Eternal Sonata is a mostly turn-based RPG that was created by tri-Crescendo originally for the Xbox 360 and has now been ported over to the Playstation 3 with a few added perks. Among those additions are 2 new dungeons, added cut scenes, and two new playable characters. The title follows the story of Frederic Chopin’s death, and his adventures in a dream world during his dying moments. He soon meets a random group of inhabitants who have all decided to go talk to the local Count for one reason or another, and decides to follow along. Before you know it you are soon fighting for the survival of a neighboring kingdom, and then the entire world.
As you can probably surmise, the story of Eternal Sonata does have a lot of the stereotypical norms of a Japanese RPG title, but there are also a lot of features and story related additions that make Eternal Sonata unique. The most unique part of Eternal Sonata is its use of music in many different forms. From the mini-game in which you choose from a list of scores to try and harmonize with random NPCs for various prizes, to music memorization challenges that allow you to advance through later dungeons, Eternal Sonata is a fantastic RPG for any music buff. The musical theme of the game even goes as far to include excerpts from the history of Chopin himself, which can be quite interesting. I do wish that these sections included some voice acting so it wasn’t a massive amount of reading, though I can understand the decision to not take away from the music playing in the background. These historical additions were fun, but can't really be counted as part of the story, which was a decidedly average affair as far as JRPGs go (other than the musical influences).
The battle system in Eternal Sonata is a strange combination of turn based and action style systems. Each character gets a turn, the order of which is based on a speed statistic, and then during the turn you are given control in a style much like an action RPG for a given number of seconds before the turn ends. Most of your turns will be taken up by mashing the “x” button to attack then ending with a special using the triangle button just as the timer nears zero. The use of specials makes up for the lack of strategy in the regular attacks by having a fairly interesting system of dark and light specials that have to be kept track of. The basic system is that when you are standing in the light you have a certain set of specials available to you, and when you are in shadow you have a separate set of specials. This leads to an interesting strategy setup where you are constantly trying to set your character in the right area to use the specials you want. It becomes especially interesting later on in the game when the shadows in certain battles are solely provided by moving cloud cover and you have to time your specials accordingly to use the desired special. Most specials are solely for damaging the enemy, but there are a few that heal your own characters. Unfortunately there is no mana system and specials can only be used during combat, so you will still have to rely on items for healing more than your average RPG.
Eternal Sonata has an interesting system for easing the player into the battle system, based on "party levels". Your party level will start at 1, and the timer will only start when you start moving, and stops when you are not doing anything with the character. This allows for a lot of time to think early on in the game. As you progress and move up in party level you gain certain abilities, like the ability to link several specials together under certain conditions. Also, your normal attacks will add to a counter on the right side of the screen, and the higher the counter goes, the more powerful your special attacks are when you use them. The counter will remain from turn to turn until a special attack is used, so sometimes the best idea is to save your specials until you can get the counter near the max for an especially powerful attack. With these benefits of higher party levels also comes less time to attack, and the timer will move immediately when the turn starts and not stop regardless of your actions. This can make gaining a party level feel more like a punishment for advancing in the game than a reward.
You won’t be just resting on your laurels during the enemies’ turns however, because your participation during this time is possibly even more important than what you do on your own turns. When an enemy is attacking you, you will have the ability to counter their attack by pressing the circle button when prompted to do so. I can’t stress enough how important this skill is for your success in any given fight. Blocking will usually reduce the damage of an attack by 80%. This is hugely important for saving your healing items and winning any given fight. The annoyance of this system is that bosses will usually do enough damage so that you’ll have to heal even when you block successfully. This quickly changes countering from something that is just a good idea to an absolute necessity where you will die if you miss. It gets to the point where you have to fight a boss a couple of times just to get the timing of their attacks down so that you can counter nearly every single one and have a chance of survival.
One major issue with these gameplay decisions is that it is sometimes difficult to make all of these strategic manoeuvres and timed button presses due to the camera’s fixed position and the enemies’ propensity for finding just the right place to stand to block your view. The second to last boss fight of the game has actually instilled in me an utter and absolute hate for fixed cameras of any kind. Without giving away any of the story, suffice it to say that the second to last boss encounter is a two monster encounter where one is an incredibly large size, and the other is around the size of the player controlled characters. The large boss had an incredibly annoying habit of positioning himself in such a way to block my view of the entire battle, and then the smaller and ironically more dangerous of the two would proceed to wail on me while my view was blocked and I could do nothing about it, missing every single counter for a quick and painful demise.
