Review: Time and Eternity (Sony Playstation 3)

Time and Eternity
Developer: Imageepoch
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 07/16/2013

Let’s be honest: for most of its existence, Imageepoch has been known for sub-par games that, at best, have been considering mediocre releases. Luminous Arc, Arc Rise Fantasia, and Sands of Destruction were all forgettable games that tanked critically and financially. However, they’ve slowly but surely gotten better. 2010 (2011 here in the States) saw Fate/Extra, which, while definitely flawed, showed improvement over their previous releases. The trend continued with Black Rock Shooter: The Game, which, again, was a very flawed but surprisingly fun release. Now here we are with Time and Eternity, which received exceptionally polarizing reviews in Japan. People either loved it or hated it. Same with people who imported the game. When Nippon Ichi sent me the game several months ago, I was skeptical, because hey, it’s Imageepoch. At the same time, I was very curious about the visuals, and while graphics are usually one of the least important things in a game to me, the full anime styling of the game made me want to see how it PLAYED.

Well, if you read my hands-on preview back in June, you knew that I was blown away by what was here and really loved the game. Hubbs and Sean Madson were also equally enchanted by their time with Time and Eternity, and the game looked like a shoo-in for some award nominees at the end of the year, if the game was as good as first impressions appeared. Well, the bad news is, the game does drag after the first chapter, with a lot of backtracking and the bulk of the time with the game being padded with fetch quests. The good news is that the game still looks and plays as great from beginning to end, and the gameplay requires time and hand-eye coordination that I haven’t seen in a JRPG since the Shadow Hearts franchise (Come back Sacnoth!). I do think the radical departure the game takes from every JRPG convention and trope is going to make the game as polarizing here as it is in Japan, but for my money, it’s one of my three favorite games over the year so far, along with Project X Zone and Deadly Premonition: The Director’s Cut, so while my tastes are pretty eclectic, I think it shows I like the weird Japanese stuff that makes it stateside. Even though I personally love this game and will happily recommend it, this review will also highlight the things that *I* may like, but that I have a feeling others will not – especially those used to the Final Fantasy style turn-based RPGs.

The plot of Time and Eternity is VERY different from your usual JRPG. Instead of the cliché of some angst-ridden anti-hero with a weapon that simply couldn’t be wielded in real life striving to save the world from a dark power that may or may not be androgynous, you have a simple tale of a princess and a knight who are about to get married. They’re very much in love (although the Knight is a bit of a hornball) and they are looking forward to a happy life together. Unfortunately, the knight is murdered as soon as the ceremony ends and the princess uses her secret time travel powers to go back into the past and prevent the murder. The wedding going wrong isn’t a surprise, as video game weddings go down without a hitch as often as pro wrestling ones, but the time travel and the reveal of a second soul that lives within the princess (basically a conjoined twin, except there is only one body for the two souls) is a bit unusual. As well, the soul of the knight is juxtaposed into the body of Drake, the princess’ (princesses’?) pet dragon. Why? Who knows? Don’t even get me started on where poor Drake’s soul goes. Together, the two try to figure out why the wedding was attacked in the first place, and to prevent it from occurring. Unfortunately for both, the two end up learning the same hazards of time travel that we’ve seen in numerous publications, be it The Twilight Zone on down to the misadventures of Marty McFly. Through it all though, the princess (both of them) and the prince become closer, and their love becomes stronger, and so, in the spite of the odds being against them, the two (three) persevere on, determined to finally get married without blood being shed.

I found I really liked the story and characters. Everyone has well defined personalities and the core characters grew as the story went on instead of being two dimensional stereotypes. I also liked that the story was focused on a single couple and their love for each other instead of some world shattering epic where a small band of people literally save reality. It was a welcome change, and proof that a good RPG plot doesn’t need to have world changing consequences – it just needs to be well told. I grew to care about each character and the effect the three different endings had on me (one for each princess and the True Ending) varied, but I loved them all enough to beat the game three times (okay, twice with one save and then the EX ending…). It was very refreshing to see such an outside the box plot. It’s just a shame that the majority of the game is devoted to fetch quests without any bearing on the core plot or character development. These really drag the game down, but you pretty much need to do them if you want to avoid mindless grinding, and to fully customize your characters. So this is a case where the random battles and subquests actually weaken the overall experience of the game, because the focus really should have stayed on the story being told instead of grinding. The game is still a lot of fun to play through, but less really would have been more here.

