Aselia the Eternal: At the End of This Earth / Eien no Aselia: The Spirit of Eternity Sword (永遠のアセリア -The Spirit of Eternity Sword-) - Windows, PlayStation 2, PSP (2003)
Founded in 1996, JAST USA and its subsidiary companies had translated and released several visual novels over the years. Granted, all of them are eroge, or "H-Games" as they are more commonly known as in the west, due to their adult content. As such, the games JAST released ranged from honest-to-goodness stories that had little in the way of adult content, and when it did come up, it was usually done tastefully with believable circumstances (Crescendo, Figures of Happiness, Princess Waltz), to visual novels that may have had a few gratuitous sex scenes, but were still very much story-centric (Yume Miru Kusuri, Family Project ~Kazoku Keikaku~, Tokimeki Check In!), to outright smut (Let's Meow Meow, Amorous Professor Cherry, Do You Like Horny Bunnies?). However, in 2011, they tried to do something a little different; As a means of trying to appeal to a wider audience, they released their first (and currently only) all-ages visual novel, Aselia the Eternal, known in Japan as Eien no Aselia.
Eien no Aselia was originally released in 2003 for the PC by the Japanese visual novel developer, Xuse, as an adult-oriented visual novel-slash-strategy RPG, and in 2004, a standalone expansion came out, revolving around two additional heroines. In 2005, an all-ages version of the game, with additional scenes, a reworked script, and the expansion already added on was released for the PlayStation 2. Finally, in 2007, the PS2 version was ported back to the PC and in 2008, it was ported to the PlayStation Portable. The PC backport was translated to English by fan translation group, Dakkodango Translations, which was later bought by JAST USA and sold to English-speaking audiences on November 4, 2011 under the translated title, Aselia the Eternal.
The story begins with a flashback, where we learn that the stepparents and stepsister of our protagonist, Yuuto Takamine, were in a plane crash, resulting in the deaths of the parents and the stepsister, Kaori, in critical condition. Yuuto, praying deeply for Kaori's survival, is answered by a strange and indistinct voice in his head, and soon after, Kaori recovers. What follows is Yuuto's daily life, being the sole provider for Kaori, going to school with Kaori and their friends, Kyouko, Kouin, and Kotori, his rivalry with some guy named Shun, having a part-time job to make ends meet, and unwittingly being chosen to be the lead in a school play, much to Yuuto's dismay; it appears to be the setting for a school-based comedy-slash-drama.
However, during all this, that strange voice he heard before Kaori's recovery pops into Yuuto's head from time to time and when visiting a local shrine, he is occasionally met by a mysterious shrine maiden named Tokimi, who speaks to him as if she'd known him for a long time. Finally, when Yuuto and Kaori, along with their friends, Kyouko and Kouin, pay a visit to said shrine, there is a sudden flash of light, and the next thing Yuuto knows, he's alone in a forest, where he is attacked and nearly killed by a strange red-haired girl, but then rescued by an equally strange blue-haired girl with white wings. Apparently, he and the others were transported to another world, called Phantasmagoria, where people speak an unknown language, and, in addition to humans, is inhabited by "spirits," exclusively female beings who have a sixth sense for combat and carry sentient weapons called "Eternity Swords," which grant them superhuman abilities and magical powers, who exist to protect humans, who, in return, see and use them as nothing more than weapons. Yuuto finds out that he himself unknowingly formed a contract with a high-ranked Eternity Sword called 'Desire' when he wished for Kaori's survival. With Kaori being held as a hostage, Yuuto is forced to become a slave soldier for the kingdom of Rakios, leading an army of spirits to carry out its king's ambitions of conquest.
This is only the first five-or-so hours of a very long story. What follows is a tale of war, death, moral dilemma, camaraderie, love, political intrigue, prejudice, heroism, and sacrifice.
