Ever since its conception, the musical has established itself as a popular form of visual and audio entertainment for high culture. Successes such as West Side Story on the silver screen and Rent on Broadway led many to believe that it was only a matter of time before the art form made its way into other media of entertainment. With Atlus' release of Nippon Ichi's Rhapsody, that day has come for the RPG genre of video games. In spite of a plethora of flaws, Rhapsody manages to hold enough charm throughout its short length to keep players interested until its conclusion.
Atlus' latest offering stars Cornet, a young girl who has the ability to communicate with puppets. Cornet's parents died when she was very young, and she lives in the town of Orange with her grandfather Mustaki, a puppet master who has taken care of her for most of her life. As the game begins, Cornet is repeatedly visited by dreams of a mysterious handsome prince, who keeps saving her from dangerous situations and romancing her afterwards in the dreams. After being interrupted from the latest episode of her dream series by Kururu, her faithful puppet companion, Cornet is sent over to the Wonder Woods by Mustaki to find some Red Inotium, which will allow their fireplace to burn longer.
Finding and obtaining the coveted Inotium turns out to be easy enough; however, as Cornet and Kururu attempt to leave the harvest site, an evil cat-obsessed witch named Myao and her minions attack, stopping only when a mysterious male figure drives them away with his swordsmanship. After the fracas, Cornet and Kururu are shocked to discover that their savior is none other than the prince from her dreams. He introduces himself as Prince Ferdinand from the nearby town of Mothergreen, and then takes his leave of the damsels formerly in distress.
Developing an instant crush on the affable Ferdinand, Cornet decides that she absolutely must speak to him again. However, the only way to gain an audience with the prince at this point in time is to win a bizarre Miss Universe-type pageant that concludes with the prince selecting one of the girls to be his bride. In the contest, Cornet more than makes up for her lack of poise and classic beauty with her charm and innocence, co-winning the contest with her rival/childhood friend Etoile and finally earning a dance with Prince Ferdinand.
Disaster strikes, however, just as Cornet is about to announce her romantic feelings to her prince. The evil Marjoli, queen of the underworld, quite literally crashes the cotillion with all of her top-ranking minions in tow. She then proceeds to turn Prince Ferdinand to stone and kidnap him, taking him back to her hidden castle. So, it's up to Cornet and Kururu to save Cornet's beloved prince, and from there, the pair's quest begins in earnest.
Thus begins another save the princess quest, with an obvious but rather inconsequential twist to the tired RPG goal. Despite its pedestrian premise and lack of excitement from an event-based standpoint, though, Rhapsody does get a few things right with its storyline. The plot moves along pretty quickly, so players aren't forced to spend too much time on any one of the many individual lackluster events in it. A few scenes in the story are riveting and truly poignant. And although some of the supporting characters could have used a lot more development, Cornet, Kururu, and Etoile are done quite well. All three display depth in their personalities, and each proves to be likable over the course of the full game.
In addition, Atlus has delivered another excellent translation to the US RPG faithful. The dialogue is lively, charming, and flows excellently, and it contains some genuinely hilarious moments over its full length. Spelling and grammatical errors are relatively rare. Some pop culture references are present, but they manage not to be excessively blatant. Although there are too many references to the fact that you are playing a video game, Atlus impresses yet again with its localization work.
Rhapsody's gameplay brings almost nothing new to the traditional RPG table. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, gameplay is one of Rhapsody's weakest areas. Tried-and-true traditional RPG gameplay elements such as random enemy encounters, turn-based battles, and item and magic use in fights all make their presence felt here. Although Rhapsody's gameplay mechanics have been done hundreds of times before, though, its biggest problems in this area are completely unrelated to its lack of innovation.
Rhapsody's worst flaw is its unimaginative dungeon design. Almost all of the game's dungeons consist of a seemingly random mishmash of small, nearly identical rooms. There's little rhyme or reason to the layout of these rooms, and most paths lead to dead ends that don't even reward you with a token item.
In addition, the game presents almost no challenge whatsoever, at least at the default "normal" difficulty level. Once you have an idea of what you're doing, almost all of the regular enemies will be defeated in one hit, and almost all of the bosses will go down within 3 attacks. Obviously, it's pretty hard to lose battles in Rhapsody, and I didn't find the need to use a single item throughout the game's entire length.
