When the PlayStation 2 launched back in October of 2000, it had the distinction of being one of the only consoles to launch with Role-Playing Games available to the public. RPGs, which have long development cycles, generally don't turn up until almost a year into a new console's life-which is what made the PS2 so interesting-it had three RPGs on the very first day the console was available.
Of those three games, Summoner was the one most people bought and played. Evergrace was essentially the dog of the bunch, and From Software's Eternal Ring was the game that got lost in the shuffle. A shame, really, since Eternal Ring isn't too bad a game-particularly for a launch RPG.
The quest for the Eternal Rings
With a story that would best be described as 'Fantasy plotting 101', Eternal Ring isn't going to wow anyone with its tale.
Players take on the role of Cain Morrigan, who's sent off to the Island of No Return in order to battle some ancient dragons and retrieve a magical ring. That's it…your whole quest can be encapsulated in one sentence. Clearly, plot is not one of Eternal Ring's strongest points.
However, From Software has always been a company that has managed to milk maximum bang for their buck out of minimal story-one need look no further than the King's Field games for proof of that. Eternal Ring is no exception. In fact, in some ways, it's actually more engaging than the recently released King's Field: The Ancient City. Where that game had few people to interact with and almost no story (aside from what's in the instruction manual), Eternal Ring makes Cain's solitary journey a little less lonely by actually allowing him to interact with other humans. This makes the game feel a lot more plot driven than it really is.
What little story the game has is presented well enough, mostly through conversations with NPCs (who actually speak-unlike the NPCs in the latest King's Field game). A lot of the dialogue is presented in 'ye olde English', which isn't too annoying and does manage to add to the atmosphere most of the time.
Gamers looking for an epic tale would be advised to look elsewhere.
If I were to break the gameplay of Eternal Ring down into as simple a description as possible, I'd say that the game is King's Field lite.
Much like the KF games, Eternal Ring is a first person RPG. The only time the player will actually see Cain is in the cutscenes featured throughout the game. The rest of the time, you'll see his arm as he swings a weapon and that's it.
Much like King's Field, battle is waged like a dance-run in, attack, fall back, dodge an attack, repeat. The cadences of the dance might seem simple when reading them, but there's actually some depth to it in the execution. Some monsters are faster than others, some have a longer reach, etc. Because of this, being nimble with the D-pad is essential if you want to stay alive long enough to see the end credits.
Battles net Cain experience points and the occasional item. Earn enough experience and you level up, thereby increasing your stats and growing stronger. It's all very traditional, really.
What isn't so traditional is the ring system employed by the game. Magic is cast by finding, forging, and equipping magic rings. Cain can wear five magic rings on one hand, and five status enhancers on the other. Killing enemies will garner Cain either magic rings or items-the items can then be taken to a ring maker, who will forge them into a new ring. Combining rings with these elemental items is the only way to gain more powerful magic-and a lot of trial and error is involved along the way.
The work is worth it, though, because once Cain gains access to magic, the game's combat opens up and becomes a lot of fun. Instead of having to dance in to attack and dance out to avoid taking damage, the magic rings allow you to cast ranged spells that will hit and kill enemies from a distance. Getting the rings makes Cain like the RPG version of The Green Lantern or something…
Now, don't get me wrong-equipping the rings doesn't suddenly make the game into Grandia II's battle system, but it does add an extra dimension to all of the hacking and slashing.
One of the more interesting things about Eternal Ring is that the game is relatively non-linear. While Cain has a definite goal, the game presents branches at several points along the way, allowing the player to pick his poison as far as how to advance is concerned. These aren't arbitrary choices, either-choosing a path too soon will have Cain facing enemies who are too strong for him and pushing up daisies before you know it. Of course, you can make it through these areas-it'll just be a lot harder than it would have been if you'd waited.
Which brings me to the difficulty in general. Eternal Ring, again, like the King's Field games, can be very difficult. Death lurks around every corner, and a rash player will die often. Leveling up is a necessity at different points of the game as the difficulty curve can ramp up significantly in no time. I don't think that's such a bad thing, though-too many of today's RPGs are easy. Eternal Ring isn't all that hard, but there is a little challenge involved.
Eternal Ring's graphics are best described as 'first generation PS2'-which isn't a bad thing when you consider that it was a first generation PS2 game.
The character models aren't made up of a whole lot of polygons, and everyone moves a little stiffly in terms of animation, but the environmental effects are nice, the lighting good, and the textures decent.
What is perhaps most impressive about the game is that it runs at a brisk 60 frames-per-second. This gives Eternal Ring a more polished feel than the older King's Field games and counteracts some of the game's slower play mechanics. The fact that the game runs this fast also helps in terms of control-there's really very little slowdown.
Speaking of control, it's not too shabby overall. Sure, first person games almost always work better with a keyboard and mouse, but From Software has kept the interface here simple enough that it transfers to the DualShock 2 quite nicely.
Controlling Cain is simple, the D-pad moves him, buttons make him attack, cast magic, etc. My biggest gripe is that the game doesn't support the analog feature-meaning you're stuck playing with the D-pad for the duration.
The game even gives you the option of having Cain's perspective bounce a bit as he walks or of turning it off completely.
Eternal Ring's music is probably its greatest accomplishment as a game-it's really good stuff.
The game's complemented by some atmospheric orchestral music throughout, which really adds to the ambience. When exploring a cave, the music matches the dark and somber mood. When outdoors in a town, it's much lighter. Overall, it's a really great soundtrack, not unlike the one found in King's Field: The Ancient City.
As mentioned earlier, the game is almost entirely voice acted-and that's pretty good as well. Spoken dialogue was apparently absent from the Japanese release (go figure, we get something the Japanese gamers don't…) and the inclusion is a nice touch. While it's not the greatest voice acting I've ever heard, there's a minimum of cringe-inducing moments where you'll be grabbing for the remote.
Overall, Eternal Ring is a pretty decent game-particularly for a launch RPG. While it doesn't compare to the more impressive PS2 offerings of last year (Final Fantasy X and Shadow Hearts), it's infinitely more entertaining than either of its launch counterparts or the absolutely dreadful Ephemeral Fantasia.
Considering that you can pick it up for less than $20, Eternal Ring isn't a terrible purchase if you're looking for a PS2 RPG to tide you over until the big games turn up later this year.