Eldorado Gate Vol. 1: The beginning of an epic adventure

Eldorado Gate, Capcom’s Dreamcast exclusive RPG series, is in many ways a creation that should have never got off the drawing board. This was a brand new RPG saga with no famous name to fall back on, released on what was definitely the “wrong” format for the genre at the time (Final Fantasy IXVagrant Story, and Capcom’s own Breath of Fire IV all debuted on Sony’s unstoppable PlayStation in the same year), and used an expensive combination Yoshitaka Amano‘s ethereally wispy illustrations and Capcom’s famously high quality pixel art to convey its story.

And to make matters worse, it wasn’t even close to complete when it launched – by design. Eldorado Gate’s adventure could only be experienced in full if the player dared to invest a considerable amount of the own time and money into the unprecedented seven part series, each new volume released roughly two months after the last over the course of an entire year.

Capcom seemed to be well aware of just how much they were asking of potential players, which may explain why Eldorado Gate is quick to bring in the mysterious Bantross, a fascinating mixture of fourth wall breaking narrator and in-game character who is forever leaving obviously important things half-said and clearly knows far more than he is letting on. The framework he provides, bringing the heroes to the Land of Destiny (three of twelve by the end of the first volume) during the course of their adventures as well as bookending each tale with a chat aimed directly at the person holding the controller, combined with a steady drip of hints at the as yet unseen bigger picture, help to make Eldorado Gate feel like a game that already has a clear goal in mind and is constantly working towards achieving it, every scene existing for a reason.

There are three scenarios on this first disc, and our adventure begins with the drink loving Gomez: an enormous slab of a man who gleefully wields two giant hammers with ease and doesn’t think too deeply about anything. Having said that he’s not quite the muscles-for-brains oaf he first appears to be, and much of his story is shaped by his time spent working in a local mine in an attempt to pay back the 20,000 zenny – an unearnably enormous amount of money – the lovely NPC Marsha spent bailing him out of the town jail to spare him from execution after what could have been an avoidable fight. The deliberately repetitive sequence that follows this event is one of many ways Eldorado Gate gently stretches its roleplaying legs, encouraging you experience what the protagonist’s going through for yourself, even if that doesn’t involve typically glamourous RPG hero behaviour.

And so you and Gomez get up to go to work in the morning, every morning, scouring the mine’s (small) array of floors and conveyor belts for sellable shiny stones while fighting the occasional monster along the way, all to bring a measly six hundred zenny back to Marsha – and that’s on a good day. It’s demoralising in a deliberate way, the trouble you go to for these paltry amounts really bringing home just how much money this person gave up for your sake – and also revealing a great deal about Gomez’s character as well. If he decided to get up and walk away there’s nobody strong enough to stop him, but he hangs his head in shame and stays anyway because he wants to make this right. Still, as we all get the moralistic point long before we actually come anywhere close to paying off that huge debt in microscopic chunks it’s good to know Eldorado Gate doesn’t actually make you pay off the full amount in this way (Marsha ends up captured and Gomez heads off to rescue her) but it was refreshing to see the storytelling go out of its way to avoid the usual “Oh hey I just found this treasure in the back of a cave that’s conveniently worth the exact amount I owe you! I’m going to head off and do something more interesting now like fight an endless stream of cool monsters now so bye forever, NPC” scenario.

Speaking of fights, it’s probably time we talked about how Eldorado Gate handles those. Most of the battles here take the form of bog-standard random encounters (that are just a tad too frequent for my liking) and use a classic Dragon Quest style point of view – all enemy, no party. The enemy illustrations are entirely static although as you may expect Amano’s skill and inventiveness more than makes up for their lack of movement – as do Capcom’s own impressively fluid attack and spell animations. The presentation’s “simple” in a way that’s actually very hard to pull off; neon pink flames scorch your friends, thick vines run rampant around your foes, and your eyes will tell you even basic attacks from your party’s unseen hands have form and force to them.

These little flourishes of personality are also found in Eldorado Gate’s frequent smatterings of in-combat dialogue –  anything from a random enemy’s surprise at encountering you to mid-battle “How are you not dead yet?!” exclamations – as well as the constant retuning of the difficulty of the fights themselves, Eldorado Gate taking care to ensure those little “flavour” fights (a surprise band of assassins during a chase sequence, for example) are as frictionless and thrilling as they should be while guaranteeing those end-of-scenario bosses still feel intimidating when you do finally cross swords with them.

A prominent elemental system’s in place to help add a little depth to these clashes. This pits water/fire/wood against each other in the usual rock/paper/scissors setup with two additional “outsider” elements on top, reserved for healing and light spells. The difference in the damage you dish out and receive when using the correct attribute is noticeable, and the game encourages you to take advantage of this by selling all equipment in all three major elemental varieties. Eldorado Gate keeps this simple and affordable by only giving each character the ability to hold one weapon, wear one piece of armour, and equip a single accessory at any time – and even then only the first two slots involve this elemental system. Battles also allow you to change your equipment for free without incurring any sort of turn loss or missed attack opportunity, so you’re never left in a position where you struggle with a fight you could have sailed through if only you had known you should have been wearing your blue gear five seconds earlier.

