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 â€“ literally a couple of minutes â€“ 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?
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 â€“ healing abilities, offensive magic, heavy but slow attacks, fast but weak attacks â€“ 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 â€“ 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.
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.
8 responses to “Review: Symphony of Eternity”
Interesting. My girlfriend needs something long-form to replace The Sims on her Kindle, and this might be it (unless there's a good Civilization clone you know of).
I've been rethinking whether or not my giant collection of PS2 games could use some slimming down (even without playing some of them), and the JRPGs will probably be the first. I might have even ended up liking the experience of playing Wild Arms 3 or whatever, but I'm well past the point of taking them seriously, and I don't have quite the urge to play it all like I used to. Giving a modern view of older traditional JRPGs isn't even very enlightening, since you can just point to a recent one and say "that but the menus aren't HD".
Japanese Action-RPGs can at least keep me actively involved, but most JRPGs rely on menus without much tactical depth. I can't think of a single Final Fantasy that I wouldn't like better as an action-RPG with the same underlying numbers. And in terms of playing old ones, communicating the actual feel of the action can't be done on video so much. Phantasy Star Online doesn't look half as nice as Dark Cloud 2, but I still enjoy the former's rhythm and quit the latter specifically because it felt stodgy.
P.S. Is Safario the sibling of Huntingtripo or Spelunko? Or maybe Firefoxo?
Isn't Civilization Revolution available on mobile? Other than that I suppose there's Ascendancy, which is 4X space opera rather than a Civlike, though it's iOS only.
I've never sunk hugely deep into the mechanics of JRPGs – I leave that to the Dylans and Sids of the world! – so I can't really pass too much comment, although a fair generalisation may be that modern JRPG design is heavily about streamlining the duller elements (or trying to – I found FF12 an entirely dull experience). I do quite like JRPGs that fuse in action, though, though I'm thinking here of the simple rhythm combos in Lost Odyssey or – a better example – the jump and fire timing in Resonance of Fate's lovely combat system. I'm not sure how those stack up against the game's you've mentioned as I've not played or seen them. :/
One JRPG I'm keen to try out is Xenoblade Chronicles. It sounds pretty fantastic from what Tom Chick wrote on it last year. Come to think of it, the reason I didn't at the time was I didn't own a Wii, but now I live with someone who does!
I think Safario is the sister of Chromio, as in Chromio and Joliet.
Okay, that is probably one of the dorkiest jokes I have ever made.
I don't think it's available for Android. Or if it is, maybe not for Kindle Fire? I don't think space 4X would interest her as much thematically.
I'm aware that interesting hidden mechanics exist in most Japanese games, but they can appear very simplified on the surface. That said, exploiting those mechanics is only ever interesting/worthwhile in challenge runs or late- to post-game tweaking. Then a game like Star Ocean 3 that expects you to constantly exploit and just ends up feeling uneven and broken. Mechanical depth in JRPGs is sadly more annoying than it is interesting, so you're not missing out.
FF12 is actually a game that I think would benefit most from a heavier action element, like being a more tactical Kingdom Hearts. As it is, it's just an extremely polished iteration of boredom. I quite like timing and positioning elements added to RPGs, even if it's not enough to make it an action game. Of course, if that gets taken too far, you'd end up with FF13, which wasted two installments pretending it wasn't an action game!
Phantasy Star Online is more like a precursor to Monster Hunter or Dark Souls than any JRPG, while Dark Cloud 2 is a dungeon-crawling action-RPG with lots of fancy window dressing. I haven't played Lost Odyssey or Resonance of Fate, so it seems we're at an impasse. PSO looks stiff because all combos are three button presses long, but the rhythm comes from the fact that the timing for each hit is kinda tight, and pressing it too early or late won't do anything. And the graphic/sound design around hitting enemies is extremely pleasing.
I wanted to give Xenoblade a shot, but copies in the US run for $150 and up because Nintendo of America hates freedom. That said, the Wii U iteration looks promising and has giant robots so yes.
We're all dorks here, so joke on.
I just checked the Logic Factory's site and yep, looks like there's no Android version. I guess they may do one if the iOS one does well enough, but it's been out for a while now and they're still working on it, so I'm not expecting a big sales spike or anything. Shame, it's a fun little game.
Did you read Dylan's review of Final Fantasy 12-2's battle system? He was quite taken with it. Apparently it is important that Tri-Ace designed it, rather than Squaresoft.
PSO is like Dark Souls, huh? I finally played a bit of the latter the other week. It was cool and not as brutal as I expected, though still quite punishing. I dig simple timing and rhythm mechanics. The Witcher did a similar thing as I recall. There's another game I ought to go back to.
$150?! Sheesh. I wouldn't go near it at that price either. Another great success for Nintendo's Western operations, I guess.
Oh! It is not Civ, but has your girlfriend tried Rebuild? I've written about it on here a couple of times and the Android version is as splendid as the rest of 'em.
I just looked into it. She'll probably get it- thanks!
13-2 fixed a lot of glaring issues with 13, but I find that the improvements made it seem like it was trying even harder to add speedy action to a menu-driven game. They actually solved a lot of issues in terms of adding complexity and party strategy to an action battle system, but then used it for something else and solved a problem that didn't exist. There's a point where saying you want a faster battle system means you actually don't want to use menus anymore.
Hell, the enemies have a ton of unique attack and movement animations that are normally the purview of action games (and you probably miss them watching the menus). FF12 had enemies do generic swinging and casting animations, so making that an action game would take a lot of work. 13-3 is an action game that can reuse its not-action forebears' animations.
As for tri-Ace, well, they're the people behind Star Ocean 3 and Valkyrie Profile 2, AKA the games with neat ideas that pushed them so far that I ended up hating them. Though hearing from tri-Ace fans that games like Radiata Stories and Star Ocean 4 are "too easy" makes me think they'll be balanced for sane people.
I hope Dylan notices this thread soon. I am way out of my depth. :)