Playing the Lame, Vol. 8

Hey hi howdy, I’m Mark B, and we’re Playing the Lame right here, right now.

Okay, RIGHT NOW I’m probably playing Oblivion, so no, I’m not technically playing the lame, but the cool thing is that this will pretty much be here for the life of the site, so depending on when you read it, it might be true. Y’know, like saying “You’re eating a cheeseburger” or “Triple H is the World Champion”.

Anyway, yes, I’m most likely playing Oblivion, but let it never be said that I don’t put my work before my entertainment (not that this isn’t true, just don’t let it be said). I’ve got week 2 of THEME MONTH all spiffed up and ready to go for your reading displeasure, right here, right now. For those wondering whether or not Oblivion is any good, well, as of actually writing this, I’ve yet to play it, so I can’t comment, but let’s assume that it’s awesome, you and I. One of my friends had a minor mishap where Oblivion BROKE HIS 360, however, so be warned of this possibility in advance.

A COMMENT ON THE WCW COMMENTARIES:

The IP folks on wrestling side are commenting on the demise of WCW, what with it now being five years removed from that date, so I thought I’d add in my two cents. I watched WCW almost exclusively from about the late 80’s until early 2000, when the WWE was taking everything over, so while I missed the rise of stars like Stone Cold and the Rock, I was watching the NWO and Goldberg rise up, and largely enjoying myself the whole time. The sale of WCW in 2001 was incredibly shocking from the outside looking in, and I can’t completely believe it happened even now.

Most folks here will wax poetic about how they loved the promotion, about how they miss it, and about how they wish it were still around, et al. Me, every time I think about WCW now, all I can say is the very thought fills me with hate. I hate Hulk Hogan, Kevin Nash, and Eric Bischoff for driving a mildly profitable promotion from being a cash cow into the ground because of their egotism. I hate Vince McMahon for killing something that had a chance to maintain profitability simply because he had no idea what to do with it, or because he’s a selfish dickhead, whichever. I hate the Warrior for basically ending the life and career of Davey Boy Smith because of his bullshit disappearing trap door gimmickry. I hate that Bill Goldberg basically ended Bret Hart’s career, and I hate that Bret Hart himself had to end his career on the note it was ended. I hate to look at Sting and realize that his career amounts to multiple title reigns that were sabotaged by other people, and I wish he’d been given more of a chance to run with the ball. I hate to look at DDP and realize that he’s never going to be relevant ever again. I hate to look at guys like Goldberg, Booker T, and others amongst them, and realize that they have been soured by the business because of their time in WCW. I hate to look at guys like Scott Hall and Scott Steiner and realize that they are the LEGACY of WCW.

But most of all, I hate that a federation that I enjoyed as a child is no longer around, and I hate that five years after its demise, life just goes on.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

LINKAGE:

Tom Pandich covers RAW. And I wasn’t yelling. I was just… constructively criticizing. Loudly. In all caps. With profanity. Yeah. Also, Mickie James? What, everyone else was taken? Yipe.

Eric S. talks WCW and does his thing. One comment: if the Call of Cthulhu game he’s acquiring is the PC game that just came out, then it’s a port of the console game, and if this is the case, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Sorry to hear you wasted your time, Eric.

O’Reilly talks 360. Good on you, I guess. I like mine, I guess that’s all that matters.

My second favorite Ninja Turtle reviews a game about beating people up and a movie by the Wachowski’s. I’ve yet to pimp him here, and as I like him quite a bit, I shall do so now.

Lucard talks about dead relatives. I hope you laughed at that; he won’t.

Kennedy attempts to discuss the ideas surrounding the decline of modern horror movies. And for the record, no, there are no birdmen in my family, but my last name is equally as embarrassing a name as Balbaroy’s. So there ya go.

Brad Torreano imported a Tony Jaa movie, and now I want to, too. If you’ve never seen Ong Bak, read the above column, then know Ong Bak is like this, only in America. Yeah. Jaa sets his legs on fire, then knees people in the face. I swear.

FEEDBACK:

More of other people pimping me. Woot.

Jairo M. writes:

I wanted to touch on your rant on game mags column, I can’t help but agree 100%, I’m sure you’ve noticed in certain mags on how the review is more a huge verbal handjob rather than review of the game itself, its why I like IP so much, I might not agree with some scores but you guys talk about EVERYTHING, down the most minor detail, its obvious you guys play the games through and give us the fair assessment, if I purchase a game based on the recommendations of the IP staff I know what to expect.