Also, Rhapsody utilizes a tile-based battle system that attempts to put some emphasis on strategy. However, since you can only send 4 characters into battle at once, and since the game is ridiculously lacking in challenge, there's no real strategy, so the tile-based system ultimately doesn't do anything other than slow down the already dull battles.
Some gamers may be dissatisfied with Rhapsody's length as well. I don't consider myself as someone who usually blows through RPGs quickly, but it only took me 10 hours to finish Rhapsody. More importantly, Rhapsody feels short. The game's entire quest feels like it would be nothing more than a mini-quest in most other RPGs.
For all of its problems, though, Rhapsody does a lot of things right with its gameplay. Aside from the problems mentioned above, the execution of Rhapsody's mechanics is strong. The annoying layout of the dungeons is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that they are short, so players don't have to spend excessive amounts of time in them. And the game moves along at a quick pace overall, so it rarely ever gets bogged down in its monotony.
And Rhapsody does provide a gameplay element not often seen in RPGs. Although Cornet is an accomplished fighter, she is most effective as a support character in battles. By playing her horn, she can increase the strength of all player characters within a certain radius. In addition, supporting the other characters adds notes to a meter. When this meter fills up, Cornet can use an assortment of special attacks. The particular attack she can use is determined by how many times she fills up the meter.
Regrettably, control is Rhapsody's biggest strength. Cornet can move in 8 directions, and a dash button helps her travel at a good clip. She is responsive to the control pad and rarely gets stuck on objects in the background. The menus are simple but very well organized. In battle, the cursor is responsive and moves smoothly in a continuous manner.
The only flaws in control are relatively minor. Cornet has a tendency to run along walls after she runs into them, which hinders item examination a bit. Also, the required precision of character placement for the purpose of searching the backgrounds is a bit more rigid than necessary.
Rhapsody's distinctly cutesy visual presentation also fares pretty well, featuring sprite-based characters on prerendered backgrounds. The level of detail is solid, and the colors used are bright and attractive. In battles, characters and enemies alike look pretty good in their detail. Yoshiharu Nomura's character designs and art are attractive, too.
However, Rhapsody's graphics do take a hit because of their lack of variety. Other than the occasional change in color, almost all of the dungeon backgrounds are identical. This lack of variety causes the graphics (and game) to become boring very fast. In addition, the spell effects are very weak visually.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Rhapsody contains no anime or CG cut scenes throughout its entire length. Although this certainly isn't necessarily a graphical weakness, it's a bit of a surprise, because few RPGs yet released in the US make as great of a fit with anime scenes as Rhapsody would.
Because Rhapsody's focus is on music, it's quite unfortunate that it does so poorly in the sound department. The sound effects are feeble, and there's no voice acting to help draw the player into the story.
The actual music itself doesn't fare much better. Composed by Tenpei Sato, the majority of the background music is pretty well written and lushly orchestrated, but it's repeated so much in the game that even its biggest fans will likely have trouble keeping themselves from getting sick of it. The battle themes are also well done, and although they are repeated a lot, too, they hold up a bit better over the course of the game.
Like most musicals, Rhapsody emphasizes its vocal songs above all else. Unfortunately, though, the vocal songs here are absolutely terrible. They're quite forgettable musically, and the vocal performance of the singers is generally weak. Worst of all, the lyrics are atrocious. They're trite and overtly direct, lacking any semblance of subtlety in their wording. In this reviewer's opinion, they even make other well-known tepid love themes such as "I Am The Wind" and "Eyes on Me" seem insightful.
RPG purists will, however, appreciate the fact that Atlus has given players the option to play the vocal songs in English or in their original Japanese language. Although the Japanese equivalents of these sappy snoozers don't fare much better than their US counterparts, it's great that the choice is there.
Although Rhapsody has more than its share of gameplay and sound problems, its strong dialogue, bright visuals, and quick pacing give it a certain charm matched by few others. This one's worth taking a look at.
Reviewer's note: This review is based on a reviewable copy of Rhapsody sent to RPGFan by Atlus. Changes may be made to the final version.