I don’t know how many people are out there waiting for yet another action JRPG that plays exactly to convention, but Eternal Radiance is just that. Visualnoveler’s mashup of action combat and visual novel is a perfectly competent game, but for hours at a time I’d realise I wasn’t being surprised, or excited, or challenged. The combat, characters and story are standard. And for what it’s worth, it’s all fine – gaining levels is engaging, the art is pleasant and colourful, the writing has some chuckle-worthy moments. The sticking point is going to be whether you’ll be satisfied with a game that never aims to be better than good enough, and there’s always the question hanging over the game of whether you be strung along to the next moment, or whether you will finally become bored with it all?
Celeste is a knight-in-training and all-round shonen protagonist, who means well, but has the flaw of being close-minded. She’s excited to join the Ashen Order, a hegemonic army keeping the peace in a generic fantasy landscape by controlling the influence of sinister, monster-summoning artefacts. The game begins on the first test – she must retrieve an artefact – but it goes awry when a mysterious white-haired girl steals it and runs off into the far distance. In her quest to retrieve the artefact, Celeste teams up with and emotionless mercenary named Valana and Ruby, the optimistic mage, to learn more about the shadowy organisation behind the theft of artefacts to rectify the balance of power in the world itself.
It’s the kind of story so laden with cliché that it’s a prime target for the kind of parody that you’d get out of something like The Longest 5 Minutes or Evoland. Eternal Radiance’s narrative weakness is compunded by the fact that it has more dialogue text than most JRPGs, owing to its visual novel segments. These play out how you’d expect; characters take their time to make small talk in between plot beats, and plenty of time is wasted. This game likes to do the party-conversations that are common in the Tales series, but they often come off as incredibly trite – marvelling at the beauty of the landscape, or debating whether a potato is a vegetable or not. I’m usually not someone to complain if a game has too much reading, but I don’t understand how Eternal Radiance can make the player read so much and yet still only offer the most formulaic plot possible, led by three pleasant yet unexciting characters.
On the other side of things is the action combat. The controls are solid and the performance is better than what I’ve seen of the mobile versions, though the Switch does have its occasional frame stutters too. The combat does unfortunately lack depth, though. Celeste is the only controllable character with Valana and Ruby being AI supporters, and Celeste has your average melee combos and ranged spells. Oddly there’s no snapping to targets, which means only the first one or two hits of a melee combo will reliably land before Celeste steps away from the enemy to swipe at thin air. Upon level up she can learn new combat skills, but many have overlapping utility and aren’t meaningfully better than just mashing the attack button. Many even lock Celeste into a long attack animation, leaving her vulnerable for a length of time that almost renders the attack worthless.
The enemy design is decent, with mobs that mix up melee and ranged attackers to force players to manage threats and play strategically. Celeste has a block and a dodge-roll which affords a temporary boost of speed if timed right. Attacks are telegraphed well enough, but the camera is often too zoomed in for players to address every threat coming in from every direction, so it’s better to assume that Celeste will be taking constant unavoidable damage, and to play around that. The game also indulges in palette swapping enemies, which makes new areas a chore to traverse, since it doesn’t offer as much variety as it really should.
Speaking of areas, they’re way, way too big for a game like this. Rather than tight, choreographed encounters, each area is a huge wide-open flat space with nothing to interact with save for a few hidden treasure chests and clumps of enemies that don’t even try to impede your progress. There’s also nothing to do in the environments but run forward towards your next objective. I did get a bit nostalgic since this design reminds me of old-school MMORPGs… but then that’s not necessarily a good thing. MMO design has moved on for a reason. This is the bad kind of nostalgia – a piece of outdated design that I’ve internalised and developed an affection for.
The towns and conversations are also turned into menus more fitting of a visual novel than of a JRPG. I personally don’t like this trend very much in this genre – I like being able to walk around a town, to explore its nooks and crannies and to talk to people organically (and rifle through their stuff on occasion) because it sells the illusion of a fully-formed fantasy world. Non-combat areas like towns and cities are a great way for developers to express how ordinary people might live in this world, and thus create empathy or higher stakes when that world is threatened. In Eternal Radiance, it’s hard to fathom how their society functions – people talk about their trouble with the monster attacks and their professions as generic anime fantasy blacksmiths, fishermen or alchemists, but it doesn’t form a world that feels lived-in, and it’s even more barren when paired with the flat and empty combat locales.
I’ve been quite negative on the game so far but I do admit the production values are enormously high. The character art is expressive, and Visualnoveler is generous with its use of CGs (I counted more than the average Visual Novel, even). The soundtrack is also fantastic – perhaps not well fitting for some of the combat scenarios, though nice to listen to, and it never grates. The only thing that could have been improved on the production end was some voice acting during cutscenes.
I don’t have strong feelings for Eternal Radiance. It’s got no egregious flaws, and boasts a lengthy quest and a combat loop sure to keep players satisfied. As a bare-bones, back-to-basics look at the action-JRPG, it’s fine. It’s just that on the Switch there are so many available games that take a more interesting look at the JRPG formula, whether it has to do with narrative or gameplay or visual aesthetic, and that makes Eternal Radiance seem woefully bland by comparison. Reading the situation generously, it does feel like the game’s simplicity comes down to the developer’s affection of JRPG tropes, rather than a lack of creativity or ambition. But it’s still a quality that holds the overall experience back. The finished product is fine, and quite nice to look at, but it is something that makes me want to play something else instead.