Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure

Rhapsody is one of those games I have a pretty strong memory of going in. I was at Hastings, a sort of regional chain that offered game rentals while also selling various media (CDs, books, games, movies, etc.). This was during the Playstation 1’s heyday, and I was looking for something to rent. I’m assuming what I was looking for was out or I had played it to death, because at some point my mother came along to help me out.

She asked me point blank: “What about this game? You can use a pancake attack.” I was intrigued, and she handed me a blue case with a stylized anime angel on the front. I looked at the back, and sure enough, this was a JRPG that promised you could use all sorts of fun attacks, including dropping pancakes on your enemy. I was more than ready to jump into that game.

Fear my ultimate attack: Pancake!

Rhapsody was one of the first, if not the outright first, games localized by NIS, the developer who would go on to make the popular, but still relatively niche, Disgaea series. It would introduce elements and even characters that we’d come to know: Rosenqueen is the name of the merchant guild (and a main character), the tactical grid battle is here in a rough form, and there’s this sort of quirky sense of humor that mixes with in depth philosophical looks and a surprisingly in depth story.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that this game got rereleased as part of the NIS classics line (that includes the earlier reviewed Soul Nomad), along with several new features. I pre-ordered the collector’s edition from NIS themselves, which included a double-sided CD, an artbook, stands, and a hard copy of the game. As it’s part of a double-feature, La Pucelle Tactics: Ragnarok was also released with it (I’ll review that game later).

Rhapsody follows the young girl Cornet. She possess the unique ability to communicate with puppets, and can bring them to life through a combination of her magic, and a horn (trumpet) that’s said to fulfill every wish. She’s joined by her fairy companion Kururu, who is also apparently a puppet brought to life (she looks nothing like one). Cornet longs for her magnificent prince to swoop in and save her, carrying her away in a whirlwind romance.

Some slight spoilers here, but Cornet actually encounters the prince. This leads to her comedic attempts at wooing him and getting noticed, which range from baking his favorite frog dish to participating in the Miss Marl contest. Events unfold which will eventually see Cornet journeying throughout the land to rescue her prince. This entails finding six magical stones representing different elements. Along the way, Cornet encounters love, hate, loss, life, and some outright heavy stuff.

Oh, and there are regular musical numbers that happen about every hour or so of game time, give or take.

They’re pretty well done for Playstation graphics and setting

That’s right, the “musical” part of this adventure is taken literally. Sure, Cornet wields her horn in battle and uses magic to bolster her team of puppets, but there are over six outright musical numbers, where the characters break out into sometimes outright spontaneous song. They’re sometimes part of the story, like when Cornet sings to encourage a friend to help her fight an upcoming boss, or when a Mountain-man sings the “Mountainman’s Song” to appease a spirit and allow you to finish a dungeon.

They’re not the most amazing tunes in the world, but they’re often heartfelt and fairly well performed, particularly considering this was the Playstation days, before a big name voice performer would get anywhere near a video game. If nothing else, it often sounds like the performers are having fun with their roles.

This version actually includes Japanese voice acting if you’d like. I have nostalgia for the original English version, so I stuck with that. Interestingly, the included CD only includes the Japanese tracks; to get the English versions you’d have to have the original CD that came with the first release (and yes, I do have that; I can listen to “Evil Queen” in English and Japanese!)

Of course the villainess gets a song, and dancers, and minions…

I was actually surprised at how deep the story gets at times. There’s this lighthearted feel to it, particularly in the opening hours of the game, where they’re establishing the main cast and letting us experience Cornet’s flirtations with Prince Ferdinand. By the time he’s captured, we’ve likely come to like the guy too, or at least come to support Cornet’s journey with him.

That journey really does include some deep moments, and there are times where Cornet pauses to reflect on what she’s done, sometimes talking it over with Kururu, sometimes with other characters. That includes her actually wondering if she’s in the right to be doing everything to save the prince and stop an evil witch, or questioning whether or not the monster slaying she’s doing is necessary. There’s actually a moral choice you’re asked to make, where Cornet has to choose between her own desires and the survival of a magical species.

Land of Lessons is more like it

The basic gameplay plays more or less like a traditional JRPG. You move around the map as Cornet, with several smaller areas being broken up in the pretty traditional world map, seen above. A handful of areas contain random battles, which play out in a grid based fashion that feels like a prototype for the strategy JRPGs NIS would come to be known for.

