Content with doing its part to relieve the world from the glut of me-too console RPGs, Atlus has been known to release games with an unconventional and often quirky quality. Rhapsody, Atlus' latest acquisition, is pretty characteristic of the company's habits: heavy with gimmick, strangely endearing, and ultimately absorbing.
Rhapsody tells the story of Cornet, a young, orphaned girl with the ability to communicate with and physically animate puppets by means of her trumpet. Cornet, the main protagonist of a fantasy RPG seemingly geared toward appealing to the perceived motivations of young girls, dreams of marrying a kind, dashing prince. Though the narrative can be construed as totally trite and even offensive at times (sparing insertions of sexual innuendo), the use of "girl power" rhetoric, and key pop-culture references make you wonder exactly what Nippon Ichi and, to a lesser extent Atlus, were thinking.
Rhapsody, at any rate, is a musical RPG - meaning that in place of the FMV cutscenes that have become a staple of the genre, musical numbers performed by the title's cast advance key moments in the game's plot. Admittedly lighthearted, usually cheese-ridden, but more often than not oddly enrapturing, the performances pose an interesting counterargument to the heavy-handed use of FMV in RPGs, being as audibly gratuitous as FMV is visually excessive.
In its core, though, Rhapsody is a conventional RPG, albeit one with a unique production. Much of Rhapsody's action will ring familiar to any lightly seasoned RPG enthusiast because it incorporates elements from a variety of established games.
The game's combat system draws heavily from strategy RPGs: The field is laid in a grid, and the various spell, item, and special-ability effects have arbitrary ranges that must be taken into consideration. By the same token, the standard combat round is compartmentalized as per strategy-RPG conventions, allowing a character to attack, cast a spell, or activate an ability before or after he moves. The most notable flaw in the combat system is that you can't rotate the battlefield - during particularly thick battles, much of the ground will be obscured by combatants, making movement, targeting, and in many cases attacking involve too much guesswork to be particularly efficient. Thankfully, any or all of your party members can be designated for computer control at any given round by means of the circle button, ridding combat of its typical tedium (and often of any semblance of challenge).
Ultimately, the battles are rather easy, giving the impression that Rhapsody was developed with a younger, less discerning audience in mind. Though many of the characters that eventually join Cornet's party are possessed with a thoughtful design and a cohesive set of abilities, you'll seldom need to use anything more than the occasional healing spell, as delegating control to the computer most painlessly gets the job done. Except for instances when the narrative dictates a sure failure, even the boss battles are a relative cakewalk.
In terms of visual design, Rhapsody in many ways resembles the SaGa Frontier titles. The world map, a la SaGa Frontier 2, is laid out as an actual map with points representing towns, dungeons, and other key sites. Travel through the world occurs only in the abstract sense, as merely selecting an area on the map immediately whisks Cornet and her party there.
The game's environments are prerendered, though many areas seem reminiscent of SaGa Frontier 2's classy hand-drawn backgrounds. The characters are thoughtfully designed animated sprites with physically expressive personalities, and the menagerie of puppets that end up in Cornet's ward are especially interesting. The naughty, spunky aesthetic inherent to the overall character design does much to carry the game's whimsical plot.
In terms of sound, as is expected, Rhapsody does a very decent job, though some of the functional areas seemed largely ignored. The entire musical production is crystal clear, and while I'm hesitant to vouch for the artistic integrity of the individual songs, suffice it to say that they carry their meanings quite proficiently, in English or Japanese. However disjointed the songs are, in places they are marked by an endearing, campy quality that any RPG aficionado should check out briefly, if not experience firsthand. Many times, I got the impression that Rhapsody's production is, in some way, a kind of mockery of RPG narrative and gameplay conventions. Regardless of its nature, the 26 songs contained therein are solidly produced and without a blemish, save for the occasional desynching of the actual songs and the onscreen lyrics. The game's sound effects, though, are best ignored, as they comprise standard noises (I hesitate to call them "sounds") such as pounds, zips, and glimmers more often than not several decibels too loud.
What makes Rhapsody worthy of attention, in the end, is its nonconventional production. Its more practical aspects are either too derivative or not particularly robust (15 hours will easily get you through the game). If you're the type of RPGer who commits to checking out the most nonstandard manifestations of the genre, then Rhapsody is definitely worth your attention. But if you're an avid warlord or explorer looking to be immersed for 60 hours of your life, then you'd best look elsewhere - Rhapsody is a novelty, and nothing more.