He also had some nice things to say about my reviews, but I’m trying not to toot my own horn TOO much, you see. Anyway, I was supposed to put something here. Oh well. Let’s do so now. The theory is, if you write eight pages about WHY you feel X game is Y way, people will understand this and, even if they disagree with you, understand why you feel like you do. In practice, this doesn’t always happen, but we try, and I’m glad you approve.

And in answer to a young man identified as Nameless46, no, Firebreaker Chip is sadly not a playable character in Beyond the Beyond. No word on the rumor of Ranger Ross being unlockable as a character on the second playthrough, however.

PLAYING THE LAME, VOLUME 8.

Name of the offending title: Ephemeral Fantasia
What system was this forced upon: PS2
Who was responsible for this crap: Konami
Date this abomination was foisted upon us: 7/9/01

Your soundtrack for this week is the music of my good friend, J. Rose. It’s good stuff, I swear, and if you happen to listen to the track “Dungeon Master V.2”, you might hear the incredibly horrid vocal stylings of a certain bad game loving IP columnist. Just saying.

The death cycle of any game console is a pretty unpleasant thing. No matter how bad the system, no matter how poor the games, there will always be supporters of a console who don’t want to see it go, no matter how badly it performs. This is true not only of gamers, but also of publishers and developers. When a console announces the death knell, most developers are left scrambling to finish whatever products they were working on, lest they be cancelled and left forever on the cutting room floor. Those projects that are far enough along may, however, see new life, not on their original console, but rather on a newer console as a first generation product.

And so it is with our subject today, Ephemeral Fantasia. Originally planned as one of Konami’s releases for the now deceased Dreamcast, when the writing hit the wall, Konami decided to pull the project and transfer what had been completed to the PS2, so as to make some money off it instead of releasing it to a dead system or canceling it entirely (as they did with their DC Castlevania title). In theory, the decision made a lot of sense; Konami was well known at this point for being a solid developer of RPGs, and the PS2 wasn’t showing much life in the RPG realm during its first year. In addition, people tend to have lower expectations for first gen titles; they want something, ANYTHING, to play, and quality doesn’t factor in as much as you’d think. The PS2 was having a miserable first year, so dropping EF onto the system would be able to draw in some money, it was figured, despite its lower quality Dreamcast graphics. People who were starving for an RPG would grab the game, and hey, with the Konami name attached, it couldn’t fail.

Of course, this was not so. The RPG market had been in steady decline due to the immense popularity of FFVII and the complete and utter incapability of every single developer on Earth to develop a single solitary RPG that captured the market like that one game had, Squaresoft included. This is not helped by the fact that, frankly, people were looking for titles that screamed “NEXT GENERATION”, and frankly, even for a Dreamcast title, EF looked like crap. FFX was on the horizon, and quite frankly, if you weren’t looking forward to THAT, you sure as hell weren’t looking forward to EF. And even if you were, there were games you could play that weren’t nearly as bad (Summoner, Evergrace, Eternal Ring, Okage: Shadow King), whether they were actually good or not.

And this is ultimately where the problem lies. For you see, disregarding its visual issues, ignoring the primitive design, and hell, brushing off the fanservice appeal of several of the characters, Ephemeral Fantasia still, STILL ranks as an outright unplayable mess.

A BRIEF LAYOUT OF EPHEMERAL FANTASIA:

Groundhog Day, sans Bill Murray (though, come to think of it, a Bill Murray RPG would probably be interesting…). Or, for those with no comedic appreciation, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, sans Link and any sense of amusement or fun. Basically, you as Mouse, complete with your talking guitar Pattimo (based on how said guitar acts, I’m assuming it’s supposed to sound like “Pottymouth” on purpose) arrive on Pandule Island with two purposes. The first is to compose and play a song for the Royal Wedding and collect some cash for this service, as Mouse is a bard. The second is to rob the town blind, as Mouse is also a thief (supposedly an adept one, by the game’s indication). This, sadly, does not go as expected; the soon to be Prince of the town, Xelpherpolis (who, in addition to having a hideously unreasonable bad-guy name, looks like Sephiroth on lounge day) has the island locked under a time spell. Essentially, five days pass, then everything resets to day one. Mouse does not fall under the spell of the island (IMAGINE THAT), and decides to try and liberate the island, because… well, we don’t know (he never speaks) but we assume it’s because he doesn’t want to be stuck there forever. Or maybe it’s because he wants to boink the princess, Loreille. One of those. Armed with little more than the sword in his talking wiseass guitar and the knowledge of the way things really are, Mouse sets off to try and save the island… more or less.

