JRPGs and I have a bit of a love-hate relationship. There are plenty of series I’ve played in my life that I hold dear, albeit with certain quirks that I could do without. There always seems to be some caveat for me with this genre, popularized by multiple franchises over the last 25 years. Gameplay may be wonderful, but the story is lackluster. Characters are lovable and memorable, yet the enemy design is nowhere near the same level. Numerous examples stored away, and I have yet to find an experience that manages to wipe away the pesky flaws. The latest JRPG adventure arrives with Eternal Radiance, which combines action-adventure RPG with visual novel elements. In a sense, it’s a best-of-both-worlds concoction of gameplay and narrative.
Despite the indie status, there was a certain professional vibe attributed to the game, most prominent through the character art. In a way, the game reminds me of an old cartoon I watched as a teenager named Code Lyoko. Animation quality aside, there’s a similar parallel between the two in the way their presentation is showcased. In their downtime, it’s a traditional 2D perspective; in battle, it changes to 3D models and settings, which create this otherworldly aura that almost feels isolated from the whole. Eternal Radiance faces an uphill battle to prove it isn’t just a pretty visual novel with ugly JRPG combat. A tolerance for combat reminiscent of beat-’em-ups may help oncoming players tremendously.
Eternal Radiance is available in Early Access on Steam for your regional pricing.
Celeste is an aspiring warrior among the ranks of the Ashen Order, a fellowship of knights sworn to justice and peace. Sent on her initiation quest to become a full-fledged knight, things don’t turn out as she would have hoped. This will serve as the precursor to a larger adventure she will go through to avenge her inadequacy. With the help of friends met along the way, Celeste hopes to undo her errors by taking matters into her own hands. But did she make the right choice by doing so?
From the words of developer visualnoveler, Eternal Radiance, upon full completion, will be a 20 to 30-hour JRPG. As of currently, the adventure is 8-12 hours, which sounds adequate enough to develop the narrative, though not entirely. The larger bits have settled—Celeste and co. given motivation through mutual interest to quest together, a MacGuffin desired by many, a secret organization shadowed in mystery, etc. Chances are, if you’ve played a few games from this genre, the story beats will ring familiar. This doesn’t seem to be much of a concern to the head developer, as they also specify that this is a “character-driven story.” Whatever happens, if the characters don’t deliver, the experience will only dampen further.
To that end, I will relay that the characters here do, indeed, make part of the journey worth it. Celeste works well as both a link between player and story and as her own individual. Curious, hard-working, and perhaps overzealous, she fits the role of the lead through the passion she puts forth in her honor and kindness. Being able to empathize with her position and earnestness is something that many should have no trouble with. But Eternal Radiance wouldn’t fit within the JRPG moniker if there weren’t other colorful characters to bounce off of her.
Valana and Ruby are (currently) the other two available characters which join Celeste’s party (relatively) early on in the campaign. Ruby is more affectionate and self-aware than Celeste, though her other mannerisms tend to blend together with the latter’s a bit too much. Valana is curt, serious, and guarded, which plays off the other two’s playful natures wonderfully and makes her a prime tsundere prospect. Together, the trio form a rag-tag team of opposing priorities that are reminiscent of classic Pixar films. Celeste may have been enough to carry the adventure herself, but the addition of these two add another layer of enjoyment to the game’s hefty dialogue.
As for the main narrative itself, familiar structure isn’t enough to ruin a game. What ends up doing so more is the lack of actual development. Eternal Radiance holds through with the character-driven story, though at the cost of not having the overarching narrative all that immersive. I suppose there will be some shocking twist concerning the secret organization, and perhaps the Ashen Order, as well. Not everything will be as it seems and Celeste will have to question her own moral foundation. The usual things of that nature. Through my experience with this, I’ve come to care about Celeste, Valana, and Ruby; can’t say the same for anything more. With as aloof as the narrative is, some may find the undercooked method of storytelling to be disappointing.
Another comparison I could make to this is with Märchen Forest, which also combines two drastically different playstyles into one package. Going into Eternal Radiance, I expected the JRPG, but the heavy visual novel implementation surprised me. Then again, with a developer named “visualnoveler,” perhaps this is an oversight. Nevertheless, where Märchen Forest goes from one-side fantasy life simulator to one-side strategy turn-based RPG, this game tends to switch between two forms depending on the setting. One cannot freely move around outside of battle. The most the player can do—and most of what they’ll do—outside battle is navigate through menus and text bubbles.
The novel-esque format is pretty similar to a typical dating sim. Options are provided through menus, where one can quickly travel to various parts of central locations and talk to people that inhabit it. One can also buy/sell things, enchant weapons, and take on side quests by talking to people with exclamation points attached to their portraits. Accompanying this are oodles of text, which certainly fill the “novel” aspect quite fully. There is no voiceover, no cutscenes, and only occasional bouts of special artwork to break up these sequences. If this sounds daunting, then even the JRPG elements may not save what’s ultimately a text-heavy adventure.
