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Eternal Poison (PlayStation 2) artwork

Eternal Poison (PlayStation 2) review

"Closed minds will find Eternal Poison to be a finely-crafted strategy RPG. Open minds will find a lot more, including fresh takes on familar themes: religion, altruisim, selfishness, and the double-edged nature of justice."

At the beginning of Flight Plan's strategy-RPG Eternal Poison, a hot blonde girl shows up at some ancient ruins on wolfback. She's young, but just old enough for me to admire her plunging neckline and thigh-high heeled black boots without feeling like a creepy perv.

Or so I thought. I later made the mistake of reading the character descriptions in the gorgeous artbook that had been unceremoniously "goo-glued" to the front of the case. As it turns out, the hot blonde -- her name's Thage -- is only fourteen.

This 14-year-old seductress is a nearly omnipotent enchantress who knows more about the Valdian Kingdom's inner secrets than sages four times her age. She wanders the world -- through both astral and physical planes -- weakening diabolical monsters (known as majin) and trapping their spirits inside her magical book, the Librum Vespera. Using the power of her librum, this 14-YEAR-OLD GIRL summons her captives to aid her during each grid-based battle. If you find this to be ridiculous, you're not the only one.

Reasonable character in Eternal Poison: "How'd you get to be so confident?"

Thage: "If you were me instead of you, you'd understand."

Thage might be just a bit less confident if she realized that four other people in the world have magical books just like hers. Following the SRPG tradition set by Dark Wizard and Dragon Force, players are provided a choice of several protagonists, whose motives range from pure to selfish. One is a tormented priestess, similar to Berserk's Farnese, whose outfit and attitude were modeled after Japanese pop stars (I learned that from the artbook). Another is a lone swordsman, similar to Berserk's Guts, whose gruff exterior hides a sensitive heart. He travels with a child by his side, evoking memories of Blood Will Tell or Lone Wolf and Cub.

Basically, the game is loaded with archetypes that are designed to appeal to gamers' fetishes. One artist originally envisioned his creation as a swordswoman searching for an appropriate place to die, but somewhere along the way she turned into a bloodthirsty dominatrix.

The gameplay itself doesn't sound particularly special, either. Since it would be tough to win battles alone, each protagonist can summon captured beasts or enlist an entourage of mercenaries. Although plant people and scythe-wielding dinosaurs never gain experience, the mercs -- like your main character -- gain levels, gain strength, gain spells, and gain special attacks to show off during the close-up attack animations (which you will want to deactivate, since they take forever to load). Eventually, some characters even get the option to advance to a more powerful, more specialized class.

Big deal; class changes have been around since Final Fantasy and Wizardry.

Every enemy your party faces is weak or strong against certain types of elemental attacks -- fire, water, earth, the usual. Between battles, you can purchase equipment for your characters. You can attach magical abilities to that equipment. Fight a battle, go to town, fight another battle, go to town, repeat. The basic mechanics behind Eternal Poison are completely common and completely not worth even mentioning.

But here's the thing. Flight Plan has made sure that their game -- while not particularly innovative -- is super intuitive and super convenient. When a character changes class, the pro's and con's are clearly explained so that you don't have to run to the internet for a FAQ. Enemy statistics are available for reference at any time by pressing a button; this means less time testing one weapon after another on busty arachnoid women, desperately hoping to get lucky, and more time strategizing... more time planning a path of attack based on skill instead of chance. And when you sell a weapon or piece of armor that has a skill attached, it's then available for ANY other character to use... so you could craft a bunch of super-weapons with Thage, then begin a new game with Ashley and outfit her with a nifty mace that she otherwise wouldn't own. Because of this, starting over can actually be more fun than the original playthrough.

It's as though Flight Plan played through every SRPG in existence, compiled a list of "ANNOYING THINGS" and then made sure that their game contained none of them. The only inconvenience is that you can't save during battles, but any single fight can be completed in under 30 minutes (which is quite short), unless you're stretching it out on purpose, you dastardly experience hog!

