Eternal Sonata Xbox 360 Review
Chopin’s Final Opus
When one thinks about musically themed video games, Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero are generally the first things to come to mind. Rhythm games based around rock ‘n’ roll, disco, techno, and other modern styles of composition are the norm, so when tri-Crescendo decided to base not just a game, but a role-playing game, around famed Polish pianist Frederic Chopin and his work, it quickly shot up the list of anticipated titles for many gamers. After many agonizingly long months of waiting, Eternal Sonata has finally graced us with its presence, a presence that was well worth the wait.
To call Eternal Sonata anything but absolutely gorgeous would be an outright lie. Every aspect of the game’s world is meticulously crafted down to the tiniest detail, from the stitching on each character’s clothing to the holes and patterns of falling snowflakes. Everything in it glows with bright, vivid color that makes Eternal Sonata feel more alive than even the real world. In Eternal Sonata, even the dankest sewer can be breathtakingly beautiful, and the most desolate cemetery can radiate with a creepy allure. In forested areas, dapples of flickering sunlight often pattern the ground, and behind certain waterfalls the player might even be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a shimmering rainbow.
The character designs are excellent and varied, featuring fanciful costumes in a classic anime style, with just a hint of French influence. Chopin himself is particularly well designed, donning a fancy blue suit complete with neckerchief, pocket watch, and top hat. Every character fits perfectly within the fanciful world presented by Eternal Sonata, and simply add to the overall charm of the game’s visual splendor. Enemy designs are also excellent, though sadly few in number. Palette swaps are used far too often throughout the game, but the ones that exist are unique and impressive.
Cut scenes are frequent and lengthy, but exceptionally well done. Camera direction is very cinematic, and the game has no qualms about showing close-ups of characters, and does so regularly. As a result, these scenes often look like they’ve been pulled right out of a traditional anime sequence, even though they are all done within the game’s engine and nothing is prerendered. One of the drawbacks, unfortunately, is that the disparities in the lip sync become far more pronounced. Even so, it is a fairly minor problem, and easy to ignore.
If ever there were a game that stood to make a solid argument for the ongoing debate of whether games can qualify as art, Eternal Sonata stands as a shining example. But its visual finesse is not the end of its artistic quality. As one might expect from a game as heavily influenced by music as this one, the soundtrack is wonderful. Aside from several pieces written by Frederic Chopin, Eternal Sonata‘s beautiful score was composed by Motoi Sakuraba. While Sakuraba’s work is often criticized for being harmlessly average, he truly outdid himself in this endeavor. Though several of the pieces within the game, particularly the battle themes, are written with his signature style, even they, along with the rest of the soundtrack, are magnificent. Overlapping the game’s visual presence, every piece manages to heighten the game’s beauty and charm in some way.
Even sound effects are used masterfully to build upon the already breathtaking world. Subtle things such as the creaking of a waterwheel to the slightly varying sounds of footsteps as you step from soft earth onto hard rock help bring the world to life. Voice acting is also far above the usual standard, lending to each character’s unique personality. Salsa’s southern accent is especially endearing. The only time the voicework every feels off is during sequences that bear a striking resemblance to the soliloquies of classic stageplays, wherein certain characters bear their thoughts and feelings through often-lengthy monologues. While these scenes add a great deal to the overall story, they nonetheless manage to sound rather hokey.
The final piece of artistic presence Eternal Sonata throws at the player is in the story itself. In 1849, Frederic Chopin lay in his deathbed. Eternal Sonata takes place in the world imagined by Chopin in his final dreams, and many elements of the story and characters reflect moments from his real life. Upon entering this dream world, Chopin encounters a 14-year-old girl named Polka (the first of many musically themed names) who is able to use magic, but consequently is doomed to die from a terminal illness. Meanwhile, a pair of street urchins are making trouble in the harbor town of Ritardando, and it is not long before the two groups meet with a mutual goal in mind. It seems that Count Waltz, the ruler of the kingdom of Forte, has raised taxes again and again on all goods traded within his lands, except on the new miracle drug, Mineral Powder. For Beat and Allegretto, this is keeping their friends from affording food, while Polka, meanwhile, is unable to sell her Floral Powders, a competing medicine that is being taxed.
Right from the first moments of the game, the storytelling is excellent. Beginning with a narration describing Polka’s village, Tenuto, the descriptive language somehow manages to make the scenes shown even more incredible. Following that, the story takes a page from Final Fantasy IX, splitting into two parties whose stories eventually merge and separate at several points. While the tale manages to get a little confusing towards the end, it is nonetheless excellent, and unique to say the least. Unlike many Japanese RPGs, Eternal Sonata rarely, if ever, spells things out for the player directly. In fact, much of the story, particularly the ending, is extremely subtle and requires the player to connect the dots themselves.
As mentioned before, many elements of the story are reminiscent of parts of Chopin’s real life. Polka, for instance, who is dying from a terminal illness, is the same age as Chopin’s sister when she died of tuberculosis. In addition, the political strife that is a theme throughout the game reflects the insurrection that took place in Chopin’s homeland of Warsaw, Poland, which he was a supporter of, but unable to aid in due to being out of the country at the time of its occurrence. The history of Chopin’s life is told to the player through a series of slideshows that accompany his music, and while they are at least interesting, they could have been done in a more visually appealing way.
