Eternal Sonata Review

Alan Pettit

Eternal Sonata, the newest offering from Namco-Bandai, previously separate companies as Namco and Bandai, is a beautiful cel-shaded, turn-based/free-action melded, Japanese-style RPG. If that was not enough hyphens for you, here's one more yet: this game is fan-freaking-tastic. Eternal Sonata is a highly stylized RPG mixing familiar elements with a brand new twist, creating an exhilaratingly fresh take on a very recycled genre.

The biggest problem most companies seem to have with RPGs is coming up with a unique story. Time and time again we've taken a small-town boy on an epic journey to save the entire world from evil, falling in love with an undercover princess along the way. Have no fear, for Eternal Sonata boasts a story about the final hours in the life of famed composer Frederic Francois Chopin as he sleeps and dreams of a world in peril from an evil ruler, turning his citizens into mindless drones for his army. Granted, that familiar "saving the world" theme is there, but that's really the root of an RPG and can't be abandoned.

The game starts with a mother and her daughter walking through a field of flowers, the mother explaining how the moon causes waves in the ocean the same way that people's greed can cause waves in society. Pretty heavy stuff for a young girl, who admits she does not really understand. The game then switches gears and focuses itself on Chopin on his deathbed, a doctor certain he may not wake from whatever dream he may be having. Back inside the dream, Chopin meets the little girl from the first segment, now grown to the age of 14. Her name is Polka, and unlike the rest of the people in this world, she can wield magic. Chopin realizes he too can wield magic, but they soon come to the conclusion that this is only because they are both terminally ill and this very powerful ability comes with a very terrible cost.

Chopin in the real world, on his death bed.

Polka lives in a small town by the name of Tenuto, but she decides that she needs to travel to the castle of Forte to have an audience with the king. She earns money for her and her mother by selling a product called Floral Powder, which is highly taxed by the king. However, the king releases mass quantities of a product called Mineral Powder that he does not enforce any taxes on. Throughout the journey to the castle, you come across more characters that are also seeking an audience with the king, or who already have a grudge against the king. Through these characters it is revealed that the king is using this Mineral Powder to poison his subjects, slowly turning them into mindless drones that will serve as his army. The powder causes people to become sick, which then gives them the ability to wield magic, so by controlling them he will have an endless supply of soldiers. It obviously then becomes your party's goal to fix this problem and save the world.

That may seem like a very straightforward plot, but the underlying hitch is that Chopin can not decide if this world is truly in his mind, or if he has been transported here in full body, mind and soul. The journey represents what he wants from his own life and what he is seeking to gain from it. Will he find what he is looking for and wake up from his real-life illness? Will he be trapped in this world forever? Well, I'm not going to spoil that for you, so you'll have to find out for yourself, but it's a very rewarding journey through and through.

Spliced into each chapter of the game are small history lessons about Chopin, each centering around a certain piece he composed since each chapter is named after them. They feel very out of place, and I think would have served much better as extra content through the menu. I enjoyed them, but when you play video games, you don't really expect a history lesson. He certainly did have a unique life, so the scenes help to illustrate why this game is such a good story even though it seems so strange on paper.

With such a unique story, there really was no option but to make the game look unique as well, and that has been accomplished with flying colors, literally. Right from the start you are hit by beautiful shades of greens, blues and purples that just make your eyes sparkle with delight. Every cinematic is done with amazing attention to detail, and the same holds true for the in-game play as well. The characters are rendered with a cel-shading appearance, making them jump out from their environments, but not so much that you can't help but drink everything in. The only problem with the amount of time they spent on the amazing cinematics is actually the sheer number of them. At times you'll spend 15-20 minutes watching cinematics, which is clearly a bit too long. The story is excellent and they are very pretty too watch, but sometimes you just feel yourself itching to get back into the game.

The characters really pop off the background.

Along with the unique look, a game that focuses on a famed pianist and composer had to have a great sound to it, and once again that has been accomplished with great success. Every musical background piece for the environments and battles are extremely beautiful. The voice-overs are fantastic as well, though because of the game being done first in Japanese, the mouths do not match up which can be distracting to some. However, if you can ignore that, the characters all have very unique deliveries, from the innocent Polka to the debonair Frederic, all the way to the southern sass of Salsa.

If you noticed just now, all the characters have names influenced by music. Whether it be music styles (Polka, Salsa) or terms (Beat, Crescendo) or even instruments (Tuba, Viola), they all have strong ties to music. It does not always directly influence their fighting style or character, but they try to tie it up as much as possible. Viola uses a bow to attack, the enemy Tuba is a big, fat guy and Salsa is a very outspoken young girl, but for the most part it just keeps the musical theme of the game going.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the gameplay is a blend of traditional turn-based and the newer free-action battle systems. Each character has an Action Gauge that gives them a certain amount of time to attack, heal or simply move about the battle environment as they see fit, while everyone still takes turns to act. At the beginning of the game, you are given an unlimited amount of time to think about what you want to do before acting, but as soon as you move, your Action Gauge counts down to the end of your turn. However, as your "Party Level" increases, you are given less time to think about your options, but new special abilities are unlocked. For instance, going from Party Level 1 to Level 2, you no longer have infinite time to think, but you are given the "Echo" ability that lets your normal attacks build up a counter, which when used with a special attack or healing ability will increase its power. This is a very good way to let people get used to the battle system and get into the groove of the game before it becomes too fast-paced for them.

