Hits all of the Right Notes – Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles Review (Rhapsody 2 & 3)
Rhapsody: Marl Kingdom Chronicles is a collection containing the games Rhapsody II: Ballad of the Little Princess and Rhapsody III: Memories of Marl Kingdom, which were originally released on the PS1 and PS2 but are now available on modern consoles and PC (Steam). These games have been localized in English for the first time since they were released over two decades ago.
The games are a precursor to the popular Disgaea franchise and has many of its mainstays. Rhapsody 2 is a direct sequel to the original Rhapsody where you play as Kururu, a princess and the daughter of the original game’s protagonist. You can jump right into Rhapsody 2 without having played the original Rhapsody because the game has a good summary and re-introduces its characters and settings, but the game does spoil which characters end up having romantic relationships (which isn’t too much of a spoiler, it’s not a surprising plot twist).
I’d strongly recommend playing Rhapsody 2 before starting Rhapsody 3 because the third game is an episodic game where you play as several previous protagonists and antagonists, and Rhapsody 3’s second episode is an epilogue to Rhapsody 2 that does spoil its entire plot (and many of Rhapsody 3’s episodes take place during the plot of Rhapsody 2).
The games are regular turn-based JRPGs with a party of characters you control (it’s not an SRPG like the original game was, there is no character movement on a grid during battle). The second game is entirely 2D, with 2D character sprites and 2D backgrounds, while the third game has 2D characters with 3D backgrounds.
The art style is definitely one of the big highlights of the game with a wide range of character portraits for dialog and great sprite designs. In the second game Kururu has over 30 different face expressions, which reminded me of how expressive character portraits were in the 2D era (it reminded me of Justin and Feena in the original Grandia, my goodness did they have a portrait for every kind of reaction).
Rhapsody 2 is very charming game and it really does visually look like a fairy tale where a girl wants to marry a prince. It sounds cheesy, but the games do play like a normal JRPG where you have battles, gain experience, buy equipment, and watch cutscenes. The franchise has always advertised itself as a musical adventure, but the game has no rhythm games (no timed inputs) or anything like that you’d see nowadays in musical games. It’s just a very light-hearted JRPG where some of the cutscenes have musicals here and there.
They’re very easily approachable games and the plot isn’t difficult to understand. Another musical JRPG series I’d contrast Rhapsody with is Gust’s Ar Tonelico, which was a brilliant franchise with similar 2D sprites and artwork but arguably had too much depth to its game lore and very tricky gameplay.
The two Rhapsody games in this collection have random encounters where you randomly encounter groups of enemies while running through dungeons. Like old PS1 JRPGs, the encounter rate is honestly pretty bad where you encounter enemies every few steps and often you’ll get back-to-back battles after just two or three steps (within 1 to 2 seconds) which was very annoying. Thankfully, the battles are fast and have auto-battle settings and the escape option works reliably as long as your character levels are similar or higher to the enemy’s levels.
The games are on the easier side. The second game allows you to choose difficulty options, but even on the hard difficulty the game was pretty easy with perhaps only a slight bump in difficulty at the end. The third game had no difficulty select option and was a bit more challenging at certain points like a normal JRPG, which was a welcome change. The third game has a challenging (and grindy) post-game as well which tests your mastery of the game.
The most unique aspect of these games is that the protagonist can talk to puppets narratively for rewards and recruit them to use in battle. This is where the majority of the skills you use come from, though playable characters who cannot use puppets (such as knights) have their own skills as well. You can also recruit almost any monster when you defeat them, which has a random chance of occurring and they’ll have their own skills as well.
In the second game you equip puppets or monsters to your characters to change that playable character’s skills, whereas in the third game you can use puppets and monsters directly in battle after assigning them to a party leader.
Since these are old games there are no quest markers, but I played this game like an old JRPG. I talked to most of the NPCs that told me where to go and most NPCs gave me hints on where to go to find optional puppets and treasures. The side quests aren’t really separate either, usually you just talk to NPCs and get their treasure or answer their questions. It’s not hard at all since the game is 2D and the world isn’t big and hard to explore, but they’ll always be a missable here and there like older titles. The only time I was really stumped on where to go was in Rhapsody 3 in an episode where I was playing as a villain. I had to interact with a fridge to go into its freezer which was an entire explorable arctic area and I kept running through the castle instead thinking the castle itself was the dungeon.
The second game has its dungeons as series of interconnected square rooms. One big criticism I have is that they sometimes do recycle individual square rooms and use them all over in the dungeons. This, combined with a high encounter rate makes exploring certain dungeons very annoying, especially if you get lost or if you took a break from the game and are returning a while later. The jungle areas in Rhapsody 2 were the most notorious for having the rooms all look the same and being especially long with 5-10 rooms being connected in a line before finding a split in the route. The dungeons are never labyrinthine and most of the time the rooms are placed together in a line, with the occasional splitting routes here and there and most dungeons were under 20 rooms in length, so I never found it hard to find optional puppets or treasures but the encounter rate was quite annoying.
