Ever since its announcement in late 1997, Ehrgeiz has been one of the most eagerly awaited fighting games for the PlayStation. The collaboration of Squaresoft, Dream Factory, and Namco was a formidable pool of talent that could have rocked the fighting game genre. An earlier marriage of Square and Dream Factory had produced two of the best-looking and innovative 3D fighters for the system, while Namco's prolific console and coin-op record continues to speak for itself. If there ever was a dream team of developers for any one platform, this was it. Unfortunately, by the time Ehrgeiz was officially released in the arcades, much of the graphics, gameplay, and control mechanics did not live up to expectations, and a lot of fighting aficionados found themselves spurned and disappointed.
One of the advantages in having the creative forces of Squaresoft behind the design of Ehrgeiz is the accessibility of popular franchise characters such as the protagonists from Final Fantasy VII. Often dubbed "Final Fantasy Fighter," Ehrgeiz allows you to duke it out with Cloud, Tifa, Yuffie, Vincent, and the enigmatic Sephiroth. All things considered, Squaresoft and Dream Factory do a fair job of integrating elements of Final Fantasy into the storyline of Ehrgeiz, which stands alone as an ambitious and intriguing premise. In the distant future, a sword containing an unknown material (hint: materia) was unearthed amidst the rubble of an ancient German castle. The weapon became known as Ehrgeiz, a symbol of power that would represent the strongest fighter in the world. Meanwhile, a sinister organization known as Red Scorpion was assiduously excavating the ruins of an old temple in hopes of finding ancient technology that would give them the edge in biological weapons development. The key to this locked temple, of course, lies with the Ehrgeiz sword and the mysterious materia engraved on its handle. Like Tekken 3, the subplots for each of the characters are beautifully rendered in high-quality motion-captured FMV during the intro and endings. While the notion of a fighting game with a storyline may seem trivial, no one can deny the impact that plot has had on games like Tekken 3 or any of SNK's family of fighters. The more fleshed out the characters, the more likely gamers will become attached to their identities. Unfortunately, none of the Final Fantasy characters has its own unique FMV ending sequence. This makes their inclusion appear somewhat haphazard and irrelevant. When Ehrgeiz was first announced and subsequently beta-tested, it was safe to assume that its gameplay was going to be based on Dream Factory's Tobal series. And indeed, as the game took shape and form in the early days, Tobal's trademark stood dominant in the design of Ehrgeiz's fighting system. The developers also added extras to the fray including the strategic use of boxes for offense and defense, multitiered 3D arenas, and weapons that could be picked up during fights. By moving the controller, players could run freely about the stage in an attempt to gain higher ground or just avoid a corner trap.
While all of these innovations made their way to the final arcade release and subsequently the PlayStation version, much alteration was made to the heart of Ehrgeiz. For one thing, emphasis was taken off the boxes and items on each of the stages in order to make gameplay more straightforward. Furthermore, a puzzling modification was made to the game's blocking system. By some bizarre twist of design that flies in the face of commonsense, Ehrgeiz requires you to leave the joystick neutral in order to block high, while pressing guard makes your character crouch and block low. This is by far the game's biggest and most glaring control issue. Be prepared to spend the first hour of the game just getting used to this incredibly unintuitive way to block incoming attacks. To make matters worse, since the game stresses movement in 3D space a la Bushido Blade or the Tobal series, you will find yourself constantly facing away from your opponents and caught with your guard down since the "auto-block" is only effective when facing your foe. Luckily, an easy technique to quickly face your opponent is to just tap the guard button. Holding down the guard button and moving about with the controller will allow you to circle your opponent while facing him at all times. This is useful for getting some distance from your opponent by walking backwards or sidestepping without leaving your back open for any attacks. Another important element that Ehrgeiz incorporates into its gameplay is the special move unique to each character. Special moves can be done at any time, and a meter underneath the health bar keeps you informed as to how many more specials you can perform. All special attacks are unblockable but can be avoided by double-tapping the guard button or by clicking the Dual Shock controller stick. As with most fighting games, timing on the dodge is important but on the whole fairly forgiving.
