Japanese RPG’s having strange stories is nothing new. Eternal Sonata, by developer Tri-Crescendo, has to be the winner of the most out there premise award though. The idea; Composer Frederic Francois Chopin, yes the real life famous pianist, remained in bed for days deathly ill before finally dying. These are all historical facts. So what if during this time, he was having a dream in which he was present in an entirely musical themed world, in which a fantastical adventure was taking place. And what if he KNEW he was dying in real life, and KNEW he was dreaming up the world he was in, but just kind of went with it. I wasn’t present at the pitch meeting, but whomever came up with this idea has to be one persuasive guy. The game was made with that exact premise, which ends up being not only very unique in terms of story and setting, but makes for a very satisfying old school style RPG.
The first thing I noticed about the game were the visuals. I don’t mean that Eternal Sonata is a graphical powerhouse, far from it. The game came out in 2007 and wasn’t even really pushing the limits back then. It’s a cartoony art style. But that art style is sublime. More than once throughout the game I had a Keanu Reeves “woah” moment as I entered a new area. The larger areas in particular are impressive, both in their visual style and that even though the game is fairly linear, some of the locations in the game are BIG with a massive draw distance. Being able to see far away towers or forests and know you can get to them is a great feeling that makes the game actually feel larger than it really is. Character design is also extremely strong, with each of the major players having their own unique look. Chopin in particular manages to make trench coat and top hat look badass, which is no small feat. The only critique I have of the character design is that some characters, shorter ones in particular (of which there are many…..I’ll get to that, Japanese RPG’s and their kids!) appear to be wearing about 14 shirts. Their arms never drop completely to their sides, it appears some sort of invisible barrier exists that keeps them at least part of the way up at all times. It doesn’t detract from the game though, and in fact mostly just made me laugh.
The game begins with the Chopin on his death-bed, but our introduction to the world Chopin finds himself in comes in the form of a 14-year-old girl named Polka. Similar to any young girl in a Japanese RPG, Polka can use magic, which means she is also deathly ill and will probably die soon. No young person ever has a good life in these games! Chopin (looking swank in his tophat) befriends Polka, and they set off on a quest to get Count Waltz, the leader of the Kingdom of Forte, to lower taxes. Seriously. It soon becomes clear that the one product in the Kingdom to not get taxed like crazy, Mineral Powder, is much more than just a way for Forte to make money. I won’t give away how exactly things go down, but suffice it to say that the fate of the world will indeed hang in the balance.
One of my biggest problems with Eternal Sonata was the dialogue. The voice actors were mostly decent, with only a few oddball things standing out, but the writing….I think something was lost in translation. Characters mostly speak in VERY long drawn out speeches, often times to THEMSELVES. I realize this is a Japanese style, but it was quite strange to watch a group of characters interact, all but one leave the scene, then the remaining person talk to HERSELF for about 5 minutes about the just transpired events. I see the need to get the thoughts of some of the characters out there or even move the plot along, but it was off-putting and over used. Some of the cut scenes are also too long, with a couple running over 20 minutes. That’s Metal Gear Solid territory! Luckily you can pause or skip any of these. I watched them all at least once, there’s usually two or three cool plot revelations mixed in with all the talk about destiny and the power of your heart to defeat evil. The overall story is rock solid, so even if some of the details and writing are off, my interest held throughout the 30 plus hours I spent with the game.
The actual playing of the game is where Eternal Sonata truly ends up shining, although it can feel limiting at first. Battles are turn based, but not in the select from a menu traditional sense. When a characters turn comes up (you control a party of 3) you have a limited amount of time to move them across the battlefield and use abilities. The game employs an interesting mechanic called Party Level that makes fights more complicated as you progress through the game. Initially the 5 or so seconds (it varies) you have on a given turn ONLY depletes if you’re actively doing something, ie moving or attacking/using skills. Gain a Party Level, which occurs at set points throughout the game, and now the timer will start after you initiate your first action and will continue to deplete even if you stop. By the end the timer goes INSTANTLY as your turn hits, which means there’s no time for thinking. I give Eternal Sonata a ton of credit for having that feel like a natural progression, in fact the only thing is the first couple Party Levels are almost too simple and make battles less fun than then eventually become. That doesn’t last long though and it never made me want to stop playing. Dark and light areas also play a huge role in combat. Depending on whether or not a character is standing in light or shadow, the abilities you can use change completely. Sure Chopin has an amazing healing spell, but he can only cast it when he’s in light, so it becomes a matter of correctly positioning, or even letting enemies come to you, to fight in the most advantageous way possible. As you level up and learn new abilities, you’ll find that both light and dark are useful, for all of the different characters. It’s a fun system that forces you to make quick decisions about movement. None of the battles are boring. This is aided by one very traditional RPG thing that Tri-Crescendo did NOT do….magic points! Fire away with any abilities, you won’t deplete any finite meter. What you can do is only limited by time. This means there are no battles where characters will just be whacking away with their primary weapon to conserve anything, spells and abilities will fly in every fight.
