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CONSOLE: PS3/360 DEVELOPER: Tri-Crescendo PUBLISHER: Namco Bandai Games
RELEASE DATE (360, NA): September 17, 2007
RELEASE DATE (PS3, NA): October 21, 2008
// review by SoyBomb

The sonata'll come out... tomorrow...

NOTE: I am reviewing the PlayStation 3 version. Any differences between versions will be noted.

The life of the great composer Frederic François Chopin is one of tristesse, and he unfortunately passed on at an early age (or, at least early by our standards). His legacy as a musician has not been forgotten, as evidenced by the formation of the Fryderyk Chopin Society and the Fryderyk Chopin Museum in his hometown of Warsaw. And his history and contributions to the world are also partially contained in Eternal Sonata, an RPG for the Xbox 360 and, later, the PlayStation 3, that tries its darndest to capture the essence and beauty in his music and transform it into a remarkable gaming experience.

Eternal Sonata takes place inside the slowly deactivating mind of Chopin (or, at least, I think so -- that ending really threw me for a loop, and now I'm not sure what happened), in a fantasy world where pretty much everyone of relevance and every town is named after musical terminology. Of particular note is the young girl, Polka, whose ability to use magic is symbolic of an unfortunate fate at an early age; Chopin relates to her because his sister died at the same age. Over time, he joins up with various fellow warriors (or individuals of relative importance) to try and convince the baneful Count Waltz of Forte from committing injustices upon the people of his and surrounding nations. Waltz's excessive mining of Mineral Powder, used to supposedly cure illnesses, causes ecological damage on the neighbouring Agogo Forest; furthermore, the powder has serious side-effects that Count Waltz has conveniently failed to tell citizens about in the name of pure profit. The plot here is actually less fantastical than many RPGs -- or at least up until the final few hours. Aside from characters being able to use magic, quite a few elements of the game are fairly reasonable possibilities.

One major problem I had was with the cutscenes. Not that the cutscenes are bad or anything. They look amazingly nice and are done mainly using in-game models (no pre-rendering required). Unfortunately, this is one of those RPGs where most of the characters always state the painfully obvious. The player knows exactly what is happened, but the characters are such idiots that they have to spell it out for themselves. And I really don't care about everyone's reaction to every little detail in the world. Each character talks wayyyy too much in general anyhow. I'm reminded of a specific scene when a character dies, and they literally have a ridiculous combination of flashbacks (to scenes we saw not that long ago) and her own personal soliloquoy that spans well over 10 minutes. And this isn't even a principal character! I'd rather she just have died briefly and shockingly; instead, they dragged it out and I then actually wanted her dead. This game could have gotten away with half of the total cutscenes (which are already a significant chunk of the game's total timeframe) and the story would be just as coherent. Possibly moreso, since I would spend less time trying not to drift into slumber.

Whoa... look at all the colours... is this a Led Zeppelin concert?

Other cutscenes are just as uninteresting, but for other reasons. In every chapter, we are treated to an interlude where one of Chopin's piano pieces is played (typically, the one the chapter of the game is named after) over still scenes and a description of an aspect of his life, such as his escape from his hometown of Warsaw or his relationship with George Sand. The music is nice and uplifting, but the visuals are not. Not the images themselves: I believe they're blurred for a reason. But the text takes so damn long to change that you start to lose interest in the short revelation on Chopin's life. You begin to dread the appearance of one of these scenes. I believe Chopin's musical works could have been more effectively showcased somehow... or there could have been more text to read, at least, to fill up the timeframe of an entire composition.

I'd like to say that the gameplay itself, and not the barrage of cutscenes, was the primary focus of the game, but it's quite difficult to say that definitively. Still, it's the best part of Eternal Sonata in my book. As you travel across fields, through caves, and over the many non-town-based terrains in the game, you'll be able to come in contact with enemies (no random encounters, as in classic RPGs of lore). As you do so, the game will switch to battle mode in a circular arena depicting that terrain. It's your party of three characters (which you can change in the menu) against the nasty creatures! The battle system is set up similarly to Star Ocean: entirely in real-time. Each character (and enemy) gets a certain amount of time to ponder their next move and a set amount of time to run around and attack at will, as indicated by a meter on the left-hand side of the screen. As the game progresses, the amount of time diminishes somewhat. Surviving the battle provides you with a hearty dose of experience points and some money for your trouble. The action is generally more fast-paced than traditional RPG structures, so you'll likely suffer from less boredom this way.

Eternal Sonata adds its own little touches to the battle system. For instance, on the battlefield, there are some areas that are light and others that are dark, typically due to either sunlight or shadows. The special attacks each character can perform depends on whether they are standing in the light or not. If you have an affinity for certain attacks, where you stand will significantly affect your strategy. Additionally, every strike you deal adds "echoes" to a meter on the right-hand side. The more echoes you have banked, the more powerful the next special attack performed will be. Echoes don't disappear until you either perform that attack or the battle ends, so it's a good idea to build up as many echoes as you can and then unleash a powerful blow to a foe.

Stand back, Serenade, while I look handsome yet deep and philosophical.

Outside of battle, you'll come across towns on occasion, and there you can chat with the locals to get some information about what's going on in the world. Towns are also havens for shopping and, more importantly, picking up the latest and greatest weaponry and armor! Sadly, there's also one other thing you can do in town (and occasionally abroad), and I didn't enjoy it in the slightest: jam sessions. Yep, because this is a musically-themed game, you have to be able to play, even just a little bit. As you travel from town to town and place to place, you'll discover Score Pieces (if you're thorough; you will likely miss more than a few if you don't check EVERYWHERE). You can use these to play jam sessions with those who are interested. Unfortunately, you have to find a score piece that harmonizes with whatever they're playing. What SHOULD be fun ends up being a tedious activity where you spend long periods of time playing each piece with them, only to find out that the two of you sound horrible together. Finding a match can knab you an item, but by the end of the game, I had no intention of testing out my many score pieces on anyone. If the process was more pleasant (or if I knew ahead of time whether a score piece was compatible), I'd have enjoyed this aspect of the game. But it was boring as hell, and I didn't like it one bit.

The PlayStation 3 version, in particular, has a couple of extra features that try to lure players, and they do add a bit to the overall package. Two characters, Crescendo and Serenade, who were previously little more than additional characters in the plot are now fully playable with their own special attacks. I tend to discard Serenade except when necessary, but really, she's rather weak by comparison to the others. There are also two new dungeons to traverse -- one optional, one mandatory. The required dungeon, known as the "Lament Mirror", has you jump into an heirloom mirror

The game seems to pride itself on its presentation. Eternal Sonata looks absolutely stunning at every turn. Each scene is pictoresque, and the painstaking detail infused into every hillside, every building, and even every character is constantly clear. Their world is quite colourful indeed, and it's rare to see a game of such visual clarity and charm. The music is also a point of order. Some music was been taken from Chopin's discography, but most of the soundtrack is original, courtesy of composer Motoi Sakuraba, known for his work on such series as Star Ocean, Tales, Mario Golf/Tennis, and Golden Sun. The vocal work is also exceptional, even in times when the characters' wordiness can ruin a heartwarming scene.

Eternal Sonata is quite the gem for RPG fans in the modern era. Although it has its flaws (and they ARE notable), I still found the game to be a solid entry in my gaming library, and I am satisfied with my experience. I'm glad that I've been able to take in its richness and enjoy all the bounty it has to offer. If you are in search of a solid RPG that is assuredly not too short, Eternal Sonata is not one to be overlooked.

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