Ephemeral Fantasia - Staff Review  

Ephemeral Enjoyment
by Bryan Boulette

Painfully Frustrating
70-100 Hours


Rating definitions 

   A young man looks up from the boat he's riding to see a large island coming into view. The man observes a spacious, bustling city and a towering castle, surrounded by thick masses of forests. The boat's captain introduces viewers to the man, Mouse, a highly talented bard and composer that has come to write and perform a song for the upcoming wedding of the island's princess and her suitor. But, the player quickly learns, Mouse has ulterior motives: in addition to being a highly qualified musician, the young man is also a thief, and in the festivities following the joyous nuptials, he plans to make off with the castle's loot.

   Mouse is soon greeted by a female soldier, Rummy, sent by the castle to escort him to the princess and her fiance, Xelpherpolis. Rummy has been assigned to serve as Mouse's guide during his stay on the island, and as they walk, she talks to him about its affairs and the wedding, eagerly awaited by everyone in the city, which is scheduled to occur in five short days. When at last he arrives in the castle throne room, Xelpherpolis is delighted to meet him, but it's the demure princess that truly catches the bard's attention. So enraptured is he with her shy beauty that he is struck by inspiration, and creates a song on the spot. Lord Xelpherpolis is suitably impressed by Mouse's composition and playing; the musician is hired and ordered to create a masterpiece of a song in five days to be played at the marriage ceremony.

   Mouse thinks everything is going just perfectly. He's got a good paying, easy job writing a song to celebrate the princess' beauty, and he plans on making out like a bandit with the castle's many treasures. It seems like nothing could go wrong. But as the wedding nears, and Mouse meets more of the island's particular inhabitants, a sense of foreboding grows within him, made even stronger by peculiar accidents which keep happening all around him. Despite his best efforts to remain aloof from the goings-on, the island's mysteries and the troubles of its townsfolk begin to suck him in.

   Ephemeral Fantasia, or Reiselied as it was known in Japan, is a traditional RPG from Konami for the Playstation 2, and it follows Mouse on his quest to figure out what's going on with the strange island on which he finds himself. The setup for the game is a clever and fairly unique one, and Ephemeral Fantasia effectively avoids the cliched drive of nearly every RPG: the eventual goal of saving the world from imminent destruction. The game avoids the world entirely, in fact, with its whole story confined to the large island, its city, and its outlying villages, such as a village of lumberjacks and a bandit hideout in the deepest forests.

My, What Lovely Royal Guards You Have My, What Lovely Royal Guards You Have

   In so doing, Ephemeral Fantasia brings the player a more narrowly-focused story that, by heavily emphasizing the distinctive characters on the island and their own individual troubles, also manages to succeed on a more personal level. The story is certainly the game's greatest asset, conveying a powerful overall narrative while still offering richly textured characters that demonstrate human emotion and growth. In particular, the game's villain stands out as extremely well done; it would spoil the game's fun to say more about this villain except to note the incredible and twisted cruelty the character manages to present make him stand out in a refreshing way from the standard world-destroying antagonists.

   Each character in the game is presented in a complex manner, with emotions, personalities, and even flaws. In order to gain their alliance, Mouse must engage in a particular quest to earn the trust and friendship of each of them. The quests seldom devolve into simple matters of item-fetching, like many other games with sizable casts. Instead, each quest is plot-driven, and serves as a further window into the personality and motives of the character Mouse is trying to help. The characters also manage to generally avoid falling into cliche and stereotypes, which was a real treat.

   The decision to keep Ephemeral Fantasia centered on a single location was an unusual one, but one which worked well within the context of the game and its character-driven story. Just as the characters come across as real people, the island comes across as a very real place. The city is large and complicated, with sensibly laid out districts, and rather than the normal five-house RPG town, this city largely manages to come across as a real place. Additional exploration of the island -- its beaches, forests, cemetery, and mountains -- furthers that impression. Everything is laid out as it should be, and the normal requisite cliche locations are satisfyingly absent. Exploring the island can also be a lot of fun, though in the earlier stages of the game, it can also be frustratingly difficult.

   Mouse navigates the island by way of a large map broken up into grids, and he needs to acquire a map piece for each grid. Given the island's size, though, early navigation can be a real pain until more of those map pieces are found. Unfortunately, that frustrating difficulty often drips over into other aspects of Ephemeral Fantasia's gameplay, and winds up being the game's greatest flaw. Acquiring quite a few of the game's characters can be nightmarishly complex, multi-step processes, and they only get harder as the game progresses. This difficulty is enhanced by the fact that Ephemeral Fantasia takes place in real time, with a clock constantly displayed on the screen to show the day and time. Many events will only occur if Mouse is in the right place at the right time -- and given the island's size and the early difficulties navigating, making it to the right place by the right time isn't always easy. In fact, it's often an exercise in frustration.

It's Guitar Time It's Guitar Time

   A notable part of Ephemeral Fantasia's gameplay is the guitar system. Mouse, being a composer and a musician, frequently finds him or herself in the position of needing to perform songs on Mouse's guitar. Doing this requires using the shoulder and face buttons on the controller in a DDR styled minigame. Unfortunately, the controls are pretty poor and the minigame tends to be extremely difficult to get right for any player without extremely good speed and precision. Failing at it doesn't have severe in-game consequences, but it does hurt Mouse's finances and his reputation with the island's citizenry.

   The combat system is a bit clever and demonstrates some original ideas, doing away with standard attacks and instead breaking each character's moves up into unique skills. Using the attack skills repeatedly will result in learning better skills. Each character is well balanced in having their own diverse set of abilities that provides an interesting incentive for their use. Alas, a fun combat system can't save the overall gameplay in Ephemeral Fantasia; the poor guitar minigame and the extreme difficulty of recruiting most characters with little to no in-game help being provided just weigh down the game's play too much. And the battle system itself isn't without flaws -- the non-linear nature of the game means that, at quite a few points, the balance is thrown completely off kilter. Particularly near the end of the game, some battles can be imbued with almost sadistic challenge that can't be overcome simply through effective strategizing. What's more, the encounter rate is abnormally high, and in the later sections of the game, the player will find himself with no safe havens.

   Don't go into this game expecting much graphically. While the character designs are artistically inventive and quite nice looking, as is the art direction overall, the graphics themselves are little to speak of from a technical level. The game was a fairly early PS2 title, and the look of it shows that. Battle graphics are particularly low quality, and the game's camera outside of battle is unspeakably bad. Three aerial viewpoints are provided, but none of them work just right. Meanwhile, despite Ephemeral Fantasia's emphasis on music, the game's soundtrack is a bland and unmemorable affair. A few battle tracks stand up as catchy, but other than that, there's little to recommend from a musical standpoint.

   The gamer with the patience to persevere through Ephemeral Fantasia's difficulties, frustrations, and design flaws will find a very engrossing and enjoyable story with some truly rewarding characters and completely original ideas in a fleshed-out locale. It's not an easy task, but some may find it a worthwhile one.

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