The story's protagonist. After being transported to Phantasmagoria, he is forced to fight for Rakios as an "Etranger," an otherworldly warrior who wields an exceptionally powerful Eternity Sword. His Eternity Sword is called 'Desire,' which Yuuto often calls "stupid sword" (or "bakaken"), out of dismay over the blade's tendency to take over his mind (or at least try to) and attempt to kill his spirit friends for their mana. Having never known his birth parents and losing his stepparents to a plane crash, Yuuto cares deeply for his only remaining relative, his stepsister Kaori. At first, he fights to ensure Kaori's safety, but after forming a strong bond with his spirit comrades, he starts to find his own reasons to fight. Usually kind, but can be impulsive and quick-tempered.
With powerful attacks, strong defenses, and useful support skills, he's good for just about any situation.
The story's primary heroine, in case the title weren't enough of a hint. Aselia is a spirit who saves Yuuto's life soon after his arrival in Phantasmagoria, and is the strongest spirit in service to Rakios. Stoic and taciturn, but also a bit ditzy and naïve. Her Eternity Sword is a large blade called 'Existence.'
She is a powerful melee attacker, but also has the ability to cancel out enemy spells with her "Ice Banisher" skill.
A kindhearted spirit who nurses Yuuto back to health after almost getting killed by an enemy spirit soon after his arrival in Phantasmagoria, and also teaches him about its language and culture. As her maid outfit might suggest, she's skilled at cooking and cleaning. Even though humans treat spirits badly, she's accepting of this and believes her reason to live is to die protecting them. Acts as a big sister for the other spirits and is the character that provides mission briefings, strategies, and tutorials. Her Eternity Sword is a spear called 'Devotion.'
Even though she doesn't look it, she is a tank who protects herself and guards others with defensive spells, and is also capable of healing and stat buffs.
Called "Orpha" for short. She is a spirit in service to Rakios, who quickly befriends Kaori and affectionately refers to Yuuto as "Papa." While she's normally energetic, playful, and cheerful, she's extremely sadistic to her enemies and believes there's absolutely nothing wrong with killing. Her Eternity Sword is a dual-bladed sword called 'Idea.'
While initially weak as a combatant, she learns powerful fire spells at higher levels. She also attacks enemies with her flying "Orpha Kick."
A powerful and feared samurai-esqe spirit who serves the Sargios Empire. Despite her fearsome reputation, however, she is extremely formal (refers to her allies with the "-dono" honorific), polite, honorable, and so serious-minded, it's often played for laughs. While she loves to fight, she dislikes killing. She is often relied on to teach her allies how to improve their swordsmanship. Her Eternity Sword is a katana called 'Providence.'
She is capable of attacking several times during combat.
Lesteena Dai Rakios
The princess of Rakios. While she's sort of cold-hearted when placed in an authoritative position, she, unlike her power-hungry father, deeply cares about her subjects. She occasionally sneaks out of the castle in disguise to escape from the pressure of her position. The only romancable non-combatant. A bit of a waffle junkie.
Yuuto's stepsister, whom he greatly cherishes. Despite their sibling status, however, Kaori sees Yuuto as a bit more than a brother, though in Yuuto's case, she is always firmly in the sister zone, and doesn't have her own path or ending. The king of Rakios uses her as a bargaining chip to ensure Yuuto's cooperation, but despite being a hostage, she is treated with kindness by Lesteena and becomes close friends with Orpha. Kind, timid, gentle, and adored by almost everyone (in other words, a tad Mary-Suish. The reason I say "a tad" is because she does get some actual character development... eventually). Spends the majority of the game as a captive. Plays the flute.
A childhood friend of Yuuto's who also gets transported to Phantasmagoria. A tomboy who enjoys sports, and can be rather rough with her friends.
Another childhood friend of Yuuto's who also gets transported to Phantasmagoria. Street smart and always tries to act cool. More or less in a relationship with Kyouko.
A mysterious shrine maiden with a strange sword whom Yuuto occasionally crosses paths with shortly before before being spirited away to Phantasmagoria. Despite only recently becoming acquainted, she seems to know Yuuto well.
An arrogant classmate of Yuuto's, who has an obsessive crush on Kaori. He and Yuuto harbor an intense, almost irrational, hatred for each other. Seemingly disappears from the plot after Yuuto and his friends get spirited away to Phantasmagoria, but...
