Review: Eternal Sonata

Eternal__Sonata_cover.JPGPlatform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Tri-Crescendo
Release Date: 9/17/07
Genre: RPG
Players: 1 – 3

Beautiful and brilliant, Eternal Sonata is currently the best of the growing crop of JRPGs currently available for the Xbox 360. Developer Tri-Crescendo (the Baten Kaitos series) has created a true gem fans of the genre will love from beginning to end for just about everything it offers. From the achingly gorgeous visuals, to the increasingly challenging combat system and the surprisingly touching (and deep) storyline, it’s hard to find fault with the finished product. If you happen to have a passing or greater interest in classical music, the game becomes even more of a special treat solely based on its educational aspects. Who’d have though that you could learn about the life of one of history’s greatest composers by playing a video game where dispatching mostly cute-looking monsters as quickly as possible makes up the bulk of the gameplay?

As he lies on his deathbed, the composer Frederic François Chopin (1810 – 1849) has a fever dream of a lush fantasy world where a 14-year old girl named Polka who’s also slowly dying seeks to live out her remaining days by taking on a great adventure. Meanwhile, the government in Forte City is producing a product called Mineral Powder that is sells inexpensively to anyone as a cure-all. One side effect of this is the price has decimated the market for the Floral Powder that Polka sells to help her mom make ends meet. The other side effect is a bit more serious, as users eventually start turning into soulless magic wielding demons. As a counterpoint, a side effect of Polka’s unnamed condition is the ability to use healing and combat magic. This makes her a pariah everywhere she goes as the people think her condition is contagious, unaware that they’re being poisoned by the ‘miracle’ Mineral Powder.

Despite her condition, Polka innocently vows to head for Forte to ask Count Waltz about the Floral Powder situation, not knowing what she’s about to face. Shortly before she decides to venture out of the tiny village she lives in with her mother. Chopin arrives in his own dream and after a bit of dialog, she asks him to accompany her, which he does gladly. Yes, there’s a bit of betrayal, some sacrifice and even one of the most amusingly protracted death scenes in a game you’ll ever see (and no, it’s not either of whom you’d expect), but it all works. Despite plenty of formulaic genre elements, the game is clearly designed to outstrip the usual genre conventions and give players a richer emotional experience not soon forgotten. Don’t expect a billion sub-quests to get in the way of the storytelling as the game’s many cinematic moments perfectly and precisely keep you absorbed through each new plot point. This strict linearity may initially turn off JRPG fanatics who expect every game they play to be deep in side quests in every village, but those folks would be missing the emotional core of the game entirely.

At certain points, the game retells parts of Chopin’s life story with an ever-changing series of still photos of selected locations from his life as a backdrop. These sequences also introduce a piece of Chopin’s music while explaining the reason behind its composition, making for a nicely integrated musical history lesson. It’s easy to get lost in the stunning visuals, but the game reminds you every so often that it’s a dream you’re visiting temporarily by flashing back to a dying Chopin as he lies peacefully in bed. Meanwhile, other characters are introduced as the game switches to Allegretto and Beat, two orphans who go from stealing bread for the poorer children of their village to seeking out Polka because they’re curious about her magical skills, not realizing fully her condition. They also want to see Count Waltz, but about lowering the bread tax. The initial back and forth switching between Polka and Allegretto’s adventures allows you to experience a ton of dynamic action-based battles and level up accordingly.

Eventually, you’ll meet up with a number of other party members, each musically named (Jazz, Viola, March, Falsetto, et cetera) and very useful in battle. Deciding whom to take along gets a bit tricky as more members join the cause, but inactive party members still level up incrementally as your main party fights. This keeps things from being too unbalanced when you do swap, yet you’ll want to use everyone at some point if only to see their cool special moves. When roaming the field or dungeons, there are no random encounters at all. Enemies are on screen all the time, so you can take them on or run past them if you like. Running into an enemy from behind gives you a tactical advantage, but it works both ways, so you’ll need to be wary of faster baddies lurking about. Given the fearsome power of some regular monsters (and especially the game’s super tough bosses), you’ll want to do a bit of level grinding and much stocking of healing supplies.

