Eternal Sonata


Review by · October 7, 2007

They say a game can be more than just the sum of its parts, and there are plenty of examples where this is true. However, there are times when a game can put on a good presentation, yet certain aspects of it wind up dragging down the whole of the title. Going into this review, please realize that, while I have done my best to reflect on my experiences with Eternal Sonata after I completed it, I still remain affected by it in a negative way. I will try to be as unbiased as possible, but reader beware: I have been spurned.

Eternal Sonata (Trusty Bell: Chopin no Yume in Japan) presents an interesting vehicle for storytelling, mixing the real and the fantastical. The premise is as follows: as the composer Frederic Chopin is lying on his death bed, he dreams up a magical world. In this world, he meets a cast of characters who are on their own journeys for various reasons, but all with a central goal. They are attempting to stop the kingdom of Forte, led by Prince Waltz, from perpetuating the use of mineral powder: a drug that can cure illness, but at the same time maddens/enslaves and then kills its users. In the process, the dying are granted magical powers, which Forte plans to employ against the neighboring kingdom of Baroque, led by the peaceful Prince Crescendo. Chopin is thrust into this world as an observer and fellow traveler, eventually learning that his journey is meant to help him face his own soul and psyche, with his companions being various aspects of them.

… at least, that was the intention developer tri-Crescendo had in mind when they started this project, and for the first half of the game, they seem to build up the framework to support such a plot. Unfortunately, that the carefully laid foundation begins to unravel, as nonsensical, unexplained (and often unexplainable) events transpire. By the ending, any attempt at making sense of events had been completely abandoned, robbing the narrative of any sense of direction, and the characters of any understandable motives. The result was a game that builds expectations of grandeur only to sweep the leg of anticipation and land the player in the mudhole of disappointment.

And that’s just a few examples of the painfully pretentious writing you’ll find in the game, with long and agonizingly drawn out soliloquies by characters repeating the same messages over and over until they become inane and ridiculous (including the longest death scene in an RPG EVER, courtesy of a character you meet for a half hour and thus never develop an attachment to). Add into the mix a set of biography cutscenes of Chopin’s life, and you get an overwhelming feeling of unfocused storytelling masquerading as deeply philosophical, artistic narrative. Fortunately, the characters in the game are inoffensive enough, if not following the expected and overused character archetypes of most J-RPGs. The bottom line is, if you want a game with an engaging (or heck, understandable and well-presented) story, look elsewhere, as this game will raise the bile in your throat.


Story aside, Eternal Sonata does have some redeeming qualities, making it a playable, if not masterful, gaming experience. One of these aspects is gameplay, which while not creative is at least enjoyable. The player takes his crew of up to 10 characters around overworld maps in a very linear fashion, all the while encountering enemies whom they must fight. The enemies are present on the overworld map, and are thus avoidable. Once in combat, the battle system works something akin to the Grandia series’ battle system. Each combatant has a bit of “tactical time,” which is basically your chance to plan what you want to do. Depending on the party level (more about that later), the tactical time ranges from infinite to zero. Once the character starts to move, they have a certain amount of time in which to do all their actions, which mainly involve running up to an enemy and mashing the A button to attack. Some attacks build up your time gauge, but when it is depleted your turn is over, and the next combatant (either player character or enemy) gets a turn. As you score hits, you build up a gauge called the Echo Gauge. While you can use your set special attacks any time, the higher the gauge, the more powerful they will be, adding an element of strategy. Other options mainly involve using items.

During the enemy’s attacks, on the other hand, timing comes into play. When attacked, you have the option of blocking with a well-timed button press, or in higher party levels, performing a counterattack. However, if you’re not facing the enemy, you’re out of luck, so positioning does have a role in combat. The downside is, despite the few aspects of strategy, combat is pretty repetitive, and similar enemies have similar patterns, meaning that few battles are particularly original. What’s more, most battles are pretty easy to beat, with only one or two boss battles posing any problems.

The one saving grace of the battle system is that up to four players can participate, three of which may partake in any one battle. Each player controls one to three of the characters in battle. This allowed me to play the game with my wife, which was enjoyable, but in the end, it’s a novelty that didn’t make up for the other shortcomings of the battle system.

