Nowadays Nippon Ichi Software is best known for their Disgaea franchise and other raunchy JRPGs like Witch and the Hundred Knight. Their games are delightfully juvenile and boyish, but this wasn’t always the case. One of the developer’s first real projects was Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure. A girlish fairytale musical in JRPG format.
Just how girlish is Rhapsody? It’s somewhere between a shoujo anime and a romantic Disney movie. You play as Cornet; a cute though relatable village girl who has the magical power to communicate with puppets. Cornet dreams of one day falling in love with a prince, earning her no small amount of mockery from her fairy companion Kururu and the haughty aristocrat “friend” Etoile.
As its subtitle implies, this game is also literally a musical. The cast will frequently stop to break out into songs about love, courage, and friendship, with music by Disgaea composer Tenpei Sato. The songs are very cheesy, but I found myself growing quite fond of them. It’s the kind of spectacle you don’t see in games often and I found it charming how openly Rhapsody addresses its characters’ emotions.
The plot is slow to start, as Cornet and Kururu come up with various schemes to draw the attention of the kingdom’s prince; resulting in comedic filler-adventures that mostly serve to establish the setting and characters. The plot picks up steam about an hour and a half in, when the prince winds up kidnapped. Cornet sets out on an adventure to save him, which takes her all across the world and has her meet many different kinds of people on the way.
I quickly grew to adore the characters. Cornet and Kururu make for a lovable duo, and Etoile is quickly revealed to be more than just a standard ojou-sama archetype too. The plot is very emotion-driven and often tragic, frequently putting Cornet into horrible situations where there’s no right choice to make. Other stories are very uplifting, like one where Cornet teams up with a band of pirates and helps them process their grief over the crew lost in a recent accident. A trigger warning, though: one storyline deals with suicide and can catch players very off guard.
The gameplay will seem familiar to fans of Disgaea, although it’s a lot more primitive. It’s an isometric tactical-RPG system where Cornet and up to 3 puppets take on bands of enemies. You might even look at some of these enemies and recognize the DNA for some of Disgaea‘s now-iconic monsters. The controls are also similar, with move commands, standard attacks, items, and a list of spells. Compared to Disgaea, the battle maps small and few—as is the list of spells available to you. Combat will quickly begin to feel repetitive and gets particularly annoying in the last few levels, where encounters are much more frequent and your “Escape” option is flat-out removed.
I did like how all the puppets in your party are woven into the story. They are unique characters that you meet on your (side-)quests and who have tales of their own that you can complete. Alternatively, you can recruit the monsters that you defeat. They all have unique abilities and statlines, so there was a lot of effort put into this option. A downside to monsters is that, unlike puppets, they can’t be mended when they are defeated. If your monster party member goes down, they are permanently removed from your roster.
Another fun touch is that Cornet plays unlike any other RPG character I know. She wields her trumpet, which can be used to empower the puppets or as a short-range attack. Using the trumpet to provide buffs builds up a counter in the top-right of the screen. This unlocks increasingly powerful “Rewards” for Cornet to call upon, which are her alternative to casting spells. She can have giant pancakes rain down on the battlefield as a powerful area-of-effect attack or cast a map-wide heal.
A major disappointment is found in how Rhapsody‘s adventure is structured. The game has some okay level-design early on, but after the starting areas the game divides itself into 2 types of zones: village hubs and mazes. You are constantly forced to go into dungeons, caves, and temples, all which take on the form of increasingly-complex mazes. These are entirely copy & pasted together out of generic hallways and 4-way intersections, with nothing inside them to act as landmarks.
I can’t understate how hellish these are to navigate. You have nothing to go on and even drawing your own maps is rendered impossible as you go up and down staircases with no context for where in the maze they put you. Even a walkthrough is no guarantee of success. I kept losing track of where I was in the endless sea of directional instructions—like you’re reading somebody’s playthrough of Zork—and it only takes 1 wrong turn to get irreversibly lost. A mistake that is easily made as the game keeps interrupting you with random encounters.
The adventure is further padded by having you backtrack through areas or having you outright repeat encounters. There is one bit where you team up with Etoile to defeat two bosses simultaneously. After navigating the entire maze and doing the tricky, timed encounter, it turns out Etoile messed up and you need to do it all again. Not before manually backtracking through the maze back to town, talking with her, and then going back through the exact same maze to fight the exact same battle again.
All of this makes me wonder who Rhapsody is trying to appeal to. The story, characters, and singing feel like it’s appealing to younger girls, but this level-design would strain the patience of even the most fervent RPG fans. What young girl playing through a video game musical is going to endure through hours of grinding combat through these seemingly-endless mazes.
I was fascinated by the game’s story and loved its presentation, but it feels like creativity had to bend in the face of deadlines. I can’t imagine the developers looked at the padding and these mazes, and genuinely felt that this was the ideal state for the game to be in. Sadly few changes were made for the DS remake and the upcoming Steam release appears to stick to the PS1 original.
I’ll cherish the game for its story, art, and music, that’s for sure. At the same time, I can’t help but feel that it’s the kind of game I’ll feel like replaying from time to time, only to put it down when I recall what it was actually like. We’ve all been there, right?