From Software's second Playstation2 RPG, Eternal Ring is one of those games that will please longtime fans of their King's Field games, as well as the highly underrated Echo Night and Shadow Tower. Anyone looking for a fast-paced action game will be disappointed by the initial slowness of the gameplay here, but those who stick with it for a few hours will find it to be pretty absorbing stuff, despite its flaws. The game isn't innovative or flashy in any way, but as a longtime KF fan, I had the feeling of stepping into a really comfortable pair of walking shoes and visiting an old friend. Of course, that friend would have to live in a misty land full of deadly magic-using monsters- but hey, getting there is half the fun.
Anyway, you play as Cain Morgan, a magician sent by the King to check out some strange events on (get this) The Island of No Return. Cain feels he's up to the challenge of actually surviving the many deathtraps and monsters there, so he gladly ships off on his quest. Initially armed with only a sword, Cain has to kill monsters, collect the gems they hold, and with them create a wide array of incredibly powerful magic rings in order to survive his adventure. The ring creation is pretty deep and you'll win or lose the game based on the arsenal you're able to put together. There are over 100 different offensive and defensive rings to make, and most of the spells are holdovers from King's Field with slightly different names. A few select rings are given to you or appear after you defeat certain enemies, and these are the ones that you'll want to hold on to. You'll have to watch your magic points when you have multiple rings equipped, as they'll drop really fast in the heat of battle. Finding a safe spot free of enemies allows them to replenish slowly, but some of the later areas are so deadly that you'll be using up healing and restore items like nothing. But once you get the controls and timing of your attacks down, most of the enemies shouldn't give you too much trouble.
Well…except for the ones that can't shoot magic through solid rock walls. Some of the enemies are blessed with either a remarkable sense of smell and/or really amazing vision. You'll be making your way cautiously through a dungeon, when you'll be blindsided by a Dark spell, or blasted with Poison or Paralysis. When you finally use a few healing items and get to turn around to where the magic is coming from, more than likely, it's some beast behind a wall doing the casting. To be perfectly honest, this really stinks- but you can do the same thing, and even kill monsters hiding on the other side of a just opened door this way. Just make sure to pick up more than enough healing stones (found lying about the dungeons and in the occasional monster) and use your protect ring carefully.
The game plays quite similar to King's Field, and yes, that means your character moves really, really slowly at first, and you can't use magic until you find the means to do so (funny thing, with you being a magician and all.). But after defeating the first boss (a really speedy water demon), you get his speed ring, and the pace picks up a bit. As the combat is a lot less weapon-based, you won't find the plethora of hand weapons and armor like in the KF series- you'll be throwing around magic spells, and moving in with your sword to finish off wounded enemies. Oddly, the game sticks to the same control scheme as KF, so don't expect to use the analog sticks at all. I was annoyed at this at first, but a quick trip to the options screen to tweak the sensitivity of the buttons worked wonders. The game does use the analog buttons on the PS2 controller quite well- lightly pressing the walk button will have you moving really slowly (good for those narrow walkways), and tapping your attack key gives a swift poke with your sword or knife. Again, it takes some getting used to the initial pace of things, but the game has a way of grabbing you after an hour or so, and the frame rate is really smooth.
As for the graphics- they're mostly very well done and do a good job of conveying a mysterious and deadly, yet somewhat familiar environment. Where King's Field 1 & 2 had unchanging skies (it was either day or night in the game world), ER has a nearly complete day cycle, as well as impressive weather effects. One thing the game cheats on is the lack of complete interaction with some of the background elements. For example, there are invisible walls all over the town areas in the game meaning you can't fall into a lake and drown if you go to buy supplies, but that sort of realism made King's Field all the more impressive. A few of the places you'll visit seem really large, but you can't explore much beyond the predetermined paths the game leads you on. There's a bit of mistiness to the visuals (in order to keep the frame rate smooth, I'm guessing) and most of the areas are a bit barren, except for the enemies lying in wait. One thing that's the same as the older games is the level of interaction with the non-player characters. In other words, don't expect to get too emotionally attached to anyone you speak to. The other folks in the game, be they townspeople or talking dragons, are simply there to move the story along, and dispense items and advice. That's my major complaint with the King's Field games, and it's the same here.
At least the music is really something special, like in all of From's games. There are some really great tracks in the game, and it seems like the score was done with a real orchestra, rather than the usual PCM found in most RPGs. The sound effects are a mixed bag, though- the game seems too quiet most of the time, even when you're in the midst of a huge battle with multiple enemies. Then again, the game is crafted so that you're too busy concentrating on managing your HP, MP, and movement to notice this too much. Once again, if you're a big King's Field fan, the game will be right up your alley- it's the equivalent of Brussels Sprouts- good for you, but you'll probably never pick it up unless you're really looking for something really different.
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