Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles Review: Live From Broadway! (Switch)

A pair of classic NIS JRPGs have made it outside of Japan for the first time in the form of Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles. Rhapsody II and III mark the first time that western fans can see the continuing adventures of Cornet and her daughter Kururu as they go on weird and wacky journeys through the Kingdom of Marl. It's a fun-filled, musical adventure for the whole family.

Rhapsody Marl Kingdom Chronicles Review

If you’ve been a JRPG superfan for long enough, you might be familiar with a little game called Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. A charming RPG adventure, though a very obscure one, not that that stopped NIS America from giving it a re-release last year. What you might not be aware of is that Rhapsody is in fact, a series, with the game having two sequels: “Rhapsody II: Ballad of the Little Princess“, and “Rhapsody III: Memories of Marl Kingdom“, released in 1999 and 2000 for the PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 respectively. They, unfortunately, were only released in Japan… UNTIL TODAY! Rhapsody‘s two sequels, have been fully translated, partially dubbed, and released in English for the very first time.

I am all for old JRPGs getting properly translated and released in the West. Old systems have a literal treasure trove of games that were just never released outside Japan for one reason or another. And boy howdy, does NIS still have a ton of stuff that could use a Western release. I would love for them to localize their entire back catalog. But for Rhapsody II and III respectively, are these hidden gems that sing like a majestic bird, or were gamers not missing out on much when these games were denied a Western release way back when?

Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles is available now for PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, and Steam for $49.99. When buying on Steam, you have the option of buying Rhapsody II and III individually for $24.99 each.

Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles - Launch Trailer - Nintendo Switch

Story: Far From Shakespeare

Rhapsody II and III both frequently reference the first Rhapsody game. Shame it’s nowhere to be found in this collection. While Rhapsody II works perfectly fine as a standalone narrative, Rhapsody III prominently features the first game’s characters, and I got a little lost having never played it.

Rhapsody II: Ballad of the Little Princess is a direct sequel to the first game. After Cornet saved the world in the first game, she got married and gave birth to one Kurusale Cherie Marl Q (thankfully, everyone just calls her Kururu). Despite being the princess, Kururu is a simple-minded, cheerful little girl who loves to sneak out of her castle home and go on adventures with her best friend, Crea, much to the dismay of her parents and the rest of the people at the castle. She’s a bit of a spoiled brat, and she’s always looking for a loveable prince to marry. Throughout her adventures, she finds herself the target of the Akurjo family, who send an army of monsters and hopelessly incompetent henchmen to defeat her and steal the “Shadow of Beauty”.

Kururu must face many trials and obstacles on her journey to find her prince.

Kururu must face many trials and obstacles on her journey to find her prince.

Rhapsody III: Memories of Marl Kingdom, is an anthology game, set across six different chapters. Each chapter jumps across time and space, between the perspectives of Kururu and Cornet, the Akurjo and Marjoly (the first game’s villains) families, and even the series’ cat henchmen mascots. Each chapter is entirely standalone, and all the different sets of characters have entirely separate inventories. The chapters have very different plots, characters, and settings, meaning that the game has a ton of variety.

A Clash of Tones

Though it is somewhat hard to notice at first, both games have a subtly different tone. Rhapsody II is basically just a playable Saturday morning cartoon. Character sprites are very expressive and move in an exaggerated way. There’s also a lot of stock, cartoon sound effects, and visual gags. There are also some very absurd scenarios, such as one early quest involving Kururu trying to get ice cream, having to rescue a bunch of chefs kidnapped by an army of cats, only to discover that the ice cream is… (well, I’ll leave you to find that out for yourself). I really like Rhapsody II’s silly tone, and its main story arc of Kururu learning to grow up and becoming a responsible young woman is very well executed and charming to watch.

Expect dumb jokes. Lots and lots of dumb jokes.

Expect dumb jokes. Lots and lots of dumb jokes.

Rhapsody III, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to keep this style. Though the overall stories are still fairly silly, they’re presented somewhat more seriously. Despite using mostly recycled sprites from the first two games, they don’t seem to animate in the same manner they did before, which I think is disappointing. A lot of the cartoon antics have been dialed back. I don’t think you can make a JRPG musical and attempt to present it with a straight face. The concept is incredibly silly, so I think Rhapsody III shouldn’t have been afraid to embrace silliness.

