One of the things I admire most about NIS America as a publisher is its unapologetic willingness to release games with an incredibly niche target audience.
The Imageepoch-developed Time and Eternity is one of those games. It's a game for people who like anime. No, I'm not talking about people who watched Akira or a Studio Ghibli movie when it was on television one time and thought it was "all right," I'm talking about people -- well, probably mostly heterosexual men, if we're being honest here -- who really like anime. The sort of people who have a favorite K-On! girl and will happily plaster their computer and/or phone desktop with her smiling visage; the sort of people who may even have unironically used the words "waifu," "pantsu" or "baka" in conversation at least once or twice in their lives. People like -- yes, well done if you've already figured this out well in advance -- me.
(Mio, if you were wondering.)
The reason I bring this up is that Time and Eternity, despite technically being a JRPG, is actually structured and paced rather more like an anime TV series than a traditional video game. That is to say, its plot isn't your usual "plucky band of angsty heroes saves the world." Instead, it's a much more low-key, personal sort of affair that moves along at a rather sedate pace, and it features a lot of sequences involving the same teenage girl characters sitting around in the same place having conversations that are probably a bit longer than they need to be. It's an acquired taste, for sure.
Lest you've not come across this curious game before, here's the gist: Toki and Zack (the latter of whom you can rename, because 1) he's technically the protagonist, despite the fact you don't directly control him for most of the game and 2) no-one ever actually says his name out loud) are getting married. Toki is the princess of the kingdom, though she tends to keep her identity secret when among her subjects; Zack is one of her knights. All told, it's a rather fairytale wedding -- at least it is until assassins burst on the scene, mortally wound Zack and traumatize Toki to such a degree that her alternate personality Towa bursts forth to try and protect the couple. The ruined wedding culminates with Toki and/or Towa using her/their hereditary time magic powers to leap back six months into the past to uncover the truth of the assassins' plot. Hilarity ensues.
Despite its unusual premise, the whole thing is quite formulaic in many respects, particularly with regard to its supporting cast, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing; a lot of anime embraces the feeling of familiarity and comfort you get from recognizable tropes and story formulae. Time and Eternity is certainly no exception in that regard, for better or worse -- although as mentioned above, it's more following the conventions of anime than JRPGs.
The heroines Toki and Towa somewhat subvert expectations, however, making them memorable, effective and endearing as lead characters, and a pleasing contrast to the rest of the cast. Toki initially appears to be a "perfect housewife" sort of figure -- she's kind, demure, innocent and never raises her voice -- but actually shows herself over the course of the game to be in possession of an unshakeable, noble, courageous heart as she takes on any challenges that come her way without complaint. It's also quite strongly implied that she's interested in being sexually adventurous, but not until her marriage to Zack goes without a hitch. Towa, meanwhile, first manifests as an aggressive, violent personality keen to hurt, maim and kill anyone and everything who wrongs her, but occasionally drops her guard and either lets out her true feelings for Zack or reveals her few weaknesses -- rather mundane things like fear of bugs, frogs and "creepy things" in general. Towa is also seriously hesitant when it comes to matters of love and sexuality.
Time and Eternity's premise has a lot going for it. The setup is dramatic, and the concept of two "souls" sharing a single body like Toki and Towa is a relatively common one in anime -- as is the "twist" revealed very early on that Toki/Towa's pet dragon thing Drake is actually possessed by the extremely (and perhaps understandably) sexually frustrated Zack when they travel back into the past. It would, in short, be a good basis and ensemble cast for an anime series.
It looks and sounds like an anime series, too, with decent quality dual-audio speech -- the Japanese is, as is usually the case, the better-quality option in terms of acting -- and a frankly astonishing soundtrack from Yuzo "Streets of Rage" Koshiro. Take a moment and marvel at this sample.
While the game's drab, PS2-quality 3D backgrounds are nothing to get excited about, they're not where your attention should be focused; instead, you'll likely find your eyes immediately drawn to the giant, beautiful, hand-drawn, hand-animated anime sprites that make up the characters in the game.
Most of the animators' attention has been lavished on Toki and Towa, since they dominate screen time throughout the game. The two leading ladies are, for the most part, the same sprite with palette-swapped hair and eyes, though each does have her own unique poses and animations in conversation scenes -- the red-haired, red-eyed Toki's poses tend to be slightly hesitant and girlish; meanwhile the blonde, golden-eyed Towa's are cool, calm and confident. NPCs, meanwhile, tend to come from a small pool of four or five different palette-swapped sprites, while Toki/Towa's three female friends -- the game's main supporting characters -- each have their own unique appearances and animations that help convey their respective personalities.
It would be easy for these obviously 2D sprites to look like cardboard cutouts in the 3D world, but sensible framing of shots and minimal use of moving camera angles makes them blend in quite nicely. The 3D backgrounds also tend to be infused with a heavy degree of blur and bloom, making them ill-defined and soft-focus, distracting attention away from them and towards the characters. I can't quite tell if this was a deliberate stylistic choice or is simply a side-effect of the frankly rather questionable 3D visuals, but either way, it works; whether Toki is on screen simpering adorably or Towa is holding a knife to the throat of a particularly persistent and unwelcome suitor, you certainly aren't counting the polygons in the buildings.
The "game" part of Time and Eternity is just as likely to be divisive as its thematic and visual elements. Action alternates between largely non-interactive (albeit animated) visual novel-style conversation sequences where the player may make occasional choices, dungeon-crawling and battles, all linked together by a Final Fantasy Tactics-style node-based overworld map.
