Marl Oukoku no Ningyouhime (The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom) is the perfect example of a game western gamers would usually never hear of. Developed by a small company, this lighthearted and cute game with a relatively original approach to the traditional RPG elements is certainly not the typical game Western companies would want to port over. Therefore, it's not surprising that publisher Atlus, who seems to be going for the less mainstream games lately, has picked up the rights to Marl Oukoku, renamed Rhapsody, for an US localization.
In the fairy tale-ish country of Marl, the young prince Ferdinand is the most-wanted single man. Cornet Espoir, a 16-year old young girl orphaned in her childhood, has the mysterious ability of being able to talk to puppets and dolls. Even her best friend is a fairy doll called Kururu.
The story begins when Cornet's grandfather, a puppet artisan, asks her to go search for red Inothium in the nearby forest. Attacked by the cat-woman Myao and her henchmen, Cornet gets saved by a young man who turns
out to be no other than Prince Ferdinand himself, for whom Cornet falls instantly. The game unfolds on her quest to save Prince Ferdinand, accidentally turned in stone by the Evil queen Marjoly.
The graphics all look very nice and detailed, in the same vein as Legend of Mana's. Rich and detailed, with beautiful colors, they're probably the best quality of the game. Most towns, although they are quite small, are very detailed and the houses in towns don't look all the same as in other RPGs. Even if the backgrounds don't look very original, they are well executed and don't fear the comparison with bigger companies' RPGs.
The game tends to use various points of view, side and above for instance, giving it both a side view and above view RPG feel. Fortunately enough, the several points of view are used quite wisely and that is another good point of the visuals of the game. The anime character designs are very pleasant too, with quite a few illustrations spread here and there in the game, as well as cute character portraits shown in the dialogue boxes. Overall, the visuals are excellent for a year and half old game.
One of the strong points of the game is the humor. The characters' lines are often hilarious, as the game isn't too serious most of the time. There are a lot of puns on the names, as well. While some may find the "fairy tale" type of storyline too lighthearted, the humor definitely makes it more adult and enjoyable. Sure, the story is a quite predictable and cliché, but in Rhapsody's case, it's not a major flaw. The characters show a lot of personality and you get attached to them over the course of the game. Moreover, the gallery of expressions make the dialogue very enjoyable.
Rhapsody introduces a new RPG concept: the Musical RPG. Once in a while, during certain events the characters will start singing and dancing. There are a total of eight different number in the game. While one could find this rather original and funny, there are probably some people who will find the songs obnoxious, to say
the least. However, the voice actors do a pretty good job at singing the songs throughout the game.
It's not, however, such an important element in the game, as you have no control or part to play during
these songs, so maybe the term "musical RPG" is slightly over-emphasized in Atlus' campaign (the Japanese campaign rather focused on the "fairy tale" aspect of the game). The songs, though, are a really nice touch and give the game more personality. However, for a game that involves dance and music, we could have hoped for a better sprite animation, as the dancing of the characters is pretty limited as it is.
The 16 background tracks, composed by Tenpei Sato, did fairly well -- the towns' music especially sounds nice and sweet, fitting well the peaceful towns of Marl.
The world of Marl could be pretty much described as a typical RPG/fairy tale world. It has lovely small towns, mountains, jungles and desert (with the assorted climatically-influenced towns), castles with their items hidden in pots, and of course dungeons. Dungeons... one of the major flaws of Rhapsody. As patient as a player can be, there's no way one could possibly not get bored by the dungeons of Rhapsody. To start with, the dungeons aren't very original; usually simple dungeons with a few chests here and there, not so well hidden secret puppets, bosses, etc.
The real problem, however, is that the dungeons all end up looking the same. The graphical patterns of the dungeons in Rhapsody are re-used over and over again. You may clear a dungeon, then have to go through its twin brother, only in a different color. The Ice Mountain and the Volcano look exactly the same, except one's blue and the other one's red. Going through a dungeon layout you've already encountered 3 or 4 times will cause you to get lost very easily -- not to mention the boredom of feeling you're doing the same dungeons over and over again. It will sometimes happen that you have to go through two dungeons in a row that have the same patterns and color, causing
you to get completely confused. The poor dungeons graphics really look pitiful in comparison with the beautiful towns graphics -- why Nippon Ichi didn't put a little more effort in the dungeons is really too bad.
Rhapsody's battle system could be somehow compared to a more simplistic version of the battles of Final Fantasy Tactics or Sakura Taisen: turn-based, isometric-view battles, where you have to move your characters before attacking. The battlefield is, however, very limited in comparison to the two other games (usually about 7x7
panels wide), which turns out to really limit the strategic interest of the system. After a while, you will find it annoying to have to move your characters before attacking, and the battles will get really repetitive as the AI of the monsters tend to act the same way over and over again.
As Cornet is gifted with the ability of talking with puppets, those very puppets will be fighting on her side as her party. You can have up to three puppets in your party, each, of course, having different characteristics, attacks, spells, etc. Up to 15 different puppets can be found in the game, half of them being "hidden". Also, monsters will randomly offer to join you after battles, causing an even bigger dilemma in the choice of your party members. While
this is all pretty nice, it's too bad that all the puppets and monsters join you at Level 1, forcing you to do some serious leveling-up before you can think about using them.
A lot of things in the game are meant to make the game quite easy, which isn't always done for the best. You can save anywhere in the game and as often as you want. The battles are pretty easy and the dungeons not hard to figure out (a few more puzzles would have been welcomed here). Most bosses are ridiculously weak, and even the hidden puppets are quite easy to find.
However, a number of things make the game inconvenient in certain situations. For instance, puppets can be revived by going to Cornet's grandfather's place and paying an amount of money depending on the fallen Puppet's level. Hired monsters killed in battle can not be revived, though, and once you lose them, you never have a chance to have them back. Sure, it makes the game harder, but not in a very good way. It sometimes happens that you have to go all the way back from the depths of a dungeon to the village because some of your puppets died and you know you won't beat the boss without them. However, the game is still pretty easy, making it accessible for younger players.
More importantly, it's very easy to get stuck for stupid reasons. In certain areas, the boss won't appear until you've completed a certain other dungeon, and you could beat the dungeon as many times as you want, you won't find anybody in there. Also, sometimes you will need to speak to certain persons in order to unlock certain events, which can be pretty tricky when you don't have a clue whom you're supposed to talk to. Quite often, it's less than
obvious where you have to go next, and you'll find yourself roaming around the land of Marl hoping that something will happen. Added to the boss not appearing problem, this will most likely cause a number of players to pull out their hair.
And on to the major flaw of Rhapsody... its length. The game is beatable in about 10 hours, 20 if you're slow. This is probably one of the shortest RPGs I've ever seen. While the game gives a good first impression with its beautiful graphics and funny dialogue, realizing the ending credits are rolling only after 10 hours of play is
To put it in a nutshell, Marl Oukoku no Ningyouhime is an average game with good ideas but with a few annoying flaws as well. The game's originality and lighthearted feeling may please some gamers and annoy others. I'm not sure whether this game will find an audience in the US, but fans of cute things will probably like this
one. It has some good points and some personality, but definitely isn't a title most players will remember. Hopefully, Atlus will consider porting the sequel Little Princess, which didn't retain some of the flaws of the original game.