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Hidden Gem Review: Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring

Reviewer: Cliff Davenport









1998 was a monumental year for the gaming industry, bearing witness to the debuts of such legendary titles as Baldur’s Gate, Gran Turismo, Half Life, Metal Gear Solid, and StarCraft, each of which influencing or founding entire genres of their own for years to come.  Little known, however, is the existence of another game, released the very same year, whose underappreciation can hardly be overstated.  I refer, of course, to Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring.  


















If you recognize this, your childhood was awesome.  


Directed and designed by Seiichi Shii, of Tekken and Virtua Fighter fame, Ehrgeiz is a three-dimensional fighting game whose credits read like a dream team of 1990s Japanese developers, with Tetsuya Nomura and Takayuki Nakamura joining Shii in leading the project, as lead artist and composer, respectively.   Nomura, known best for his work on the Final Fantasy series, provided the art direction and designs for the game’s characters and environments, and it shows in the very best of ways, lending the game a varied aesthetic of brightly colored techno-fantasy that’s difficult to dislike or forget.  Unfortunately, despite Mr. Nakamura’s pedigree as composer of DreamFactory’s own Tobal series, as well as the early Virtua Fighter titles, his score for Ehrgeiz, while not particularly poor by any means, is ultimately rather bland, and quickly forgettable.  The remainder of the game’s sound effects, I warn you now, aren’t much better either, ranging from the bland and boring to the loud and unfitting, especially when it comes to weapons’ sound effects.  


Now, that said, I can proceed no further without addressing the spikey-haired elephant in the room that is Ehrgeiz’s roster, to say nothing of the game’s very box art, which, among a number of original characters, includes a number of Final Fantasy VII’s most beloved faces, who return as guests one last time before the death of their console generation for a final bout of competitive ass kickery.  


















Let’s face it, if you played this game before reading this article,

these characters are why.


As gimmicky as these characters’ inclusions may be, their presence belies the surprisingly deep and impressive level of quality gameplay present throughout Ehrgeiz, the likes of which is rarely seen in games past or present.  Multiple gameplay modes allow for a wide range of gaming experiences, from a traditional fighting game’s mandatory arcade mode to varied challenge modes and minigames, including contact sprint races, circuit races, and a mode I can only describe as a gloriously twisted blend of cage fighting, checkers, and Connect Four.  


The star of the show, however, is, of course, the arcade mode.  Right away, Namco sub-developer DreamFactory’s past work on the Tobal wrestling series shines through by way of Ehrgeiz’s unique, 360-degree control scheme, which allows players full range of the game’s combat arenas in a manner unheard of in its contemporary competitors.  Since many characters possess some manner of ranged attack, this ability to take advantage of most levels’ varied layouts and elevations can actually provide players with a measure of cover, layering a bit of environmental strategy atop a fast-paced melee system.  















If only Aeris had a box to hide behind…


Balance wise, Ehrgeiz delivers fairly consistent abilities amongst its varied roster, though several of them, notably guest characters Vincent and Yuffie, of Final Fantasy VII, are little more than model swaps of original characters Godhand and Sasuke and their movesets.  A small handful of characters, especially those lacking in ranged attacks, can lag behind the majority of the cast, especially at higher difficulties, Dasher Inoba chief amongst them, but one look at the man will probably kill any interest you had in playing as him anyway.  















Now, picture this man in a speedo.  That’s Inoba’s default appearance in-game.  

Now, mull over the fact that he’s a wrestler.  Have fun with that.


Namco’s cooperative influence can be felt throughout Ehrgeiz, though never perhaps more obviously, or favorably, as during its animations, both in-game and during cutscenes, harkening to the precision of their own flagship Tekken series.  Seriously, if you didn’t click that link above, go do it now.  You’ll be hard pressed to find a more unabashedly awesome video game intro movie outside of Onimusha 3.  


What’s more, Ehrgeiz also includes an entirely separate, stand-alone game mode that could very well have been released as a unique title unto itself, titled “The Forsaken Dungeon.”  Outclassing no small number of contemporary, and even later games all on its own, “The Forsaken Dungeon” is a full-blown, multi-leveled, Diablo-style dungeon crawl mode with its own unique story, controls, and mechanics, replete with RPG-style leveling, random loot drops from monsters and boss creatures, equipable weapons and armor, and even a magic system based upon the materia mechanics of, you know it, Final Fantasy VII.  Equipment, too, frequently nods to the game’s creative roots, as players find themselves looting buster swords, the masamune, and even the ultima weapon, among many others, from their foes.  















“Killing creatures I’ve never met for a sword I’ve never seen for

reasons I don’t quite understand!”



Dungeoneering is hungry work, however, as Ehrgeiz’s developers saw fit to remind players of.  Constantly.  Yes, this mode also features a food, hunger, and starvation system, which, beyond requiring players to replenish their constantly draining stamina throughout the game, also factors into the mode’s two characters’ leveling progression, as different types of food promote increases to different stats.  As if tactical nutrition management wasn’t enough, this mode even includes, amongst the merchants of the safe-zone town, a stock market simulator in the form of a wine and spirits market…for…some reason.  















Cthulhu commands it!  Bring more Zinfandel!


