Eternights, a hack-and-slash dating sim by Studio Sai, wears its Persona inspirations on its sleeve. When I played the game for the first time earlier this year at Summer Game Fest, I said its action combat felt flimsy and its characters seemed generic, though I was at least interested to see if those aspects would reach anything close to the depth of the games it draws from in the full release. Having now played the finished game, I’d say it doesn’t quite reach those same heights, but it’s clearly willing to take some big swings in the name of an emotional, incredibly effective climax. It’s just the minutiae that gets in its own damn way.
Set during a supernatural post-apocalypse, Eternights follows a group of teenagers trying to survive as the titular anti-aging drug turns its users into zombie-like creatures. Because your generic, unnamed, sad boy protagonist is very special, he is chosen by a god to act as her champion in the war that sparked this whole post-apocalypse. But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here to date the other survivors you meet who have also been gifted with superpowers. Credit where credit is due, Eternights has a pretty compelling cast of characters, even if the actual nuts and bolts of its writing isn’t much to write home about.
Despite the framework of superpowered teens fighting through the apocalypse, Eternights’ cast is dealing with some pretty normal teenage connections, just with some higher stakes. Yuna, the teen idol, wrestles with her influence as a socialite while her fans are fighting for their lives or possibly turned; Min deals with guilt at the loss of her track team and the feeling of having let them down during a monster attack; and Sia, the science and tech wiz of the group, deflects with bravado and spunk as she fumbles through trying to understand what’s going on in the world. The outlier is Yohan, the sole male love interest in the game, who first appears to the protagonist in a dream and whose mysterious presence unravels as the game goes on. I enjoyed each character’s arcs, but the moment-to-moment dialogue and interactions weren’t as effective as the game’s broad strokes.
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Even as I rolled my eyes at the words being spoken, I was drawn into each character’s story, comforting Yuna as she found pieces of her merch scattered across a site overrun by monsters and wondering what happened to the fans who’d once owned them, or letting Sia experiment on me in order to better understand our collective power. The strong relationship writing and emotional beats shine through, even as the game threatens to knock over any goodwill it builds with scenes that undermine the investment I was putting into them with my own choices.
Eternights regularly falls into predictable fanservice, often (though not always) egged on by Chani, the protagonist’s horndog best friend. One such scene takes place while your team is freefalling through the air after a dramatic boss fight. As you plummet, your character’s arm—which, by the way, can transform into just about anything—takes the shape not of a parachute, but of a giant version of Yuna’s bra, which he’d glimpsed in an earlier scene. Such moments clash with and undermine the maturity Eternights often seems to be trying to cultivate in its explorations of its dynamic and complex cast.
That’s definitely an issue, though not the one that really kept preventing me from connecting with the protagonist’s experience. Rather, that was the fact that this game, which is ultimately about choosing to enter a relationship with one character (the game will lock you into a romance in the end), is constantly pushing you into situations where your character is interested in pretty much everyone, even if you as a player have your sights set on a specific paramour. Oftentimes it felt like Eternights was dragging me into situations where roleplaying a character uninterested in certain characters (or even just not interested in women and looking to pursue Yohan) was just not possible. It’s not just a matter of roleplaying a gay character, but the fact that Eternights’ framework simply doesn’t allow for playing one who is solely interested in one particular romantic option. It’s frustrating when every love interest gets paraded out multiple times and depicted as someone your character is eyeing but I’m trying to be a loyal king, dammit. Much like the Persona games that inspired it, Eternights assumes interest as a default, and it can make building those relationships feel restrictive and forced.
While respecting women is the hardest game in Eternights, the actual hack-and-slash combat can be pretty challenging despite its simplicity, even in the early hours. Much of it is your standard sword swinging affair, but your party of possible lovers follows you around and supports you along the way. As you progress your relationships with them, you unlock new assist skills, which helps make the game feel more dynamic as it goes on. The action looks pretty generic most of the time, but Eternights’ combat gets snappier and more stylish the more abilities you get, and a lot of the impressive visual elements linked to those abilities come from your character’s arm which, as I mentioned, can transform, and which he uses as a weapon. Think of it like a Green Lantern ring that’s been magically grafted onto an amputated arm, changing from the standard sword to other weapons like a hammer or chainsaw as needed. Some of the best visual moments in Eternights come from watching your character wail on a monster twice his size with his hammer arm as you mash the square button. The tech can’t always keep up with the visual ideas, but if Eternights has anything, it’s the enthusiasm to try and swing for something it can’t land as well as its predecessors did, but still gets the idea across.
The style isn’t at the expense of substance, and Eternights can be a pretty unforgiving action game as it marries those mechanics with dungeon crawling. Healing resources are limited and they’re only improved by establishing your bonds with your teammates. Eternights does a lot to tie together social elements with how you fight through its world, so neither side of the game feels superfluous. Even if I wasn’t compelled by the writing, I was pleasantly surprised by how well-integrated dating and team building were, even if the game’s short runtime only let me see so much of these characters.
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All of this leads to what is easily the game’s best moment: its final five minutes. Without getting into spoilers, Eternights’ finale feels like it was plucked out of, if not a “better” game, at the very least a more consistent one. It reaches for the feelings it mostly gestures at through its run but doesn’t always manage to hit, and it finally grabs hold of them. It was the moment when I realized the heart was always there, trying to claw its way out through the muck and hold onto something with meaning. It’s not strong enough to hold onto it forever, but at least it has the tenacity to try.
Ultimately, those final moments are the ones I leave Eternights thinking about. Where often the game feels like it’s struggling to execute its own ideas, it’s clear that it at least has ideas. It gets in its own way with what feel like expected genre pressures to undermine itself, but it knows the emotions it wants the player to feel, and they aren’t as superfluous as the gags at characters’ expense it throws out along the way. It makes me hopeful about what this studio might make in the future, because while Eternights may be imperfect, it’s clearly made by a team that wants to create moments like this game’s finale, ideally supported by games that are fully deserving of them. It just needs to work on ironing out all the wrinkles that held this game back.
Pre-order Eternights: Amazon | Best Buy