Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: September 17, 2007
Japanese-developed RPGs are often known for their bizarre concepts. Wild Arms 5 based its entire gameplay on the semi-obscure "Johnny Appleseed" myth, Xenogears is an insane mishmash of giant robots, religion and philosophy and the Shadow Hearts franchise mixes occult mysticism with historical figures ranging from Mata Hari to Elliot Ness. Few titles have managed to reach the unusual and bizarre idea that fuels Eternal Sonata, which stars famed pianist of the 1800s, Frederic Francois Chopin. This would be unusual enough, but the title takes place during the final three hours of Chopin's life, as he lies in a coma in his Parisian home.
To put it lightly, you will probably never see an RPG setting like this again, and Tri-Crescendo clearly put a lot of thought into it, even going so far as to include history lessons during the game to bring unfamiliar gamers up to date on Chopin's life and works. Despite the curious and interesting concept, Eternal Sonata has one fatal flaw: It's boring.
As Chopin lies in a coma, his restless dreams take the form of a bizarre and unusual world. Populated by characters with names like Polka, Waltz and Jazz and locations named Mr. Rock, Fusion River and Chorus Plains, it's not difficult to see how this world reflects Chopin's mind. There are actually two separate plots going on at the same time during Eternal Sonata; one is the story of a young girl named Polka, and the other is the tale of Chopin, who is traveling through his dream world along with Polka.
One oddity of the Eternal Sonata world is that anyone who is dying is granted amazing magical powers, and Polka, resident of the small town of Tenuto and sufferer of a terminal illness, wants to use her remaining time and powers to make things better for the people around her. Along the way, she meets some new friends and gets embroiled in a war between two nations, Forte and Baroque. Polka has to prevent Count Waltz of Forte from abusing a rare and addictive "medicine" to infect his people with incurable illnesses, and the amazing powers the come with them.
Chopin acts as an observer to the events in Polka's world, and as time wears on, he begins to wonder if he's living in a dream, and his time in the spotlight descends into philosophical discussions about the nature of life, death and reality.
Eternal Sonata's concept is incredibly interesting, but it fails to live up to the promise. The two halves of the plot rarely interact well, few of the plot threads have a conclusion and the few that do end in completely unsatisfying ways. The "RPG" portion is all but dropped by the end, when all else is forgotten as the storyline rushes full-force toward Chopin's inevitable demise. The Chopin segment of the plot is more interesting, but the actual payoff feels unsatisfying considering how little screen time it receives. The finale is nearly a solid hour of unplayable philosophy and symbolism that, while interesting to discuss, is not very satisfying as an ending to 20 hours of gameplay.
Most of your time in Eternal Sonata is going to be spent wandering through the various dangerous lands of Chopin's dream. While they're beautiful to look at, these dungeons are not very fun to explore at all because they're so linear; you walk in a straight line and fight monsters over and over and over. There is no room for exploration, no backtracking, very little bonus material to find and overall, the world feels hollow and empty.
Occasionally, the game will throw a puzzle at you, but the number of puzzles in Eternal Sonata can be counted on one hand, and none of them are even vaguely challenging. There is no excitement in exploring a new area and no adventurous feeling in wondering what comes next — just more of the same dull, linear caves. The constant fights against enemies do little to alleviate the frustration, and the title's incredibly low difficulty level serves to compound the problem instead.
Eternal Sonata's combat is best described as a mix of real-time and turn-based combat. Once battle begins, fighters are distributed around the battlefield, and one by one, each warrior on the battlefield takes an action. As long as it is his turn, the warrior can do whatever he wants: move, attack or whatever is in his power to do. The only limitation is a time gauge in the corner that begins filling as soon the character moves (or after a certain period of time, depending on the area in the game), and once that timer runs out, it moves onto the next character in line.
Movement is controlled by the analog stick and attacking and special moves are performed via the A and Y buttons, respectively. When it isn't a character's turn, the only thing he can do is block an enemy's attack by playing a tiny mini-game. When a defense icon pops up above the character, pressing A or B allows him to attempt to stop the attack by either blocking or counterattacking. Blocking drastically lowers the damage that characters take, and counterattacking allows them to dish out damage during an opponent's turn.
There are no limitations to special moves in Eternal Sonata, except that each one takes a specific amount of time to use. You can spam cure magic during your entire turn without ill effects or pound the enemy over and over again, but there are a couple of advantages to using some finesse in your dealings. For one thing, effective use of attacks and special attacks actually allow for longer and more damaging strikes. Every time a character attacks an enemy with a regular attack, he builds up Echoes, and the more one earns, the more powerful a special attack is when you finally use it. Echoes are shared by the party, and their effect is quite substantial; effective use of Echoes can easily have your characters causing over 10,000 damage before they reach level 15.