The battle screen is very active, but never cluttered.

During your turn in battles you have a few options available: attack, item and special. Each of these actions will take time off your gauge, so you need to think quick and determine the best course of action for each player. In addition, moving to get in attack range also lowers your gauge, so you need to take that into account as well. Special Abilities are unlocked as your character levels increase (which is different than your Party Level) and only a few can be equipped at a time, forcing you to determine if you want a character to be a healer more than a fighter, or vice versa.

The first thing you might notice when you control your party for the first time is the amount of health you have; you begin the game with 900. This is a huge departure from the normal 999 cap in most RPGs. Granted, the enemies just do more damage than in other games to offset it, but there's something very cool about having that much health. The next thing you might notice is that you don't have any type of mana or magic bar. This is because only two characters can use magic, but it is just incorporated into the "special attack" feature described earlier. It's very refreshing to have a game where you don't have to rely on items very often. Special attacks can be attacking or healing and can be done whenever you want, they simply take more time off your action gauge than normal attacks.

Yet another unique feature in the battle system is the use of light and dark areas. Each time you enter battle, the field will be different. Sometimes there will be shadows and sunny areas, and if inside a cave there may be some torches that light certain areas while the rest is dark. Depending on where your character is standing, the special attack available to them will be different. For instance, the character of Beat has the ability to take pictures of monsters to sell for money, but early in the game he can only take pictures in the light areas (he soon learns to take them in dark as well, but they don't sell as well) and healing characters like Frederic and Polka can only use healing abilities in the light areas. This greatly influences your options in a battle, especially if there are not many light areas for you to stand in to heal. There are accessories that let your character have either a light or dark glow around them, giving them only one option for their special attack, but putting them next to someone else on the field will also open their adjacent special attack. Again, careful planning is essential to success.

Another problem RPGs tend to have it there is nothing more to do once you reach the end. In Eternal Sonata however, the game has an "Encore Mode" feature built in so that you can start the game again, keeping certain special items as well as your Party Level. However, your character levels reset to 1 and you lose any normal items, weapons and armor you have accumulated as well as your gold. On top of this, the enemies have twice as much health and 1.5 times the attack and defense. It is basically like playing through on Normal, then switching to Hard.

The achievements are a double-edged sword in Eternal Sonata. Half can not be missed by going through the story, which is always nice, but of course these are worth a very small amount. Most of the rest can be done on your first play, but they are very easy to miss because it requires you to backtrack very late in the game, when you might be focused on finishing out the story. The rest can not be done until the second play through the game, because the items, quests or people required do not show up on your first play. Also, some of the "special items" I mentioned before that are carried to your second game are required for the achievements. This adds a very unique twist to the achievements, though some people will surely see it as being simply annoying. If you are an RPG fan or simply a fan of this game (which if you couldn't tell by now, you should be), you'll be more than happy to play it again for the remaining achievements.

Eternal Sonata will give a good 25+ hours of game play if you're not worrying much about achievements. Searching for the Score Pieces (worth 100 points) and playing them for NPCs to get the EZI items (worth 321 points) is the biggest time drain, but it is a very cool feature and obviously worth the points in the end. The second play through the game will be shorter if you skip cinematics, so if you have a guide the whole experience might only take about 40+ hours. It could easily take longer, but most likely not.

So let's see here: unique story and gameplay? Check. Awesome graphics and sound? Check. Plenty of playtime and replay value? Check. Good achievements to keep you working? Check. Well, looks to me like there should be no doubt in your mind that Eternal Sonata is simply an amazing game. Everything is handled beautifully and whether you are a fan of the RPG genre or not, this is a must-play in my book.

The audio for a game based on a famed pianist and composer really had no choice but to be excellent. The only thing that annoyed me the whole way through was Polka's battle noises. She sounds like a ninja, but she's a 14-year old girl with an umbrella. 

There's really no two ways about it: this game is beautiful. The colors are dazzling, the characters and backgrounds both excel and the cinematics run smooth. One of the best showings I've ever seen. 

While RPGs tend to be fairly simply, the amount of unique gameplay features really make this a deep well to drink from. You can't really survive simply attacking and healing, you need to make full use of your Echoes and Harmony Chains, especially late in the game. Not terribly hard to play or understand, but mastering it might take you most of the game. 

I would have given this 100, but sometimes they story goes off in what appears to be no real direction. Somehow you always come out the other side closer to your goal, but the path there makes no sense. Aside from that, everything is amazing, but I felt it was a large flaw.

RPGs are tough to do achievements for, and we've seen companies struggle with them so far. Enchanted Arms and Phantasy Star Universe were too easy, but I felt Blue Dragon was a bit on the too-hard side and Final Fantasy XI is simply insane. This is fairly in the middle, maybe a bit on the easy side. It will take a fair amount of time, but with a guide it is really not that difficult. 

What else can I say? If you've read the review, or even just the summaries, you'll know this game is simply amazing. A must for any RPG fan, and for non-RPG fans, this just may convert you. The story may be a little confusing for some, but if you can follow along, you'll enjoy every second of the ride. 

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