IMPORT - At first glance, Capcom's newest RPG entry for the Dreamcast looks like just another franchise in motion. El Dorado Gate: Chapter 1 is the first part of a serialized RPG that's planned for bimonthly release in Japan. It's affordably priced at approximately $30 per installment, and it features character and monster designs by famed Final Fantasy image artist Yoshitaka Amano. A cursory play session gives the impression of a simplistic, if not primitive, game laden with marketing gimmicks. But a second look reveals just enough charm and mystery to pique gamers' curiosity about the next chapters.
The story of El Dorado Gate is difficult to relate, since the first chapter in this serial is just that - a first chapter. It has the trappings of typical high fantasy on all counts, though. In ancient times, the god of light Dios created the earth and humanity. Razin, the prime demon, seduced the human soul and challenged Dios. After a war that split the heavens, Razin was sealed away in the underworld. Before being completely locked away, he managed to split his body into 12 parts and scatter them across the world. These parts of Razin were said to one day be reborn into 12 people who would come together and bring about his resurrection. It is here that the story takes its first twist into the interesting. The 12 people (three of whom are introduced in Chapter 1) aren't cast as the villains - they're the protagonists. Guided by a mysterious and rotund man named Bantross, the characters work their way through conflicts that involve the cleaning up of disastrous consequences from the harsh and blind "justice" of the town of Madera. While the content of the stories boils down to dungeon crawling and fetch quests, it is the juxtaposition of good and evil that makes everything feel refreshing.
Like the story, the graphic and aural package of El Dorado Gate is plain looking, but it hides several pleasant surprises. True to its marketing line, the character and monster designs are indeed handled by Yoshitaka Amano. One might think that most of the game's graphics budget went to paying for those designs, though, as with its simple overhead view, small overworld of towns connected by dots and lines, and minimally animated battle sequences, the game feels like it could have been made using RPG Maker for the PlayStation. What saves the graphics is the amount of personality and atmosphere they create by being hand-drawn. Every location is made of strong lines and bold colors, producing the same kind of lush warmth found in the Legend of Mana and Saga Frontier 2. The game sprites, while not up to the highest of Capcom's animation standards, move smoothly enough when needed. Finally, the Amano designs' balance of detail and simplicity injects a crucial bit of style to the package. The music leans toward commonplace Capcom fare, but it's very smartly orchestrated and quite enjoyable. As the game progresses, the music is also smartly recycled, a wise decision given the episodic nature of the story.
The gameplay itself has a few twists. The biggest such twist is the elimination of experience and levels, which were most likely left out to preserve balance in future episodes. Another twist is the magic system. Instead of learning spells, you collect element crystals. These element crystals, when used alone or combined with other crystals, allow characters to use the standard RPG offensive and defensive magic. This element-based system isn't just limited to spell casting, however. Each weapon, piece of armor, and monster is assigned a particular element, which is either strong or weak against each one of the other elements. Therefore, the proper equipment becomes integral to survival, and it often will decide the fate of a battle with frightening speed. Luckily, trading off weaponry and armor anytime is a simple process, even in combat. The rest of the game system is familiar territory - from selling dungeon booty for cash to forging and recombining old weapons, there's nothing difficult, even for the RPG novice.
In the end, El Dorado Gate Chapter 1 is a promising title. In true Capcom fashion, it's being groomed as a cash cow, but thanks the grassroots presentation, a relatively creative style of narrative, and an affordable price, such grooming can be safely and guiltlessly ignored while waiting for the next installment.