One of the most interesting (and most underused) elements of Eternal Sonata's battle system is the variation between Light and Dark. Any area that is lit up, either by the sun, a candle, natural luminescence or other light source is considered a Light area, and anything that isn't illuminated is a Dark area. Each battlefield in the game is made up of both Light and Dark areas. An open plain on a sunny day will be almost completely Light, with the exception of shadows cast by the combatants or from clouds passing over the field. Inside a crumbling dungeon, however, it will be almost completely Dark, with the only Light areas coming from cracks in the roof or flickering candles.
Dark and Light areas are important because they influence your characters and enemies. Each character has a "Light" and "Dark" set of special moves available, and he can only perform Light moves while standing in Light areas and Dark moves while in Dark areas. Moving between Light and Dark allows you to access different moves quickly. Unfortunately, the difference between moves is minor, as most characters gain devastatingly effective moves in both kinds of lighting.
Certain enemies change form depending on the light in their environment; an enemy who is pathetic and puny in sunlight may suddenly become a behemoth in the darkness. In a more challenging game, this would be a true threat, challenging you to either keep the enemy in the light and risk using a weaker move, or move into the darkness and risk powering up your foes. The problem is, thanks to Eternal Sonata's unfathomably low difficulty level, even super-sized foes go down quickly. While they'll certainly provide more of a fight than their pint-sized pals, don't expect them to actually challenge Chopin and his allies. Not even bosses will slow you down for long, and the only "challenge" they provide is an increased number of hit points before they go down for the count.
The best way to earn money in Eternal Sonata is by taking photographs. Not unlike the previous Tri-Crescendo title Baten Kaitos, photos you take can be sold for cash at stores. Beat, one of your party members, is an avid photographer, and during battle, he can use his special moves to photograph an enemy in a short mini-game. The better the photo, the better a score it receives, and the better a score, the more money it's worth.
The problem here is that photos sell for ridiculous amounts of cash, and I don't mean "slightly more than average." It's quite possible to selling $20,000 photos by the first town, where items cost less than 100 gold apiece, and the selling prices only go up from there. If you only take a few photos in each dungeon, you'll be absolutely swimming in cash at all times. This means that you'll never be at risk at running out of supplies because you can easily purchase enough healing items, armor and various other trinkets to ensure that the already-simple fights become an absolute cakewalk. One set of 12 photos actually earned me enough money to last until the end of the game!
Eternal Sonata really does not have much replay value. There are a few rather pointless side-quests, including an optional dungeon which is the closest the title comes to being interesting, but they do little to spice things up, and the rewards simply make an already easy game even easier. You can't complete every side-quest on your first playthrough of the game, though. After finishing Eternal Sonata, an "Encore" mode is unlocked, in which new items appear and enemies receive a boost in stats. While a more difficult mode is appreciated, the challenge is not going to take a significant enough increase to really appeal to hardcore gamers, and playing through the same incoherently boring dungeons again with longer fights is going to be very tedious, even if you skip every cut scene.
Eternal Sonata is gorgeous to look at. The characters are fluid and well animated, with a wonderful cel-shading style that makes them look almost animated. The world is fantastically designed, and each background bristles with style and flair. This is not to say the graphics are perfect, because unfortunately, there are a few issues. You can't change or move the camera to glance around this world, which really does take away from the beauty, and while the models themselves are lovely, there is a noticeable repetition in enemy design that grows tiresome after a while. Those are the small complaints, and they do little to detract from Sonata's overall splendor
One area where Eternal Sonata succeeds magnificently is, rather unsurprisingly, in its audio. Tri-Crescendo started off doing music for Tri-Ace titles like Valkyrie Profile, and it shows. The background music is wonderful, and the inclusion of Chopin's melodies is very welcome. The voices, however, are a mixed bag. Some of the actors are excellent; Chopin is absolutely fantastic, and I kept him in my party just to hear his awesome battle quotes. Others don't quite live up to this high standard, though. Some are just incredibly squeaky-voiced and annoying to listen to, while others lack emotion, and in the case of party member Salsa, the actress can't seem to remember if she has an accent or not, depending on the line. However, these are small complaints, and the dub is mostly of a high quality. For gamers who are still bothered by the voice acting, a Japanese voice option is also available.
Eternal Sonata is a beautiful game. It has excellent music, a reasonably well done dub and a curious and interesting setting. This doesn't change the fact that it is far too easy. Adventuring through Chopin's dream isn't exciting, danger-filled or even interesting. It's boring, and you'll eagerly welcome a puzzle or town just for a break from the mind-numbing tedium that arises from the battles. The ease of the game is made all the more frustrating by the developed systems that, in a more challenging game, could be incredible, but are left to flounder here. If you're absolutely desperate for a Japanese RPG fix for your Xbox 360, Eternal Sonata fits the bill. Just be warned that it will never thrill or challenge you, and once you're finished with it, there is little reason to even pick up the disc again.
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