Falcom’s 1999 PC release of The Rhapsody of Zephyr (later ported to both the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2) was originally a Korean PC RPG by Softmax – creators of the War of Genesis and Magna Carta series – and the first overseas game Falcom brought to Japanese audiences in what became a mini-trend for the famous software house, followed up as it was by Tsukikage no Destiny (China), Arcturus (South Korea), and Genso Sangokushi I and II (Taiwan).
This initial foray into the unknown received something of an over-enthusiastic (or perhaps overly concerned) fussing by Falcom, with all of the beautiful ink-and-watercolour character portrait artwork from the original replaced with a more standard sharp-edged anime look (there is no toggle to change it back either, or indeed any sight at all of the original work). According to Falcom themselves other nonspecific “improvements” were made to battles, the game’s balance, as well as the UI, and a (very helpful) map screen was added to the game that can be called up at any time. I’m no real fan of the redrawn artwork (leading sorta-hero Cyrano looks far too Alucard-y for my tastes) but I can’t honestly say it’s a poor effort, and battles in the Japanese release lean towards the easier grind-free side of things so I don’t have anything to complain about there – if they did do some serious fiddling then at least we can safely say they didn’t go the other way and artificially inflate the difficulty. Overall The Rhapsody of Zephyr feels “tweaked” rather than “meddled with”. Now I do happen to have the Korean PC release sitting around here gathering dust (as you do) so of course I went to check Falcom’s version against the real thing… two laptops and several hours of disc-swapping later, I’m afraid I’m none the wiser. Installing? No problem. Getting it to load? Not a chance. The one speck of good news here is that I can at least tell you Falcom’s version installs and plays perfectly on both XP and Windows 10 machines without any hassle at all (you can even Alt-Tab in and out of it without it crashing, if you like).
Zephyr’s story is based on Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, repurposed to fit within the then-established world of Softmax’s own War of Genesis series. In gaming circles “Based on” normally means cheekily lifting a few plot elements while maintaining an air of plausible deniability or slyly naming characters after completely unrelated people (see: Dante and Vergil), but Softmax quite rightly saw no shame in being inspired by a literary classic and a credit to both Dumas as well as The Count of Monte Cristo is the very first thing players see as the introductory FMV starts to roll.
…Although for all the literature-trumpeting it doesn’t take very long at all for the game to deviate from its chosen source material: Edmond Dantes is now Cyrano Bernstein and deeply in love with Mercedes Borgia, who is as equally doe-eyed about him. They spend most of their days sighing as they say each other’s name and playing the piano together like always-meant-to-be young lovers do. Just look at them, their families about to formally announce their perfect engagement to assorted members of society at a fancy party, when the mood is thoroughly shattered by an armed group of soldiers bursting in and informing everyone that Cyrano has been accused of devil worship.
Now if Cyrano’s accused of such a heinous religious crime in the game equivalent of early 1800’s Europe then he’d be tried before… Oh! He’d be tried before cardinal Cesare… who just so happens to be Mercedes father... who also just so happened to be not too keen on her choice of future husband…
Needless to say the trial is nothing more than a box-ticking formality, and the source of this explosive accusation conveniently anonymous. Any claims Cyrano makes against his alleged Satanic tendencies is viewed as an outright lie, and the “Devil’s book” he’s been reading turns out to be nothing more than a historical record of the Genesis War (another link to the larger War of Genesis series), which is “Satanic” in the same way all texts that make powerful religious monoliths look less pure, pious, and perfect are. Cesare, being the kind and fair judge that he is, can’t possibly condemn the young man who was nearly his future son-in-law for knowledge of the dark arts without reliable witnesses though… and into the courtroom roll two supposed friends of Cyrano, who both absolutely saw whatever it is the court said they did.
And so Cyrano ends up locked away – and in another deviation from The Count of Monte Cristo ends up talking not to the kind and wise Abbé Faria at all but instead the dark god Deimos, sealed away deep within the bowels of the prison (a fact unknown to anyone else). Over the course of Cyrano’s harsh confinement and many secret conversations Deimos eventually grants a deathly weak Cyrano the power of his own soul and reveals to him the location of the sword Ashura (rather than the vast sum of treasure Dantes acquires in the book), just in time for Zephyr Falcon captain Roberto de Meditch to arrive and helpfully free everyone from that awful place.
And from there it’s all lush mansions, sunny islands, sandy deserts, multiple crucifixions (err…), and all sorts of dramatic exploits: Dumas’ influence does the rough framework of this RPG a lot of good, so much so that even when it starts to meander dangerously close to the usual fantasy RPG ruts – the zombie-filled sewer, the cave system, the quaint European style village made of wood and stone furnished with an inn that seems to survive renting out its sole lavish multi-person room for the price of a potion a night – there is at least enough of something a little different surrounding these incidents to make them tolerable, if not entirely forgivable.