The cast of Aselia the Eternal is memorable and well-developed, and even though there is a fairly big cast of characters, they are introduced at a steady pace, and it never feels overwhelming. Yuuto's circumstances are very well presented and the challenges and issues he faces as he goes from a regular high school student to a slave soldier, forced to kill, are not left unaddressed, and overall, he's a very human character. Still, while it's made perfectly clear how much Kaori means to him, it sometimes feels a tad unrealistic how far he's willing to go for her sake (though Kaori herself is rightfully terrified by what her stepbrother is forced to do).
As for the story itself, it is a very long story, roughly around fifty hours on the first playthrough (fortunately already-read text can be skipped over on subsequent playthroughs, and not by fast-forwarding it like in most visual novels, but rather by just instantly jumping to the next dialogue choice or map battle, although, if the player wants to review a particular scene, it can still be fast-forwarded by holding CTRL). Despite its length, though, few scenes are played out more than they need to be. There are, however, some scenes that pop up at fairly inopportune times. For example, partway through the story, where Yuuto and his friends are preparing to fight their toughest opponent yet, the stakes being higher than ever, the preparations are intercut by slice-of-life scenes like Orpha adopting a pet and Aselia learning to cook (which also happens to be one of the few scenes that are needlessly drawn out), lighthearted scenes which clash heavily with the overall dark tone and the urgency of the upcoming battle. There are five heroines Yuuto can potentially end up with (seven on subsequent playthroughs), but unlike most games that have such a feature, romance is not the main focus of the story (though when it is brought up, they are pretty touching moments).
The setting is mostly concerned with the situation between the various countries of Phantasmagoria, rather than their cultural differences and what makes them unique from one another, which is fine, though it would have really fleshed it out more. However, when Yuuto first arrives in Phantasmagoria, its residents all speak a fantasy language, and until Yuuto becomes completely fluent in that language, at which point it's simplified to Japanese, there are literally hundreds of lines of voiced dialogue using this made-up language, which is impressive, and shows that the writers took their work seriously.
While one half of Aselia the Eternal is a visual novel, the other half is a turn-based strategy RPG. It's a fairly common practice for visual novels to be given some secondary gameplay mechanic that goes beyond simply clicking through dialogue and making the occasional decision, but they usually come off as superfluous afterthoughts. This is not the case in Aselia the Eternal, which has a deep, balanced, and well thought out battle system.
Aselia the Eternal's strategy RPG segments are sort of like a mix between Ogre Battle and Fire Emblem, with a battle aesthetic somewhat reminiscent of Super Robot Wars. Units are made up of up to three characters, and where they are placed in the unit’s formation determines which abilities those characters will use; the character placed in the forward position is the unit's Attacker, and, as the name implies, that character's job is to charge in and attack enemies. The character in the center position is the Defender, who is typically the first character enemy Attackers go after, and whose function is to perform defensive techniques to protect the other two characters in the unit. Finally, the character in the rear is the Supporter who can perform a variety of techniques, such as healing, stat buffs, offensive spells, and countering spells.
Besides the very few human characters (or "Etrangers," namely Yuuto and just a small handful of others), all characters on both the player’s side and the enemy’s are spirits that come in four types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses: Red spirits specialize in performing powerful fire attacks when placed as Supporters, may or may not have good Attacker skills, depending on the individual character, and have low defense and HP, making them terrible Defenders; Blue spirits, have powerful Attackers skills, mediocre Defender skills, and their primary role as Supporters is to cancel out the techniques of enemy Supporters; Green spirits have high HP and defense on top of having powerful defensive abilities, making them function well as Defenders, perform healing and stat buffing skills as Supporters, and have average Attacker skills; Finally, black spirits don't really specialize in a particular area, but perform several Attacker skills per battle (but lack the sheer power of blue spirits), their Supporter skills cannot be canceled out by blue spirits, and, while they generally lack defense, can reflect a portion of inflicted damage back at Attackers if placed as Defenders. As such, the formation of a unit is very important and before each enemy encounter, the formation can be changed to best counter an opponent (for example, if the enemy has a red spirit as a Supporter, it might be a good idea to move a blue spirit from the Attacker position to the Supporter position to cancel out the red spirit's spell and avoid getting nuked, although this can also limit the unit's overall offensive power.)