And yes, I am fighting with a party of two eggs, a fairy, and some angelic doll

Cornet utilizes puppets as companions. These are scattered throughout the areas, sometimes in hard to find places, sometimes in plain sight. There’s a few that would likely be missed without a guide (this is an old-school RPG), but, again, several are nearly in plain sight. There are well over a dozen of these, and surprisingly they sometimes have a sort of opening quest to recruit them, as well as their own sidequest. See, puppets can apparently be reborn into something alive if they fulfill certain tasks. This is a sort of side thing you can do, as Cornet can work to help each puppet reincarnate.

That most often involves getting a puppet to a certain level (usually around 30), which does encourage you to mix your party up some. Some of the quests are more involved, having you explore optional dungeons or fulfill certain quest lines. What’s a bit odd is that there’s no real reward for doing so, besides expanding the story and whatever you find along the way.

The battles utilize those puppets, each of whom has a different element and skills attached. There’s unfortunately a lot of overlap with that: all three dark element characters have the exact same skill tree, so it’s more which palette you prefer. And battles don’t really require much exploration. They’re pretty easy, at least on Normal mode (the default setting). I only lost a puppet or two a few times, and those were usually underleveled puppets, because for some reason, every puppet joins at level 1. Fortunately it’s really easy to level up in this game, as they’re quite generous in that regard, likely because they knew you’d want to rotate in puppets and try them in.

Still, while the battles may not be hard, they are enjoyable. They’ve got some of the stuff from grid based tactics game that adds to combat: placement, range, etc. Interestingly, Cornet herself doesn’t have any abilities she can directly use to attack, at least not at first. She can melee attack with her horn (and she usually has high attack), but her main ability involves playing her horn to power up all the puppets around her. Each powered up puppet grants a musical note on a charge bar. Those notes build power levels, and those levels allow you to utilize various special abilities.

You know, like a pancake attack.

Also the deadly cake attack, which yes, one hit KO’d this entire group of cats

The graphics have held up pretty well, particularly in this remaster. The use of sprites helps lend it that timeless look that makes games like this age a bit better than the 3d graphics that were the style at the time. For the most part, the music is pretty good too.

This brings me to the game’s major flaw, and it’s a big one: the dungeon design is awful.

I seriously do not know which dungeon this is

Every single dungeon has the same build. They’re all various small rooms, either squares or passages, that interlock with one another, most often on a grid. You move from almost identical room to almost identical room. It is incredibly easy to get lost, as many of these dungeons, particularly the later ones, are virtually identical to one another.

Most dungeons blend together too. They often just throw a different filter over a dungeon and call it something else. On top of that, the music for the dungeons is the exact same every time. It’s by far the weakest track in the game, and seeing as you’re likely to get lost in the dungeons and/or spend a lot of time combing them for secrets, including recruitable characters, you’re going to hear that tune a lot. This is one of the major aspects of any JRPG, and Rhapsody just drops the ball so hard here that it’s almost funny.

Kind of easy to see why they mostly focused on tactical games after this.

That being said, I still very much love this game. I was in the midst of replaying a lot of retro games when I first heard this was coming out on the Switch (see the earlier reviews on SNES games), and it was one that I had seriously considered replaying. I have very fond memories of it, and it has an emotional connection to some of my earlier gaming, not to mention having my mother involved.

However, Rhapsody actually has a good deal of weight and staying power beyond that nostalgia. The story is surprisingly deep, if not horribly involved. The battle system starts to show the tricks and ideas that NIS would become famous for. The songs are adorable and catchy if nothing else. The characters are all fun and well written, and it’s a delight to watch Cornet grow throughout her journey, becoming more powerful and dependable as things go on; she literally goes from being a clumsy village girl to being a town savior, which of course happens in most JRPGs, but here we get closer to her than ever.

It’s a shame the dungeons are so horribly done. This would’ve been a chance to improve that too: just adding a map feature would’ve saved so much hassle. But while NIS is doing great at rereleasing its back catalogue, it’s still not doing great at adding much to the games themselves, instead relying on the box set add-ons. I’d still say this game, and the combined package itself, is worth getting, though it’s likely not worth the full asking price unless you’ve already got some nostalgia for it.

The game took me a little over 8 hours to beat, and that was an almost 100% completion (I missed a single illustration somewhere).

9 for me on the game; it’s dungeons hold it back a lot, but it still hits all the right notes

7 for the more general score, maybe an 8. Those dungeons are just inexcusable and there’s perhaps not enough depth for RPG players who are interested (this could be a great game to introduce JRPGs to a younger crowd though, particularly those who like musicals and cartoons)

You and me both, Ferdinand

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