--------ATLUS PUBLISHES THE DARNDEST GAMES--------
If you're a big gamer, you know that Atlus isn't exactly a household name in the gaming industry, but they still have an incredible amount of appeal and recognition. Why wouldn't they... they've been around since the early days of the NES, publishing a variety of strange video games. While most of their localizations aren't remotely as popular as any of the obvious mentions when it comes to video game popularity (just to list an example, I'll say Final Fantasy), Atlus always attracted large groups of cult followers because they often localized games that contained interesting and/or unique qualities, and I don't just mean standard adjustments to tried and true formulas. Atlus always seemed like one of those companies who loved to do more than take a risk, they wanted to challenge gamers to look at games for more than what can be seen on the surface. Whether it's the ever controversial Shin Megami Tensei and Last Bible series with their religious overtones, it's the hilarious Thousand Arms developed by Red Company or well-written, sometimes thought-provoking games like Kartia: The Word of Fate. Atlus has tried their hands at nearly every genre there is and even when they didn't emerge victorious, no one could fault them for the fact that they tried. In the case of this game, it has a number of characteristics that set it apart from other games of its kind, for better or worse.
Before I start talking about Eithea, you should know a little about the developers of the game and what this project contains. The little-known video game developers of this game known as TamTam don't have a very long track record and most of the games they have under their belt aren't anything too noteworthy. One of their most notable creations was the strange strategy game known as Jyutei Senki made back in 1993 for the Super Famicom. It was a relatively simple game with a few unusual characteristics such as the large blown-up sprites of characters when they engaged each other in battle and the general theme, which takes a page from the whole "Futuristic Past" element of certain video games. Suffice to say, the main reason it got any attention at all is that it was published by Enix. TamTam has since been pretty absent from the gaming scene and can probably be filed as one of those companies who are on their last leg. Going through all of their games has shown me that Eithea is quite possibly TamTam's greatest achievement.
TamTam employed the talents of numerous businesses both big and small, made an "expansive" game that spreads across two discs, and even hired the famous manga artist and illustrator, Aoi Nanase, to design all the characters and at least a hundred illustrations throughout the game. The collaborative effort was enough to even get the folks over at Atlus to take interest in the project and the game was eventually born during the late years of the Playstation. TamTam was so proud of the game that they even made a limited edition version of this game packed with a few nice goodies. It all sounds like one big wow-fest on pen and paper, but if so, why aren't more people singing this game's praises? Well, let's just get on with it now, shall we?
--------NOW WHERE HAVE I SEEN THIS BEFORE?--------
In the world appropriately named Eithea, there exists a continent surrounded by water as far as the eye can see and a great power that maintains the balance of the world known as the Tree of Ere. It allows the people of this world to live in peace and harmony and enjoy all that life has to offer. It's in this world that you assume the role of a young man named Syou, who is just hanging around with his fellow classmates at school when your teacher introduces a transfer student, Hikaru Ito, to the class. After a quick exchange of words, things go horribly wrong. You blank out and meet a strange woman who informs you of incoming danger and you see the Tree of Ere, along with another mysterious woman with a split personality who pleas for help. When you awaken, you realize that your school is destroyed and you're in a strange new world. The land is overrun by monsters, yet the world of Eithea contains a strange beauty that you and you're friends haven't known in their own world. It's a great way to get out of doing schoolwork, but a bad way for the transfer student to start her first day at a new school, not to mention you and your friends are in grave danger! As you make your escape, you pick up armaments and items to protect yourself, and Syou finds a mysterious gun-like weapon that can only be described as a freaky version of X's Mega-Buster, which is the beginning of things to come.
As you make your way out of the wreckage, you meet the lesser of the two mysterious women who come to your aid and dons a mighty blaster just like Syou! She is Rhu, a hunter from the Moonlight Tribe, a group of warriors who are close to nature, and she explains why Syou had his visions and why you must save Eithea. An advanced scientific group situated near the middle of the continent is using their inventions to manipulate the power of the Tree of Ere and it's causing erratic behavior all over the world. With no real say in the matter, it's up to you and your friends to save the world. Who is behind the manipulation of the Tree of Ere? Is it the advances in science that are to blame, or are the hunters out of tune with nature? Is there more to this story than meets the eye? When does the dating and bonding become apparent in all of this? Why did TamTam make another game about science and nature?