The visuals of Time and Eternity are the main focus people seem to have when they first encounter it. The entire game looks and feels like an interactive anime. Battles are fully rendered with hand drawn style animation, cut scenes are gorgeous, and even the places where you’d usually encounter static images with dialogue have been upgraded to fully rendered animated characters moving and talking. It’s beautiful. We’ve seen an upgrade from static images in years past, with titles like Trinity Universe where the heads move, eyes blink and facial expression change during static dialogue, but this is the first where everything moves fluidly and naturally. It’s pretty mind blowing when you first see it. Of course, once you play the game for a while, you’ll notice everyone has a very limited range of movements and actions, and that many monsters are palette swaps of previous ones, but that doesn’t change the fact of how stunning the game looks, and what a bold decision it was to do a game with these visuals. Remember how, when we were kids, we saw Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace for the first time? Time and Eternity is similar in regards to how the game stands out from its contemporaries, and also how the game will be primarily remembered for the visuals above anything else. Seeing screenshots of the game doesn’t do it justice. You really have to play the thing to really get the full experience, and I’ll be shocked if, regardless on one’s views on gameplay, this doesn’t win some “Best Graphics” awards come that time of the year.

I’m very happy with the audio aspects of the game as well. I really enjoyed the soundtrack, and would find myself humming along with the tunes, both while playing the game and even long after I shut it off. They’re very hard to get out of my head, and I can’t think of a single track I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. As well, I thought the voice acting in the game was terrific. I enjoyed both the Japanese and English casts equally, and didn’t think anyone phoned it in or had a wooden delivery. The actors really brought the characters to life and I had a lot of fun just listening to the story unfold. The only problem I had with the audio was that, in certain battles, there is a LOT of conversation going on, but it’s hard to hear much of it over the din of combat. I’d have preferred the dialogue to be given the emphasis in these situations, but instead the sounds of blades, magic and bullets were given priority, and thus a lot is lost in the cacophony. Still, the overall aural aspects of Time and Eternity are wonderful, and are just another facet of what makes this game so bloody fantastic.

…now we come to the gameplay, and this is going to be where things get polarizing. A disclaimer: I tend to hate most turn based RPGS, as they are boring. You have a character walk two steps, swing a sword or cast a spell, and then walk back. You pick your moves from a drop down screen and the game basically plays itself. It’s why I tend to prefer action RPGs, where I constantly have to think and use my reflexes, SRPGS, where position and strategy are actually important, or dungeon crawls like Eye of the Beholder, where hunger, thirst, and time are all important factors. Obviously I don’t dislike all turn based RPGs, but the majority do tend to blend together in gameplay and story.

That’s why I like Time and Eternity so much, because it’s so out there from anything else. You have random battles, but they are far less frequent than a lot of RPGs that use them. You know the ones I’m talking about, where it’s step, step RANDOM BATTLE, and so the option of grinding never needs come up because you’re always battling. Random battles occur enough that leveling up is regular, but nowhere to the point where each step will be like, “I’m sick of fighting.” When a battle does occur, you’ll find it is in real time. Some moves, like spells, require charging, but otherwise combat is fast, frantic and furious. You assign an attack to each shape button and, if you have unlocked the option, you can press a shoulder button to switch between button sets, giving your character far more options and flexibility. Combat is a one on one situation, which is a definite change from most games. It’s your princess vs a single enemy. After that battle ends, another monster might attack, and then another, and so on, but it’s always one-on-one. This really makes the game stand out and feel more like duels than generic combat. Add in the fact that your timing is very important in terms of attacks, charging spells and dodging, and you have a game that really forces you to pay attention at all times. I love this, as Time and Eternity constantly keeps me engaged. That said, if you do prefer RPGs where you can absent-mindedly pick your move from a menu and not really have it matter in the scheme of things, or your reflexes aren’t the best… this game will drive you nuts with how on the ball you have to be.

