Released on October 24, 2000; the same date as a LOT of other titles were released (obviously it's very close to the holiday season), Eternal Ring is one of the few North American launch titles to grace the PS2, and that would attempt to make it big just by being a technical showcase of the system's abilities. Unfortunately, not all the critics were kind to it and the audience reception it received was very, very tepid. Except for those odd fans out there who admire first person RPG's, there was not a lot of excitement for the game over here. And that's really a shame because Eternal Ring, despite its imperfections, can still be a very satisfying fantasy RPG experience.
The game is a first person RPG, not dissimilar to the games in the Elder Scrolls series. It's not exactly Oblivion, but it does manage to hold it's own by being slightly more streamlined and simple than the other games. As the protagonist, Cain, the player will go around exploring the limited world of…something…fighting monsters, collecting gems, gaining XP to level up, solving basic environmental puzzles, helping people and trying to find the answer to an age-old mystery. The player starts out his adventure with his boots and a basic sword which he can use to poke the hell out of every enemy in sight. Soon however, he gains access to devastating magical spells, bigger and better swords, and magical rings which will give him the power to fight bigger and badder enemies and, opening up more of the world to him until he reaches the end of the game. For the most part, it's pretty standard RPG fare, but it's all performed in first person. Unlike Elder Scrolls, Cain's world is NOT a huge sprawling one; but rather it's probably equivalent to the size of Link's world in Ocarina of Time. This means that the setting is pretty tight, and Cain will spend most of his time exploring dungeons and destroying the hostile forces that inhabit these lands making for a very combat-focused RPG experience.
Many critics have complained that the background story in the game is hackneyed and full of tired old clichés characteristic of any fantasy game title. Of course these are the same people that will claim that Final Fantasy games have epic, grand stories worthy of high literature; even though in truth the stories they produce will probably only attract only the most dedicated readers of pulp fiction. I still found the story in ETERNAL RING to be enjoyable nonetheless. The basic premise is one that we've heard a million times before: a young soldier goes to a mysterious island on a mission from the king to solve the mystery of a great evil and also find a key to understanding his own shady past. But there are enough plot twists along the way to make it interesting…for example, the island is cursed and all the dragons that Cain encounters during his journey here are actually human wizards who were cruelly transformed by an overruling supernatural force. Even the main villain of the story, an artificial god-like being lacking a soul, is not a conventional "evil character". Rather it's an innocent juvenile being that causes mayhem because…well…it can't emotionally comprehend the consequences of its actions. It's not a terribly original story, but in the fantasy RPG genre, even the presence of a LITTLE bit of originality is a blessing in itself.
Your currency in the game is NOT gold, surprisingly, but rather gems. Magical gems are dropped randomly from basic enemy encounters, and serve as the main road to earning new and more powerful items in the game. These gems you can also use to craft new magical rings for yourself, which presents an interesting dilemma…buy more equipment or make more magic? Fortunately, the "shop" portion of this game is rather limited, meaning that much more time is spent just collecting gems for the other purpose.
Gems come in heavy use for one of the trademark features of the game…the ring creation system. Basically, it's nothing more than an unpredictable blender for magical power. You "donate" six different gems to this creepy old guy who floats in the air, and he mixes their powers together and uses them to imbue rings with magic. These magical rings give you many, many different abilities and come in many, many different forms. There's so much variety in fact that a hardcore player could spend years just trying to locate all the rings in the game. Well, I suppose if you knew exactly where to look, you could speed the process up considerably. Whatever the case, the creation of rings is the source of diversity for RPG style progression in the game. Whereas upgrading your swords is a fairly streamlined process (one sword is almost undoubtedly better than the other), creating rings is a tricky business because it's an unpredictable system. The kind of ring you will receive depends on the elemental properties of the gems you've used and the level of the individual gems you've donated. Given that there are six slots to insert six gems into, it should be obvious that many, many different combinations are possible. The higher level gems produce higher level rings and the element of the gems determines what TYPE of ring you will receive. Will it be an offensive ring that shoots fireballs or a support ring that heals the player's HP? Will it be a ring that summons tornadoes or a ring that summons floods? The problem is that you don't always know what time of rings you will receive because the ring creation system is partly based on luck. When you throw those 6 gems into the blender, all you can do is pray that it's something you don't already have. This element of unpredictability adds a lot of suspense to the system, and consequently adds a lot of replay value for those who do seek out the most powerful and effective rings.
But with every game comes some problems. Despite Eternal Ring's heart being in the right place, there are some issues here and there. The first thing that confounds me is the lack of support for the analog sticks. Granted, I know that some other more popular PS2 titles (such as Onimusha) followed this route too and eschewed the thumbsticks in favor of the D-pad. But this is a first person 3-D adventure, and without the precision of a thumbstick, it's kind of difficult to get oriented. It's funny that while many Playstation titles released around this time period embraced the use of the analog stick, other developers would think it would be feasible to just avoid it altogether. Although I'm actually a little more disappointed in this case, given that Eternal Ring IS a launch title, you think it would showcase as many features of the PS2 hardware as possible.
