Quickly becoming a major supplier of innovative RPG titles to North America, Atlus does it again with their localization of Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. This Nippon Ichi Software RPG, originally called Marl Oukoku no Ningyouhime (which translates to "Puppet Princess of Marl's Kingdom"), definitely has its own unique flair and an element of charm rarely seen in many of today's epic "save the world" style RPGs.
The story of Rhapsody revolves around Cornet, a young woman yearning to meet the man of her dreams and fall in love. She is also a Puppet Master, one who communicates with puppets and uses them in battle. One day, Cornet and her puppet friend Kururu set out into the woods to find Red Inotium. While searching, she runs into Myao, who is also in search of this precious life-giving material. When Myao demands Cornet's Inotium, she refuses to hand it over and a battle ensues. When Myao is about to send her dragon to attack Cornet and Kururu, Prince Ferdinand steps in and dispatches the beast. Myao leaves and Cornet is speechless as she falls instantly in love with the prince.
Cornet is now smitten for Prince Ferdinand and her only hope to see him again is by entering the Miss Marl Beauty Contest. Since this whole scene is a particularly humorous part of the game, I will leave out the details, but events during this pageant, prompt Cornet and Kururu to embark on an adventure to save the prince.
The first thing that's instantly noticeable in Rhapsody is its general style. The world is cartoon-like with simple designs and colorful scenery. Characters are sprite-based and the backdrops are hand-drawn just like those found in Legend of Mana and SaGa Frontier 2. This simple fact might turn away players who may prefer something less childish in nature. On the other hand, it might appeal to those who are looking for a cheery game as well as a female main character.
To navigate through the world of Rhapsody, you must use the map-like overworld and choose the area you wish to visit. As the game progresses, more areas are made available. Each of the area maps (either dungeons or towns) are constructed with hand-drawn backdrops.
The battles utilize a 3D isometric view in which you must strategically position the characters on a grid in order to perform various attacks. Think of it as an abbreviated Final Fantasy Tactics battle engine used inside the confines of a normal battle setting, which somewhat resembles Super Mario RPG in its style and design. However, with this setup, positioning your characters quickly becomes a chore due to the confined space and the fact that the enemies don't differ in their strategies; they just come toward you and attack.
When describing Rhapsody's battles, one word comes to mind: easy. Even though Atlus added three different difficulty settings to the game, each one yields effortless battles and easy level raising. It's somewhat nice to plow through your enemies with such ease, but it can get boring after awhile.
The encounter rate is tolerable, but it seems uneven. Sometimes you can travel through nearly the entire dungeon and not fight a battle. At other times, battles become a constant affair and it can get tedious.
Cornet's abilities include attacking, using her horn, and using items. Her "Horn" command raises the attack power of any puppets within range and it also adds to her attack meter, which resembles staff lines with musical notes on it. As the level increases, certain attacks can be executed through the "Reward" command. These attacks feature anything from flying strawberry shortcake to a large stack of pancakes pummeling the enemy and they're very effective. Unfortunately there are only five special attacks and since they're all available from the start of the game, they lose their novelty rather quickly.
Despite the humorous nature of these special attacks, oftentimes they aren't worth the trouble. They take a long time to charge up since only one musical note is added to the staff lines for each puppet powered up. Four notes are needed for each level and since there are only three puppets available to receive this power-up each turn, anything you are fighting will most likely be dead by the time you reach a high level. This is even true for most bosses in the game. Fortunately, the attack meter is retained after battle so the special attacks can be used in the next skirmish.
Cornet is supported in battle by any combination of three puppets or former enemies out of many that can be found during the game. Each puppet can attack, perform special attacks or magic, and use items. Occasionally, enemies will offer to join your party after a battle. Their commands are similar to the puppets', but they're usually less powerful.
You can find puppets and enemies throughout the game. The only problem with finding new party members later in the game is that they all start at level one. Even though they can raise levels very quickly, it's illogical to replace a level 30 puppet, which is hardly touched by the enemy with a level one puppet that gets beat around until it reaches level 10. The only advantage to using lower level puppets is that you never know what abilities they may eventually gain and it makes the battles a bit more challenging.