As well, each time you level up, the character you use will change. You’ll go from Toki to Towa and back, although there are items that can let you switch on your own accord. They are limited though, so use them sparingly. Each princess plays differently at first. One is better with rifles, while the other is better with close combat. One is better with Fire and Earth magic, while the other is better with Lightning and Cold spells. As you go through the game, you will discover an ever increasing amount of customization options for each princess, letting you design them however you want. Maybe one will make better use of Drake than the other, or perhaps one will focus on time magic while another will just collect all the passive buffs that are possible. The sky is really the limit, especially in the first playthrough, although with your New Game+, they two will blend together simply because you unlock everything for both girls along the way. Still, I love customization of characters, and it’s a huge draw for me RPG-wise, and Time and Eternity definitely has it in spades. The skill tree may be overwhelming for some, and some bad planning and combination selection may create a sub-par character. Again, if you’re used to RPGS where things are allotted for you, this game might be a bit overwhelming for you.

Finally, the fact you control Drake in the story bits, but not in combat, may annoy some people. If you take the two “Dragonmaster” options on the skill tree, you can better direct how the AI plays Drake, but not entirely. That can get frustrating, especially when you set Drake to do chemistry effects with you (a complimentary magic spell different from the element you just cast) and it just doesn’t want to do it. Still, the Drake healing and buff options are crazy powerful, and he’s a handy sidekick to have around. Some gamers might not like having control of one of their “party members” but it is what it is.

There are two negative aspects to combat though. The first is that you’ll notice more and more lag with your dodging as the game goes on. You’ll hit the analog stick to either side and the character will noticeably wait before actually dodging. This means damage ahoy for you. I’m not sure why it gets worse as the game goes on, but I can guarantee the effect would be lessened if you controlled the princesses with the D-pad instead of the analog stick. Bad design choice here. The other aspect is that gameplay 100% completely changes once you fight an oversized boss. I mean completely. All of a sudden, you can run all over the screen instead of stay mostly static, you are limited to four spells – none of which are available to you outside of this type of battle, and it’s just such a different experience that I can see a lot of gamers hating the change, or at least being frustrated an unprepared for such a crazy difference in gameplay. I accepted it because these battles are few and far between, but oh man, I did NOT enjoy them. I’d have actually been happier with it if the experience was frequent and you had the two types to play off of consistently, but this form of combat is so rare, you simply have to switch your mindset from the instincts and patterns you’ve developed throughout the rest of the game and feel like you have put in an entirely different title altogether. Again, this aspect is going to be very polarizing, and while it is not for me, I can see how some people will appreciate the change-up.

Overall, I loved the gameplay, but it did have a few flaws that would come up irregularly. It’s the most engrossing gameplay I’ve had in an RPG since the Shadow Hearts series, but some people just want to sit back and have a less active experience with their JRPGs, and I can totally respect that. For those gamers, Time and Eternity is probably going to be a nightmare.

Replay value is mixed. There are three endings, and you’ll have to play the game at least twice to see the true ending and get all the trophies, so that definitely means you’ll be spending a lot of time with this game if you want either of those. The problem is that the game’s story and sub-quests will be exactly the same on your second playthough. Only your unlock skill tree selections will carry over. So if you found the first playthrough to be dull or repetitive, it’ll be doubly so when trying to get the New Game+ option. The sad part is that it’s exceptionally easy to meet the True Ending requirements in your first playthough, but it still won’t activate until that second game. Boo-urns. Still, if you enjoyed the game at all, you probably won’t have a problem going through a second time to unlock everything, clean up your trophies and see that True Ending. It’s a really wistful ending and well worth seeing at least.