Truth be told though, Eternal Ring does support analog control for the Dual Shock 2 controller. What is "analog control" in the context of the PS2? Basically, it incorporates pressure sensitive buttons and D-pad, with different degrees of pressure applied to each button resulting in different actions in the game. It's funny that I have never run into this feature before until now. In fact, I didn't even know what the hell it was in the game—I had to keep fiddling with the controller to find out what difference setting up analog support in the in-game menu resulted in. However, in the case of Eternal Ring, I thought it was a superfluous function that resulted in nothing but frustration. For example, one of the features of analog control is that the damage you inflict with your sword will change depending on how hard you press the attack button (triangle). This means that achieving maximum damage every battle requires you to consistently pound the attack button every time you strike an enemy, which is a pain in the ass and unhealthy for the controller. Given this drawback, I just decided to turn "analog control" off since it would affect my experience significantly. Perhaps there are other games where it has been incorporated into better use, but I can't think of any now.
The sword combat is a little dull. Instead of attacking by swiping, your character insists upon just stabbing his enemies. This means the whole process is basically just a continual poke-fest. Some enemies react real appropriately to your blows, jerking back and screaming in pain. Others just stand there and take it like they're being whipped by dust strands. There are no audio cues to indicate that you are inflicting damage; just a visual cue in the form of a red impact effect. This means that for the most part, you have to just have to keep whacking the monstrosity until it collapses. After you get far enough in the game, you begin to realize that the magical spells you are concocting really outdo the utility of your sword, and you'll barely even be using your sword aside from last minute defense.
Magical combat is a far more interesting aspect of the game. Although the player is given a lot of choices to balance out magical and physical combat, in the end the player's magic will always make up a majority of his arsenal. It's hard to be a sharpshooter with fireballs. The magical tools in this game range from spectacularly destructive to cumbersome and unwieldy. The former is especially satisfying as these massive area filling assaults will take down an entire room of opponents if employed properly. So I guess it can stated in this game that the titular protagonist is undoubtedly more of a wizard than a warrior.
It's also annoying how you can't collect items from fallen until just AFTER their bodies have begun to dissipate. This means that you kill an enemy, wait a moment, and then select the item they dropped, and then finally put it into your inventory. It's really a minor complaint, but one that does plague this game.
Couldn't they have the decency to include a MAP? They've been using electronics maps in action RPG's since Super Metroid. Even action games like Thief 2 would provide the player with a map. Why not here? For the most part though, the level design was straightforward enough that I could find my way around by myself.
You fight many different types of enemies from fish men to poison butterflies, lizard men, sentient plants, sorcerer ghosts that can only be harmed with magics, orcs that sound like oompa-loompas, titanic metal golems, cycloptic dragons who shoot bolts out of their monocular eye, abominable snowmen, chimeras, harpies, goblins with fancy sword techniques, wolfmen, animated suits of armor, coctarices, floating wizards, conventional dragons, soldiers half-transformed dragons, and many more. The diversity of enemy types is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the game. Then there are of course the bosses, who are usually larger and more imposing than any of the enemies you would encounter thus far. Strangely enough, despite dragons being a central component of the story, you only actually contend with ONE major during the course of your adventure (in one of the most awkward and frustrating battles of the game where it's impossible to hit beast except with a long ranged magical attack).
The visuals in this game are awesome, at least compared to the average Playstation title released around the same time. True, the settings are a little dull (usually just a bunch of rocky caves generated by a depressingly dark brown hue) and the animation for the characters is as primitive as can be imagined. However, the main thrust in the graphics comes from the high details in the character models, the high resolution of the textures, and the fact that the game runs at a constant 60 FPS throughout the entire experience which is more than can be said for practically any 3-D Playstation title ever made. All told, I think it's a game that I could look at for a while, even if its strengths are superficial.
As far as the audio goes, I LOVE the soundtrack for this game. It has a very distinctly medieval feel to it, and one that's performed by a conventional orchestra and not modernized through guitar riffs or any of that "groovy" interference. The tracks tend to loop and repeat a lot, but that's fine given that the music itself is so enjoyable. The game features voice overs for the characters, which apparently weren't present in the Japanese release. They're definitely tolerable, although in some cases I think they're a bit superfluous. The sounds for the spells are cacophonous and loud, exactly what you would expect from such destructive forces. The only real drawback I can think is the sound for the sword combat, which is real, real lacking as there are no cues to tell if you're hitting an enemy or not. All told, the game sounds adequate with the soundtrack being the main highlight (and that's fine because a soundtrack has always been an essential component of a video game experience).
The back of the box asks "Who said fantasies had to be final?" Ha ha. If they honestly thought this game would trump Final Fantasy, then they were really, really gullible and had no clue what was coming. Nonetheless, I loved Eternal Ring. It's a very straightforward action RPG with a beautiful atmosphere and a neat "magic creation" system. I don't deny that the game feels sort of rushed (the last levels feel sort of shoe-horned in), but that doesn't really damage the overall impression left by the experience. Primitive it may be, and as such, it can't hold a candle to Final Fantasy. But ETERNAL RING possesses a humility and an elegant simplicity that those games lack. Considering that I only got the game for $2, I was quite impressed.