Once a battle begins, the game switches to a field map where you have a few seconds to move, attack and/or use items before your turn is up. Attacks, magic and item use are each linked to a button on the 360 controller, and there’s a special move that can be used at any time. Those are the basics, but the game gets really awesome on two fronts: when your party level increases and when you and your enemies can take advantage of light and dark areas during combat. As you chain together attacks, a meter on the right side of the screen builds up to 32 hits, allowing special moves to become even more devastating. The game keeps things fresh by increasing your Party Level at certain points. This turns combat from turn-based affairs where you can take as much time to plan an attack to frantic battles where you’ve a few seconds to make a move, use items or block damage. Sure, you’ll do a lot of fighting as the game goes on, but the increasingly tight time limits force you to think quickly and react even faster.

Amusingly, Chopin and Polka, make a surprisingly powerful team early on for two dying people. Both can use spells that heal or damage enemies, so as long as you get the first attack in, you’ll never get into too much trouble. Throughout the game however, boss battles start out tough and will turn into sheer doom for your party if you go in under leveled. Most of these guys (or gals) are massive, all are hard to put down and in case that wasn’t bad enough, all have the painful tendency to heal themselves or be healed a few thousand points while you’re about to drop dead. When you lose (and you will on occasion), you’re not even bounced back to a nearby town or save point – it’s just “Game Over” and a manual reload of your last save, which was hopefully just before the boss battle that did you in.

Win or lose, it’s hard to find fault with the visuals that equal and in places, better anything the great Level 5 have done. The stylized characters and creatures live and breathe in perhaps the most gorgeously colorful environments. Hair and clothing wave and flutter in the wind, skies are breathtaking and the assorted dungeons and overworld areas are a remarkable sight. There’s a painterly quality to the game that’s dreamlike and realistic simultaneously and the lengthier cut scenes make the game feel like an anime. The only complaints here are the outfits or weapons never change visually, a missed opportunity, and outside of three battle viewpoints, there’s a fixed or floating camera that keeps you from seeing the lovely game world up close and personal. It’s great for hiding treasure boxes and the occasional creature waiting to jump you, but the environments are so awesome that you’ll wish you could pan and zoom the camera. Speaking of camera, Beat is equipped with a camera you can (and should) use to snap photos during combat to sell for huge amounts of gold. Monsters are somewhat cheap in the game, offering up relatively tiny coinage, but you can make a mint selling “A” and “B” grade pictures at traders and shops.

Of course, with the music of Chopin on board, Eternal Sonata’s soundtrack is as great as the graphics. Famed pianist Stanislav Bunin plays all of the piano pieces and the game score is composed by Motoi Sakuraba (Shining Force III, Namco Bandai’s Tales series, Valkyrie Profile). There’s a mini game where you collect hidden score pieces and play them with selected NPC’s for items, but there’s no real challenge other than hunting down some of the harder to find pieces or backtracking to a previous location to find that last NPC that offered to play with you. While not having a more interactive music portion might seem a disappointment, this allows players of all skill levels to hear a bit more classical music than they’re probably exposed to, another excellent touch. Voice acting can be selected in English or Japanese and both are well done, although characters tend to repeat themselves after battles a bit too often.

In the end, expect about 30 hours out of the game the first time through and a bit of replay value if you’re a true fan. The game also supports up to three players, which may seem odd, as only one person can gain all the Achievements. However, it’s a good excuse to get a significant other or the kids gathered ’round the TV set for some educational melodrama with lush graphics and a top-rate score. For those of you jealous Playstation 3 owners eyeballing that used 360 at your favorite game shop, hold off a bit as you’ll be getting the game next year (perhaps with some additional content). In the end, Eternal Sonata works as game and art, a blending of dedicated developers taking on subject matter unusual for the genre, yet managing to fit all the pieces together in a richly rewarding masterwork that’s highly recommended. Bravo.


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