Which makes it all the more odd to see Softmax, so keen on the idea of The Count of Monte Cristo: The RPG, treat their Dantes stand-in so poorly. The Count of Monte Cristo had a collection of nine names and titles over the course of his adventure and used his wealth and knowledge to manipulate the lives of those who wronged him to the point of utter ruin, but Cyrano simply goes by the same name before and after his lengthy spell in prison and makes no bones about plainly revealing himself to old friends and foes alike. He also takes the more straightforward RPG approach of making friends with good people and whacking those responsible for his downfall with a sword in a turn-based fight. There’s nothing wrong with that in general genre terms but it does feel like a huge waste of many of the book’s most gripping events.
None of that means the game’s short on story though: It takes about three hours for The Rhapsody of Zephyr to put a sword in Cyrano’s hands, and even after that fights do their best to keep out of the way. That’s actually a good thing – it’s not that the mini-SRPG-with-ATB-turn-order random battles are bad but…
The trouble is The Rhapsody of Zephyr takes the uncommon approach of having everything occur on a single scale, and always exactly wherever you’re standing. So while a traditional RPG may separate the larger overworld map from smaller local villages, mansions, and dungeons which are again split from their individual battle screens, here all of those happen in the same place, all the time. The first few times a scuffle broke out literally where I was standing it felt exciting, like the future of the genre had finally arrived and why the heck wasn’t every post-Zephyr game like this? …Unfortunately it soon becomes clear that by making every single screen serve three roles simultaneously they never fit any of their intended purposes well: The maps are always just a bit too fiddly to not make getting from Town A to Town B feel like a chore (even with the almost comical quantity of signposts dotted along the way), but as they need to be used for large-scale travel they also lack the fascinating features, visual style, and gimmicks of a walled-off dungeon or specific location – and as movement-based combat occurs where you stand everywhere has to be quite broad and flat to accommodate these impromptu clashes. At least Cyrano’s always quick to say something like “I should search around here” ” I don’t need to go upstairs” “I should talk to the villagers” if you try to wander too far off from where you need to be, saving you the teeth-grinding frustration of scouring (and battling through) somewhere avoidable.
The lack of visual change has the side-effect of making most non-boss battles feel a bit limp in a “Seen it all before” sort of way – because you have. The floor’s the same, the wall’s the same, the characters are the same… There’s lots of detail in there (Softmax make a big thing of Cyrano’s flappy cloak), but the familiarity of the sprites, the enforced correct scale of slobbering enemy forces for the sake of the movement grid, and the bland location art, fail to convey the sort of excitement exchanging life-and-death blows with evil guards should.
The battle system itself is a glob of good ideas marred by OK-ish execution. Offensive spells can harm party members and ranged shots, or even basic movement, can be blocked by the positioning of others. This is fine – this is also as in-depth as the SRPG portion of the game ever gets. Terrain is always divided neatly into “Ground” or “Not the ground” types and nothing more – there are no harsh movement penalties for standing on environmental hazards, no buffs or boosts for carefully tucking someone away around a corner or placing a ranged character up high to snipe distant monsters – which all makes shuffling everyone around feel less like an unusual take on an old concept and more like something that could have been cut entirely without having any real impact on the final result. By the way, elemental strengths and weaknesses fall into the usual “Don’t use fire spells on red things” non-strategy. Equipped weaponry can break, which is a fine way of encouraging players to consider more than attack power and cost when browsing an item shop, but Zephyr’s really quite bad at letting anyone know a character’s about to assault an enemy with a harmless empty hand or when a gun user has run out of bullets. Basic replacements are common item drops from virtually all encounters so raw quantity’s never a problem but as it’s only possible to take two spares into battle with you (the remainder sit twiddling their thumbs in your inventory, inaccessible until the fight’s over) there are more times than there should be where you’re forced to retreat due to a failure in communication, and the only way to solve this problem is to make a habit of checking everyone’s equipment all the time.
As RPGs go The Rhapsody of Zephyr’s an acceptable middle-of-the-road spinoff title that flubs its handling of a few neat ideas – same as a dozen other perfectly serviceable games in the genre anyone could mention. What really mattered though was seeing a game from outside the usual Japan/US/Western Europe bubble break through and be treated by the publisher and the press with the same respect as anything else Falcom had released, and without them hiding its true origins (the official Japanese website makes a few direct mentions of the game being by Softmax and from South Korea). I’m also personally grateful to Falcom for opening this Pandora’s Box for PC gamers: I owe my love of the Fantasia Sango series and all of the further happy diving into Chinese and Taiwanese RPGs that came from it to their lavishly presented localisations. It’s just sad to think that even twenty years on these old Japanese physical releases remain the most “easily” accessible way for international gamers to get their hands on these titles in any language.