Eternal Sonata

Tri-Crescendo is at best a niche videogame developer, their most notable titles being the Baten Kaitos titles for the Nintendo GameCube, which they co-developed with Monolith Soft. In 2007, they developed the Xbox 360 title Trusty Bell: Chopin's Dream, with Namco-Bandai games publishing it, the game seeing international release as Eternal Sonata. The next year, Eternal Sonata saw a port to the PlayStation 3 with some additional features. The title is a solid Japanese RPG, although it's not without its flaws.

The main gimmick of Eternal Sonata is that it takes place three hours before the death of Polish/French composer Frédéric François Chopin at age 39 of tuberculosis in 1849. Before his demise, he for some reason dreams up a rather generic JRPG world with plenty of characters and places named after various musical aspects, the composer himself being a playable character. Although there are occasional educational sequences about Chopin's life, almost nothing in his dream world bears any resemblance to anything that happened to him in his life, with most of the characters having zero development, as well. What could have been an excellent allegorical narrative is instead a run-of-the-mill RPG storyline that reeks of wasted potential.

That leaves the gameplay to shoulder the game's burden, and fortunately, Eternal Sonata does decently in this department. Enemies are visible within the game's fields and dungeons, where if they touch the player's back, they get a preemptive strike; if the player touches the enemy's back, the player gets the preemptive strike; and if the enemy and player are facing one another when they contact, neither side gets the advantage. Characters and the enemies take their turns depending upon speed in a battle system that combines turn-based and real-time elements. Outside battle, the player can equip each of the three active characters with Light and Dark skills (at first one of each, although the game ultimately allows two Light and Dark skills), with the battlefield having light and dark areas that determine which skills they can execute.

In addition to using special skills, characters can attack enemies normally with their equipped weapons or use items, with the game wisely restricting the number of consumables the player can bring into battle, with each item consuming a certain amount of space in the player's item set, which occasionally rises throughout the game. As characters hit enemies with normal attacks, "echoes" build up that can empower special attacks, with special attacks resetting echoes, although special skills themselves can rebuild echoes; characters ultimately gain the ability to chain special skills together when they have built up at least twenty-four echoes. Additionally, Beat can photograph enemies, with the player able to sell his photos at stores (although doing so only when a photographer is present at a shop yields better rewards than average).

Taking a cue from RPGs like the Paper Mario series, when enemies attack, the player can time a button press at the right time to defend and reduce damage, and later in the game, end the attacker's turn and counterattack, although timing sometimes requires the foresight of Nostradamus, and is at some points critical in some boss battles. The battle system works decently, with most fights flowing fluidly, although the penultimate boss battle in particular can be tricky and require some grinding, the true final battle ironically being much easier, and the ability to swap characters, what with the large party size towards the end of the game, would have been nice, as well. Overall, while a solid story doesn't exactly back the game, the gameplay itself largely makes up for it.

Eternal Sonata's controls are mostly decent, with the actual ability to pause the game most of the time always being a welcome feature surprisingly absent from many other Japanese RPGs, and the menus are well-arranged as well, though the presence of equipment and skill setup under the status menus takes some getting used to. Furthermore, the absence of automaps in dungeon is inexcusable, especially considering some 8-bit RPGs such as Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei, had in-game maps, and there are a few moments when the game is somewhat unclear on how to advance. Moreover, there's a mini-game where the player can find Song Pieces scattered throughout the world to play along with music performed by NPCs, although it can be somewhat time-consuming to find the right match for musical pieces, and the rewards aren't really that great. Overall, interaction is good, but some parts could have been better.

Motoi Sakuraba, as usual, does a decent job with the soundtrack, although Eternal Sonata suffers from the typical JRPG flaw of repetitive battle music (which is actually one of the better pieces, though), and the piano pieces by Chopin that accompany the educational sequences about the composer are actually better. It's somewhat disappointing that Sakuraba didn't base any of his pieces on Chopin's music, and as with the story, the game's musical potential somewhat goes to waste. The voice acting is largely good, and if players can't stand the English acting, they can always switch to the Japanese voices. Ultimately, a decent-sounding game.

The cel-shaded visuals are probably the best part of the game, with nice-looking character models along with colorful scenery that only rarely suffers from pixelated texturing during close-up shots. The educational sequences about Chopin, on the other hand, use static paintings in addition to the featured pieces by the composer. All in all, and excellent-looking game.

Some critics have accused the game of being too short, although this reviewer found that argument to be a load of bull, given his final playtime of a little over fifty hours, largely consisting of grinding needed to face the penultimate boss, with few sidequests to pad out playing time. Available upon beating the game is an Encore mode that's basically a New Game+ with some special features during the second playthrough.

In the end, Eternal Sonata is a fairly solid Japanese RPG that hits most of the right notes, what with its somewhat-solid battle system, aurals, and visuals, while leaving a bit of room for improvement, what especially with its pointless narrative whose excellent potential goes to waste. It certainly isn't one of the best RPGs of the current generation (although this reviewer personally has yet to find an RPG worthy of that title), although it's nonetheless worth a look by Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 owners.

The Good:
+Somewhat solid battle system and control.
+Good music and voice acting.
+Beautiful graphics.

The Bad:
-The penultimate boss.
-Plot is pointless.
-Not enough Chopin music.

The Bottom Line:
Good if you can look past the story.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 7/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 40-60+ Hours

Overall: 8/10

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