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Eternights review: Hack and smash

Dating sims have been around forever, but it’s hard to deny the influence the Persona series has had on the genre and fans thereof. The way a game’s UI looks, the way “social links” are tied to gameplay and the way dark, horror-adjacent anime aesthetics are paired with saccharin romance are heavily inspired by Megami Tensei’s flagship spinoff series. That influence is just as apparent in indie games as in double or triple-A productions, and Eternights is possibly the most emblematic example yet.

That said, Eternights isn’t just “Indie Persona.” The influences are there, but this is a distinct project with its own interests and ideas. Really, Eternights has very little in common with Persona, beyond being an obvious point of comparison and influence. For starters, this is an action game, combined with a more overt dating sim experience. It’s a more straightforward, focused experience that’s also drawing from visual novels as much as RPGs.

Okay, enough Persona talk

Eternights’ story is pretty simple, and frankly inconsequential. It’s also kind of sloppy. “Eternights” is a miracle drug of sorts, that seems to cause a zombie outbreak kind of situation ala the Umbrella Corporation. But that point never actually goes anywhere, as the real background lore is a couple of supernatural beings fighting over a set of god machines used to maintain reality… or something like that. It’s sloppy, but the real story is the interactions between you and the other characters.

Regardless of the main plot, writing is still important when it comes to character and relationship dynamics, especially since the name of the game is dating. And while it dramatically improves over time, that writing doesn’t leave a good first impression. It leans hard on juvenile humor, constantly making jokes about sex and porn that are more cringe than funny. I’m no prude (I wrote for Cracked back in the day), but the gags feel written by a twelve year-old. Luckily once the game gets going, if you haven’t died from your eyes rolling through your brain and out your skull, it gets better.

The friends we made along the way

Despite its short runtime, the characters in Eternights grow quickly together in a way that feels organic. Between the two male leads having a pre-established relationship driving banter, and the supporting cast having simple but compelling motivations, the camaraderie feels natural. And once the stakes get high enough, the bonds you establish (assuming you manage your time well) feel strong and important. That all leads to an ending act with an earned sense of urgency, and an emotionally dense ending that goes for the gut and heartstrings all at once.

On the way, there’s a comfortable progress curve that adds more and more options to the game’s fast-paced combat. Just like the writing, the early form doesn’t make a great impression. But as you are given more options and upgrades, Eternights’ systems form something fun to engage with. It’s rough at first, because it feels like the developer couldn’t choose between a “hack and slash” style or something more punitive. Attacking and building combos feels fast and fluid, but defense is more persnickety about timing and mashing out offensively gets in the way.

Is this a button-masher or not?

If you don’t understand the conflict there quickly enough, Eternights will feel far more difficult than it should on the default setting. It doesn’t take many hits to drop, and dodging isn’t nearly as intuitive as it looks. But if everything clicks and you adjust to playing a little more carefully, there’s a lot in your toolbox to play around with. Eternights is far from a Devil May Cry, but its combination of defense, meter management, and reversal rewards makes for a solid loop. The easy setting feels like the action and how the buttons feel make a little more sense, but some updates to checkpointing made near the end of the review period helped the normal setting quite a bit.

Another well-done aspect of Eternights is its dungeon design. A lot of the puzzles and obstacles are unique and fun to solve, and while there’s no map the layouts are just simple enough (and there’s some great signposting as well) to encourage looking out for nooks and crannies without having to hold too much information in your head. Combat rooms also feel fair and balanced, with a natural challenge curve and enemy positioning that feels thoughtful. Despite the snags earlier, I never felt like Eternights was out to get me, nor did I ever feel like my hand was held.

It all comes together, mostly

“Thoughtful” is a great word to describe most of Eternights. Considering the game’s scope and the small size of its development team, it’s shocking how well all the different pieces fit together to form a coherent whole. From the length of the story and how that intersects with things like dungeon deadlines and stat growth, to the story beats between characters and the connections from gameplay tools to relationship choices, everything gels together almost perfectly. It’s easy to forget Eternights is an indie game at times, almost to the game’s detriment in an ironic fashion.

Despite the cringey humor and a few pain points in its combat design, I came away from Eternights with a sense of fulfillment. I was initially disappointed in a lack of new game plus at the end, but that was serendipitously added towards the end of the review period as well. It feels a little bolted on, considering how limited skipping through dialogue is, but it does what it needs to do. I’m definitely looking forward to checking out the other routes and endings, and filling in skills and upgrades I missed.

It’s amazing how talented Studio Sai is, and how much it got right with Eternights. I had a great time despite some rough patches in the early hours, and I’d love to see what these folks can do with more time and resources. And a better joke-writer. Don’t go into Eternights expecting an alternative to Persona; that’s not what this game is. Instead, put your action shoes on and keep an open mind about playing a more “true” dating sim, and I’ll be shocked if you don’t walk away with a smile on your face. And make sure you have a QR reader handy. You’ll see.

Eternights is available on September 12, 2023 for PlayStation and PC. A PC copy was provided by the publisher for review.

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