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Eternal Sonata (Xbox 360) artwork

Eternal Sonata (Xbox 360) review

"Eternal Sonata is a J-RPG in which you follow a group of anime-inspired characters through an adventure that seems like most every other. Among the main three characters are Polka, a terminally ill teenage girl who's going on a soul searching journey; Allegretto, a homeless guy who excels in swordsmanship and has the hots for Polka; and Fredrick, the incarnation of renowned pianist Fredrick Chopin who is convinced that the fantastical world that Polka and Allegretto live in is his dream a..."

Eternal Sonata is a J-RPG in which you follow a group of anime-inspired characters through an adventure that seems like most every other. Among the main three characters are Polka, a terminally ill teenage girl who's going on a soul searching journey; Allegretto, a homeless guy who excels in swordsmanship and has the hots for Polka; and Fredrick, the incarnation of renowned pianist Fredrick Chopin who is convinced that the fantastical world that Polka and Allegretto live in is his dream as he lays dying of tuberculosis in the real world. The three of them assemble a cast of ten characters to try to stop a war from breaking out between two kingdoms, one of which has hatched an evil plan to use minerals to turn its citizens into mindless, magic-using creatures so as to have an unbeatable army with which to conquer the world.

There are three things needed to keep an RPG afloat: a solid story, well-made dungeons, and a strong battle system. Everything else, replay value included, is just icing on the cake which can make an average RPG stellar, and sometimes even make an awful RPG mediocre.

This game showcases a very mixed bag with the story, and most of it comes from the characters. They're likable and interesting, and maybe that's the problem with them. They're so likable you want more, but there's very little elaboration on them. Most games, when they want to develop characters, have events, scenes, and in-game objectives which reveal the character's nature without having the character outright say how they feel. Without a narrator to tell us like in novels, or without complex facial expressions and body language like in film, character interaction and sparsely used monologue are there to add further detail to a character's motives, and are often the best devices for development. Unfortunately, there are loads of areas where the game could develop the characters through interaction, or take an idea they started on a character and expand on it, but they don't. At one point a character monologues about her infatuation for another who already feels something for two other women. She then says she'll always be “in third place,” confessing self-doubt and low personal esteem. You'd think that this is an invitation to give this woman her own quest in which she proves to herself her own worth, but it's really one of the last things you hear from her. Maybe you don't need to write a whole dungeon around it, but at very least give this character enough screen time to be more interesting than just calling herself worthless.

The story is rampant with monologues that get old fast. The first ones with Polka seemed valuable and well written, if a little over-laden with prose, but later ones become ridiculous and even feel like a waste of time. There is one in which a character is stabbed, and instead of dying outright she begins to monologue for two or three minutes on the man she loved and how she feels horrible for betraying his trust. Yes, a character monologues about her love while she is dying, and for some reason I couldn't help but laugh. The scene felt more ridiculous and awkward than the drunken “no one understands me” scene from Koudelka.

Where most games have scenes in which the protagonists and the antagonists have a huge confrontation which leaves the main party with a bad taste in their mouths, this game seems to have very few interactions with the antagonists that do so. You never get a sense of major conflict, almost as though the developers were pulling their punches and were just too afraid to have the characters do something dangerous. Instead, they contrived a whole bunch of pointless side avenues that became main objectives, like going to rescue the inn keeper's son who fell off a cliff. It has no bearing on the story, it doesn't move the characters forward, and it feels like an obligatory excuse to have a dungeon where there didn't need to be one.

Remember out second standard: dungeons should be well-made, but sadly Eternal Sonata doesn't quite live up to this. Every one of them is overdrawn and tedious. There is little to nothing that makes each dungeon special, with the exception of a few. Even then, the “special features” of the dungeons are tiresome and unimaginative. Pushing switches to move pieces of the dungeon around is the theme behind one of them makes the dungeon feel more like a chore than part of a game.

Most of the dungeons have little bearing on the story. In one scene the characters decide they have “nothing to do,” and decide to go explore a temple because they're bored. They somehow stumble upon one of the villains there and have one of the few confrontations in the game that's actually worthwhile. Come on now, who just gets bored and decides to explore a temple? It felt like the developers didn't know how to write the dungeons into the story, and decided to contrive the dungeons with meaningless events that force the characters to move rather than letting them move of their own volition. After all, it's the characters' story, not the writers'.