In addition to making their game super convenient and super intuitive, Flight Plan has honed Eternal Poison to the point that it is virtually exploit-free. In Final Fantasy Tactics, I beat up my own party members to power-level. In Dark Wizard, I beat enemies to the brink of death, retreated from battle, and returned to beat up the same enemies again so that I could power-level. In Shining Force 3, I repeatedly let enemies heal themselves so that I could beat them up longer and power-level. Admittedly, I did everything I could to gain extra experience in Eternal Poison, but Flight Plan predicted my shenanigans and made sure the rewards weren't worth the effort.

Without the ability to obscenely overpower your party, these tactical battles require insight, skill, resource management, teamwork, and a surprisingly small amount of luck. In terms of gameplay mechanics, Flight Plan has got the strat-RPG genre down to an art, making for a game that is deep but inviting. It's easy to pick up and play. And keep playing. And continue playing until you realize it's 3:00 in the morning and you're still pumped up on hardcore gamer adrenaline. Combined with a multitude of routes to follow towards the final battle, this lends the game a sense of continual discovery. "What new creatures will I face if I play as the gruff swordsman? How will my tactics change if I play as the uber-mage, who is impervious to all magic -- even healing spells?" Add the monster-catching Pokemon aspect and there's always something new to look forward to.

Even though some of the character archetypes are a bit silly, the gothic fantasy atmosphere provides plenty of moments worth experiencing and revisiting. When the Moon Belator -- an enormous wolfen beast with twin blades attached to its arms -- swaggers out from behind an enormous gate, when he bellows and the sky turns dark, it's hard not to get caught up in the moment. (He can be captured.) When the neo-classical soundtrack gives way to a creepy pounding -- almost like a heartbeat -- and the Dahlia Queen appears atop her bed of flowers, it's hard not to get just a bit freaked out. (She can be captured, too.) Then you meet the heavy metal horseknight TERRANUS and the music erupts into crazy-ass buttrock.

In addition to being summoned during battle, any of these captives can be sacrificed by throwing their bound, twitching bodies into the witch's cauldron. As the bronze device churns, the controller shakes, and violet ichor seeps from the cauldron into a macabre fountain. Eternal Poison has its share of humor -- the elephant god Otakuphant practices the sacred art of "Trunken Boxing" -- but it is often very, very dark.

"In the land of Caina, it is virtuous to betray one's parents or to sacrifice one's own firstborn. Such deeds are rewarded with everlasting life, in a form to be determined by the gods themselves."

"This is the courtyard of an ancient temple. A man from the tribe who lived here brought a young god to this courtyard to worship him. There is no record of the tribe after that."

"A young girl's first taste of battle came at the gates of Riyadh, where her countrymen's blood filled the field. The only spell she could conjure to destroy the evils around her also killed something within."

Closed minds will find Eternal Poison to be a finely-crafted strategy RPG. Open minds will find a lot more, including fresh takes on familar themes: religion, altruisim, selfishness, and the double-edged nature of justice. I spent a week of vacation playing Eternal Poison. I slept at odd hours, I ate at unusual times, and I even dreamt of battles as I tossed and turned on the couch (my bed was further from the PS2). I developed pain in my right wrist, and still I couldn't get this game out of my veins. Mercifully, after each story appeared to be resolved without any real answers, Eternal Poison revealed one more secret that tied everything together for a true -- and satisfying -- conclusion.

It's a ridiculous world, where 14-year-old girls with hot bodies ride on top of wolves. But Eternal Poison makes it work. I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty special.


zigfried's avatar
Staff review by Zigfried (January 31, 2009)

Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.

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zippdementia posted February 01, 2009:

Well, the PS2 is going strong, isn't it? Definitely the best system to ever hit the market.

Unfortunately, I can't quite say the same for your review.

