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Eternal Sonata (PlayStation 3) artwork

Eternal Sonata (PlayStation 3) review

"The creative premise of this action RPG is that the composer Chopin is a playable character who inhabits a world that he thinks is a dream. Here, instead of playing the piano and composing music, he fights alongside a collection of teenage girls and boys, three 8 year olds, a prince and his consort, and some rebels as they struggle against a devious Count Waltz who is hell bent on turning the population into mindless soldiers. Musical terms and motifs dominate: names are musical terms, with the ..."

The creative premise of this action RPG is that the composer Chopin is a playable character who inhabits a world that he thinks is a dream. Here, instead of playing the piano and composing music, he fights alongside a collection of teenage girls and boys, three 8 year olds, a prince and his consort, and some rebels as they struggle against a devious Count Waltz who is hell bent on turning the population into mindless soldiers. Musical terms and motifs dominate: names are musical terms, with the characters Polka, Allegretto and Beat leading the way as you visit towns called Andante and Ritardando. Chapters are interspersed with a number of interludes featuring some famous piano works by the composer, with details about his real life and experiences. Unfortunately, the battle system is awkward and frustrating, and the story gets bogged down in seemingly endless cutscenes (lasting for anything up to about 30 minutes at a time) which will test the patience of even the most forgiving player.

One of the first things that strikes you is the glorious use of colour in the environments, and the game is stunning to look at with lush green fields and forests, a gorgeous blue ship, a green and gold luminous castle glowing with stained glass effects, beautiful snowy mountains, a sandblown desert, huge caverns dripping with water, and stunning vistas over a moonlight sea or a luminous carpet of silvery flowers. It's almost sensory overload as you gaze at one lushly detailed location after another. And yet, you cannot move the camera to investigate the corners of these places and, although sometimes densely populated (at least the castle and towns are) none of the inhabitants say anything of much interest. There are no maps, and no indication to show direction or where you've already explored, and that can mean endless trudging around some very confusing areas where each path looks more or less the same (beautiful, but the same).

Even more annoying than that is the fact that you cannot return to previous locations. Early on in the game you are allowed to backtrack to the starting town (although it involves a lot of walking since there are no shortcuts, warp points, or quick exits from dungeons) but after that, once you progress through particular areas you are halted from going back, and with no warning. This is particularly frustrating because there is a subquest that involves trading items to random people and it's easy to miss one of them in the chain. The game does compensate for this a little by allowing you to find a few of the necessary items en route, but it's something that I just gave up trying to complete after some missed steps. The lack of backtracking also means that you cannot retrieve missed treasures or stock up on cheaper items (for example) from the earlier shops.

Item management is another area of the game that generates some awkwardness. Although you can hold up to 99 of each item you are severely restricted to the number you can bring into a battle. Each item has a number of points and the better ones have the most: anything up to 9 points. You have an item bag that extends to 20, 30 and by the end of the game, 40 points, and have to select items with care. Since you use items for healing, inflicting status effects on enemies or boosting various stats and for revival (there's no revive spell) this limits their usefulness. As well as that, using items during battle is a bit hit and miss because you are not reminded what they are, and have to remember which one does what as you frantically scroll through the list whilst being pounded to death. In the end, you don't bother using all the range of status causing and healing items because it's just too fiddly and takes up too much time: and time is a precious commodity.

This is not a turn-based game, even though turn order is based on speed. It's very much action orientated with a tight restriction on how much time is available for each of your three battle team characters to move and attack. At the start of a battle you see a bar down the left of the screen: there's a red bar if it's the turn of an enemy, and a blue bar for the team, and the colour depletes showing how much time is left until there's none. Each special attack or spell is given a set amount of time in seconds and you have the option to set one Light and one Dark attack for each character at first, and later two. But, if you're in the middle of pressing the special attack button when the timer runs out, you find that the next character will then use their special attack before you're ready for it, and you cannot cancel the attack animation once it has begun. What this means is that you can easily miss the attack altogether. The enemy might have moved away from that person and the attack you'd pre-selected from the menu might require them to be up close to the enemy.