Following the footsteps of recent releases such as Tekken 3 or Rival Schools, Squaresoft and Dream Factory have embellished Ehrgeiz with an assortment of goodies. There are two alternate sections you can enter at the game's start-up menu: the quest mode and minigames. The quest mode in Ehrgeiz continues a tradition Squaresoft and Dream Factory began in Tobal No.1. However, unlike the quest modes in the Tobal series, in which you controlled a character from the main game with all his moves intact, quest mode in Ehrgeiz is an entirely different diversion based on the game's graphics engine. Quest mode is relevant only in that it follows Ehrgeiz's storyline. You control archaeologist Koji Masuda and his assistant Clare Andrews on a journey into the heart of "Godless," which is the name of the excavated dungeon Red Scorpion discovered. You move from room to room, by taking one of four exits, while collecting food, money, equipment, and magic items. The best aspect about quest mode is its stunning graphics. It is doubtful you will find graphics sharper and textures more resolute than those featured in quest mode. Unfortunately, the combat system really cripples any potential depth this mode might have offered. Aside from the three buttons that dictate block, magic, and pickup item, there is only one attack button. There has never been a game more true to the cliché of "hack and slash." In minigame mode, you choose from a total of four minigames, each with its own set of controls and objectives. All of the minigames seem to center around a battle motif: Infinity Battle, Battle Runner, Battle Beach, and Panel Battle. Infinity Battle may have an interesting title, but it's really just a fancy name for survival mode, where you fight through the normal lineup of characters while the damage you sustain carries over from round to round. Battle Runner involves two players running around a track in a race to finish the designated number of laps while pummeling each other to offset the outcome. Battle Beach contains three mini-events that all take place on a tropical dune. The mini-events are reminiscent of Track and Field - mash your buttons to run, jump over logs, dive for the flag. Nothing horribly exciting here either. The last minigame, Panel Battle, is by far the most interesting of the bunch. Two players run around a life-sized Othello board changing all the colors on the grid into their own. Sure, it's a straight game of Othello, but where else can you play it with Sephiroth as your gopher?
Disproportionate to the number of problems plaguing Ehrgeiz are the graphics that stand among the very best on the PlayStation. Those of you expecting the smooth vertex polygon look of Tobal 2 may have to squelch expectations, because character models have taken a subjective step backwards to a more blocky Tekken appearance. Regardless of this fact, Ehrgeiz still has some highly impressive visuals at high resolution, all moving at a slick 60 frames per second. Also worth mentioning are the convincing motion-captured moves each character has. There is a lot of recycled animation to be sure, but none of it is mediocre or awkward
While Ehrgeiz has drop-dead-gorgeous graphics, it's also plagued with quirks and glitches. For instance, the free-floating camera has a tendency to proffer some of the most awkward angles ever seen in a 3D fighter. Why Square couldn't have used the same techniques available to the Bushido Blade or Tobal series is baffling. Other glitches can be found in the Infinity Battle where a victory will make your character run straight off the stage and into the nether darkness while the stage shrinks and glitches out behind you. Another puzzling graphical omission is that 2D backgrounds do not cover the entirety of the screen, leaving the bottom half to drown in a sea of blackness. Not only does this accentuate the disjunction between 2D backgrounds and 3D stages, but it also maims the ambience. Still, in the big picture, Ehrgeiz has enough going for it graphically to warrant the high marks. In the audio department, music and sound accomplish moderate objectives but remain unremarkable at best. The nice crisp smack of a backhand notwithstanding, most of Ehrgeiz's sound effects are fairly standard from the dull thud of a blocked attack to the echo of a gunshot. The music moves seamlessly from genre to genre with each stage; heavy metal, upbeat techno, and reggae rhythms are only some of the tracks present on the disc. Again, all of it is competent, but none of it will compel you to run out and buy the soundtrack.
In the end, Ehrgeiz is a faithful port of an arcade title that could have been immense but ultimately fails to deliver the goods. It is important to keep in mind that failure here does not refer to how Ehrgeiz fared from arcade to PlayStation, but rather how the game stacks up against other titles in the same genre. Despite the graphical accomplishment behind Ehrgeiz, there's just not much of a game here. Bouts usually end in a flurry of button mashing, and the awkward guarding scheme will drive most hard-core fighting fans away screaming with frustration and heartbreak. If you're looking for eye candy, Ehrgeiz will give you plenty of cavities; However, if it's a deep and engaging fighting game you want to delve into, do look elsewhere.