Review: Symphony of Eternity

There are many types of game I don’t think I’d ever invest much time in. Sports games, for one. I don’t follow competitive team sports at all, and although I like extreme sports such as skiing and scuba diving I’ve never really found a game that invokes what I like about them. Then there are the kinds of driving game that appear to have been based on The Fast & the Furious or some other daft car culture nonsense; I’m sure they’re fun but I don’t care.

The list goes on but the point I want to make is that right at the top of that list, or near the top but just under Japanese rape simulators, are lengthy traditional JRPGs on mobile phones. Something about the concept just appals me. Take an outmoded game design paradigm that rests on repetition and shitty writing, then put it onto a tiny device. Ugh.

I do have form for this, though. Many years ago I reviewed a Dragon Quest game for the DS and I actually quite liked that. The Dragon Quest games are better than most, though. Buckets of charm take you a long way.

When I bought my first Android device last year I was fairly stuck for games to play, being entirely unfamiliar with what was available. When I spotted a sale less than a week into said ownership I jumped at the chance to pick up a few games at cheaper than cheap prices. One of these was Asphalt 7 (reviewed in our last mobile roundup). Another was Symphony of Eternity, a lengthy traditional JRPG for mobile devices. Ugh.

I played a couple of minutes of the game – literally a couple of minutes – before shutting it down. I couldn’t see myself ever getting into it. It looked like something I’d seen a hundred times before, and what I’d seen before I didn’t remember all that fondly.

So why is it that six months later I started playing the game regularly, and at the last count have sunk eighteen hours into it?

Symphony of Eternity - tank

Maybe it is because the game has a tank in it. There’s no reason to have a tank. It just does.

At its heart Symphony of Eternity is a very simple JRPG that has been specifically designed with mobile play in mind. Its battles are very short even for the genre and gameplay is generally easy to pick up and put down in bursts of whatever length, which is how I was able to amass so much play time in sessions ranging in length from three minutes to, on one occasion, three hours. The only exceptions are the occasional boss fight, which might take you a whopping five minutes or so.

There’s an ‘auto’ function which you can activate for battles which don’t pose a challenge, which sees characters automatically using their default physical attack. This is pretty handy for finishing off minor battles or even (should you wish to) grinding less-threatening enemies, although failing to pay attention can see your party defeated through attrition.

The highlight of the game is the character build system. Characters level up and receive stat boosts in the usual JRPG manner; you don’t pick and choose where basic stat points go, and in fact I’ve never even looked at my characters’ stats for physical attack or resistance or whatever. What’s more interesting is that each level brings with it a merit point, mapping to these same eight core stats, and equipment can further boost them. Hitting a tier in a category with your merit points gives you a substantial boost in that area. You can re-spec at any time, meaning it’s easy to reconfigure your party for certain battles or to experiment.

Alongside that are ‘tablets’ which are used to give your party members access to a range of abilities. Each tablet is themed in a certain way – healing abilities, offensive magic, heavy but slow attacks, fast but weak attacks – and some later tablets provide more esoteric abilities as you progress through the game. Alongside gaining EXP your party gain tablet points which count against equipped tablets. These let your characters permanently learn abilities, meaning they can use them even after switching tablets, whilst mastering a tablet gives characters permanent stat boosts or other significant abilities. Over the course of the game you could end up with a party where everyone is able to switch to offensive magic if needed, or where everybody can use a basic heal spell, or where you have two dedicated magic users, and so on. It’s a nice system and encourages building up your characters in the way you choose, whilst putting it alongside the respec-ready merit point system gives you a bit of potential build variation.

It’s fortunate that the character progression system gives you something to look forward to because the plot is a load of old shit, and the writing and dialogue is as bad as games of this type usually are. Occasionally you can chuckle at its expense but for the most part you just want it to go away. It’s really rather dreadful. As for the aesthetics, they’re all perfectly serviceable. What more can be said?

Towards the end of the game play becomes a bit frustrating, first with the penultimate boss fight in which you team up with a bunch of characters you’ve not developed and who are therefore simply annoying to use, and second by then giving you the ability to swap these new characters in and out of your party. This suggests that a similar teaming up will take place later in the game, which isn’t actually the case – although I did waste over an hour trying to get some new abilities for these latecomers before giving up in irritation.

It’s a shame because before this needless addition (presumably included to add variation for post-endgame players who want to take on the extremely hard special dungeons) I did rather like Symphony of Eternity, despite its essentially bland and repetitive nature.

Symphony of Eternity - kill the magic

Way to kill the magic, dude. At times I wonder if the writers were literally mocking players with this sort of shit. (Regratlute is one of the mystical macguffins you spend the entire game pursuing.)

Going back to that original question: I don’t really know why it is that I liked Symphony of Eternity enough to invest so much time. It could be that despite my initial misgivings mobile phones are the ideal platform to play traditional JRPGs on. Fights don’t last long and you can make a little bit of progress in short bursts; since you aren’t reliant on save points you don’t need to invest large amounts of time in sizeable play sessions.

But that doesn’t explain why I also spent sizeable play sessions with Symphony of Eternity. On occasion these were on lazy mornings when I wanted to play something but was too idle to get out of bed (I know, I’m a real catch). Most of the time, though, it was whilst watching a film or TV that was good enough to draw about 50% of my focus.

But why Symphony of Eternity? Why not any number of better, fresher games? If I am honest with myself it’s probably down to two things. Firstly, the familiarity of old JRPG battle systems. They are so simple and familiar now that they can be almost played in your sleep. This familiarity breeds contempt but there’s also a part of us that enjoys familiar mechanics: it’s like slipping on an old pair of trainers. Secondly, the part of me that likes seeing numbers go up is happy that I am ‘making progress’ whilst playing something that is functionally experienced in small, bite-sized chunks. Many mobile games are score-driven. This is fine, but I’ve never been that interested in high scores. I experience warmer and fuzzier feelings at watching ‘my’ character develop. Even if it’s an ultimately empty sense of progression, it scratches an itch.

So what does all this mean? Probably that the original designers of those JRPG systems, as well as those who implement them intelligently today, were pretty smart people. And probably that sometimes I like to play things without being too critical about them. Two observations as banal and unsurprising, yet astute and appealing, as Symphony of Eternity itself.

Symphony of Eternity - idiocy

Possibly the single most idiotic piece of writing in a game replete with idiotic writing. I literally did a lol.