Throughout the battle, there is a value called "mana" and at the beginning of the player’s turn, some of that mana is converted into "ether," which is used to create buildings in towns and cities under the player’s control, which can do things like increase the amount of mana that is converted into ether per turn, alter the effectiveness of certain spirit types or raise the healing rate on a town or city, or allow characters to level up by using more ether (characters don’t level up simply by defeating enemies, at least not directly). When mana runs out, no more ether comes in, so there's an element of resource management as well, but mana can be earned by taking over enemy towns or cities, defeating enemy units, completing missions, etc. Also, throughout the game, various trainers join, who are also needed to level up characters, but they can only train each spirit type up to a certain level, thereby preventing overleveling, meaning that strategy is a must, and really, every single enemy encounter requires at least a little bit of thought.
Throughout the game, there are twenty-three map battles (and one extra map battle which varies depending on which heroine’s path is taken), enough for the SRPG segments to be an entire game on their own, and instead of them taking place on a variety of smaller maps, they all take place in different areas on a single large map (in fact, created buildings don’t just last for single missions, but for the entire game). Throughout the map are various towns and cities, with small panels between them, and on each space, there are different modifiers for each spirit type, which may strengthen some (friend and foe alike) and weaken others, so that also factors into the strategy (Etrangers like Yuuto aren't affected by these modifiers at all, though).
As one might expect, if Yuuto or one of the heroines die, it's game over, but there are also nine "sub-spirits," who, if they die, the game goes on, but like in Fire Emblem, if they die, they are gone for good (fortunately the game can be saved anytime during the player's turn, which helps a lot, seeing as it's very easy to lose characters if a bad decision is made, and since there are only nine sub-spirits, the player can ill-afford to lose them), and on top of that, they are not just faceless units, but are characters in their own right. Keeping them alive unlocks some additional scenes in the visual novel segments featuring these characters (in fact, watching all the scenes featuring the individual sub-spirits unlocks their highest class). Also, any heroine in the same unit as Yuuto has her affection toward him increase slightly whenever an enemy unit is defeated, so the map battles actually play a big part in determining which heroine's path the story eventually takes. Since most visual novels with secondary gameplay functions operate independently, it's great to see that the two gameplay aspects in Aselia the Eternal play off one another.
While the map battles are generally pretty fun, they do have some glaring flaws, though. Characters can only use their techniques a certain number of times and then can't use them anymore until they spend a turn on a town or city, which refills the count. During the mid-to-late game, where enemies are both numerous and powerful, this can be very annoying as it could potentially mean spending the next several turns to have a unit backtrack to a town and then return to the fray, making this a gameplay mechanic that is needlessly bothersome. Also, since a huge portion of game time is spent in map battles, and map battles are mandatory, it can really get in the way of players making multiple playthroughs to see all the paths and endings (granted, character stats can be carried over after beating the game, which helps a bit, but it's still a time-consuming process, though some of it can be sped up by holding CTRL). Map battles late in the game are also very long, easily taking hours to complete, so they can end up becoming a tad tiresome, regardless of their good points. Lastly, while this is more of a nitpick, about 95% of the enemies fought in map battles are generic spirits; What usually qualifies as bosses are just plain enemy spirits that are stronger than the others, which is a bit of a letdown.
For the most part, the music is pretty good. Some tracks are memorable, and they fit the various situations well (the only track I'm not particularly fond of, personally, is "Power Politics," the music that plays during the map battles during the first half of the game; it just feels drab and hollow for music that is supposed to compliment a big fight. Fortunately, "Broken the Ethercore," the music that plays during the second half, is a considerable improvement). Unfortunately, the overall soundtrack feels a tad limited and unvaried, which causes several of the tracks to feel overused, but at least the music is decent enough that it isn't a big deal.
Overall, while it's certainly not perfect, Aselia the Eternal is still a great game. The story is very good, with some genuinely moving moments, the characters are well-developed and memorable, and the strategy RPG segments are deep and challenging. Since it takes about fifty hours to play through the game just once, it's highly recommended for those looking for a lengthy distraction; you could certainly do a lot worse.