Just imagine how great the world would be if everything lived up to its potential. We'd have flying cars, safe clean-burning energy for all, a Stanley Cup-winning team in Vancouver, and Elthinia [$2.99] wouldn't be a terrible mess of a game. Unfortunately, here in the real world, potential sometimes amounts to very little except disappointment. If you play Elthinia, and I strongly assert that you should not, you can see the potential all over the place. The battle artwork is really good, the story is extremely detailed, character progression and customization are surprisingly deep, and the world seems like a place I'd like to explore. The first problem is that this is very clearly not a finished product. To be very fair, I waited until the game had its first patch since it was supposed to be coming quickly and fixing some very important things. Well, the game is still full of bugs, both major and minor, but the game is out there on the store for anyone to buy, so it's fair game for criticism.
Unfortunately, the problems don't end with the bugs, though it's hard to see the actual game in their midst. Elthinia pitches itself as a JRPG-style game, and that is certainly what it is, but I honestly can't remember a worse example of a JRPG this side of 7th Saga on the SNES. If you've been feeling disappointed at Kemco's lack of ambition in their JRPGs, this game will have you begging for the sweet embrace of their functional engines and comparatively pithy prose. The game starts by dumping a huge amount of text setting up the world and its story. It's very detailed and quite dense, told in an extremely wordy manner that will have your eyes glazing over before it's even halfway through. You then get a brief cutscene introducing you to your first two characters with some really clumsy expository dialogue. The game then drops you onto the world map without much of a clue as to what to do, and before you get your bearings, you'll probably be attacked by a group of roving monsters.
The combat scenes benefit from actually being somewhat functional, though they are apparently quite glitched, unless I'm meant to be doing 50 times the damage of a regular attack using a cheap skill. The battles are turn-based, and you can choose from the usual spread of attack, defend, skill, and run. There are a ton of skills you can learn, though you'll probably end up leaning on a small handful. After finishing your first battle and returning to the world map, you might be attacked again, or you may have a chance to move, and that's when you'll notice the horrible scrolling effect in the game. I criticize Kemco RPGs for their chopping scrolling, but Elthinia has some good old-fashioned Tandy-style chunky scrolling. Mixing a generally 16-bit graphical style with this kind of early video game scrolling is a jarring and unpleasant effect.
You'll notice the monsters move around on the map constantly, and sometimes touching one will start a fight, but sometimes not. Sometimes you won't touch one at all but a fight will still break out anyway. Before long, you'll make your way to a town where the people will give awkward expository dialogue that is more focused on fleshing out the world than giving you a clue where to go. You'll meet your next party member here, and he dumps a huge amount of overly-wordy text on you before joining you. His sprite stays where it was, but I assure you, he joined you. At this point, you might poke around the menus. If you dig a bit, you'll be surprised to discover the game has a job class system that allows you to set a main class and a sub-class for each character. Gaining experience while using that job gives you points you can use to unlock job-specific skills. The game never tells you about any of this, and if you fail to find it, you're probably going to hit a wall pretty quickly. Adding to the problem is that several of the skills seem to be bugged or unfinished and don't work properly.
The overworld map also contains dungeons filled with monsters and chests. Unlike the chests in the town, which you may have tried and failed to open, these ones are yours for the taking. Some of the dungeons are just there to provide you with some cool loot, while others are plot-required stops. The difficulty, like in the rest of the game, is really uneven. Sometimes enemies will go down easily, followed by the next pack doing near-one hit kills on your whole party before you can even act. Is it a bug or is it the actual game? In Elthinia, it's hard to tell. Anyway, the designs of the dungeons are okay, with lots of branching paths and treasure to find, but these interior areas are just as glitchy as the overworld. Like the overworld, you'll sometimes experience a crash coming out of a fight. The good news is, the game autosaves. The bad news is, in the current version, when you come back from a crash, half of your party is set to 1 HP and 0 MP. If that happens in a dungeon, you're probably going to be pretty ticked off. I know I was.
One way the game really missed the mark in its aim to imitate classic JRPGs is with the text and story. In older JRPGs, dialogue was short and snappy, with explanations and exposition kept to a bare minimum, mostly out of memory restrictions. Plots were kind of shallow in the broad sense, just used as loose means to keep you moving. They're basically road trip games, and like road trip movies, nobody really cares about the reason why the characters went on the trip. Just give a quick reason that may or may not be remembered before the ending, and get to the part people want to experience: the wacky adventures. Elthinia is, by contrast, bloated and laborious. The game dumps so much lore on you in such large quantities that it's hard to focus on or care about what you're supposed to be doing. This is a risky gamble, and it really only works when the writing is good. Sadly, Elthinia reads like someone with a lot of ideas and little writing experience wrote it. It's incredibly dry.
Admittedly, this does seem like a labor of love, and the developer appears to be dedicated to patching it up and adding extra free content, but to be honest, I don't think I'll be sticking around to see it. I had a really bad time with the several hours I already spent on Elthinia, so I can't say I want or need more. I get that at some point, every project needs to start bringing in money, but unleashing what would barely qualify as an early beta by most standards is only going to sour people on the game for good. It's going to take an awful lot of fixes before I'd recommend this game to anyone, even the most die-hard of RPG fans.
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