To prepare for battle, Cornet can equip accessories on herself and her allies. Each character can equip up to three in order to alter various attributes like strength, defense, magic, etc.
Aside from a limited battle system, the single biggest problem in Rhapsody is the lack of originality and depth in dungeons. In order to complete tasks, Cornet must travel through either temples or caves (caves being more prevalent). These consist of non-scrolling rooms, which only take on a few different variations. These variations repeat themselves during the dungeon. For example, the caves have X-shaped rooms with four outlets, T-shaped rooms with three outlets, various curved and straight rooms that have two outlets, and finally dead ends with one outlet. These types of dungeons not only make exploration boring, but quite confusing since each dungeon has groups of rooms that look exactly the same.
Every subsequent cave or temple simply contains a different color scheme and layout than the previous one. If it wasn't for the pretty illustrations and puppets that are hidden in dungeons, they wouldn't be worth exploring at all.
Aside from the repetitive dungeons, the game itself is nice to look at. The hand-drawn style is very distinct and it contains a lot of color. However, it's unfortunate that there is absolutely no animation in the background. Legend of Mana used the same type of backdrops, yet that game also sported animated tiles place throughout the scenery, which added a bit of realism to otherwise static backgrounds.
The sprites match the backdrops well, but in certain towns, especially Mothergreen, the sprites are viewed at a shrunken size and look somewhat pixilated. Later in the game, there are even points where the sprite shrinks as you move towards the horizon. It's a neat idea, but one better suited to 3D objects.
The control in this game is a bit sub-par, but it doesn't noticeably hinder gameplay. When moving around, Cornet is very responsive and easy to maneuver. While diagonal movement is possible in this game, the character moves along in a sliding manner facing straight ahead instead of in the direction the sprite is walking. This is one classic RPG "feature" that could have been avoided.
As far as living up to the title "A Musical Adventure", Rhapsody aims to please. The background music is nicely matched to the game and the tracks are pleasing to the ear. The vocal interludes really make the sound shine. Atlus is known for catering to its fans, and allowing players to select the Japanese or English vocals any time during the game is really an excellent feature that makes for a well-rounded audio experience.
The English tunes closely match the flow of the Japanese vocals without losing the meaning originally being conveyed. Atlus also found a small group of talented vocalists to perform their well-planned translations. There weren't as many songs as I had hoped for, but Rhapsody easily earns its title as a musical RPG.
Aside from just good music, Rhapsody found a way to incorporate music into the gameplay of the RPG. For example, one interesting way to make a little money is by Cornet playing her horn in each town's "melody square" and earning a delightful tip! This and other things, such as the music-themed attack meter mentioned above solidify the musical theme this game was attempting to create.
The extras included on the game CD are also a welcome addition to the gaming experience. From the title screen, you can choose a "Gallery" option. Your game saves are then assessed and depending on how far you are, certain vocal songs and illustrations become open for viewing. After beating the game, 76 beautiful illustrations are made available. Some of these stills are large enough that scrolling is required to see the entire picture.
Additionally, all 9 of the vocal clips are available for your listening pleasure. After selecting a clip, the credits for the song are shown and then for the duration of the tune, screen shots display key scenes dealing with the song while the lyrics let you sing along! Unfortunately, only the English vocals are available here.
In the end, it might be the shortness of the game that frustrates the player. With the game being easily beaten in less than 15 hours, many RPG fans might be hoping for more. There is some value in replaying the game, but only to find more puppets and perhaps use a different language setting for the vocals.
It's obvious that there are some serious flaws in Rhapsody and for that reason it's tough to decide whether to shell out the money or not. The localization is spectacular and it even includes a bonus music soundtrack, but that does not make up for the easy gameplay, the shortness of the game, or the oversimplified dungeons. Still, credit must be given to Atlus for introducing something new to the U.S. audience. Rhapsody is definitely worth the rental fee and if it's your kind of RPG, then worth the purchase as well!