There are also the regular smattering of mini-games that you would normally find in an RPG. First is the ability of Beat (one of the characters, all of whom are named after musical terms) to take pictures during a battle and then sell them later on. These pictures are valued based on how well you took the shot and appear to be rated from C to A. This can be a great way to make money, though it is difficult to take a good picture during battle since you only have the 4 seconds of Beats turn to take the shot and the rules of what makes a good or bad picture were never clearly defined in my play through. The second important mini-game is one in which you try to select a harmonious score from the ones you have found around the game’s world to match the score of a non-player character. This begins by talking to NPCs with scores and then selecting that you would like to play a score with them. You are then put into a menu showing the musical notes that the NPC is going to play, and the musical notes of all of the scores you have collected. You are then tasked with trying to find the best match. This can be difficult because there is no option to listen to the NPC’s score on its own, so for the first guess, at the very least, you will most likely just have to guess based on musical knowledge. Once you make your choice, the combination is rated from F to A with appropriate awards for each level. You can try this as many times as you want, so usually the mini-game simply amounts to running through all of the scores you have collected to see if one happens to mesh well with that of the NPC.
The technical presentation for Eternal Sonata is pretty average. The menus work perfectly fine and the graphics in no way push the limits of what can or has been done. I did not encounter any specific bugs or glitches during my play through.
The visual style of the game is rather a treat to behold. The bright color palette is something refreshing after the many dark and more mature games that have come out of the current generation. There is a strange issue early on where you spend so much time in brightly colored forests that you start to think that Eternal Sonata uses bright green as much if not more than certain games are accused of using grey. The character models are very intricate for the main characters, but you will quickly notice that there are very few NPC character models, and I swear there was an entire town at one point that was populated solely by repeats of a single male character model. It was starting to get ridiculous, as the story had me go from clone to clone with different assignments.
Audio presentation is one of the best points of Eternal Sonata. The music is all beautiful classical, and is integrated very well into the story and game in general. If music was the only thing that went into sound presentation then Eternal Sonata would be one of the best, but it also includes voice acting. Eternal Sonata has some of the most annoying characters I have ever been forced to listen to. Unfortunately, the three most annoying voices are amongst the main characters: Beat, Polka, and Frederic himself. These characters’ voices actually make the story slightly worse, and I can’t help but think that if the story was done without these characters talking I would have more positive things to say about it. I also can’t help but wonder why Salsa has a Southern accent, while her twin sister has no sign of any such speech tendencies, but I guess some mysteries will never be solved. There is the option to change the audio to Japanese, but the moment I changed it, Alagretto (one of the less annoying characters) changed to an extremely grating and unfortunate voice. I also decided that since I don't speak Japanese and can't rate its quality, changing the audio like that would simply amount to me turning it on mute and reading the subtitles, so I kept the game in English except for a small 5 minute testing to see what the Japanese was like.
The gameplay of Eternal Sonata is very “hit and miss”. Light and Dark specials, as well as the counter system, can make for very interesting battles, but the fixed camera can turn these from interesting strategy considerations to huge annoyances for certain battles. The storyline starts out well, but has one of the most confusing endings to an RPG that I have ever encountered, and leaves one feeling less than satisfied with the end results. I also wish they had attempted to make more of a connection between the game's story and the actual life of Chopin, as the historical sections were interesting, but seemed to have not been considered at all when it came to the game's actual storyline.
Value-wise, Eternal Sonata is fairly average for an RPG. My play through clocked in at 30 hours all told, without having stepped into the optional dungeon near the end, so that could add some playtime as well. The replay value of the game is fairly poor unfortunately, as there is very little reason to do beyond collecting more scores to play around with and seeing how powerful you can make your characters with time.
Overall, Eternal Sonata is the kind of game that I can only really recommend to someone who is already a fan of the genre. If you know you love JRPGs then there is nothing so annoying or broken about Eternal Sonata that you won’t be able to make it through, and there are some fun moments and a decent story line that is definitely worth the time of a fan. I like where they were headed with this game, a very unique idea to start with, but the execution is rather disappointing. The fixed camera had me cursing up a storm, the voice acting had me cringe at points, and the story just left me wondering what the heck happened. With that said however, the music was beautiful, the mini-games were interesting if not entirely skill based and the premise of the story was a very cool idea that I hope other game makers take notice of.