There are somewhat interesting side-quests, however. One example is the Score Piece quest, which requires you find musical scores around the world and play the right one with the right person. Performing a matching score will gain you a nice present, while a poor match garners boos. You may try as many times as you like, however the criterion for good score matching is dubious at best, atonal at worst. There isn’t much indication as to what most people want to match with, and so the process becomes trial and error, with increasingly more score pieces to wade through as you play on. I wouldn’t say that the side-quests were tedious, though, and usually you are provided with what you need at the time if you’ve been searching, thanks to the linearity of the game. However, for the short amount of actual play time (about 30 hours) you don’t get a whole lot.


I am biased, I will tell you right now. I have played Oblivion, I have played BioShock, and I expect great graphical feats from the 360. So I was disappointed with what I got from Eternal Sonata. Now, please don’t misunderstand; Eternal Sonata is filled with vibrant, pastel colors, cute costumes, and interesting shading and lighting. The problem I had was that tri-Crescendo could have put more work into the game, and it shows. Case in point is the enemy designs in the game. I haven’t seen this much palette swapping in ages, and there was absolutely no reason to reuse the same character model over and over. There were, literally, no more than 20 enemy designs, and the only change they got was a palette swap. And while the environments were colorful, they weren’t particularly inspired; one dungeon could have been ripped right out of Tales of the Abyss. I encountered nothing that stunned me about design — enemy or environment — and that was disappointing considering the medium the developers had to work with. As well, the character animations were overly emphatic, and anyone with a dress or large tunic held arms akimbo to prevent clipping, and that was just sad. I will say, however, that Chopin’s outfit was damn sexy.


If Eternal Sonata shines in any respect it is here in the category of its aural presentation. The musical score is well done, courtesy of Tales series composer Motoi Sakuraba. While reminiscent of his work in the Tales series, especially Abyss, the music is none the lesser for it. Sakuraba likes lilting themes and haunting melodies, and we’ve got those. He also tends to present the battle themes in a very up-tempo manner, with either electric organ (Star Ocean series) or electric guitar (Tales series). For Eternal Sonata, however, he goes for violins, and it fits the motif of the game much better. In fact, the musical score fits into the game better than anything else, including the gameplay, story, and graphics.

Of course, what would a game centered on Chopin be without some of his music? tri-Crescendo hired on pianist Stanislav Bunin, a world-famous Chopin performer to play various pieces for the cutscenes, such as the Nocturne and the Fantasy Impromptu. For those of you who aren’t versed in classical music, Chopin was one of the greatest pianists of the Romantic style, and so his music tended to be wistful, dreamy, and at times tortured, but always filled with emotion. The best part is, once you’ve heard a piece, you can re-listen to it whenever you want via the game’s menu. Those of you who are eager to hear them and don’t want to play through to get them may purchase them as a download from the Xbox Live Marketplace, but honestly, if you’re really that impatient, go to iTunes or get the CD.

The voice acting is also well done, with only one voice actor coming across as annoying (and fortunately, it was intentional.) The option exists to play the game with the Japanese or English voices, and although I am not a fan of dubbing, I went through with the English voices and found them to be enjoyable. And don’t worry Tales fans, Cam Clarke is indeed in the game, allowing him to retain his status as the video game VA mascot. In the end, the entire audio package was well above average, and fell just short of being great.


I won’t say much about the controls, but don’t worry; that’s a good thing. Aside from one or two instances where aiming at an enemy or executing a special seemed to glitch on me, controls in battle were fluid and responsive, and out of battle movements were equally well presented. I’d have liked it if counterattacking had been more forgiving, but most of the battles were so easy that I suppose something had to be hard.


At the beginning of my review I mentioned that sometimes games can sum up to be less than their parts, and this is true for Eternal Sonata. While the musical presentation was excellent, the gameplay passable, and the controls well executed, the horrible job with the story and the disappointing graphics dragged down the game a lot. Add in the short playtime and you have a game that is a rental at best, but definitely not a purchase. So do yourselves a favor and go to the Xbox Live Marketplace or iTunes or even that ancient relic the “CD Store” and get yourself a copy of some of Chopin’s work and leave this game behind. I know I wish I had.

Overall Score 75
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Damian Thomas

Damian Thomas

Some of us change avatars often at RPGFan, but not Damian, aka Sensei Phoenix. He began his RPGFan career as The Flaming Featherduster (oh, also, a key reviewer), and ended as the same featherduster years later.