The Sony Playstation2 is the highest number selling home video console of all time, beating the other two podium finishers, the Playstation and Nintendo Wii, by well over fifty million units. A lot of people have tremendous recent nostalgia for the console and it pumped out not only a massive amount of games but also a lot of good games, famous and infamous. People cringed at an emotional Tidus when he burst into his laugh and later threw controllers in frustration trying to fly an RC plane in a game about stealing cars. There were great memories about the PS2.
And there were not so great memories.
Ephemeral Fantasia – we’ll call it EF here out – is a JRPG for the PS2 produced by Konami. It originally released in Japan very early in the PS2’s life and – without actually looking at release dates – I actually believe this might have been one of the first RPGs for the PS2. Konami released a lot of titles in the first year of the PS2 and had many genres covered. In addition to the JRPG here, they also released a sequel to the long-running Gradius franchise, a action game called 7 Blades (that also received a PAL release), a puzzle game, and a few sports games, among others.
I rented EF back in the day (it was a Friday Blockbuster rental) and I actually did not recall that I had rented it until some years later when I bought EF used and started to realize how familiar some of it seemed. Playing it the second time – and that would be for this commentary – I remembered my play through back in the day. I remember getting some hours into the game, the weekend ended, and… I kind of just never thought about the game again. That’s a good way to set the tone for this title.
The gist of the story is there is an island that is stuck in a time loop. Unbeknownst to the main character, who is a renowned musician, he has been invited to the island to play in a royal wedding. Upon making it to the island, he is stuck in this time loop and has to find a way out of it. The game effectively throws every sort of JRPG/RPG trope out there. There’s a bit of Zelda, Shemune, we get some breast jokes, and c’mon; you can’t tell me the scene in the screenshot below doesn’t evoke memories of Aerith dying in FF7. The antagonist looks like Sepiroth’s long distant cousin who soaks up sun and beach waves all days.
The time loop issue becomes a recurring plot point, but it also can be a very annoying hinderance. Some of the characters will task the main character with things to do at specific times, but you have to actually make sure you are there at that time. If for whatever reason you’re not there or, as what happens later, you neglect to bring the correct item or person with you, you HAVE TO WAIT THE ENTIRE TIME LOOP WEEK OUT UNTIL THE NEXT GO AROUND. There is nothing inherently wrong with timed quests, and they can be effective in pushing the player or rewarding them if completed, but having the entire game itself fully play out with the time loop element just both results in a lot of repetition and a lot of wasted time.
Another glaring issue that you’ll quickly realize is the island’s world is actually to scale; that is, towns are not displayed as shrunk sized on a world map nor are dungeons. Now in modern titles we’re used to 1:1 scale of locations, but also 1:1 scale titles in modern games are not FILLED with repetition. Slogging back and forth between areas really wears you out, and enemy encounters are both the good ‘ole ‘can’t see the enemy’-type and randomized. You’re mostly just running around rather bland areas by yourself (or whoever is in the party at the current moment). The most glaring issue more so than the graphics is loading screens. Not only are they plentiful but they sometimes happen without any apparent screen change. In town you can walk around a building, encounter a load screen, and then it’s as if nothing actually changed.
What really immediately dates this title is how it handles the characters themselves. The character designs are decent. However conversations utilize the in-game engine, and there is a lot of text to read. Sans some eye blinking and change of mouth the characters are effectively expressionless; they’re all very dull. They look decent enough for the time, but they’re all classic 3D cookie-cutter character designs and movements that to this day is still periodically seen in JRPGs that do not employ motion-capture; jittery and repetitive. All of this sort of thing was fine for the PS1 era. Here though the characters are so well detailed that simple text and emotionless characters does the whole thing a real disservice. What I feel would have been more effective is had conversations between characters not utilize the game’s engine itself. Games from this time period did that sort of thing, with a stand-out being the Growlanser series that would have full body portraits of characters when they conversed, or also for a later example the ‘Tales of…’ games that feature conversing character portraits.
There’s also a definitive difference in the characters compared to the world they inhabit, their detail so good that they tend to stand out against backgrounds. The maps are bland, mostly made up of squared areas or similarly constructed layouts. Even games like Azure Dreams on the PS1 had more inspiring layouts than this game does. This becomes even more pronounced in the fighting sequences, where the areas are just completely uninspiring. Touching on the fighting system, it closely mimics Final Fantasy’s Active Time element, and going back to the FF7 reference earlier play out like a poor-man’s FF7 of sorts. It’s completely forgettable, and often filled with enemies that are both uninspiring but also a strangely laid out character formation where your party’s characters often surround whom they’re fighting. The cameras then have to pan VERY wide to capture everything. On a circa 2001 CRT everything goes from nice looking 3D models in town to sometimes difficult to discern designs in battle.
Really though there’s not a lot more to say.
Most of why I believe this title fell into, relative, obscurity is that not long after this game FFX came out on the PS2. FFX did a lot for JRPGs and set standards in regards to portraying character emotion and detailed character designs in this era of gaming. Even titles that came out later in the console’s life did not match to the same visual punch FFX delivered. I’m certain Konami will never revisit this series and maybe it’s for the best they do not.