Moving characters to get within reach of an enemy takes up time on the action bar, and there is no option to target a particular enemy, so you can easily waste a turn if you're facing the wrong way or using the wrong range of attack. By the time you have reached higher levels and gained many more characters and skills, it's hard work planning your attacks, so the temptation is just to keep using the same party most of the time. Fortunately the rest gain experience as well, although at a slower rate. But any attraction that might be there to use all characters is lessened greatly by the fact that they don't show any changes when they obtain new skills or equipment. They are distinctive in dress and weapons with Chopin using a baton, Viola (a shepherdess girl) using a bow, the 8 year old twins with chakras, a rebel girl uses fists and Polka, the lead female character, uses an umbrella. That's cute, but with the vast attention to detail given to the environments you'd expect the same kind of care to be lavished on the characters, but it's not. In fact, their appearance is a little strange because the younger ones walk around with their arms stuck out almost at right angles to their bodies looking a bit like puppets.

This same lack of creativity is shown in the design of the enemies. Each area will feature two different kinds and the designs are repeated with different colours and names in later dungeons, so you fight the same type of foe again and again, and again. But there's little rhyme or reason for them: one recurring enemy is a winged goat with a halo, and another is a huge bulb of garlic...why didn't they have musical instruments for enemies, or at least something connected to the musical theme? Enemies appear on screen and you can dodge some of them, or make sure to approach them from behind giving you the advantage in battle which is a helpful feature, but the lack of variety gets dull especially when you're likely to spend hours in some places, wandering around lost without that map!

Much is made of the fact that enemies can change their appearance and skills if they are in the light or dark area of the battleground, and it can be disconcerting to see a stocky golem change into a dragon and then back again as it moves across the battleground, so I suppose that adds a bit of variation. However, the light and dark idea is an interesting one and it does require some strategic thinking, especially early on in the game when the number of options for special attacks are very limited. Each type of battleground has a different arrangement of light and shadow: for example, on board a ship there are swinging lanterns that create circles of light that move back and forth. If a character is standing in the dark they can only use dark skills, but if they move and run into a light area then they use whichever light skill you have set.

There are some other good things about the battle system. You can use special attacks as often as you like and the only limit is the time each attack takes. The battle level of the whole team increases as the game progresses giving more slots for items and the ability to chain attacks by building up echoes (which works like attack points). Obtain enough points and you can unleash a more powerful version of a skill and have another skill activate immediately. Perhaps an option to choose the battle level, as the lower levels give more time for attacks, might have made for a more user-friendly battle system for those of us with slow reflexes. And you do need fast reactions because the only way to defend from enemy attacks is to time a button press correctly to block an attack. Given that many enemies will do multiple attacks this can be very hard to get right, and you're punished severely with a high loss of life. Later in the game there's an option to counterattack instead, but that requires a different button press and the option to do so is rarely highlighted so it's not something you can rely on.

It seemed a shame that the musical theme wasn't used for weapons and attacks. Granted, Chopin's weapon is a baton, but that's about it. Why didn't they do something interesting with this, for example, to utilise musical phrases to generate new skills rather than just the conventional method of levelling up to learn new ones? There's really no fun in that. However, the fact that each character has a completely unique skill-set and weapon does make for a richer experience, although one of them, Beat uses a camera to take photos of enemies that you can sell, and this seemed a pointless addition since money isn't hard to obtain, and basic photos only sold for a one or two coins. Fiddling around to try and take good photos when there is no instruction about what constitutes a better snap was time better spent defeating enemies.

By the end of the game you'll have a choice of 11 characters for the fighting team (with a 12th available too eventually) and that includes two additional ones in the PS3 game. The guys have fairly conventional swords (though of different types) but the girls have a great range of weapons and they were the most fun to use despite their generally lower HP. In fact the bow user was one of the best characters in the game. She is fast, has healing spells, and a very powerful long range attack, and once you have a choice of who to use I never left her out of the team. All the females are excellent fighters or healers and having the choice to field an all female party if you wish is fun, even if you cannot change the lead character while walking around. Apart from that option, there really is very little choice in the game as it follows a linear path, and if you need to level up for the next tough boss (as I had to do many times) you're usually restricted to that dungeon. This makes for quite a degree of tedium, but at least the long drawn out scenes can be skipped if you've seen them before.

Having been brought up on Chopin's piano works it was a thrill to hear them set into the context of his life experiences, and the themes of his real life and music are nicely dovetailed into the themes of the story. Although you cannot watch these segments again you can read the information and listen to the music again from the main menu. The risk of using such well-known and well loved classical music is that the game music might suffer in comparison, but actually the music is very well done, and mostly classical in style. In one swamp location it's slightly mournful with slow piano, in another it's more orchestral with reed instruments and strings. There's nothing too memorable, which is always going to be an issue when set against the stunning piano pieces by Chopin, but you can also listen to the game music from the menu. Another lovely feature is that you find parts of musical scores and can listen to these snippets from the menu, and perform a concert by selecting one of these scores to play with someone you find who has a different score. Choose the correct companion piece and you get rewarded with a rank and an item: often a rare and helpful accessory. Although once again, this seemed like a missed opportunity: if only all the scores could be played together at some point, as a complete orchestral piece!

