I will be honest and say that when I first saw this game revealed by Atlus at Tokyo Game Show, I longed to own it for one reason alone: Nanase Aoi. A huge fan of her art, from Asuka 120% to Seraphim Call to Samurai Spirits, I would have been happy if the art was great and the game was...well...bad. While Atlus has a decent reputation among fans of RPGs, I was fully prepared to take in a less than great game with excellent character designs. When the package arrived, I was quite surprised to find merely very good art strewn liberally throughout a decent game.
Developed by Tam Tam (perhaps better known for their development of Assault Suits Valken 2), Eithea (pronounced Aishia) describes the world to which a group of high school students and their teacher is whisked away. The player takes the role of Shou, age 17, and the lone male in this motley party. Among the various females who surround Shou every waking moment are close friend Yuka, quiet transfer student Hikaru, and English teacher Akiho. Soon after arriving in the strange world, they meet the huntress Ruu, and they immediately run about in search of a way home, all the while performing the obligatory mini-story arcs.
With all of these female characters surrounding the male protagonist, Eithea makes the relationships built between Shou and his female companions an important factor in the game's battle system. Bearing faint echoes of such games as Sega's Sakura Taisen (Sakura Wars) and Atlus's own Thousand Arms, responding with the correct dialogue choices raises the character's Latent Ability Voltage (LAV), making her more capable in battle and contributing to the defense of the party. For those with little knowledge of Japanese, be prepared to save and reset often if you want to raise LAV as high as possible.
The battle engine is interesting, requiring the player to be conscious of the formation of the party and the attack ranges of characters as best suits the formation. Each character is equipped with a soul ring rather than armor, allowing the character to create a magic shield; these formations, besides changing the positions of the characters, also affect greatly the single magic shield created for the whole party. With names like Triple, Double, and Delta, the various formations vary wildly in how they disperse or concentrate the group's offensive and defensive power. As the player progresses, more formations become available, some seemingly useless, some with obvious usefulness. Certainly, the game contains quite a few interesting ideas for its battle engine.
The graphics, which I thought would be the game's most impressive component, are quite fine but still fall short of expectations. The character designs are charming, with the many expressions of the main characters rendered quite well by Nanase Aoi's hand. Special events feature some extremely fine full screen (though low resolution) art. Appearances of lesser characters vary much, from frighteningly exaggerated expressions of mask-wearing seers to generic expressions of ordinary townspeople. Backgrounds have a nice consistency about them, though colors could be a bit more bold and the architecture could be more daring. It's unfortunate that there is no animation to give further life to the characters; the opening is a collage of panning and scrolling stills that, while nice, feature images which one will eventually come across in the course of the game.
With regards to sound, the game is a mixed bag. The song accompanying the opening movie is an excellent effort by Yonekura Chihiro (who contributes song to many anime and video game productions) and is rather addictive as video game songs go. The many incidental pieces fall somewhere between annoying and decent, with the majority leaning toward the former. Top-notch voice acting does its part in drawing the player into the game, exerting even more effort than the art in making the characters alive and likable. Those familiar with many anime may recognize the voices of such veterans as Mitsuishi Kotono (who portrayed Sailor Moon, among myriad roles) and Tamagawa Sakiko (Natsumi from You're Under Arrest, among others).
Though the quality of the components is more than acceptable, the execution of game play keeps the game from gelling together as it could. The biggest shortcoming is the battle engine. While the formations serve in part to make the battles more interesting, and they do to a certain extent, they also make some battles annoyingly difficult. Because the formations change the vectors of the attacks of your characters, it is possible to have a situation where none of your characters are able to attack any enemies. Many times I find myself shouting at my characters, "Why don't you just run up and attack them?!" after a change of formation to move attack vectors is countered simply by an enemy evasion, requiring another change of formation. This is all the more exasperating when this situation occurs against very low level enemies that your party should be able to dispatch with a flick of the wrist. It is beyond comprehension that a person, certain that he or she can finish off an enemy, will refuse to turn a mere 45 degrees to do so. Another problem is the overall lack of speed within the game. Entering and exiting a battle take an unusually long amount of time, and the menu systems both in and out of battle are not as brisk as they could be. There is even a noticeable wait between the end of one character's turn and the beginning of another's. The task of skipping dialogue requires more waiting, as, even with the quickest of button mashing, nearly two seconds worth of dialog goes by before the game is intelligent enough to skip ahead to the next line. Though the time of play from beginning to end is a relatively brisk 30 hours, far too much time is spent waiting; the game system is not the only victim of the waiting game, as the plot, as enjoyable as it is, seems at times to progress with speed comparable to slower varieties of molasses.
These problems are unfortunate, as Eithea has the potential of being a very fine RPG; as it is, the game is merely competent. Those who are fans of games combining the RPG with character interaction would do well to add this game to their library. Those who enjoy the strong character designs and voice acting typical of Japanese graphic adventure games will also find a lot to like in Eithea. Those simply looking for a solid RPG may wish to try finding the Atlus Best Collection print, which is set for release June 13th of this year at a lower price point; at 2800 yen (compared to the original 7800 yen price) Eithea will be quite an addition to any gamer's library.