KEMCO and EXE-CREATE have a long history of working together on JRPG titles. A number of them have been released on consoles as well as mobile, and their latest, Sword of Elpisia, is beginning its life in your pocket. It’s a modern Japanese role-playing game that builds on the framework of classics such as Final Fantasy but works in gameplay mechanics that make the experience more comfortable, such as auto-battle and encounter rate adjustments.
By evolving the genre, these sorts of games allow for new players to experience basic JRPG gameplay while also having the freedom and control to play how they would like, something that is extremely important when playing on a mobile platform.
STORY – MAGICAL TOOLS
The setup for this game is less antagonistic than the developer’s other titles. We’re still fighting enemies, but the “big bad” isn’t as clear from the outset as we’ve seen before. Players take on the role of Aldo, a rigid and austere magitool technician. Aldo’s strict way of taking on work contracts results in a partnership with Alice, a young orphan who eventually turns into a Magisword, fighting alongside Aldo with the goal of becoming human once again.
A notable change from KEMCO’s other titles is that Elpisia doesn’t initially revolve around the world or a specific character for its narrative arc. None of the characters are treated as “the chosen one” or referred to by any other mystical honorary, they’re simply trying to find a home for Alice after Aldo is forced to blow up her house in the middle of a battle. Things change later on in the story, of course, but for the first few hours, it’s refreshing to experience a world without having to listen to a prophecy.
In the world of Terra, magitools are devices used for various purposes. They might power lights, or run a water well pump, or prevent monsters from entering a village. Magitools are treated as just a part of the world, something that’s a part of daily life, and I enjoyed that there wasn’t constantly a drawn-out explanation of the magical science behind them.
We quickly learn about items known as Magiswords, which are mysterious weapons that used to be humans. It seems like everybody of import has encountered a few of these, and they end up being the Macguffin that the story centers around, with one of the characters even being able to transform into one at will.
There are some eternal JRPG motifs that are found once again, including some confusing situations regarding the age of some characters. While there’s nothing overtly amorous, and none of the characters are seen as lusting after one another, there are some moments early on between Ariel and Alice that caught me off guard considering Alice’s age of ten years old. This is another example of a genre that is stuck in a rut narratively, or at the very least, a failed localization.
The loose and somewhat unpolished writing has been a consistency within KEMCO’s own releases, and I’m not expecting that to suddenly change. However, I do think that Elpisia marks a slow change in the presentation of character personality and expression. Aldo is portrayed as standoffish, professional, and single-minded, and his understanding and slow understanding of the world around him shows marked development as the game goes on.
There’s different handling here that isn’t present in the company’s other works. For instance, one of the first towns that the party visits is controlled by a local lord who is portrayed as abusive and captures all of the women in the village as his servants. Instead of leaning into a dated portrayal of the town as some sort of dream harem, the characters and village citizens have severe contempt for the lord and his son.
It’s refreshing to see an evolution in storytelling, especially in a genre that for so many years has been chasing the 90s. Plus, considering that the mobile market is still an emerging platform for serious gameplay experiences, it’s wonderful to see even the smallest amount of mature storytelling. Even if the maturity is nominal at best.
GAMEPLAY – A FAMILIAR TUNE
The moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t much of a departure from literally every other JRPG on the market, but the game does include modern improvements that continue to be a welcome addition to the genre. Auto-battling, variable speeds, and the ability to completely skip battles against low-level enemies all continue to be helpful for busy players, granting more time to focus on the story (or make it easier to knock out quick play sessions).
The aspect of gameplay that might be a departure is the implementation of a buddy pet system. As the game progresses, you’ll encounter various animals that can be recruited to be “buddies” and assigned to different party members. Summoning them to fight alongside you in battle grants different bonuses, such as additional attacks or status removal.
This isn’t a particularly deep method of play, and there aren’t multiple layers of gameplay to juggle during combat. It’s a simple enough process, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. The addition of pets is a neat spin on summons as we’ve seen them before, and usable Magiswords are a neat gimmick, but they don’t do much in the way of actually affecting how you play.
Combat isn’t the only familiar aspect of Elpisia. General movement and interaction with the world is your standard top-down production. Hidden paths to treasure pepper the walls of dungeons and buildings, and encounter rates can be adjusted via a totem found within monster lairs. These are all well-known parts of KEMCO titles, but they continue to stick the landing.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – LOTS OF FLUTES
This might be tough with a mobile title, but I highly advise you to play Sword of Elpisia on the largest screen you can. I say this because the art is fantastic. Characters appear detailed and well-designed, and even things like chickens (see above) look exceptional in this pixel-art style. What’s more, the action sequences aren’t overloaded with bizarre visual effects. Rather, there are simply some great animations and effective sound design to express what’s happening on screen.
Musically, I’ll be honest: there’s a ton of flute work. Maybe not flutes specifically, but high-pitched wind instruments are prevalent throughout the soundtrack, much to my own chagrin. There’s nothing wrong with wind instruments, but having the lead melody done almost exclusively in a higher sound register can become a bit grating.
Swords of Elpisia was reviewed on iOS. A key was provided by KEMCO.