WHY THIS GAME SUCKS:

Well, last week we looked at a game that sucked because it did everything the same as everyone else, but badly. This time we look at a game that tried to do everything DIFFERENTLY, but also did it badly. To keep things consistent, the first thing we will look at are the various characters that populate the game (and actually matter), so here goes:

MOUSE AND PATTIMO:

The first thing you basically figure out about Mouse, on first glance, is that he looks like a pussy. Seriously. If you saw that coming your way, would you be afraid? I doubt it.

Mouse is your main character. Besides being an excellent Bard and an excellent thief (both assertions made by Pattimo, mind you), he’s OBVIOUSLY an accomplished warrior, despite holding down TWO jobs that are effectively antithetical to combat readiness. Mouse is your party leader, and Pattimo is your effective guide throughout the game (yes, the TALKING GUITAR is the brains of the operation). On one hand, it’s nice to see that Konami was trying to go in a different direction with the concepts here, and hey, at least Pattimo’s not a talking dragon. On the other hand, Mouse looks like he’s all of twelve, and hardly looks like he should be kicking anyone’s ass, let alone liberating an island from the tyranny of an evil magical dictator.

Now, besides being a master Bard, a master thief, AND a master swordsman, Mouse could also learn combat techniques from his allies, effectively making him the best overall combatant in the game. Not to mention that the whole story is basically focused almost exclusively on him, and that the primary ending basically make out that EVERY SINGLE FEMALE IN THE ACTIVE PARTY WANTS TO HAVE HOT NASTY SEX WITH HIM. If you’ve ever wondered what the term “Mary Sue” means, Mouse is a PRIMARY example.

As far as Pattimo goes, he’s a talking guitar. What do you want?

LOREILLE:

The princess of Pandule. She is apparently all for the “not wearing very much clothing” set, character-wise, and she spends the whole game speaking in riddles and generally being a bitch. By game end, however, she’s helping Mouse beat the final boss and hinting she wants some Mousey loving. She exists simply to give the player a goal to aim for, and fulfills little more than that.

XELPHERPOLIS:

Sephiroth in comfy clothes. He’s evil, but stylish! Seriously, he’s basically in love with Loreille, hence making the island his bitch, but he’s not COMPLETELY evil. I mean, yeah, he lets people go to jail every week for trying to poison him, and indirectly or directly kills five or six people, on average, every week, OVER AND OVER AGAIN… but they’re not going to STAY dead or imprisoned, so it’s all good. Seriously, this is how the game ultimately views everything: since Xel decides to help repair everything in the end, he’s not a complete cockmonger, even though he did everything else he did with no remorse. So, you see, no one’s really all that evil, per say.

Wait for it… wait for it… LAME! Not only is he a ripoff, he’s a lame, only “mostly” evil ripoff. Blah, no one cares.

KYTE:

Big burly sailor/block of meat who beats enemies to death with a fish. Okay then.

CLAIRE:

Another “who needs clothes?” female in the game (noticing a trend yet?), Claire is a magic user who makes watches. As in, for a career. She also makes a box you can store items and cash in, so you won’t lose them after the week resets. This is actually fairly interesting if taken in consideration: weapons and experience points remain consistent regardless of what happens, but items and money must be stored or lost when the week resets. That’s pretty inconsistent, isn’t it? I mean, the entire week resets. Shouldn’t your characters all revert back to their level of experience at the beginning of the week? EXP isn’t just mental experience; your physical strength and manual dexterity rise as well, and these are physical changes, not merely mental ones.

… you’re right, I don’t really care either. She also brings the “drinking” mini-game to the table, which is best summed up as a slot-machine game where you try to get your opponent drunk, for fun and prizes. Yes, really.

RUMMY:

Rummy is what I like to call “fanservice”. She is an inadequately dressed, large-chested combat maiden who exists solely for the purposes of showing off her assets and lusting after the main character. She’s not a strong character; indeed, she goes from lusting after the main villain to lusting after the main hero, so if anything, she’s co-dependant. She’s not a well-written character; “Oh, I hate the princess because the prince loves her, so I’ll poison her and then the prince will fall for me blah blah blah”. She could basically be a broom handle with two balloons tied to the middle and she’d functionally serve the same purpose. Entry-level fanservice and wish-fulfillment, nothing more.

