I was fully aware of all of the negatives about Eternal Sonata well before I turned on the power button. The game is derivative. It has a beautiful presentation that ultimately falls short because of its terrible ending. It is “just another JRPG” with no soul. With all due respect to previous reviewers and players of the game, I believe Eternal Sonata to be exemplary and completely misunderstood by the gaming community. While I don’t believe Eternal Sonata is a great fit for everyone, if you are a lover of an intellectual RPG that is willing to challenge your literary comprehension as well as your fierce button-pressing speed, then Eternal Sonata is a perfect game for you.
By now, you’ve probably heard the premise around Eternal Sonata: the game is a fantastic mix of reality and fantasy. In the waning hours of famed composer Frederic Francois Chopin’s Life, the player is transported into his dream world: a beautiful symphony full of bright colors and memorable characters. However, in this dream, Chopin is fully aware of his existence and his presence within the fantasy world. In this lucid dream, the player is introduced to a fine array of characters, each representative of different parts of Chopin’s psyche: there is Allegretto, a poor 16 year-old “Robin Hood” type whose only interest is to bring down the evil Count Waltz; Polka, a 14 year old who has been condemned to die because of a life threatening illness; Salsa, one of the guardians of Agogo forest, whose very existence has been threatened by the evil Waltz; and Jazz, the leader of Andantino, a revolutionary group that seeks to overthrow Waltz, leader of the Kingdom of Forte, and put an end to his evil ways.
The game centers on Waltz’s perpetuation of mineral powder throughout the world. Mineral powder, kind of like a modern day aspirin (or, worse, opium), is used by everyone as a way to cure illnesses major and minor. The problem is that the powder causes nasty side effects including death and even the eternal imprisonment of the soul. Waltz does everything to make sure the powder gets to everyone because Forte benefits greatly by its production, both politically and financially. As a result, he lowers taxes on the powder, while raising taxes on any other cure.
The beauty of the story is its wonderful intricacy. For example, as I mentioned, Polka is condemned to die because of a terrible illness. What we learn, however, is that Chopin’s own sister in the real world died of tuberculosis. As a result, Chopin sees Polka as a sister figure in his Eternal Sonata. These kinds of details, including the brilliant naming, may be lost on the casual player throughout the game. From Baroque to Beat, Claves to Crescendo, Chopin’s fantasy world is complete with musical names for all of its inhabitants. It is a nice touch that I enjoyed thoroughly.
In addition to the intercutting between narrative worlds, Eternal Sonata also includes interludes that give vignettes about Chopin’s life. These stories help provide insight into his life–including his passionate relationship with author George Sand. As someone who studied literature at the graduate level, I must acknowledge that this kind of depth in RPGs is rarely seen. At points, the game is so full of allusion that it almost becomes a visual novel. While some may seem these moments as disconnected from the main storyline, I found them exhilarating.
While I don’t want to go too in-depth into the ending, I do want to make a comment on it: it is brilliant. It is a forty-five minute final symphony that left me speechless. It has two credit sequences, beautiful music, and a dramatic conclusion. I do understand that the ending has been dramatically reworked from the Xbox 360 version, so people who may have disappointed with the previous version and who have a PS3 may want to give it a shot.
The gameplay is a fairly traditional setup for a JRPG and for those who know my tastes, that is just fine. The game allows you to have a party of three, and battles take place in a manner most similar to the Star Ocean series. Monsters are present on the field, and when you encounter them, the game cuts to a realtime fighting sequence. The interesting part of the fighting lies in the field’s use of light and dark. If you stand on a certain “light” part of the battle area, you can use “light” special attacks, and if you stand on a “dark” part, you can use “dark” special attacks.
The other interesting part of the battle progression lies in the inclusion of the “party levels.” As you progress through the game, your party advances in level and this leads to increased difficulty. When the game begins, you have an infinite amount of time to plan your attack, but you can’t do things like counterattack. By the end, the game is a fast-paced free-for-all. If you don’t come prepared and bring your “A” game, especially during boss battles, it is easy to be wiped out in a heartbeat.
My favorite gameplay element is the use of parallel storylines, which is something I really haven’t seen used since Final Fantasy VI. The game does a great job intercutting between the trials and tribulations of Allegretto and his friend Beat as well as introducing the player to the initial meeting between Chopin and Polka. Later in the game, there is another sequence of intercutting between stories that is fantastic. What this does is that it allows for great character development and a connection to each of their personalities. In addition, it introduces you to each of the characters’ unique fighting styles, which is important in the last part of the game.
The graphics in this game are phenomenal in some areas and quasi-disappointing in others. For example, the environments are top-notch. From the luscious swamps of Agogo Forests to the terrors of Mount Rock, the game contains everything you could possibly expect in the color spectrum. From the whitest of whites to the greenest of greens, the game is always spectacular and enjoyable to watch. The only place the graphics seem to be behind their next-gen counterparts is the amount of palette-swapping (for enemies) in the game. There should never be a color swap in the first four or five hours in the game, and unfortunately, this does exist in Eternal Sonata. Overall, however, this is a minor complaint in the visual department.
Control is solid, though I do have a few complaints. While the control was perfect in modes outside of battle, I found control a little awkward in battle. On occasion, the game’s camera comes into question because of the fast-paced nature. In one particular boss battle, I had a really tough time blocking because I couldn’t see my character from a proper viewpoint. Also, while the game’s load times were good, the save time was quizzically long.
While I could understand complaints about the narrative or graphics, there better not be any complaint about the overall sound to the game. Eternal Sonata features an immense soundtrack, mostly composed by Motoi Sakuraba (with Chopin’s original compositions performed by Stanislav Bunin) and all presented in 5.1 surround sound. The tracks are haunting and beautiful; this is one of the best scores I’ve ever heard for any game, on any platform. The voice acting is okay, but I imagine some could get annoyed by some of the young characters. I will say Salsa’s voice started to grow on me after being somewhat irritated at first.
Eternal Sonata has often been criticized as a title with impressive visuals and a good score, but as a game that doesn’t quite come together. To those detractors I say: you have missed the point of Bandai Namco’s beautiful product. Eternal Sonata is a wonderful symphony that ties together a fascinating, deep story with a linear world that is always immaculate in presentation. The PlayStation 3 version is the definitive one to purchase: an improved story, two additional playable characters, and bonus locations throughout the game to visit. Quite simply, while Eternal Sonata may be overlooked as a broken title, it is truly no such thing. Instead, it is a world that I was happy to play in, and may even dream about from time to time.