Gameplay: A Dance to the Death

Rhapsody II and III both share a lot of similarities in their gameplay. They’re both turn-based monster-collecting RPGs, and they both have largely identical mechanics. However, the actual play experience differs greatly between both titles.

Ballad of The Little Princess

Rhapsody II has you control Kururu, joined in combat by an ever-shifting cast of guest characters, ranging from Crea to various soldiers, as well as the mysterious warrior known as Cello. Combat is simple and intuitive, and the game does a good job of rewarding you with new items and skills as you progress. Kururu can take up to three “Puppets” into combat. Whenever Kururu defeats an enemy, they will randomly decide to join her as a Puppet. At any time, Kururu can summon a Puppet and use its abilities as her own. The monster designs are very cute, making you naturally want to collect them all. Puppets have a vast array of different abilities and elements, so strategizing should be important, but it really isn’t.

Puppets can use incredibly skills if you raise them correctly.

Puppets can use incredibly skills if you raise them correctly.

Things are not all sunshine and rainbows for Rhapsody II though. The game can get extremely repetitive, particularly in the dungeon design. Dungeons in Rhapsody II are extremely repetitive. The game copies and pastes rooms ad nauseam. In one instance, they literally managed to make an entire dungeon out of a black screen. I understand that the game’s visual style can only do so much, but this is just pathetic.

Difficulty, or the lack thereof, could be another concern. I played on Normal, and if you’re a gamer with an age in the double digits, do yourself a favor and pick Hard. The game is laughably easy. I don’t even think I had a single party member get knocked out in my time playing. Enemies just crumple with no resistance, bosses in particular. Kururu has a variety of different super moves you can execute, and by using her strongest offensive one, you crush your enemies with a giant stack of pancakes, I managed to defeat a main chapter boss with just a single use of this move.

To be fair to the boss, getting crushed by a giant pancake would probably hurt a lot.

To be fair to the boss, getting crushed by a giant pancake would probably hurt a lot.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing though. The cutesy tone, easy difficulty, and short length mean this would be a perfect beginner-level RPG for little girls. It’s roughly a 15-hour clear, so it’s not even that much of a time investment.

Memories of Marl Kingdom

Rhapsody III, on paper, fixes every problem I had with the second game. It’s a much longer game, the dungeons are far more interesting, the game has a lot more variety through its different scenarios, and it has just the right level of difficulty. I still never got a game over, but I did get some close calls at points. Rhapsody III will punish you if you don’t know what you’re doing. Despite fixing nearly every issue I had, I think Rhapsody II is the better game.

Combat has seen some significant adjustments, largely for the worse. Rhapsody II had you control a maximum of four characters and once, and Rhapsody III winds up quadrupling this number. In Rhapsody II, puppets were essentially equipment, modifying Kururu’s stats in addition to giving her their abilities. Kururu could only perform one action per turn, either using one of her own skills or giving a command to one of her puppets. In Rhapsody III, puppets are now party members, able to be targeted and killed by enemies. Kururu can perform an action, and all of her puppets will perform their own actions independently of her, or she can forfeit her action to give precise orders to ALL of her puppets at once.

Strong enemies can rip  through your entire party in a matter of seconds.

Strong enemies can rip through your entire party in a matter of seconds.

Jumping from four to sixteen party members is totally outrageous, and it massively slows down the game’s pace. It results in more time spent micromanaging everyone’s inventory, more time grinding to raise everyone up if you want a varied team, and it makes battles much longer in general, as all of the game’s enemies are now damage sponges to make up for the increased party size. The game also seems much stingier with monster recruitment chances, meaning that the game feels less rewarding to play.

Big, Bountiful Chests

Another annoyance with Rhapsody III’s combat system is how it handles monster item drops. In any normal RPG, monster drops are earned after a battle with no additional effort required. This is how Rhapsody II handled it, but Rhapsody III felt the need to overcomplicate this system for no reason. Defeated enemies will now drop treasure chests in the middle of combat, and you must smash the chest to get the item. Any unopened chests at the end of combat will be left behind, meaning you don’t get their contents. I’ve had multiple scenarios where the final enemy defeated in combat drops a chest, or the AI will not target a chest when auto-battling, and in these scenarios, combat immediately ends and the chest is left behind. Why would anyone think this mechanic is a good idea?