The third game improves the dungeon design greatly, and has 3D maps so you can actually explore areas with better designs such as tunnels rather than mostly symmetrical square rooms. The third game has better dungeon puzzles as well, where you can use springs to jump up and down which introduces elements of verticality rather than just running up sprites of stairs and being put in a recycled room.
Sadly even the third game had random encounters even though the map was 3D. I know that it would cost developers a lot of time and effort to put on-screen enemies back then due to the tools and engine limitations back then, but they should’ve had on-screen encounters that such as having generic blobs like in Tales of Symphonia. It was very annoying when you’re high leveled and you’re still having random encounters when you just want to get through an area.
There is also platforming present in Rhapsody 3 that wasn’t handled well. It’s not really platforming because you don’t have a dedicated jump button, but you need to run across moving platforms timed correctly or else you fall to the bottom level of certain dungeons. The only issue is that depth perception can be tricky due to the character sprites being in 2D and random encounters can happen almost anytime, throwing off your timing for running across moving platforms. It’s not as bad as that one notorious platforming dungeon in Xenogears but it did bring back bad memories.
Since these games are old, there are definitely many missables. It doesn’t matter too much because you don’t necessarily need all the best equipment or puppets to beat the game, but if you’re a completionist and want all the optional puppets and illustrations you do need to play this like an old game and examine everything or even return to old areas without being told to. One tip I’ll give for Rhapsody 2 is that you should always talk to Randy in the castle near the latter parts of the game so you can play matchmaker.
The musical scenes are phenomenal in this game. They’re never overbearing or out of place. They just happen randomly throughout the game, such as when Kururu adventuring for the first time, when the villain makes an intro, or even watching a cat make ice cream in a very disgusting cutscene I don’t ever want to think about ever again.
This game has an English dub for major story cutscenes and for dialog in combat, but the songs were all sung in Japanese with English lyrics on the screen. I’m fluent in Japanese (but not a native speaker), and I thought the songs were really amazing. They’re still amazing songs even if you don’t speak or know Japanese. Rhapsody had songs that genuinely felt like you were watching a theater play and many of them felt very emotional for pivotal story events. Many songs were bangers that were stuck in my head like the Sabbath song.
You know how there are some media that have good songs? This really is a game with well-made songs by professionals. You might scoff at the idea of watching a musical, but many shows in the late 90’s and early 2000’s had shows that had astonishingly good songs such as the earlier seasons of Fairly OddParents (My Shiny Teeth and Me, or School’s Out: The Musical) as well as Family Guy (You’ve Got A Lot to See, I’m Gonna Make You Famous), or even Futurama (The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings, which was nominated for an Emmy Award and an Annie Award). If you liked Final Fantasy 6 and its Opera House scene you’ll really love Rhapsody games.
Another strength of this series is that the characters are extremely well developed in these games. The original Rhapsody game focused on Cornet, Rhapsody 2 focused on her daughter Kururu, and Rhapsody 3 follows many supporting characters and protagonists but mostly focuses on Cornet’s mother, Cherie. As a whole the character development is really well done and the three games form a cohesive trilogy.
I really liked the chemistry between the characters. I won’t lie because Rhapsody 1 was a very cheesy and cliché plot about a girl who wants to marry a prince and the game does have a lack of supporting characters and plotlines, but Rhapsody 2 fixes those issues and adds more characters.
Though Rhapsody 2 has a similar plot of Kururu looking for a prince after a 12 year time gap from the original game, it definitely has a lot more plotlines compared to the original game and you see many characters from the original Rhapsody grown up or who had children of their own and you can see that the plot parallels the original while improving upon the original’s formula, similar to how Metal Gear Solid 2 paralleled the original Metal Gear Solid.
The chemistry between Kururu and Crea is very interesting and reminds me of the interactions between Sakura and Tomoyo in Cardcaptor Sakura (if you’re not familiar with that series, it’s basically a go-getter girl and a rich girl).
The plot is complemented because many supporting characters have distinct personalities, such as knights (Randy and Sonia) who join as well as emotional plot events such as one character growing up with a single mother and another who faces abandonment issues. The games really managed to tug on my heartstrings, but it does take a few hours for the plot to get going in both of the games.
One small criticism in Rhapsody 2 is that the playable party does rotate a lot depending on the plot events and I wish Randy and Sonia had more screen-time. You’ll always have control of Kururu who can use almost all puppets and is the most powerful playable character so it doesn’t matter if other guest party members leave, but I still would’ve liked them to remain in the party for more dialog and interaction.