The player's choices in the story sequences don't have an impact on the overall narrative as such, though they do have an impact on the level of affection the two heroines hold for the protagonist character, which unlocks various scenes throughout the game. At the outset of the game, this "affection balance" is in the middle, so the slightest change to either girl's feelings will tip it noticeably one way or the other; as you progress, though, one girl or the other will likely become "favored," naturally and the pair's affections may be manipulated further through certain actions in battle. This mechanic isn't explained in great detail by the game, but it's something the player comes to discover organically over time as certain abilities unlock.
The dungeon crawling sequences are fairly bland and uninteresting, with Toki and Towa running through a series of rather samey environments in which there's little incentive to "explore" due to the fact everything is laid out on the map for you. I get the strong impression that this was intentional, though; this isn't a game about hunting down secrets. In fact, the clearly laid-out maps mean that you always know precisely where you need to go, allowing you to head straight there with a few battles on the way to level up rather than getting bogged down unnecessarily. The dungeons also play host to numerous optional sidequests, most of which are of the "fetch" or "kill" variety, but which have a few amusing recurring characters and side stories that span the game's four chapters and play with the core time travelling concept somewhat.
Oddly, any "interactive" points in the dungeons are represented completely abstractly by playing card symbols rather than character sprites. It's weird and breaks the immersion a little, but it also gets around the "cardboard cutout 2D NPCs in a 3D world" problem in a somewhat inelegant manner, and at least they make it clear when you're about to get into a tough fight, for example.
The battle system is pretty neat, though again is something of an acquired taste. Eschewing the usual turn-based combat style of many JRPGs, Time and Eternity's battles are more akin to Punch-Out, of all things. Toki and Towa may either attack an enemy from range with their rifle, or move in close for a melee attack -- sometimes enemies will close the gap themselves, forcing melee combat. Both girls unlock skills through the game's progression system as they level up, allowing them a wider array of attack types and magic spells.
Said progression system is a little unbalanced at times; enemies are worth a fairly constant amount of experience throughout the game, making "grinding" low-level enemies a distinct possibility, but in practice it's really not necessary. The "Gifts" system, whereby the player unlocks skill sets for Toki and Towa separately, however, is a well thought-out mechanic allowing you to build the two girls into unique characters that get more distinct from one another the further through the game you are. Toki and Towa switch places on every level up, and the items needed to switch them manually at other times are in very short supply; consequently, you need to make sure that both are capable of handling themselves.
There are not very many different types of enemies throughout the game, which is a bit of a shame -- fighting palette-swapped enemies does get somewhat repetitive. In practice, this dearth of unique enemies actually works quite well, though: each opponent has its own distinct attack pattern that you can learn in order to minimize damage to yourself and defeat them as quickly as possible. As you learn more skills, it becomes very satisfying to find good combinations of attacks, blocks, dodges and abilities that work efficiently on various enemies that may have given you grief earlier in the game. Fighting as a whole isn't particularly difficult until very late in the game, but a lot of the fun comes from self-imposed challenges such as finishing a battle with minimal item usage; the game's trophies also encourage players to explore the combo and "chain magic" systems rather than just button mash.
The only time the game's combat really trips up is when fighting oversized enemies, at which point action switches to a quasi third-person shooter mode in which you have to manually aim spells at a boss while avoiding their attacks. The controls in these sequences are just a bit too clunky for their own good and feel completely at odds with the rest of the game's combat; thankfully, they are also very infrequent.
I won't lie: I like Time and Eternity, and even if I didn't enjoy the game itself -- which I did -- I would still appreciate the fact that it exists, because it's so far from the popular perception of what a game "should" be. These days, it's easy to get cynical about endless retreads of the same old game styles and subject matter, so when something like Time and Eternity comes along and does something a little bit different -- perhaps not altogether successfully -- it's something I very much support.
A lot of how much I like it personally can be attributed to how much time I have for goofy anime romances, visual novels and that uniquely Japanese brand of pervy pantsu-flashing humor -- that said, I did legitimately enjoy the combat and unusual story, the progression system only continues to get more interesting as the game proceeds and the soundtrack is just amazing.
I cannot in good conscience give Time and Eternity an unreserved recommendation, even for the hardest of the hardcore JRPG and/or anime fans, though. It's so obviously designed for a very specific niche of people that anyone outside that niche will likely respond with anything from bewilderment to disgust and rejection. It is clearly made on the cheap, riddled with fanservice, technically shoddy and very, very Japanese, and any or all of those things will likely be enough to put a significant proportion of you off -- and I wouldn't blame you for that, with the amount of other quality entertainment available today.
If, on the other hand, you've read all this and feel that you're squarely in that niche that NIS America and Imageepoch are aiming for with this release, go have a fun time; the only advice I'll give is that Toki is mai waifu and you better treat her well.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: The 3D backgrounds are drab, low-poly and obviously designed through copy, paste and palette-swapping; the 2D characters, meanwhile, are attractive, well-animated and express the cast's vivid personalities beautifully.
- Music: Even if you have no intention of playing the game, do yourself a favor and check out Yuzo Koshiro's excellent soundtrack, particularly the blaring, brass-heavy battle themes.
- Interface: The game and its menus are easy to navigate, but could do with a comprehensive in-game help function to refer to. Loading breaks are a little too frequent.
- Lasting Appeal: Two "normal" endings -- one for each of the heroines -- and a "True" ending only available on a New Game Plus run will keep you busy for a while... so long as the game manages to hook you in the first place, of course. A first-time runthrough is in the region of 20-30 hours or so; New Game Plus is significantly quicker, especially if you skip cutscenes and sidequests.