Spells are present, although they’re cast using a shared pool of consumable stones rather than individual magic points. These stones can be freely combined to create stronger versions of the base spell, an enemy (or party) wide variant, or even a spell that does both, with the number of stones used limited by the caster’s ability: Gomez for example can only use the most basic types, whereas the protagonists of the second and third scenarios, Kanan and Radia, can push things a little further. It’s not as complex as it could have been – a fire and wood stone combo makes the exact same Fire+1 (officially, “Heat” to “Heaton”) spell as fire and anything else would – but in practise this simplicity opens up a few unexpected and enjoyable battle tactics, as it lets you play around with whatever you have to hand without restricting access to powerful spells or making stacks of the currently “wrong” element useless. Better still you can store all of your favourite combinations in a list that persists across all scenarios and characters (whether it transfers across whole discs remains to be seen), saving you from having to recombine multiple stones every time.

Between fights you’ll spend your time wandering around beautifully pixelled areas separated by a “click to go here” regional map. These lightly labyrinthine locations have been crafted with great care, and what that means for us is that any routes off the critical path tend to be on the shorter side and almost always have a reward that makes the exploration worthwhile waiting at the end of them. You can expect to find equipment that’s worth putting on as well as enough items to keep you going so you’re not in loads of trouble if you forgot to blow all your spare zenny on recovery items back in town. You won’t have lots of anything if you run around unprepared, but Eldorado Gate is keenly aware of the length and layout of its dungeonesque spaces and does make an attempt to provide accordingly. There’s a distinctively puzzle-like aspect to your wanderings – a few switches, teleporters, and so on – their inclusion made tolerable by that magic word, context. These features appear when you feel they should, locked doors and coloured switches reserved for ancient ruins and enemy hideouts rather than strewn throughout forests and towns – and even then they’re placed with purpose, a small obstacle designed to provide a little trouble rather than wave after wave of miserable roadblocks.

This focus and brevity is also found in the stories Eldorado Gate tells, each one only taking around three hours each to clear by design. Even in this first volume they’re a diverse set of little adventures with their own plot twists and climactic battles against beautiful bosses that lightly build upon each other and connect to the wider world. We’ve already talked a bit about Gomez’ opening tale above so let’s move on to Kanan’s, which begins with her locked in a cell and awaiting execution, all for stealing a loaf of bread for her family. It’s at this desperate point in her short life that she’s offered a mysterious magical mask by the sort of suspicious person in creepy robes you definitely shouldn’t ever accept help from – and to her credit Kanan only puts the mask on when she’s literally moments away from death and after some further pushing from her robed “friend”. From that point on her life swiftly goes from bad to worse and the family she was trying to help are put in more danger than ever, all to put Kanan in a position where she has no choice but to agree to wear more of these powerful masks – and to take the curse that goes with them so her unknown tormentor doesn’t have to. She loses her ability to speak. Then she loses her hearing, turning every non-system text box into “……”. This makes the process of rescuing two of her siblings something of a heartbreaking ordeal, as she fights so hard to free them and then can’t hear what they say to her before they’re whisked away. To gain the power to rescue her mother she sacrifices her sight, leaving her trapped in the silent dark of her own body (it’s at this point Gomez appears to help out and dodge any complicated “So how do you carry on playing like this” questions). And the final thing – the only thing she has left to give away – is her life. In spite of this Kanan still ends up in the Land of Destiny, her final fate (as well as her special soul-inherited ability, which the other two leads gain during their respective adventures) left for another time.

The third and final chapter belongs to Radia the thief. Like the other delicate touches of “real” RPGing found throughout Eldorado Gate this is more than a simple description written on a stat sheet somewhere – Radia is a casually light-fingered soul who will automatically steal a little something from anyone you speak to so long as they’ve got something in their pockets to “liberate” (you can even make her attempt to steal something from Gomez at one point, much to his amusement). This soon becomes an important plot point as her scenario involves her dead dad –  a ghost who can only steal the life from the local townsfolk if his daughter can steal something from their physical form. As these are the same people who previously stood by ten years ago when he was boiled alive in the town square (to say Madera Town was a little over-enthusiastic in that regard would be an understatement, although again the game has a reason for that) Radia doesn’t offer any real resistance to his plan to come back from the dead… until he mentions that he’s going to outright kill everyone in the town once he’s done stealing their youthful energy. This turns out to be Radia’s line in the sand, and once he’s revealed his plan she sets about killing off her selfish parent for good and restoring the town.

Once completed you can select any of that disc’s chapters to play through again, perhaps hunting down any Ogre Stones you may have missed the first time around to exchange in the Land of Destiny’s special item shop, or seeking out hidden areas on the overworld map.

Between the brisk pace of the dialogue-light stories and the visually simplistic battles Eldorado Gate’s opening volume feels very much like a game made by practical-minded people on a budget and to a tight deadline – and I sincerely mean that as a compliment. Capcom may have created a seven disc monster but after clearing the first disc the slightly intimidating stack of GD-ROMs on my to-do shelf only look like an exciting adventure to come rather than a Xenosaga-like slog threatening to drag me down. At this early point this feels like a game that has a lid on its ambitions, a clear plan, and is going to make a real effort to finish what it starts. In fact the first disc was so confident in its development schedule it had the courage to end not with a noncommittal “To be continued…” but with something more along the lines of “That’s the end of Volume 1, here’s a little teaser for Volume 2 – see you there!“. This is echoed by the manual, which closes with a specific release date for the second part (down to the day) as well as names of the scenarios contained within – and as far as I can tell they really were able to stick to their schedule.

I can’t say this first part – the most affordable and easily bought of the entire series – is worth hunting down and playing in isolation: It’s good, but it is written and presented as the first slice of a much larger pie, which naturally means the “ending” is incomplete and unsatisfying. But when viewed as the first part of an epic adventure – which is the only thing Eldorado Gate: Volume One was ever meant to be – this is as promising a start as anyone could have dared to hope for.

Further reading:

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