Rhapsody 2 is a regular JRPG with a continuous storyline, but Rhapsody 3 is separated into 6 episodes with varying protagonists and storylines. It can be annoying because you have a new protagonist and supporting characters each episode forcing you to create new party setups very often. Thankfully in Rhapsody 3 you can sometimes re-summon previous monsters you recruited in previous episodes. This isn’t always possible because some episodes have different protagonist and enemy levels, so the developers prevent you from getting strong recruitable monsters in one episode and using them in another, but generally the game is not hard so it doesn’t matter too much.
My big criticism with Rhapsody 3 is that the way the game is split into distinct episodes (rather than a continuous story) makes the game awkwardly structured. It was fine for Rhapsody 2 to re-use content from the previous game because it adds a lot of new areas, monsters, and playable characters, but Rhapsody 3 really re-uses content far too much. The explorable areas are re-made in 3D with the PS2’s new technology, but many areas are scrapped with far fewer explorable zones (the capital city Mothergreen was decreased in size substantially).
Each episode in Rhapsody 3 takes a few hours to complete and each episode generally only had one city and one dungeon or so which was disappointing considering Rhapsody 2 had a decently sized world for you to explore. I really liked exploring many areas and talking to NPCs in Rhapsody 2 to learn about the lore of the world (all NPCs have constantly updating dialog) but Rhapsody 3 really feels compartmentalized, kind of like what DLC would be nowadays.
The turn-based gameplay is definitely improved in Rhapsody 3, where you can use recruited puppets and monsters directly in battle, so you can have an army of 4 party leaders with 3 supporting characters each (and you can equip puppets to almost anyone now except the most unique ones) and it’s really fun customizing all of their equipment and skills, but the exploration aspect definitely suffers.
Although Rhapsody 3 has 6 episodes, the main one is Episode 5, where you play as Cornet’s mother, Cherie, and the game actually shows her entire life with time-skips. It really is a phenomenal and tragic story, but the gameplay during this section is bad – the first part of this has an ancient city and a tower dungeon that was fun, but the latter parts of it had Orange city, the capital, and two cave dungeons that you run back and forth between for 5-10 hours which was very poorly done. The gameplay became old fast because of the lack of cities and dungeons (it reminded me of Xenogears’ Disc 2 a little with insane amounts of plot elaboration and time-skips, but lacking dungeons/cities).
Even though the dungeons and world was lacking, the narrative in Rhapsody 3 is amazing and I kept playing to see the end of it. If you played Rhapsody 1 you’ll know what happens because it’s a prequel, but it was still very emotional and well-made. I’d argue that the developers should’ve made the entirety of Rhapsody 3 as Cherie’s life instead rather than having so many episodes with so many protagonists.
Episode 6 of Rhapsody 3 was also very interesting, where it’s a post-game scenario where you explore a dungeon and defeat a superboss. It lets you use all characters you played as and any puppet and monsters you recruited during the game as a farewell to the series and gameplay-wise it’s really fun. The game tells you it scales enemies in this area based on the highest-leveled character in your party, so you can quickly level up all your characters by defeating strong enemies, which you’ll need to do to defeat the superboss. I really think this is where the developers got the idea for Disgaea from (a game with an emphasis on leveling and using skills to outsmart and defeat high leveled bosses).
It’s fascinating to see the references came from Rhapsody to Disgaea. Like how the store Rosenqueen in Disgaea comes from Etoile and Crea’s store chain in Rhapsody and the theme song for the shops in Disgaea came from the Rosenqueen theme park in Rhapsody 2 (you must’ve been wondering why the shop theme in Disgaea sounds so amazing when it’s just a shop). The mushroom “Shroom” enemies in Disgaea also called Eringa’s also originated in Rhapsody, and you see sprites for Etoile/Crea Rosenqueen and Ellie the Eringa in later titles such as La Pucelle. It’s interesting they kept that Japanese “Eringa!” sound effect for them for so many years.
The Rhapsody games in this collection are fun to play. The musicals are amazing and were a pleasure to listen to. The gameplay was usually easy but it was fun albeit with an encounter rate that was a tad too high. The games are remasters and localizations of the original releases, so the games do have issues that old games have such as missables or sometimes having to figure out where to go. Rhapsody 2 plays like a direct sequel to the original game with many improvements. Rhapsody 3 does have a few flaws but still has a great story and an amazing gameplay system though it’s lacking in dungeons and cities and has awkward pacing at times. If you haven’t checked out these games yet, it’s a good chance to, especially if you’re a fan of JRPGs or NIS titles such as Disgaea.
Marl Kingdom Chronicles
- The games are very light-hearted and fun with amazing theatrical songs. The story and characters are fun to follow.
- Gameplay is very fun and addicting.
- The 2D spritework and character portraits are amazing. Nippon Ichi Software was and still are some of the masters of making great looking sprites.
- The games can be a bit too easy at times, each taking 10-15 hours to complete.
- Rhapsody 3 is organized into episodes, has pacing issues and recycles content far too much.
- These games are old and suffer from issues old games suffer, such as missable content or not always being clear on where to go.
– Brandon Harris
Reviewed on the PC