And if you think I’m kidding, go read some of the fan-written strategy guides for EF on Gamefaqs. Lame character, no reason to exist, and yet the fanboys adore her. Mission complete.

PLOSI:

An old, perverted painter who squirts “ink” (sure, buddy) into monsters eyes to blind them. Otherwise, he’s effectively unmemorable, not to mention useless.

RINNA:

The inkeeper of Pandule. She’s something like ten years old (I’m guessing), beats enemies to death with a broom, and can transform into Rindo Rinna, where she plays music and runs around in a rabbit suit (thus attracting my boss… oh man I’m so getting fired…) for no discernable reason other than to appeal to… yes, FANBOYS. I know, somewhere, someone’s getting pissed of, and I just don’t care.

BAGOTH:

Another block of meat, only this time with a bludgeon instead of smelly sea animals. And let it be noted that he’s like a hundred years old, because that’s just the way these sorts of games are.

BEAK AND FANG:

Mouse’s thief friends who show up on the island for no real discernable reason. I mean, there’s an explanation and all, but it’s not really a sufficient one. This may be because I didn’t care. There was some alternate dimension stuff, but it wasn’t really an “Oh, I see” moment… more of a “wait, what?” sort of realization.

There are other characters you can recruit, including a scientist, a robot, and an ambiguously gay bandit leader (I swear I’m not making this up, though it IS debatable), but really, what I mentioned above are the high points.

Now, you’re probably looking at the character designs above and thinking, “Well, that’s certainly… interesting… but that can’t be it, can it?” Well of course not. What kind of a host would I be if the only thing I had to offer were lame characters? We’ve also got lame graphics!

That, for those who are curious, is supposed to be Mouse. Now, if one were to compare that to the Dreamcast titles Skies of Arcadia and Grandia 2, especially when realizing this is a PS2 overhaul of a formerly planned Dreamcast title… it’s not hard to realize that, well, as a DC title, EF looks like shit. As a PS2 title? Forget about it.

I mean wow. Them trees are looking TOUGH baby.

And it’s not just Mouse, either. Here:

… really too low-res for a PS2 character?

I love open-ended text bubbles.

Anyway, these visual problems extend unto combat as well…

Again, PS2, at the time next-generation, producing graphics that barely look like first-generation Dreamcast. Most of the LAUNCH titles on the Dreamcast looked better than this.

Now, one issue I’d like to mention here before we get to the biggest offender is this: Konami felt the need to have a guitar playing mini-game in EF. This is fine. This guitar playing mini-game was compatible with the home Guitar Freaks controller, just in case, y’know, you owned such a device. This is also fine. America, sadly, was four years away from Guitar Hero, so we missed out on the fun that could be had here. Again, perfectly fine.

Expecting the player to play the guitar mini-game with the PS2 CONTROL PAD is just ridiculous. You didn’t NEED to succeed at the mini-games to accomplish goals or anything, but the mini-games were frustrating at best, downright unplayable at worst, and should have either been simplified or stricken entirely.

And then we come to perhaps my favorite problem with EF: design, or more specifically, two major problems with it. In EF, you had five days to resolve your various issues as needed before time reset itself. This meant you needed to get to places within certain amounts of time, and you needed to know where you were going when you needed to go there.

The problem is, Ephemeral Fantasia was not, BY ANY MEANS, good about either of these two things.

First off, knowing where you needed to go in EF was borderline impossible in some cases, due in no small part to the fact that you needed to know WHERE various characters were going to be at specific times WITHOUT BEING TOLD when they were going to arrive. So, for example, when you’d talk to Bagoth and try to convince him that things were screwed up, you’d need to know to go talk to a bunch of other people in the castle so you could steal the key to the reactor that blows up and kills Bagoth. Fine, except that 1.) you were never given any indication that you needed to talk to other people to save Bagoth, and 2.) unless you’re spending your time waiting at certain locations on certain days for NO GOOD REASON you probably never even KNEW Bagoth gets blown up in the reactor AT ALL.

Thus, you must accomplish tasks at certain times without knowing what these tasks are, where they take place, or when you must do them by. Not the best idea, by any means.

