Capcom’s Eldorado Gate is probably best described as an episodic game series before we knew that you could make episodic games; with this ambitious Dreamcast project spanning seven discs and eighteen chapters. Thankfully this isn’t the case of an egotistical developer imagining an impossible budget-busting epic (Shenmue), or a rushed whole game desperately carved up to meet deadlines (Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles) – remarkably Eldorado Gate was designed this way from the start - whoever came up with the idea of pitching a bi-monthly RPG for the Dreamcast is at least half as mad as the chap who OK’d it and write the cheque. Even more surprising is that everything went according to plan - each disc released on schedule (bar a week’s delay for disc four) between October 2000 and October 2001 – a time when the Dreamcast could be politely described as ‘struggling’.
A quick bit of good news for anyone left paralyzed by the thought of having to acquire all seven discs just to play through the story: all of the discs can be played by themselves, and they offer a brief recap of important events at the beginning so you’re not left in the dark. You do have to play the scenarios contained in each disc in order – you can’t play Radia’s scenario (the third on disc one) until you’ve finished Kanans’s (the second) – but other than that you’re free to tackle whatever bits you can lay your hands on. Of course this isn’t the ideal way to experience the story, but it’s better than forever being locked out of later chapters due to a corrupt VMU save file or a lack of access to one particular disc.
We’ll start with a look at the most obviously striking part of Eldorado Gate – the graphics. Capcom were clearly proud of getting famous illustrator Yoshitaka Amano on board, and his influence on the game is plain to see from the moment you clap eyes on the box art. Unlike a lot of (possibly all other?) games he’s worked on battles use scans of his original illustrations for enemy art as opposed to an ‘influenced by’ or ‘interpreted from’ redesign. It’s fair to say that this style can feel at odds with the lush pixel art used throughout the rest of the game, but when it looks this good does it really matter? I found myself more interested in seeing what bizarre creature would pop up next than worry about whether it matched the standard exploration graphics, but as with anything your mileage here may vary.
Battles occur randomly and are frequent but not obnoxiously so. At first glance there’s a clear Dragon Quest influence to the battle screen layout – all menus and static monster art backed up by memorable jingles and strong sound effects. It’s clear that this is where the development time was cut to keep the games pushed out the door on time, but even so the fast pace and the odd impressive visual flourish when a powerful spell goes off keep the sparseness from being anything to really hold against it. Depth comes from the need to consider how your character’s equipment and spell element works with the current enemy group, using a rock-paper-scissors style interplay between wood, fire, and ice. It’s not so important that you must have the right weapon alignment at all times but it’ll definitely help smooth engagements out and the benefits of using the correct element on bosses can be clearly felt. Those of you worried about getting bashed into a bloody pulp by an unplanned-for encounter will be pleased to hear that you can change your equipment at any point during any battle. Rounding out the element system are ‘life’ spells (all your healing spells live here) and rare ‘light’ magic (general all-round attacks that do well, but not brilliantly, against everything).
In keeping with Eldorado Gate’s desire to do the classic JRPG a little differently, the spell system doesn’t technically use spells at all but magical crystals that can be combined together to create more powerful attacks or effect multiple enemies (or allies!) at once. The combining rules are very simple – spells take on the element of the first crystal on the list, with the second (and if your current lead’s a skilled magician, third) boosting power, with W-[element] crystals adding a ‘target-all’ effect to any spell level. Enemies more often than not drop several crystals when defeated and dungeons are littered with equipment and items to pick up so you can use magic by and large as often as you please without worrying about backtracking to the nearest town to restock from the crystal shop (something I only had to do once in all of the first disc).
The plot is rather hard to write about at the moment as it’s only just begun - everything’s up in the air at the end of the first disc with the fates of some key characters left unknown and a fourth-wall-breaking narrator of questionable reliability. I can at least tell you that scenarios so far last around two or three hours each, and the writers seem to be quite keen on the idea of a flawed and/or reluctant lead – Gomez is happy to get into drunken fights, Kanan makes a very dodgy (and almost life-ending) deal with some questionable types to save her family, Radia’s a thief who literally steals from everyone she speaks to… they’re an odd but intriguing bunch. I can understand why the (lack of) length might put some people off, but I appreciated these micro-tales that used their time well – less is sometimes more and Eldorado Gate feels like it uses the time given well, being neither an overblown epic or a longer story cut too short. The overall tone leans towards the Saturday cartoon ‘mild peril’ end of the scale, with the more serious scenes dealt with effectively but either not dwelling on the idea of the police-led execution or giving comedic facial expressions to a man being boiled alive while his daughter watches.
Eldorado Gate gets off to a strong start and so long as the seocnd disc carries on in this way I’m more than happy to stick with it and find out where the story goes. With a complete set currently worth in the region of £120 or so it’s not a cheap or easy series to invest your money in, but it’s clear Capcom were 100% behind their madcap RPG experiment and at the very least deserve more recognition than they’re getting for seeing it through properly to the very end.