For the sake of those who don't know what's going on, I'll answer some of the questions you may have. You'll meet a legendary man by the name of Albijan who is a defector from the leading scientific group in the world who decided to live among nature, who just so happens to know everything about basically everything. He'll be your eyes and ears throughout the game as you travel from city to city, finding mystical gems known as "Artia", which are sacred artifacts that have the power to match even the Tree of Ere when all ten are gathered, so you can put a stop to the evildoers. Along the way, you'll find out about legendary dragons, form stronger bonds with all the people you meet along the way, and discover more about the Tree of Ere than you bargained for. I'd spoil some of the highlights, but it's probably best to leave it at that for now.
The biggest focus of this game is certainly the plot, which isn't quite as grand as one might suspect. If I had to sum up the plot in three words, they would be "One Big ClichE. The game has a rocky introduction and throws all your objectives up on the table and most of your love interests out there in a highly generic fashion within the first twenty minutes or so of the game. Of course, as the game progresses, it redeems itself somewhat because of all the characters the game introduces within a relatively small time frame and may lead one to believe that this game has a lot going on in the story department. The only problem is that some of the most important things you want to know about these characters aren't stressed in the actual game, but in Eithea's limited edition character biography. Otherwise, the main cast generally speaks for itself. You have your hero, the optimistic yet insecure girl, the shy girl, the intellectual, the tough girl, an effeminate prince who likes saying things like "Oh Baby", "My Sweet" and "Unbelievable", a quirky kid, and the mysterious elder of the group.
There's nothing at all wrong with this setup, but the dialogue is pretty stilted, and the story is indirectly impacted by the gameplay. Still, there's no denying that the characters are still somewhat likable. I think Hikaru is SO cute, Rhu is hot in a way that only a digitized female could be, your teacher (Akiho) brings a respectable level of intellect and maturity into the group, and the best character of all, Imuru the Prince, is funny but not overdone. In fact, it's sad that you don't meet him more often and he only joins your team one time in the game, so cherish it always. If you kept him for the whole game, it's safe to say he would be the second strongest character, statistically speaking. I could probably do without the other mains in the team (in this case, Yuka because she's too emotional and Harmy because she's introduced late in the game and has the least development).
--------THE PRESENTATION IS SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED--------
Visually, Eithea is impressive on several accounts. The first highlight is the most obvious. Aoi Nanase's character designs and illustrations manage to breathe a little life into even the most insignificant NPCs and characters in the game. Her distinct design has a subtle charm (although in the case of Syou, Michael Jackson wants his jacket back) that isn't absurdly abstract or over-the-top. Almost every character in this game has a certain level of elegance in their design, and I really like some of the more creative characters like Yuka, Rhu, and "she who must not be named". I also like the nice opening movie, which is just a dynamic compilation of scenes you'll see during the course of the game. In short, the lady has a lot of talent. The game sold me based on the art alone, and I didn't need any other reason to give the game a chance. The second highlight is something you won't detect by looking at still screens. A lot of the things in your surroundings animate beautifully. If it isn't the birds that fly around the screen or the flowing rivers, it's rich billowing clouds of black smoke and operational machinery shifting gears. It's quite nice to look at several times over. When engaged in battle, the visuals aren't very impressive. Most attacks are just plain drab and the specials, while nice, reuse many of the same effects and look a little ridiculous over time. I personally thought the way characters are enlarged when they initiate an attack was a nice touch, but battles are relatively unimpressive as a whole.
The audio is slightly less impressive than the visuals. Besides the ephemeral musical score (sans the opening song by Yonekura Chihiro and the epic credits theme), Eithea actually has some pretty weird sound effects that don't exactly belong. Maybe it's me or the all the caffeinated beverages I had prior to writing this article, but the sound effects are a little overdone. The sound Syou and Rhu's blasters make when they zap an enemy sounds like something that should never come out of a CD. It sounds so cheesy and low-budget and reminds me of some of my favorite eighties cartoons, and that's the best way I can put it. As usual, the game also has lots of spoken dialogue, which is nice, though nothing you haven't heard before. It would help if characters acted out the script more, since characters have a habit of blitzing past ellipses or don't emphasize enough emotion at times. I can't really break it down much more than that, since (with all due respect) many Japanese actors sound exactly the same to me. This is typically done because certain voices produced by popular Japanese vocal actors (or seiyu) are often emulated or reused. This is what all those CVs (or character voices) shown in the opening movie are for. Anyway, moving along...