The second problem with EF is that, frankly, the map design sucks. There’s no other way to say it, so I won’t even try. First off, the world map is not auto-mapped; instead, you must find the various pieces of the world map scattered around the countryside or through mini-games, and only THEN will you know where the holy hell you’re going. This is quite disagreeable, as you can imagine. The second problem is that even WITH the map, outdoor areas are labyrinthine in design and difficult to negotiate. I might expect this sort of thing in a dungeon, BUT IN TOWN?!? Yes, the actual TOWN is a mess of one-way streets and Snail-esque maze negotiation that would leave the most masterful puzzle-solvers annoyed. In theory, this was done to put more emphasis on time management, et al. In practice, it’s just exceedingly lame and a waste of time.

Rounding it all out, combat is lame and stereotyped, nothing in the plot really makes all that much sense, and the ending is atrocious: instead of linking himself romantically to any of the beauteous women on Pandule, Mouse leaves because he’s a thief. Yes, INSTEAD OF SETTLING DOWN WITH ONE OF SEVERAL HOT (relative to the game in question) WOMEN ON AN ISLAND PARADISE, Mouse leaves.

… I just keep re-reading that because even NOW I don’t believe it. I saw it, and I don’t believe it. This, by the way, more or less counts as the BEST ending. Yeah, you’re funny.

And lo, there you have it. Interesting concept, tragic design. A good idea with a surprising amount of fans ends up being a cult classic the player must overcome instead of enjoy to get to whatever amounts to “good” in this title. What could have been a “good” RPG simply by virtue of being unique ends up being “bad” simply because every single thing it does, it does WRONG. And that? That’s lame.

WHY THIS GAME REALLY SUCKS:

Because Konami knows better.

They made two Suikoden titles and two Vandal Hearts titles prior to EF, and all of those were badass games. They made Suikoden 3 about two years after this, and it was an enjoyable experience. There’s absolutely no reason this COULD have been bad, by that track record, and yet, that’s about ALL it was.

There’s just no reason for this to exist the way it does. No reason at all. And yet here it is. Criminy, Ring of Red (another first gen Konami title, this one a turn-based/real time hybrid about robots blowing each other up) was a better game than this. Zone of the Enders was a better game than this. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

No answer. None. It SHOULD NOT have happened. This SHOULD NOT have sucked. And THAT’S why Ephemeral Fantasia truly sucks; because everything in existence says this simply should not be the case.

WHERE IT COULD HAVE BEEN IMPROVED:

Two simple ways to turn it from “bad” to “okay”: first, redesign each and every single overworld map into something negotiable; second, provide more understandable directions for how to recruit other characters instead of forcing the player to deal with trial-and-error.

From here? Well, first off, ditch that awful, smacks-of-Tenchi-Muyo bullshit ending and allow the player to CHOOSE who they thinks Mouse should end up with, or barring that, stick him with Loreille and be done with it.

Modify the character designs slightly; put some clothes on the women, and age all the teenagers about two years or so. I still really hate “teenage warriors save the world”, and nothing’s going to change that.

Clean up the story a touch; file down some motivations to make them more reasonable, fill in some backstory, clean things up a bit. Also, fix some of the villager dialogue so they don’t talk about things that, at the time they’re said, HAVEN’T HAPPENED YET.

Fix the guitar mini-games; allow Guitar Freaks style play, then offer a DDR option too, just to accommodate those that might not HAVE a Guitar Freaks controller.

And finally, either clean up the graphics or make the whole thing sprite-based or something, because damn.

And there you go. Some spit, some polish, and viola, we have an interesting and innovative RPG that probably would be regarded as a misunderstood gem by just about everyone instead of a diamond-shaped dog turd that all but the most devoted hate.

WHERE YOU CAN GET IT:

EBGames doesn’t list it, and Gamestop says $10, but it’s backordered. You can probably find it in local used game stores if you look, but if you hit up Ebay or Amazon, you’ll probably find it for under $10, so if you’re looking for some long and boring crap, those are the places to check.

CLOSING COMMENTS:

Be sure to hit me up next week to see more bad RPG gaming. Also, don’t forget to hit up my pimps and check out Mr. Rose’s music page. I’d love to stay and chat, but Oblivion awaits. Until next time, I’m Mark B and you’re not.

okayladyIloveyabyebye!

Tags: