Eternal Sonata

How many games attempt to fuse the life of a famous composer and traditional French fashion into a JRPG? Formerly released on Xbox 360 and now extended and improved for the Playstation 3, Eternal Sonata has tried to distance itself from its rivals by offering a refreshing storyline and combat system. With Sony’s console running fairly low on RPG’s, has developer Tri-Crescendo managed to fill the void for waiting Final Fantasy fans?

Allegretto running across to one of the first dungeons

Allegretto running across to one of the first dungeons

Designed and written by Haruyi Hatsushiba, Eternal Sonata is actually based on real life events… sort of. The game centres on the composer and pianist Frederic Chopin, who died from tuberculosis in 1849. The opening cut scene shows him in some kind of coma, with doctor and family surrounding his death bed. The story then unfolds in a fictional dream that Chopin has during his last few hours, with himself as a playable character. Each chapter is represented by one of Chopin’s compositions, explained in a photographic sequence that links the dream’s plot to real life events.

Sounds strange? It is at first, but the experience is compelling enough as you’re given this half traditional JRPG, half musical history lesson. Without Chopin’s inclusion though, Eternal Sonata follows a fairly basic plotline; a young girl who is expected to die after a perilous journey, the confident but strong male teenager and evil residing king. It shares more than a few similarities with Final Fantasy X, but is executed with enough tweaks and visuals to keep it ticking over. Political rebellion, escapism and social injustice are strong themes that are maintained in the game’s 30 hours of play time.

In the first half of the game, we're regularly updated on Chopin's condition

In the first half of the game, we're regularly updated on Chopin's condition

The problem I had was that they storyline never really went anywhere. In the first half of the game Tri-Crescendo made some fantastic foundations, exploring Chopin’s past and hinting at how this dream of his may actually give him the power to shape this new world’s future; or even his own timely death. Somehow the script writing team bottled it though, fading out Frederic Chopin’s input and settling for an unexplainable, drawn out journey. By the end it’s difficult to remember anyone’s motives for being there, other than having nothing else to better to do. This is a shame because the premise was experimental and deserving of praise, but ended up being nothing more than competent.

The visual style in Eternal Sonata is superb, giving you a musically inspired world that is a joy to walk through. The bright water colours that make up stained glass windows, piano key steps and castle ball rooms breathe life and are a welcome departure from the greys and browns of many next generation outings. I was particularly impressed by the characters outfits, which use flamboyant feathers and top hats to match the influence of Chopin’s French upbringing. Even the weaponry uses violin strings for the hilt, trumpets as handles and a composer’s baton. The shading and lighting is done wonderfully on the characters too and only improve in high definition. This is certainly a JRPG that looks both beautiful and unique.

Don't you just want to go running through those flowers?

Don't you just want to go running through those flowers?

My biggest complaint of RPG’s is that after 30 hours of play, I get bored of using a turn based system to level-up. Traditionally combat is very passive, allowing you to spend as much time as you want thinking every individual attack. These long battles are tiring to do over and over again just to improve your party for that all important boss battle. Thankfully, Eternal Sonata ditches that in favour of a real time concept similar to the Tales series. Each member is given a set amount of “Tactical Time” on the field that runs down to zero depending on the level of your party. Once your character begins to move you are given a second amount of time called the ‘Action Gauge’, which allows you to attack and use items. Successful hits on your opponent can replenish your action gauge and also builds up ‘Echoes’. These are utilised when your character uses their special attacks; the more echoes you have, the stronger your attack will be. Having the maximum amount of echoes also leads to ‘Harmony Chains’, where a number of special attacks can be strung together. Got that so far? Good.

When the opponent starts to attack you sit tight. Very small openings give you the chance to guard, or occasionally counter attack and end the enemy’s turn. These rely on crucial timing and also positioning towards your foe, so a fair amount of tactics is involved. Finally, each battle field is marked out with areas of light and shade. Monsters will change shape and strength depending on which area they are in and your party’s special attacks will change accordingly too. There is a lot to learn, but luckily the game eases you into this with various party levels over the course of the game.

Combat can be fast and furious; echoes on the right, action guage on the left

Combat can be fast and furious; echoes on the right, action guage on the left

Outside of combat, travelling through towns is fairly linear. You’ll take on a handful of side quests, talk to locals and stock up on new items and equipment. You can find new ‘Score Pieces’ to play with others, but finding them is really down to chance and only offers small rewards. The towns are interesting to look at anyway, but the NPC’s are varied and animated enough that you’ll want to hear what they have to say. Similarly, the over world maps are pleasant enough to travel through.

Perhaps most important for Eternal Sonata is the issue of sound. This is a game centred around a traditional composer after all and luckily, Motoi Sakuraba has created a score to fit. Sweeping violins and organs fill your ears as you cross nearby meadows, intensifying as you enter your next battle. Strangers to Chopin’s work will find it difficult to separate these contemporary versions to the romantic classics. Of course, Chopin’s own work is included here and performed by the world famous Stanislav Bunin in the dividing cut scenes. These can be listened to at your leisure from the main menu or unlocked immediately by a purchase on the PSN/ Xbox Live Marketplace. Voice acting is done well throughout, though the option of Japanese and French voice actors (French being for Playstation 3 only) will be welcomed by die-hard fans.

Count Waltz; he's evil if you can't tell from the slightly seductive stare

Count Waltz; he's evil if you can't tell from the slightly seductive stare

It’s hard to recommend this game when the storyline is so badly flawed. At the time of release there was little competition for Eternal Sonata on the Xbox 360, but players will do better now with titles such as Tales of Vesperia and Lost Odyssey. With some major improvements and a restricted choice on the Playstation 3, this is still a game that looks and sounds stunning. If you can find it in a sale or second hand, it just might be worth checking out.

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