Casual gaming means different things to different people. For me it encompasses both the hours of my life that mysteriously vanish whenever I load up IVAN, and phenomenal Solitaire skills(z) I have developed while on hold with the cable company. By contrast, an RPG is something that implies a required commitment; certainly, at over sixteen hours of gameplay Eternal Eden from one-man band Blossomsoft is a pretty hefty date. But is it worth your time?
Noah lives in a land where nobody ever grows old, nobody ever gets sick, and certainly nobody ever dies. They are provided for by the Tower of Eden, which grants them everything they could ever want. All of this is thanks to their "Father", a mysterious figure who created the people of Noah's land in his image, and then left on a boat one day long ago. When Downey, Noah's best friend, decides to violate Eden's only rule by picking the forbidden fruit from the top of the tower in an attempt to win the Princess's favour, the world is forever altered.
The occasional awkward speech from Noah aside, Eternal Eden features a pretty darn likeable cast of characters. While most of them are archetypes you've probably seen before in fantasy RPGs, all of them have their own personalities, and well-rounded ones at that. The inter-party banter is fun to listen to, and while some friends may come and go, the three who stay with you throughout the game do grow on you quite a bit. A favourite of mine was Jean, who won me over early on by being surprisingly charming whenever he could tear himself away from a mirror or from belittling Downey.
On the surface, Eternal Eden is mechanically like every RPG ever to have graced a console. You travel around battling monsters with a turn-based system to collect experience to level up so you can fight bigger monsters, all while keeping an eye on your HP and MP. Sound familiar? Don't worry. Surprisingly, the game injects a few new concepts that keep the gameplay from feeling dated. Not the least of which being a complete lack of random encounters. Mmmmmm, yeah.
Battles have a little strategy injected by giving your enemies weaknesses beyond the standard rock-paper-scissors. Rats, for example, can be "drowned" with a water spell, and if your opponent is scaled, piercing weapons are your best bet. While adventuring in the field, investigate nooks and crannies to discover hidden passages and items. There's also a surprisingly addictive minigame involving turtle hunting. Yes, I spent an hour trying to hunt down all the moon turtles I could find, and I'm not ashamed to admit it! ...much!
Some people aren't going to like the old-school look of the game, but for me it brings the nostalgia home even more, and features some surprisingly good designs given the engine. Areas are thoughtful and well planned, easy on the eyes without being swarmed by too much decoration. The character design is bright and cheerful, and while my old friend palette-swapping makes a reappearance — "cave spider" becomes "moist spider" by virtue of a blue plaint job — the enemies look pretty good, too. So it's a bit unfortunate that, by contrast, the music is "just okay".
Analysis: So, let's see. People living in eternal paradise thanks to Eden. Frequent references to a Father who made them in his image before he left. Forbidden fruit... mmmnnnnnope, doesn't ring a bell. It's actually very easy to cross a line from trying to impart a message into actually hectoring a player, and Eternal Eden is usually solidly in the former's court. The downside is that whatever that message is actually comes across a bit muddled — after a certain point, the game's story slips into a much more traditional RPG mold, complete with Mystical MacGuffin. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it means that the game ends up feeling much more like, say, Secret of Mana. Still extremely enjoyable, but candy instead of food-for-thought.
There are a few things that hold the game back from reaching it's full potential. One of them is that a large chunk of the game is exploring the many dungeons, and all of them are fairly large, some of them placed nearly back to back. By contrast, most villages and areas where you can interact with other characters are very small and spaced far apart, which is a shame, because I really looked forward to the in-party dialogues. A mini-map of some sort also would not have gone unappreciated, since most dungeons feature a fair amount of to-and-fro-ing as you solve puzzles to unlock new areas. Why hello, Gray Corridor, have we met before? I'm sure we're going to get to know each other very well. In some cases, it winds up feeling like padding rather than an actual integral part of gameplay.
Another mechanics quirk is that the game doesn't prompt you to confirm your choices. Any of them. While it makes rapidly clicking through your inventory to sell off your accumulated treasure a snap, it also means I accidentally sold a rare item once or twice with no way to get it back. Be careful when running multiple saves as well, since the game won't ask if you're overwriting one, either.
Eternal Eden also features a lot of puzzles, some of which are quite clever, but you rarely encounter more than any one variety in a dungeon. After the first two puzzles I completed involving rolling rocks to clear pathways, I was going to make some snarky comment about big rocks and homeowner protection. After the fourth and fifth, I simply wanted to set something on fire. I understand that using rocks to depress switches in dungeons is a time-honoured RPG tradition — Lufia being a prime example — but all I wanted to do was get on with the story and find out what happened next.
Ultimately, Eternal Eden is a game that feels like it was made by a fan — someone with a passion for the genre — and that's a wonderful thing. There are so many quirks and details put into the game that make exploring everything a real pleasure. It's a big world out there, and it's a bigger job to save it. Despite a few gameplay issues and minor grammatical errors, Eternal Eden sets a new benchmark in quality for other aspiring RPGs. Strap on your sword, young knight. Adventure is calling.
Attention ATI Graphics Card Owners: There is a compatibility issue that seems to affect Eternal Eden when playing fullscreen for some people. According to the game designer, about 5% of people have this issue. (Myself included.) Please try the demo and see if it works for you. Windowed mode (accessed by pressing [ALT+ENTER] during the game) runs fine.