Balance is a hard topic to speak about with Time and Eternity. So much of the game is based on your reaction time and memorizing enemy attack patterns. I was a pretty big fighting game fan back in the 90s (SNK BABY!) and learned to count frames from it. I found this to be extremely helpful in Time and Eternity, but nowhere near necessary. I never even came close to dying once. Drake would heal me consistently long before it came to that point (again, learn the Dragonmaster skills) and even boss fights were pretty easy. This was all on normal, by the way (there’s a trophy for playing an entire game on normal and not any other difficulty, so trophy gamers should leave the defaults alone). My second playthrough I tried the other settings, but there really didn’t seem to be any difference to me. How hard (or easy) one finds Time and Eternity is going to be based on two things – how they build their character and their reaction speed. Min/Max’ing ala Pathfinder is going to be crucial, as just willy nilly picking skill tree options at random will get you a sucky character. As well, if you have a hard time with games like Shadow Hearts, Gradius or various western action RPGs… you might want to steer clear of Time and Eternity. In all, I found the game a tad too easy for me, but it was still exceptionally fun. I think with a few more enemy variants or some changing attack patterns, this could have been a lot more challenging. Still, I can see this game being hard for a lot of gamers, especially those used to only turn based RPGs.

It’s hard to think of a game that’s even close to Time and Eternity. Sure, there are games here and there that share some similarities with the game. Graphics wise, Dragon’s Lair can be considered a precursor, but it’s still very different in execution. There are lots of RPGS with time travel or just a single playable protagonists at a time, but not like this. There are lots of games with customizable characters, but again, not like this. Two characters sharing the same body? Hello, Grandia II! However, I can’t think of anything that reminds me of Time and Eternity or vice versa. It really is in a class all to itself (good or ill) and regardless of one’s own personal gaming preferences, you have to admit, it’s nice to see a game so outside the box like this one. It’s innovative, original and it’s something you really have to play to truly get.

As you can obviously tell from this review, I adored Time and Eternity. I had a hard time putting it down, although there were times when I had to backtrack through the same location for yet another fetch quest where my eyes glazed over, but that’s true of any game where the subquests are all, “Get me X number of Y items” “Kill A number of Monster B.” Yawn. The important thing was that the battles were fun and the core storyline kept me intrigued from beginning to end. I wanted to keep playing until I had seen and done everything there was to see and do in the game. I don’t think this will be true of all gamers, or even a majority of gamers. Time and Eternity is far from the average’s gamer’s comfy familiar safe zone, which will cause many to dislike it simply because it can be so different from what a person is used to with an RPG. The graphics, story, gameplay and overall feel of the game are such that people will either instantly love or hate it, with little middle ground. I personally think it’s one of the best games of 2013, but I prefer quirky, unusual games that don’t feel like something I’ve played numerous times before. Do I think each and every one of you reading this should play Time and Eternity? Oh hell YES. Do I think you should buy it? Well, that depends on your game play tastes. Do you like your games a little more hands on, requiring some hand to eye coordination and to actively think about what you are doing? Yes. Are you more a visual novel or turn base, choose your command from a menu screen game fan? Then Time And Eternity won’t be to your liking. I think T&E is going to be more appealing to a fan of western style RPGs like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, where you have a large semi open world to explore and you can heavily customize your character, but not so much for gamers that prefer the more standard JRPG experience.

Short Attention Span Summary
Time and Eternity may not be for everyone, but it’s exactly what I look for in a RPG because it eschews all the stereotypes of a JRPG. Instead of a party of angsty anti-heroes, you have a single character (with two souls) and her fiancé. Instead of turn based combat, you have real time action. Instead of a “save the world” story, you have a light hearted tale about two people very much in love that just want to get married. Add in some of the most innovative visuals for a video game since we shoved quarters into a Dragon’s Lair arcade cabinet as a child and a wonderful soundtrack, and you not only have the best game Imageepoch has ever put out, but one of the best RPGs of 2013. The game’s outside the box nature will be polarizing to a lot of gamers, especially those who want a JRPG to stick to the tropes of the subgenre, but everyone on staff here that has played the game loves it, ranging from Sean who is a Final Fantasy Square-Enix diehard zealot to myself who grew up with PC RPGs like Eye of the Beholder, Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale. While that doesn’t guarantee you’ll love Time and Eternity, it does mean we do highly recommend it.