Of course, anything by Zig is bound to be a good read, and this is no exception, but this review lacks so much focus that I spent most of my time rereading the same paragraphs, and ultimately I came away with one big "huh?" An interested huh, to be sure, because you are obviously enthusiastic about the game (and push me ever closer to actually picking it up... at least I love the art style).

But you never really tell me why I should buy it. At least not in a clear fashion.

Your thesis is presented at the end of the review: "Closed minds will find Eternal Poison to be a finely-crafted strategy RPG. Open minds will find a lot more, including fresh takes on familar themes: religion, altruisim, selfishness, and the double-edged nature of justice. I spent a week of vacation playing Eternal Poison"

It's a good thesis. But why put it here? Why not put it at the start instead of the obligatory jail bait thing, and then go on to prove it?

You spend most of the review talking about the mechanics and basically saying that they've been done before. You never say if they've been done better here, or even really if they work in the setting. The biggest problem is you never tell me whether the game is fun to play. You mention 30 minutes per battle... it had better be fun with that kind of time investment! At least... I imagine its an investment... you never really say how many battles you fight, either, or how the game progresses.

Overall, I'm left with a hazy image of a strategy RPG that's much like other strategy RPGs except in its art and dark story. Maybe that's what you wanted me to get, but I think the haze could've been cleared up a bit with a little bit better planning.
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bloomer posted February 01, 2009:

I don't think I had a hazy image, but certainly I recognised a Zig characteristic writing approach to seize a particular moment and revolve around it, irrespective of what you might expect that moment's weight to be in the grander scheme. I don't mean that to sound like a walloping criticism, as Zig usually makes very good of whatever moment or thing he seizes ultimately, even if you don't see it coming. That is one of his skills. I'm just not sure he did in this review. You know, a joke about jailbait is the bookend of the review :) It may be a kind of honesty to say 'I was hung up on how young this hot girl was, but actually this turned out to be a really good game.' But I'm not sure that's what was said? Do these things follow each other? I admit to moderate confusion, but it's not about the game, just about this review.
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zigfried posted February 01, 2009:

Thanks for the feedback.

There are plenty of other games that I'd say have better gameplay -- more classes, more units, more variety in attack styles, etc. But most of those games have little annoyances or gameplay exploits. Noticeable flaws (which may or may not affect overall enjoyment).

Eternal Poison is finely-tuned and really convenient to play. I actually consider 30 minutes to be pretty short for a single battle. It's kind of like a master chef who just dials it in -- you're still going to get a quality meal, because they're just that damn good. The difference here is that I didn't realize Flight Plan had reached that level of expertise. It's a game that is virtually devoid of exploits, bugs, etc -- even though something like Final Fantasy Tactics shows way more ambition, this is more finely honed.

But I wouldn't say EP is "better".

In a weird sense, it sounds like both of you kind of got the ideas that I was trying to present. It is like many other strategy RPGs, except for the art and dark story (and being convenient). It feels like a "cookie cutter" strat-RPG, with "cookie cutter" characters intended to prey on gamer fetishes... but it's so damn well built, that I know it's unusual for that alone. And after initially shaking my head at some of the silly details, I was surprised by how interesting the story ended up being.

Sounds like I could focus those points better. I'll revisit the review later on sometime with a clear head, and hopefully... clarify! Hell, I may even end up pasting in parts of this response ;)

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zigfried posted February 01, 2009:

I made a few updates. I think the end result is quite a bit more focused -- I'm much happier with it now than I was yesterday. Hopefully others agree :)

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bloomer posted February 01, 2009:

Yeah I detect a few nicer transitions. I also detect the new absence of the word jailbait, which was kinda too flip/distracting a last note for me.
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zippdementia posted October 07, 2009:

Hey Zig, I wanted to thank you for recommending this game. Despite the fact I offered critique on the review, you actually convinced me back then to pick the thing up and I did so not a week after reading this.

I just got the first chance to play it a couple weeks ago and I'm having a ball. The game got panned by most gamers, so if it hadn't been for your review I never would've gone for it. Thanks!

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