Falling away from the menu selecting, the developers opted for a battle system reminiscent of Star Ocean or the Tales games. At the beginning of a character's turn, you are given a little time, called Tactical Time, to decide where you want to send your character. Upon deciding, you can move him/her around the screen at will, and hopefully to an enemy. By mashing the attack button you can unleash a series of powerful combos that will build up “Echoes.” Characters get a limited amount of time to attack, during which they can also unleash special attacks that can become more powerful as you build up more Echoes. As you get further along in the game, you gain what are called Party Levels, which can add battle advantages in exchange for making the battle slightly more difficult, becoming able to counter attacks, do combo special attacks, and even move faster. The only disadvantage is that your base Tactical Time drops.

The battle system certainly sounds neat and is well thought-out, but boy does it get tiresome after a while. Before long you find out how best to destroy a certain enemy force, making the battles too easy and a bit of a chore. Even though the game allows you to have “Tactical” Time, there's scarcely anything tactical about this game. Honestly, the same strategy seems to work for every enemy and boss.

One neat thing they did add to the battles, though, is the presence of light and darkness. Each character's special attacks change whether they are in the light or in the shade. The light and shade could also cause certain enemies to transform, making them tougher or more lucrative, thereby adding a slight amount more to the strategy in the battle system that's otherwise missing.

All in all, though, the battle system works. It's a breath of fresh air from the constant menus.

But underneath it all, there is beauty at work. Where the game fails in story elements and somewhat dull dungeons, it succeeds in sheer beauty and gameplay. The game is inspired by the life of composer and pianist Frederick Chopin, and though loose and seemingly contrived, there are connections between the events in the game and events in Chopin's life. This is revealed through interludes that happen at each chapter in which a part of Chopin's life is discussed along with a piece of his work.

The soundtrack is largely inspired by Chopin, and much of it emphasizes the strife the characters face, as well as the liveliness of the game itself. It is, without a doubt, the strongest aspect of the game. In between each chapter is a bit on the life of Chopin with a performance of one of his works, and some hints how the possible tying of his work with the game. Much of the soundtrack follows the compositional style of Chopin, converting beautiful piano pieces into RPG music. This is part of the icing on the cake that raises the bar.

The beauty shows in the graphics, with breathtaking environments that definitely push the fairy tale aspect. The character designs also befit the lively atmosphere of the game, each of them showing off a kind of innocence and kind-heartedness. The real power behind the graphics is in the animation. There are times in which the game looks like a Miyazaki film. You don't feel your playing a game, but watching a feature length anime at the cinema. It's mainly the character motions and expressions used that emphasize that aspect.

Eternal Sonata would have been much better if the developers emphasized the gameplay first and the artistic style second. Graphics and sound can make a dull game palatable, but a dull story and tedious dungeons can never be stellar. Thankfully, the battle system and very beautiful imagery and music save the game from being a complete wash. Eternal Sonata feels like a could've been-should've been case. One can only hope that if there is a sequel that tri-Crescendo will pull through with something more well-written and exciting and maintain the same level of style.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (February 01, 2011)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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fleinn posted February 02, 2011:

Felt the same way.. before I ended up not being able to finish the game. The presentation is actually pretty good. The different characters talking in the same way as their names suggest, that kind of thing, is well done.

..I think the problem I have with the game is that the theme isn't just dark, it's "mature". While the presentation is beyond childish. It goes from skipping around in the road with butterflies, and then directly on to tuberculosis, death, dead sisters, betrayal, suicide, sexual moral and drug-induced insanity.

That in itself, together with the Chopin history parts, probably is what made me like the game, though. But it's when it takes you well over an hour of grinding battles to be rewarded with another depressing cutscene.. only to figure out you haven't grinded enough to win the boss-fight.. ..not so good.
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JoeTheDestroyer posted February 02, 2011:

I actually do enjoy the game for the most part, but especially the Chopin bits (I actually set my Pandora account to Chopin Channel while writing reviews). I just wish that there would have been more cohesion to the game all around. I never did think about the clash you mentioned, though: how there were mature themes with happy-go-lucky characters and a cute presentation.
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fleinn posted February 02, 2011:

lol. ..I think the high point for me was when Polka flutters down this mountain path, and then declares in a b-flat undertone that she is unfortunately suffering from a terminal illness, and will never experience adulthood. Which, she considers, would certainly allow her some latitude for a temporary bout of extreme selfishness. Humm, hah, tralalala. (Now, "repeatedly press X to hit monster with the Umbrella!").

At other times, it's just cute, though. "Jazz" and "Claves" being an item; you can see several sheets away that this is not going to end well :p

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