"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.
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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