Video Game Rentals Delivered

Eternal Sonata

David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce) David Yun (Xbox Live Gamertag - Vawce): (contact-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2008-07-12 18:57:08

Eternal Sonata - Rank B


Developer: Tri-Crescendo
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Date: 9/17/07

Also available for PlayStation 3

I love that this game even exists. Imagine a meeting where an unproven developer pitches the following concept to a potential publisher: "We'd like eight figures to make a role playing game that takes place entirely inside the fevered dreams of a Frederic Chopin dying from tuberculosis." As a former pianist longing for an enjoyable Japanese RPG, I was completely enthused by this concept. As it turns out, Eternal Sonata is a fairly "by-the-numbers" JRPG, but orchestrated with sufficiently unique design elements to warrant notice.

Eternal Sonata is formulaic in the sense that you journey through a linear storyline by combating monsters for experience, accumulating party members, and barging into private residences to ransack them for adventuring supplies. The game adheres to the tradition of alternating between dungeoneering through monster gauntlets and extended cutscenes for plot advancement.

The combat, however, is unique. The combatants still rotate through turns, but the scope of activity within those turns is completely in real time. As soon as one of your character's turns starts, a meter starts ticking down, prescribing the amount of time available to move around the battlefield, attack, and use items. It forces you to quickly prioritize these actions on the fly, including chaining combos together with time-consuming special moves. These moves are further dictated by the presence of light and shadow. Defensively, blocking and counterattacking require precise timing. Eternal Sonata gradually grows in tactical complexity to a satisfying crescendo, a refreshing change from the staid "take turns swinging/casting" gameplay embodied in most JRPGs. You actually have to participate in combat, instead of occasionally pressing X.

The plot is also pleasantly unassuming. In lieu of the pretentiously grandiose "save the world" quest, it's a relatively modest combination of personal turmoils and political intrigue. Eternal Sonata's subtext is unique in that it actually has one, as opposed to clumsily bludgeoning you in the face with what passes for a theme. Each chapter is presaged by a slide show documentary of Chopin's life, accompanied by the piano piece that was inspired by the events described. Less erudite individuals will no doubt find these segments boring, but the more literary-inclined will be intrigued by the contextual presentation. The resultant themes in the dream world - social unrest, economic conspiracy, insurrection - have real world parallels in Chopin's war torn Polish homeland. The entire game is peppered with light philosophizing about the nature of art, life and death, and perception and reality. While in no way mind-bogglingly cerebral, it's nonetheless more sophisticated than I expected from a JRPG.

Eternal Sonata's presentation is magnificent. It is a beautiful game, not because of any technical prowess, but due to an astonishing mastery of aesthetic design. Despite the anime inspiration, the characters are uniquely (except for the twins, of course) and intricately designed. Every corner of the world is fully and vibrantly realized with an attractive Impressionism-meets-Manga sensibility. The screenshots you see aren't lifted from separate cinematics; the entire game looks like this.

The audio work and original musical scoring are also quite good, although I expected more Chopin compositions. The actual dialogue doesn't fare as well. It's not that the voice actors did a poor job, it's just that Japanese has a distinctly different rhythm than any Western language, and laying English over the lip syncing results in a stilted delivery. There are frequent and agonizingly long pauses in the dialogue to begin with; this only exacerbates the issue. I recommend the Japanese language track with subtitles. I'd probably feel differently if I understood Japanese, but it sounds mysteriously cool in contrast to the dorky English track.

Eternal Sonata largely eliminates the genre's obsessive-compulsive drudgery. You never have to grind XP or money; simply progressing through the game in a balanced fashion is sufficient to level up or scrounge cash for gear upgrades. The oppression of random encounters is also missing; you can see each monster and choose your engagements (ideally attacking them from behind, to catch them unawares). There is no aspiration of delivering an "epic", which is a synonym for "tons of filler". Eternal Sonata is a goodly length: satisfying without overstaying its welcome. But if you're a hardcore player who has to have a brick wall to flail against, a masochistic optional dungeon is available, as well as an encore playthrough with additional side quests and higher difficulty.

On the other hand, Eternal Sonata also falls short of delivering a magnum opus. Character customization is all but nonexistent. Gear changes do not affect the appearance of the characters. The costume design is so compelling that I'd be willing to forgive this, but even the look of the weapons do not change. Leveling up makes your characters stronger, but there is absolutely no choice in determining how they progress.

Eternal Sonata does just enough to be noticeably pleasing, and mishandles just enough to keep it from reaching elite status. If it had delivered a full character development system and tightened up the pacing of the cutscenes, I'd be absolutely raving about it. I'd love an improved sequel. Obviously, a direct follow up would be problematic, what with Chopin (SPOYLARZ) dead by the end of the game. I'm envisioning a thematic series, like Eternal Conquest, taking place in Alexander the Great's imaginings as he succumbs to typhoid or syphilis or whatever it was that killed him. Or perhaps Eternal Emancipation outlining Abraham Lincoln's final flickers of thought as he lies comatose from John Wilkes Booth's .44 slug in his cranium. In any case, Eternal Sonata is good enough for me to want more.

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