For an upcoming READ.ME column over on Games Are Evil, I’m going to be covering a game called Aselia the Eternal. Depending on how much progress I make before Sunday, said column will either be this week or, more realistically, next week. But I thought I’d take a bit of time to share some less formal initial impressions on the game for those who are interested, or simply curious.
Aselia the Eternal is a visual novel for PC (and PSP in Japan, I believe). There are actually two versions available — an 18+ edition with H-scenes and a 15+ version without. Only the 15+ version has officially made it to Western-speaking territories due to some of said H-scenes supposedly being in questionable taste — and also because of Western publisher/localiser JAST USA’s desire to start putting out a few “all ages” titles as well as their myriad 18+ shag-happy offerings.
The basic premise of Aselia the Eternal is thus: Protagonist Yuuto lives alone with his little sister Kaori. Their parents died a while back in an accident, but Kaori was spared thanks to Yuuto imploring anyone who would listen to give him a miracle and save his sister. It turns out someone was listening — the spirit of the sword “Desire,” which, as these things tend to do, claims ownership over Yuuto’s soul in exchange for his sister’s life and, at an unexpected point after several hours of fairly typical high school drama, sucks Yuuto into another world where All Is Not Well. War is brewing, and Yuuto is about to become embroiled in it as part of a force of “spirits” — seemingly human creatures with strong bonds to their swords who are treated as nothing but weapons by the actual humans. Since humans make spirits (and “Etrangers” from another world such as Yuuto) do all their fighting, most places have little hesitation in going to war because there’s actually very little risk to the “real” people, and as such Yuuto arrives just as It Is All Kicking Off, as it were.
The interesting thing about Aselia the Eternal is that rather than representing the conflicts and battles that Yuuto and his spirit companions get into purely through narrative text, there’s actually a very competent strategy game built in alongside all the visual novel stuff. When it’s time for Yuuto and his allies to saddle up and hit the road to complete a mission, gameplay switches from the usual “read, read, read, read, read, make a choice” to a tactical map view, at which point you need to put your strategic hat well and truly on if you’re going to survive.
The world map of Aselia the Eternal’s battles is node-based in nature. Player units, each of which may contain up to three members, may move one space per turn, as may the enemy. If a unit enters a contested space occupied by an enemy unit, a battle begins, at which point the makeup of the teams becomes important.
Each unit has an attacker, a defender and a supporter. The attacker makes use of direct-damage skills. The defender tends to mitigate damage. The supporter either casts damage spells or adds useful effects. Each individual character has their own set of skills that changes according to what slot they’re in — the eponymous Aselia, for example, may attack with her sword twice in a battle if she is in the attacking position, whereas if she is in the supporter position she is able to block enemy spells and prevent them from causing damage. The “colour” of each unit also has an impact on their effectiveness — green spirits are best in defensive positions, blue spirits are best in attacking and red ones are best in support, though according to the enemy’s abilities (which can be previewed before battle is resolved) you may wish to switch them around a bit. Each character only has a set number of uses of each of their skills before they either need to switch them around or go back to a friendly-occupied town or base to refresh themselves.
It’s an unusual, original, simple and elegant system that works extremely well, offering a degree of tactical flexibility while rewarding those who think carefully about the best way to approach a particular situation. The node-based nature of the world map means that it’s relatively accessible to strategic newcomers, but still offers the potential for pulling off clever tactics, particularly later in the game when you get access to additional characters and, by extension, units. It’s surprisingly tough and unforgiving, too — lose a main character in battle and it’s an immediate game over. No Phoenix Downs here. (Also, SAVE!)
What’s surprising about the inclusion of this aspect of gameplay is not that it’s in there at all — there are a number of visual novels that incorporate minigames — it’s that despite it being there, the game is still a storytelling vehicle first and foremost. It’s not a strategy game/RPG with lengthy story sequences, it’s a visual novel with occasional strategic battles. This might not sound like a big difference, but it’s the difference between playing something like, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, where the story sequences sometimes feel like they’re just rushing you through towards the next battle as soon as possible, and what we have here, which is an unfolding story in which you occasionally have to fight. The “pace”, for want of a better word, is a lot slower — though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives you plenty of time to get to know and become attached to these characters before walking into battle with them.
In fact, what the experience really feels like is the developers sitting down and thinking “this is the story we want to tell. There are battles at this point, this point and this point because they serve the story.” rather than “we are making a strategy RPG. We need gameplay to be 75% strategic battles, 25% story.” It feels very much like something that has been designed primarily as a narrative, in short, rather than a game — and that’s rather interesting, because I can’t imagine any Western publisher greenlighting a game with such a seemingly skewed ratio of traditional gameplay to sitting back and just reading. (Of course, I can’t imagine any Western publisher greenlighting a visual novel full stop, but that’s beside the point.)
I like what I’ve seen so far. The story is quite slow to get going but it already has some interesting characters involved, and I’m intrigued to see where it goes next. Watch out for further thoughts when I’ve played a little further.