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Eternal Sonata
System: Xbox 360 :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: RPG :: Released: 17 September 2007

By James D. Deaux IV
27 February 2008 — It has been years since I delved into an RPG, despite the fact that RPGs may very well be my favorite genre of video games. The last RPG that I completed was the underwhelming Xenosaga II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse back in 2005. The closest I came to buying a new RPG since then was one of the Legend of Heroes remakes for the PSP about a year ago. However, after reading many mediocre reviews of that series, I decided not to buy them. Truthfully, I'm not sure why I never took a chance on any of the dozens upon dozens of RPGs that have come out in the last two years. Maybe it was because I was hopelessly looking for something to match the unbridled joy I get every time I play through Xenogears, which to this day is still my favorite video game ever. Well, I never found that kind of ecstasy again, but I did find a game in late 2007 that really caught my eye — Eternal Sonata for the Xbox 360.

What hooked me about this game was its premise; you play as Frederic Chopin, the famous pianist, in his own dream world just hours before he dies from tuberculosis. In this world, people with incurable diseases (such as his own) can use great magical power. But the catch is them constantly knowing that they and anyone else who can use magic here will die at an early age. Of course, as would be expected, the populace-at-large shuns such people who use magic for fear of contracting a disease, despite the fact that the diseases are not contagious. The dream world gameplay doesn't actually start with Chopin, but rather a young girl named Polka, who, like Chopin, has an incurable disease that allows her to use healing magic. (This girl was based on Chopin's younger sister, Emilia, who died of tuberculosis at 14.) As the game progresses in standard RPG fashion, you meet other playable characters, each with their own vaguely similar agenda. Along the way you vanquish monsters, upgrade your armor / weapons and attempt to overthrow the evil monarch.

The other thing that makes this game stand out is that virtually everything you come across in this dream world is musically inspired, including characters, places and weapons. You spend a great deal of time playing as a party consisting of people with colorful names such as Allegretto, Viola, Falsetto and the aforementioned Polka, traveling to locations like Andante, Fort Fermata and Forte City, while trying to thwart the evil Count Waltz's plans. The weapons are beautifully crafted and fit their respective character's name and / or fighting style. Chopin (the only major character in the game without some kind of musical appellation) fights using a conductor's baton / walking stick hybrid, for example. These kinds of motifs are to be expected, and they make the battle sequences quite the spectacle.

Speaking of the music, I would be remiss if I didn't begin my critique portion of the game by talking about the soundtrack. (After all, look at who the main character is.) Without exaggeration, this is one of the greatest soundtracks I have ever listened to in a video game. While the game, somewhat puzzlingly, isn't teeming with Chopin compositions, it still incorporates about eight or nine of them in each chapter of the game behind some actual photos of European landmarks where Chopin stayed or performed. Russian pianist Stanislav Bunin plays the Chopin works while you learn all about the legendary composer. During this slideshow, the game gives you some brief history lessons on Chopin — specifically his health and travels, and how they affected his composing. You can skip past them if you wish, but they definitely add a nice little touch of history in between the chapters because they loosely tie to whichever chapter you are playing through. Japanese composer Motoi Sakuraba wrote most of the in-game music, which, in a nice touch, can be listened to in the character menu as you progress through the game.

The storyline follows Chopin, who in reality, lays on his deathbed, as he drifts into his dream world and roams around. He meets the aforementioned Polka and they decide to travel to Forte City to ask the leader there (Count Waltz) to lower taxes on floral powder, a healing product that Polka sells in a town near her forest home. As they encounter more people, the game takes on a Wizard of Oz-like story where each subsequent character decides that they, too, need to go to Forte City to see this Count Waltz person and ask him for something. I have to admit that it is extremely rushed in that you seem to meet a new character every 20 minutes. While I like a variety in my party (and Viola absolutely owns), I'd like a chance to get to digest my current characters before tacking on another six or seven. Anime fans will easily recognize such prolific voice artists as Johnny Yong Bosch, Patrick Seitz and Julie Ann Taylor among others. The voice acting is mostly good, although there are some noticeable lip-synching problems lingering throughout the game, unfortunately. But hey, you could always make it really difficult on yourself and listen to the dialog in Japanese.