Leveling up on the other hand is very traditional. Experience is gained after every fight, gain enough and a character gains a level. Sometimes a level will come with a new skill. This old school style made me quite nostalgic actually, given that it was fun not knowing when a new ability would show up, and when it did, not having any idea how exactly it worked until I tried it out was a welcome change. In most western rpg’s now I can see my skill tree to the very end and know exactly when I’ll earn anything, so the surprise is gone. Getting Chopin’s infinite range lightning bolt ability and using it for the first time definitely was “ssweeeeeet” moment that would have been tempered by seeing it coming from the start of the game.
The roster of characters is impressive as well, with my potential party pool being 11 characters by the end of the game. The game will sometimes force you to use a specific party or have two different groups doing things at once, but all of the characters are effective in combat and have interesting abilities. My only complaint about the characters is that five of them are fourteen years old or under. Quit making spunky young kids in games! We don’t like them! We tolerated it in Final Fantasy 4, Gau was useless in Final Fantasy 6, and if anybody reading this has played Lost Odyssey you know the pain of the twins featured in that game. At one point the game forced me to use Chopin (who was awesome) with 3 of the other kids. I felt I was babysitting and it was my least favorite dungeon of the game. It was a pirate ship, and quite frankly if I was Chopin I would have given all three of the kids with me to the Pirates as human slaves in exchange for my own freedom.
I appreciated Eternal Sonata’s dedication to being musically themed. Names of characters in your party: Allegretto, Beat, Polka, Viola, Jazz, Falsetto, Claves, Serenade, Crescendo, Salsa, March. And of course Chopin himself. Crescendo is the Prince of….wait for it….Baroque. At one point I even found myself adventuring across the Cowbell Plains. ( I GOT A FEVER). The one musical thing I didn’t like was a mini game involving score pieces. Score pieces are pieces of music you find throughout the game, usually hidden away in corners. Some NPC’s you come across will be musicians themselves and want to play with you. If you select the correct score piece that goes with their tune, they’ll give you sweet items. This is fine, except I know NOTHING about music. By the time I had twenty something score pieces I had no way of knowing what went with what since I can’t read music, and the only thing I could do was just go down the list and select each one. However, you had to restart the dialogue and wait for a couple of seconds of loading each time to bring up the score piece sub screen, so after I got over twenty different pieces, I said screw this and never worried about them again. Some sort of clue that would have helped us musical newbies to play this game would have been appreciated. The music of the game itself is spectacular, with Chopin’s own works mixed in tunes written for the game. All are fantastic, with a few stand outs. Wait until you do the mirror dungeon, the haunting piano tune in there was my favorite piece in the game.
One other quick thing I’d like to point out: The enemies in this game are STRANGE. I could write a whole article on this alone, but I figure this will suffice:
Eternal Sonata is a unique RPG, both in story, setting, and art style. The idea of Chopin having a fever dream and adventuring in his own head is so strange that it becomes instantly compelling. The world is fully realized, with an ending that makes you actually think. It definitely has an old school feel to it, which may turn off anybody who has been weened on western style RPG’s like Mass Effect. Fans of Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, or Chrono Trigger will feel right at home here. I found myself getting lost in the game more easily the longer I played it. The prospect of seeing an amazing visual or hearing an amazing piece of music in the next dungeon drove me forward, and I was not disappointed. Eternal Sonata is a game that probably flies under the radar, I know it did mine. I played it on the advice of my girlfriend, and as is usual, she was right. It’s a game that more people should have played. At this point it’s cheap (20 bucks) and if you’re sitting around waiting for the glut of new releases to hit and need something to pass the time, grab Eternal Sonata and enjoy. You’ll never listen to Chopin the same way again.
Quick Note: I highly advise that if you have the option between the two consoles, play the PS3 version. It contains two characters that were not playable in the Xbox360 version (Serenade and Crescendo). It also expands cut scenes and adds the mirror dungeon (worth it for the music alone!). The most impressive thing was I never noticed what was tacked on, it basically feels almost like a “developer’s cut” of the game. It’s a fine game on either system, but there is more game and a better explained story to be found on the PS3.