Missing out on all that treasure means you won't be able to afford all the things that you need.

Missing out on all that treasure means you won’t be able to afford all the things that you need.

Graphics and Sound: Sing a Song of Pennzoil

Because NIS loves to recycle spritework and music cues across different games, Rhapsody II and III fit together almost perfectly despite being a whole console generation apart. The only real thing that separates them visually is Rhapsody II using sprites atop pre-rendered backgrounds, which was the style for RPGs on the PS1, and Rhapsody III having its world rendered in full 3D. Both styles look perfectly fine, though I think Rhapsody II looks better. I think the backgrounds for Rhapsody II look legitimately beautiful at times, while Rhapsody III’s 3D visuals don’t really hit the same heights. Rhapsody III also suffers from sloppy AI upscaling, and the results are offputting at times. However, unlike most games with AI upscaling, the option to use the original, unaltered textures is provided, which is appreciated.

NIS is a master when it comes to sprite work, and Rhapsody’s sprites all look great. They have a lot of detail squeezed in, and their animations are incredibly expressive. There’s really only one time where the spritework recycling doesn’t work out, and that involves Kururu. Rhapsody III‘s chapter involving her takes place four years after the events of Rhapsody II. She’s canonically a 16-year-old, and she still uses her sprites of her as a 12-year-old from Rhapsody II. The same goes for the rest of her friends. But this is the most minor of nitpicks.

Kururu and friends are supposed to be 16, but look like they're 12.

Kururu and friends are supposed to be 16, but look like they’re 12.

The games’ soundscape is fairly solid. The general music is very solid, with lots of well-done, orchestral tunes. NIS does a great job at making the music stick in your head. The game also has its spoken dialogue dubbed into English, which is more effort than I expected for a package like this. The dub isn’t particularly amazing, but the fact that one exists is more than I could have hoped for.

Musically Inclined

Now is the part where I unpack my thoughts on the series’ central gimmick. It is a JRPG Musical. In lieu of more traditional cutscenes, the game’s characters will periodically break out into dance and song. And I think this whole concept is kind of wasted here. When I heard that these were going to be Musical JRPGs, I was expecting music to play a larger role in the game’s mechanics or theming. Your super meter is represented by a series of musical notes, and Kururu and Cornet both wield trumpets as weapons, but that’s pretty much it. The Rhapsody games feel like bog standard JRPGs with the musical bits awkwardly thrown in at the last minute.

Sword. Gun. Trumpet. The weapons of champions.

Sword. Gun. Trumpet. The weapons of champions.

The musical bits are well-animated at the very least, with a lot of unique animations and wonderful choreography. There aren’t as many of them as I’d like, but they’re a joy to watch. One other odd note is that they did not choose to dub them. The game has spoken dialogue in English and Japanese, but the songs are only in Japanese. If you’re playing with the English dub, as I did, the game just switches to Japanese for the songs, which definitely gave me a bit of whiplash.

There are so many ways that music could have been utilized better. If you’re gonna make it a musical, might as well go all out. They could have perhaps added Paper Mario-style rhythm commands to the game’s combat. The game’s main characters could have all been musicians and dancers. There could have been Ocarina of Time-style spellcasting. I’ll give just one more dumb suggestion, and it’s the dumbest of all, give Kururu the same super attack as Michael Jackson in the Moonwalker videogame for Sega Genesis. In that game, Michael Jackson’s ultimate technique is to force all enemies on-screen to break out into an immaculately choreographed dance, and at the end of the dance, everyone dies. Now that’s the type of silliness I want from a musical RPG.

Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles was reviewed for Nintendo Switch using a key provided by NIS America.

Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles is a pair of games in an interesting situation. Both are crippled by the exact opposite problems. Rhapsody II is a game that is simplistic and way too easy, but Rhapsody III is a game that is too bloated and slowly paced. Rhapsody II I can at least recommend it as a chill, beginner RPG for kids, but Rhapsody III I cannot really recommend under any circumstance.
  • Cutesy art style, great backgrounds and character animations
  • Excellent music
  • Rhapsody II is a great beginner JRPG
  • It surprised me by getting an English dub...
  • Rhapsody II: Insultingly easy, Very repetitive
  • Rhapsody III: Cumbersome battle system, very slow pace
  • The game doesn't do enough with it's main gimmick
  • ...but the songs are not dubbed

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