Some have described the gameplay style of Eternal Radiance as a JRPG hack-n’-slash. I find this appropriate, as “hack-n’-slash” is almost synonymous with “beat-’em-up,” which is what I initially described it as. While not quite the level of the Dynasty Warriors series, the amount of rampage one can partake in, especially with all party members, is borderline unfair for opposing forces. With three party members duking out damage (Valana and Ruby are not playable), enemy swarms are no longer the immense threat they once were when Celeste was alone. The more one progresses through the game, the easier the combat becomes.
Of the combat, there is a noticeable lack of nuance to each battle… at least with how I played. One is equipped with many abilities, such as quick attacks, special attacks, ranged mana casts, guarding, roll-dodging, finisher blows, and time-focused abilities regarding rolling and guarding at certain intervals. I, however, generally stick with quick attacks, constant roll-dodging, and the occasional special attack. And while Celeste’s solo quest necessitated some planning beforehand, with Ruby and Valana in tow, it becomes a proven formula for success. From that point, combat became fairly monotonous, as stronger enemies only differed through larger HP pools and damage outputs.
It would probably help if enemies were at all difficult to deal with, more so than a nuisance. Slow and incredibly easy to predict, many enemy types are so lifeless that this almost feels incomplete. A few hours into my playing time, the only reason I should ever get damaged is because an enemy out of my sight hits me from behind. One-on-one combat is as simple as jumping over a barrel in Donkey Kong. Get the timing down, and it’s almost second nature. The distinct lack of enemy type is also pretty blatant, with multiple variations of spiders, rock golems, and slime inhabiting most every area. Even the bosses were hardly a challenge once their attack patterns are memorized. And should you be low on health, you can always pause and consume the dozens of health potions you’ll find in chests and in the environment. Adding it all together, Eternal Radiance holds a pretty basic level of action prowess, perhaps especially for a JRPG.
Yet, I can’t completely discredit the combat provided here, as I believe it depends on certain perspectives. Do you enjoy deep and nuanced battle systems that keep things balanced and challenging? You won’t find that here. Do you like mowing down enemies with ferocity predicated by paying attention to equipment upkeep and enchantments? There’s plenty of that here. Dynasty Warriors may not hold the same hype behind it compared to others, but there’s a reason it has a billion games in its franchise. Sometimes, the simple act of feeling powerful is enough. Only rarely did I get the feeling of “Okay, enough battling, I need to move on,” when going through combat areas, and believe me, these areas are swarmed with baddies. I enjoyed my time with the combat, simple as it is, though I acknowledge this might be a hard pill for others to swallow.
An additional note worth stating is that the game is not totally stable. While generally fine, there were a few bizarre bugs that happened occasionally throughout my run. Upon quitting and saving one time, the main menu screen showed the visual for the area selection screen, while still registering the menu options and soundbites. Another was when playing on an Xbox 360 controller, pressing forward + “B” would sometimes bring up the pause menu, which… is obviously odd. Some technical issues need working on, but such is expected with the game still in Early Access.
Graphics & Audio
No hyperbole, the character art in this game is gorgeous. Perhaps better than the AAA studios that inspired it, the visual direction to Eternal Radiance has even minor characters looking like they matter. Not all are created equal, however, as Celeste, Ruby, and Valana take the prize for most detailed and visually-striking designs. Plot-specific art also holds a nice splendor of personality that suits the mood of the moments, which adds a nice sensation of immersion into even the flatter moments of the novel portions. I might even go as far as saying that this holds the most appealing character design in any (half-)visual novel I’ve ever played. But this is only one part of the game, with the other going in a completely different direction.
In combat, the graphical identity goes rogue, adhering to 3D models and textures, which aren’t exactly flattering. For an indie developer, I find this somewhat excusable, as it isn’t terrible by any means. Still, to go from sweeping colors and detail to overworlds that look more like Bravely Default than Final Fantasy, the change can be glaring. To some degree, the rough attributes of battle can hold a charm of its own, nostalgic for times of old. Combined with the lack of enemy variety and general combat quirks, however, it’s not something that will be met with grace.
Eternal Radiance‘s audio quality is much of the same as the in-battle graphics. They hold up, though not nearly to the degree that other aspects shine. At this moment, I’m unsure if I can recall a single track from the game, albeit most is ambiatic. The most I can praise is that all of it seems to work as intended, without doing anything more to assert its own identity. Unfortunate as it is, I’ve come to expect more from the audio department of games recently. As historic as JRPGs are with handling emotionally-sweeping choruses, Eternal Radiance doesn’t really reach that level.