The other thing about the story is the theme of humans hurting the environment. While I'm never crazy about this theme, I wasn't as turned off by it as I have been by other media, such as TV shows or movies. They tackle it in such a way that you really understand how the hoarding of resources (and the malicious use of said resources by Waltz) hurts everyone. Still, as is often the case with a "humans vs. the environment" premise, it can get very preachy; and this game is no different. There are times where I want to say, "Okay, I get it. Can we get back to the stalled storyline, please?" This little pet peeve of mine notwithstanding, I dig the premise of the story and most of its execution.

Battling is pretty straightforward in the game. You can see your enemies while running around the world; and most of the time, you can choose to fight them or avoid them. Also, if you engage them from behind, you can increase the amount of turns your party gets before your enemies can even throw a punch. The battle system is based upon a pseudo-turn-based structure incorporating a light / darkness strategy, where you position your characters in shaded areas or lighted areas depending on your specific fight. If you stand in a shaded area, for example, the special attacks and magical spells you cast will be of the Dark variety. These are virtually always attacks and not healing spells. If you stand in sunlight, you will be able to cast healing spells and utilize Light-based attacks. You must make strategic decisions, such as knowing where to position yourself to most effectively dispatch the latest horde of creatures and villains. The actual fighting takes place in a partially turn-based clock where you have "Tactical Time" to prepare your active fighter's moves and then act upon that decision. Once you move, you have a slim amount of seconds to either position yourself elsewhere, attack your enemies with everything you have or heal your party members. Or all three if you use your time wisely.

While in Action mode, you can attack for as long as your Action Gauge has time remaining. The more combos your pull off, the more time you have and the more Echoes you build up. Echoes can be stored and used with any party character during the fight at hand and can cause their special attacks to exponentially increase in strength and specter. It's a very easy system to learn once you play through it for a couple of fights. As you level your characters up, however, your overall Party Level changes and you must adjust your tactics accordingly. For example, you could have infinite Tactical Time in one Party Level, but when you go to the next Level, your Tactical Time gets reduced to three seconds and your Action Gauge decreases to four seconds at the expense of being able to equip more armor or items. These things can be tricky to overcome at first, but they don't hamper your fighters much and practicing new techniques over and over will only benefit your party.

On the whole, the graphics are visually stunning to behold. The world is not gigantic, but it is magnificent to look at all the same. The costumes and weapons are very cool, in particular. Of course, the only problem here is that all of the weapon and costume upgrades you obtain, steal or buy do not change the look of their respective item in fight sequences. It would have been a nice touch. Someone also needs to explain to me why, in a game this gorgeous, they have a fixed camera. You can't adjust it at all, and it's really a shame because in a game that thrives on a backdrop as elegant as Eternal Sonata does, you should be able to look around at least a little bit. One other thing I really take issue with is the bestiary. The monsters are cool and all, but it seems like there are a total of maybe seven different designs. They can change up the names all day long, but they're still the same creature just with a color palette swap.

If you play through and beat the game, then you can go back and play through it again with increased difficulty settings and play through an extra dungeon. You can also collect Score Pieces that can earn you additional items throughout your quest if you know when to play them — many of which lead to a rather large Xbox Live Achievement bonus after you've completed two go-rounds of the game. Other than that, the replay value is extremely limited given how linear the story is and how short the game is.

Eternal Sonata's real bread and butter could be its appeal to a younger audience. If you have a child in the tween range and you want to introduce them to the world of RPGs, then this game is absolutely perfect for you. It has a relatively simple combat system, colorful characters that a child can instantly like and a very linear storyline. These things make for a good beginner game for younger gamers who aren't quite ready for something as complex as a Final Fantasy or, heaven forefend, a Xenosaga episode. (Even full-grown adults can't fully comprehend that series.) More importantly, though, the game is a genuine educational experience in addition to being a very aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable RPG. It's not exactly commonplace to see a video game encourage children to read about a historical figure, but I believe this game could do just that if given the chance.

Final Grade: 82/100 — If you are a hardcore RPG-player, then Eternal Sonata probably won't entice you as much as other established franchises. However, if you are willing to just let the game take you in, you should be able to enjoy this unique and clever experience.

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