You won’t be breezing through this mode in an afternoon, either.  With dozens of floors to clear between town and the dungeon’s deepest level, punishingly difficult enemies therein, and an addictive quality that will sap hours at a time from your life, “The Forsaken Dungeon” is several days’ worth of game all by its lonesome.  Thankfully, it’s kept from becoming the chore that it easily could have been, as multiple shortcut mechanics prevent players from needing to retrace their steps through the dungeon each time they return to town.  Hidden doors and wells in town skip down to the lower levels of the dungeon, though beginning players take these routes at their own peril, and consumable “dragon’s wing” items act as immediate, two-way teleporters, allowing players a one-time return trip back to town, and thereby offering a reliable “oh shit” contingency if the going gets too tough in the dungeon.  


Should players die, their bodies explode in a laughably dramatic shower of lost loot, and their partner character, either Koji or Claire, must then recover their bodies and equipment before the dead character may be revived.  Lose’em both, and it’s game over for good, so it’s important to keep both playable characters properly leveled and equipped for emergency tag-teaming. On the downside, “The Forsaken Dungeon’s” lure is really in the addiction of its exploration, as there’s little narrative hook for players to speak of beyond the initial “go fetch the ancient sword of awesomeness at the bottom” routine, and while the levels of the dungeon are randomly generated for each new run-through, the mode does lose a bit of its luster after a couple of completions.  


Admirably aware of itself as a game, Ehrgeiz sports a myriad of such aforementioned nods and references toward other titles and characters that came before and alongside it, but does so in an unobnoxious fashion that simply rewards those in the know with periodic grins and chuckles, but manages not to take away from the experience of those who aren’t in on the jokes.  To name a few, character Koji Masuda, of the “Forsken Dungeon” mode, is a clear hat-tip to Indiana Jones; Han Daehan, one of the arcade fighters, bears a striking resemblance to Tekken’s Hwoarang; boss character Django’s appearance, attack names, and even tribal markings reveal him as a thinly veiled Red XIII cameo (especially in his alternate color palette); and, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a dual reference to both the Mishima family of Tekken fame and the obscure side character, Dyne, from Final Fantasy VII, to be had in the character of Godhand Mishima.  Even guest characters’ alternate costumes do welcome justice to their sources, as Tifa sports her “cowgirl” look, Cloud dons his Shinra troop’s uniform of shame again, Vincent rocks his Turk blues, and Sephiroth gives fangirls one last striptease.  















You’re welcome.  Now you owe us.


As much as I love it, however, Ehrgeiz is only so human after all, and it does have its own share of flaws.  Chief amongst them, as so many fighting games are guilty of, is the game’s utter lack of a coherent narrative or character development, or even proper exposition, for that matter.  I only know as much as I do about its characters and story by reading its instruction manual (remember those?) and the now ancient strategy guide that I bought for the game back in the late 90s.  Good luck tracking one of those down these days, and likewise, good luck getting at all invested in these characters that you’ll never really know anything about.  


Combat too, for all its innovations, is also cause for frustration at times, as Ehrgeiz sports some of the most complicated and exacting attack controls I’ve ever encountered in a fighting game, rendering it difficult to execute many of the game’s more interesting special moves and combos, especially when facing foes diagonally across the screen.  Also, it’s worth noting that, outside of the usual grunts, groans, and impact sounds of combat, some of the game’s sound effects, particularly those associated with navigating its menus, are inordinately loud.  Seriously, if you want to hear the normal gameplay at all, don’t play this game if someone’s sleeping in a nearby room.  
















Or, pause, crank the volume, and place a speaker next to their head.  

Resume, and enjoy.


All told, Ehrgeiz: God Bless the Ring claims no pretense to originality or exclusivity in its experience, and in fact, pokes fun at itself constantly, but in so doing, it achieves those very things by game’s end.  There is literally no other game like it on the Playstation console, and I challenge readers to name a comparative title on any console before or since, for that matter.  The closest titles that come to mind are Soul Calibur III, with its disjointed, pseudo-strategy side-campaign, and Final Fantasy X’s extensive “blitzball” minigame, but even those, I think, pale in comparison to the varied efforts at work in Ehrgeiz.  The devil’s in the details, and this is what pushing a console to its limits looks like.  So many games of the very same genre, much less any other, lack this game’s diversity and depth of entertainment, despite itself, even today.  Especially so, even, inundated as we are with ever more shallow games whose sole qualities of redemption can be found in their resolution settings.  


While imperfect, of course, Ehrgeiz is a game, much like Mount & Blade and Final Fantasy: Dissidia 012, whose quality demonstrates a clear emphasis not upon pretty, shallow, throw-away gameplay, but upon pushing the boundaries and expectations of gaming in order to create a truly entertaining experience that can and will bring players back for more, time and again.  As we stand on the eve of the next console generation, I can think of no more appropriate time than now to look back on the forward-thinking projects of yesteryear, and to reflect on how far we’ve really come since then.  Squaresoft took no small number of risks with Ehrgeiz, and I, for one, think they paid off.   It’s among the small handful of games that actually inspired me to write my Hidden Gems series in the first place, and to prospective fans, I simply cannot recommend it enough.



Rating: 7.2


Visuals: 9
Audio: 4
Controls & Mechanics: 7
Atmosphere & Experience: 7
Entertainment Value: 9


  Consoles: Arcade, (PS1), PSN

  Developer: DreamFactory

  Publisher: Namco/ Squaresoft

  Release Date (U.S.):  Apr 30, 1999

  Release Date (U.K.):  Feb 8, 2000

  Release Date (JP):  Dec 17, 1998


Final Verdict:


7.2

Last Level Press © Copyright Cliff Davenport  Est. 2013.  Links | Legal Notices

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