The characters themselves are without question the highlight of the story. Eternal Sonata features a large cast of characters, each with their own unique personalities, and the ways they interact with each other are particularly memorable. Whether it’s Salsa and Beat’s regular debates over who is taller, Allegretto’s good-willed but tactless comments, or even Chopin’s withdrawn observations of everything occurring within his dream, each and every character has something to offer.
While Eternal Sonata manages to present itself brilliantly on an artistic level, it sadly falls a bit short when it comes to gameplay. That isn’t to say that the gameplay is bad — far from it, in fact. The battle system is both unique and enjoyable, the dungeons are well plotted, and there are several sidequests and secrets to discover while playing. No, the issue comes with the balance of the game, which is so poorly done as to be insulting to the player. Battles are extremely easy, and should they become difficult (which is unlikely), a level or two is usually all that is necessary to win. In addition, the photography element, which players may recall as a part of tri-Crescendo’s earlier game, Baten Kaitos, leads the player to believe that photographers in this world are obscenely wealthy. Make no mistake, the amount of money earned through photography is beyond ridiculous — enough, in fact, that a single roll (twelve shots) of pictures of the first boss could very well earn you enough money to buy all the equipment you will ever need, as well as max out your supply of healing items throughout the entire game. This just serves to make an already easy game even easier, to the point where healing characters are virtually unnecessary. The fact that the player can only carry a limited number of items with him into battle serves to increase the challenge slightly, but not significantly.
The battle system itself is a surprisingly well-designed hybrid of turn-based and real-time combat that is pretty much the polar opposite of what was created for Final Fantasy XII. Whenever a character’s turn comes up, the player has a certain amount of time (which decreases as the game progresses) to move around the battle field and attack the enemy in a typical action-RPG style. Every attack that lands on the enemy increases the amount of time left by a tiny fraction, allowing the player to string together a few more attacks into the combo.
Players can also bind up to four skills to the Y button, which perform a variety of tasks, from dealing damage to healing allies. Skills are also separated into two categories — light skills and shadow skills — which serve to provide the strategic element of combat. By standing in areas that are either lit or in shadow on the battle field, different skills can be used. The game provides an equal number of light-heavy and shadow-heavy dungeons, although all fields have at least small areas of the field with one or the other. To make things more interesting, character and enemy shadows can be used to provide shade, and some enemies, and even some equippable items, actually cast their own light or shroud the area around them in darkness. There are also moving shadow and light elements in certain areas, such as a cloud drifting overhead providing a shadow or ethereal purple wisps in a cemetery providing a light source. On top of that, certain enemies also change their form when they enter light or shadow, often increasing their attack power and health in the process.
In addition to these combat basics, as the game progresses new abilities are unlocked, the first of which is the echo system. Echoes are essentially combos. For every hit you make on an enemy, you gain an echo. When you use a skill, the echoes are consumed to increase its power. The more echoes consumed, the more power the skill obtains. What’s more, if you manage to collect 24 or more echoes, you can stack a second skill onto the end of the first one in what is known as a harmony chain. While you can only perform a single harmony chain at first, as the game progresses the ability to chain a third skill on can be unlocked, and even more than that should you successfully complete one of the game’s side quests.
When an enemy takes its turn, Eternal Sonata doesn’t stop the action like most turn-based RPGs. Instead, it allows the player to reduce the damage they take by guarding and even counterattacking at the right moment. This feature of the battle system was designed perfectly, as it’s surprisingly challenging, and even the nimblest of players will have a hard time guarding successfully every time. Guarding is fairly important to several battles as well, and failing to guard against a particularly powerful attack can devastate a character’s health, though it’s fairly easy to recover from due to the aforementioned balance issues. Characters and enemies are also unable to guard from the side or from behind, so positioning and facing your characters properly can be extremely important, and enemies are often intelligent enough to abuse this weakness.
Eternal Sonata has a total of ten playable characters, although each character is played essentially in the same way, with some minor differences. Certain characters have more damage-dealing potential, while others are extremely good at building up echoes. A few characters are able to attack from a distance, and a few have healing spells. No matter the character, however, for the most part each turn will be spent unloading some normal attacks and finishing up with a skill. Some players may find this kind of combat repetitive, but no more so than any other action RPG out there. The ease of the game only makes this worse, but a New Game+ mode is offered after completing the game once that drastically increases all enemies’ attack, defense, and health, creating a more significant challenge for those interested in playing again.
Disappointingly short, Eternal Sonata is hardly eternal, lasting only 25 to 35 hours. Several sidequests can boost this time, as well as the previously mentioned New Game+ mode, which gives the player access to a faster method of travel and additional Score Pieces (a musically-themed collection sidequest), in addition to the increased difficulty level. While the balance issues are irritating, to say the least, Eternal Sonata‘s artistic appeal more than makes up for what the gameplay is lacking. With an excellent story, interesting characters, impressive music, and quite frankly the most beautiful graphics ever produced in a video game, Eternal Sonata is without question the first must-play RPG of the new console generation. A hundred years in the future, French school-children will be watching videos of this game in the Louvre. If ever a game could be called art, Eternal Sonata is it.