The story begins with a promising idea: is this is a dream or reality, and how do we know the difference. It throws in some interesting discussions about the nature of economics and taxation: don't tax things you want people to buy, and a subtext about the dangers of drugs: people are free to choose to buy or not to buy the cheap mineral powder that cures all ills but ultimately drives them crazy. But the frequent scenes serve to distract from these central ideas, and it's almost as if there is too much story, with some sequences lasting at least 30 minutes as you wade through slow paced and often repetitious dialogue, in case you weren't paying attention the first time. The voices of some characters grate after a while: Polka has a breathless childish voice I grew to detest and Chopin sounds a bit as if he's talking in his sleep (which I suppose he is), although I liked the southern twang of the twins and the no-nonsense diction of Viola.

I really wanted to like Eternal Sonata. It seemed to have everything that would appeal to me, both as a fan of quirky Japanese RPGs and the music of Chopin, and I was initially impressed with this brave attempt to do something different, but in the end all the beautiful graphics and lovely music are just window dressing. The limited number of enemies, and the unpredictability that arises from the lack of accurate targetting make battles less enjoyable, despite the interesting dark/light attacks. The laboured dialogue and rambling story distract attention away from the central idea. After countless attempts to beat a difficult double boss near the end of the game (which required lots of slow grinding of levels to raise HP to survive), the idea of a bonus dungeon and Encore (a new game plus) lost any attraction. Given that there are no trophies for the PS3 version I began to wonder what was the point of all this effort.

However...I did make the effort, and actually was pleased I did because when playing the Encore game many of my previous complaints were addressed. In this mode you CAN choose the party level and have access to Party level 6 (if you'd beaten an optional boss near the end of the game) which grants you multiple chained attacks making boss fights much easier, despite the increased difficulty. You can also backtrack (from a warp in a later chapter) to hunt down additional score pieces and better rewards from playing them, and there's also a fun bonus dungeon only in the PS3 version. I got better at the battle system after playing the game for so long and and so, having beaten it for the second time I changed my mind about the low score I had intended to give the game.


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Community review by threetimes (July 12, 2011)

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fleinn posted July 12, 2011:

:) great there are someone else around here who likes Chopin.

Some parts of this review is very readable, specially towards the end. The way you describe the fighting system and the discord with the rest of the game is excellent.

I think the first bit should be more concise - you start out a bit as if you're writing a sarcastic review, but then avoid that in the end. So maybe if you started out with the setting - that Chopin is sick with Tuberculosis pneumonia?, that he's basically visiting his sister (Polka) in some world between the living and the dead. And struggle to find out if what he's in now is real of a dream, etc.

And /then/ skewer it for the fact that it doesn't actually have more than a few parallels once in a while to that theme. know.. a boar charges you because it's a JRPG fantasy, not because it's a story about Chopin's possible thoughts under the severe influence of mineral-powder while having a fever.. Even if all of this again is disconnected from the story we're being told in cutscenes about Chopin's real life in between the chapters.

You could also mention more of that.. Polka speaks in.. polka-rhythm. Jazz is a laid-back guy, and his affair with Claves is going to end in disaster, that kind of thing. Those were really cute parts of the game, imo, even if they were few.

Same with the multiplayer. Might be an interesting bit for some..

I'm the last person who should be complaining about the length, though - but this review probably can be structured a little bit differently and end up being more compact and readable. Maybe collapse a few of the paragraphs, and bridge them with the others on subject.. something like that.
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honestgamer posted July 12, 2011:

I really need to finish this game. I got a fair way in and I loved the art style. The combat system worked for me, too. My problem is that I was writing a FAQ as I went and that slowed me down too much. Just playing through, I think I'd love it.

Any reason you have manual line breaks? They break up your review a bit here and make it look longer and more intimidating than it has to for the reader. It's a good review, so that's a shame.
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threetimes posted July 13, 2011:

Changed the formatting. Looks much better. Thanks for comments and "a boar charges you because it's a JRPG fantasy" is right!

I never noticed that about the speaking patterns, and I didn't know there was multiplayer. Yeah, I had started the review somewhat annoyed with the game, but changed my attitude a bit before completing it.

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