the action can be a bit of a chore, though, thanks to a multiple angle camera system that never works the way you want it to. The camera has several settings: dynamic--which has it going all over the place, party-which focuses on your team, monster-focuses on the monsters, and fixed-which gives you a bird's eye view. Each of them has flaws, most revolving around the fact that you can't always see your characters on the screen.
Other than that, there are a few lighting problems and a few glitches in the collision detection system, too. Nothing too major, but they are there and they'll turn up from time to time.
Not much to report here-this is a traditional RPG, so responsive controls aren't a major issue since fighting is all menu-based.
Controlling your party is simple, with the analog stick moving your character throughout the environment. Pressing one key will cause you to run (and you'll want to run because walking is painfully slow). X activates switches, opens chests, and instigates conversation.
Control is a little more important in the guitar mini-game, where you'll be required to push several buttons in unison to achieve the proper notes. Fortunately, the control is solid here, which makes playing the mini-game one of the best parts of Ephemeral Fantasia.
Hands down, this is the one area of the game that actually rises above mediocrity. While the music in the game is of varying quality, the majority of it is good. There is no shortage of light, airy tunes that compliment the mood of the game. This is a good thing, since Mouse is a musician.
The guitar mini-game music is the real high point here, and you'll be able to learn (and practice) several different songs during the course of the game. I had more fun doing this than playing the actual game, to be totally honest.
Ambient noise is decent, and relatively unobtrusive-you'll notice it's there if you listen for it, but it never overwhelms a scene. Sound effects are solid with swords that clang and loud, booming spells.
There's no voice acting here, so I can't comment on that. Frankly, given the mediocre nature of the rest of the game, this is probably for the best. Mediocre voice work can really kill a game.
I went into Ephemeral Fantasia expecting the worst. I'd read reviews for the title and none of them were kind. Because of this, I went in with lowered expectations-and actually enjoyed the early stages of the game. There are some interesting elements at work in this title-unfortunately, most of them are buried under the flaws in the gameplay.
While certain areas of the game are average to decent overall, the individual flaws just keep adding up and ultimately bring the overall score down. Another few months of tweaking and reworking and Ephemeral Fantasia might have been a decent, but average, RPG. Instead, it's a game that becomes increasingly more annoying as you progress.
If you're really into keeping appointments, doing things over and over, or wanting to test your sense of direction (or drawing maps), then this game might be for you. If you're looking for a balanced RPG that you can actually play without having to continually consult a walkthrough (or spend months constantly trying things over and over), you'll want to give this one a wide berth.
This is a 'rent before you buy' title. You've been warned.