--------THE LAV IS A DUD--------
The bane to Eithea's existence can be found within the gameplay. First of all, if you thought Atlus was going to publish just another ordinary RPG, you've got another thing coming. While the story might possess a lot of deja vu and the visuals and audio aren't particularly sensational, the gameplay IS pretty unique. First, we should talk about the whole "relationship" portion of the game, because it's very important. There is no dating in the game, only bonding, so the sub-category of this game may seem a little misleading. You don't go around buying gifts or making the ladies swoon, you get to know them better as you adventure with them (which is known as the RPS system). What's the difference? You aren't seeking romantic relations; they come naturally, so romantic interests only truly spring forth towards the end of your adventure. This would explain why the characters choose the dumbest places to empty the skeletons from their closet, such as every dungeon in the game, instead of taking them on real dates like in Thousand Arms. Perhaps it's the fear of death lying around every corner in a monster-infested habitat that would make the girls stop you at random and ask you how your day was or what you think about another character at the time.
This is only made funnier by the fact that everything basically boils down to a yes or no answer. You can choose to start a conversation or not when the moment arises and sometimes you don't even have to answer a question. I think the worst part about the bonding segments is that they don't add much to the story (a whole lot of "I'm sorry" and "wait a minute" and "thank you") and that literally 97% of the right answers are choice number one. I must have only gotten three or four bad answers from the top choice in the entire game. Most of the time, the other characters aren't affected in the slightest about what you say to a particular girl (for the jealousy factor), and the bonding almost feels forced. If the bonding sequences aren't so great, why even bother, you might ask. Well, the answer is simple. You need to boost your LAV (Latent Ability Voltage) meter, which will affect how well characters perform in battle, as well as which ending you get. I'd tell you why they affect your ending, but it would really spoil things. All you need to know about LAV is that a character lives longer when it's high and dying drops the character's LAV respectively.
--------IT'S A TINY, TINY WORLD AND BATTLES ARE BORING--------
Does LAV really change the outcome of battles? Not much. On the subject of battles, the battle system is awkward at best. You see, battles are governed by battle formations and "TIP", which is what you need to initiate attacks for all characters except Yuka and Imuru. You have different formations for different situations and you have characters facing different directions to protect your front, sides, and rear. Enemies can move around the circumference of your LAV barrier and if an enemy moves out of a character's line of attack, you have to change your formation, which takes a turn. Of course, they can just move out of the way again and the formation system is a bit of a chore when combined with the slow-paced battles. While some of the special attacks are cool, don't be surprised if you abuse the auto battle feature for the majority of the game because, well, the battles are pretty boring. The game as a whole is slow-paced, although the game picks up a bit once you have at least five of the ten Artia, since you get to mix and match them later to learn different abilities. One thing I should note is that all your major initialisms like TIP are a currency of sorts. Regular sliver TIPs allow you to issue most standard attacks, rare gold TIPs allow you to purchase rare skills, and "CAN" is your standard currency for buying items as well as silver TIPS. The reason I say they are all currency is because special attacks need to be purchased in quantities and will run out when you've depleted your stock.
Eithea already has a few shortcomings, but the next thing I have to tell you may surprise you more than anything else I've said thus far; Eithea is pretty short for a game spread across two discs. It doesn't help when there are only four tiny towns and a handful of dungeons, most of which are only four or five screens long (and one which you go to twice). I should also say that you can't go back to old places once you've cleared them (with the exception once again of one place), so buy the items you want while you can. Don't blame me if you pass up an opportunity to buy EXP boosting guns. It's hard to believe that you'll be collecting ten of anything in this short game, which is broken into ten chapters. This game can probably be cleared in less than thirty hours for the casual gamer and possibly under twenty hours for the folks who like to speed run. The game is a little tough early on and you'll probably grind a little at each dungeon, which is the only reason this game is even THAT long. A word of advice? If you don't want to play long, NEVER walk. This game doesn't equate distance into your random encounters, so you'll fight twice as much if you walk, as opposed to some games where you fight faster when you run to account for the extra distance you've gained. There's no major secrets or worthwhile side quests, no gripping dialogue and one nice unlockable, which is an art gallery... which is probably all one needs for this game anyway. There is some replayability because each girl has her own ending, but none of them are dynamically different. If I ever clear them all, you readers will be the first to know if you get something extra cool.
--------NICE EFFORT, BUT THE EXECUTION NEEDS WORK--------
I won't say that TamTam didn't try, because that would just be a lie. I think they tried hard to make this game stand out from the crowd and they hired a lot of people and pulled a lot of strings to get this game out there, but in the end, most of the things in this game seem to have been lost in translation. The pretty pictures don't match that well with the forgettable audio and the forgettable audio doesn't blend well with the mixed up gameplay, but there are a few likable characteristics here and there. It's just a lot harder to find something about this game to like that isn't in the visual department. I'll give my usual advice in this situation; if you like what you see, buy it for cheap. If you don't like what you see and you don't like it based on what I've said, I don't blame you. This game isn't for everyone.
- Written by Bel Cain The Eternal -