Review by kirbychamp

Reviewed: 07/30/13

Great for a JRPG, but...

Paris, 1849: Frederic Chopin lies on his death bed, comatose. While his family anxiously hopes for his recovery, in his mind he is searching for a truth.

Tenuto Village: A girl named Polka sets forth to the capital city to discover the reason for a tax on floral powder, a medicine that she and her mother sell. She is to die soon; an illness will ravage her body, with the upside of granting healing magic, but most everyone she meets will keep their distance.

These two stories quickly converge to form the central plot of Eternal Sonata. Chopin enters this dream-world to join Polka and company in what becomes a quest of betrayal, intrigue, self-discovery, and a bit of magic; all of which is crafted in the subconscious mind of the bedridden composer. It is a JRPG at its core (“Japanese” RPG, often featuring random battles, lots of grinding and item collecting, and epic storylines; think Final Fantasy), and all of the expected elements are present, but several unique mechanics make Eternal Sonata stand out from the rest.

Combat is pseudo-action time: Enemies roam the main world, and a combat arena is entered upon contact with an enemy. Characters and enemies take turns in initiative order (speedy characters move first and get turns more frequently) and on each turn can spend five seconds total between movement around the arena, normal attacks, and character-specific special attacks. At its core, this system is similar to games like Tales of Vesperia.

Things get interesting beyond that, though. Most central to defining the combat of Eternal Sonata is a light/darkness mechanic: Characters and objects in the arena cast shadows and light, and everyone has different special attacks (or even different forms) depending on whether illuminated or in shadow. Items and abilities can create sources of light or shadow, and objects like clouds or hanging lanterns move over time, adding dynamism to the battleground.

In addition, characters build up combos with normal attacks and unleash them with their special attacks, and combos are retained across party members. For instance, a weak but fast character could build up a long combo that gets continued by a strong melee fighter, so that when the fighter ends his turn with a special attack the damage is greatly multiplied. This adds another tactical layer to combat and, especially with variable turn order, helps keep things interesting; if you’re fighting a boss and it’s your medic’s turn, but the boss moves next, do you expend your combo to heal up the party or save it to deal that much more damage later?

Furthermore, a blocking/counterattacking system is present, a simple mechanic similar to Paper Mario in which incoming damage can be reduced or negated by a timely button press just before the attack connects. Facing direction also comes into play, so an enemy can’t block attacks from behind, nor can the player characters.

This system actually makes the game a little too punishing: Even when familiar with a particular enemy’s attacks, recognizing which attack is being used soon enough to be able to block at the right time gets difficult, and blocking too soon prevents blocking at the proper time. Facing the wrong way disallows blocking entirely, even if the character turns around during the attack, and turning around during a fast combo is almost impossible. This all wouldn’t be awful if damage was scaled differently, but the balance falls somewhere between blocked attacks doing too little damage and unblocked attacks doing too much, making successful blocking critical; even ordinary enemy battles can be deadly without adequate blocking, and the inability to change facing direction when enemies approach from behind makes deaths common. Of course, there are revival items, but the number of items available in one battle is finite, and if a boss gets consecutive turns it can wipe the party with no available response.

The story also complicates combat further: Party members are gained over the course of Polka and Chopin’s travels across several kingdoms, but the party is split up at several points. While this mixes up which characters can be used at different times, it also means that you could play an entire chapter of the story without the medic or tank you’ve been used to having. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it might turn off some players.

Now, if you’re thinking that this combat system sounds flawed, you might be right. However, if you’re a big fan of JRPGs and don’t mind some occasional grinding and going down side paths to get the best equipment possible, you’ll keep the party overlevelled for any fight without difficulty. Even if you aren’t keen on grinding, there’s a lot more to Eternal Sonata than the combat.

The main world consists of dozens of different locales, each with unique enemies and environmental features, and there are very few strictly linear areas; most regions have multiple paths available, some of which feature treasure chests or skip past some battles but are out of the way, hard to notice, or blocked by an enemy. This allows a variety of play styles; players can explore areas to find every chest, stop to fight every monster, or ignore everything to rush to the story events. There are also large-scale puzzles which are pretty straightforward but mix things up enough to be interesting.

There are also a LOT of cutscenes. Like most any JRPG, lengthy cutscenes occur throughout the game, but Eternal Sonata seems to have more than do most JRPGs. Many are story events that advance the plot; but some are exclusively for character development, showing interactions between party members to give them a bit of depth (although these get repetitive); and some still regard Chopin’s real life, highlighting his most prominent compositions and giving the history behind them.

Most areas have multiple cutscenes, and while many cutscenes can be skipped, some are actually not pre-rendered dialogue and cannot be skipped. Oftentimes, especially after a major boss battle, several cutscenes will be strung together, making for excessively long periods of sitting and watching; at one point just halfway through the game I sat for thirty minutes, not wanting to miss any key plot points but also growing increasingly bored.

Despite any flaws, Eternal Sonata is still worth playing for the novelty, and at 30-40 hours with cutscenes (and possibly under 20 without them), it’s a relatively short game. There is a New Game+ mode for a second playthrough and some additional content, for anyone who wants to explore the game further or try to connect a few more dots in the story, so there is still plenty to do after the plot ends. If you like JRPGs, you’ll probably enjoy what Eternal Sonata has to offer. Even if you don’t enjoy wading through cutscenes or fighting the same enemies dozens of times, you will likely still appreciate the combat system, but playing the game all the way through might not be worthwhile.

Story - 8/10: It’s quite interesting, with a unique premise and an unexpectedly deep plot, though the characters are a tad flat.
Gameplay - 6/10: Combat is creative but still gets repetitive. The environments are nice and not strictly linear. Cutscenes get unacceptably long and frequent.
Graphics - 8/10: Everything looks pretty great, although there’s not much unique or defining about the art direction.
Sound - 8/10: The music is very good, the voice acting is pretty good, and the sound effects are not bad.
Lifetime - 8/10: If you aren’t keen on pouring 50+ hours into one game, Eternal Sonata can keep itself at around 30 hours. If you want to play more, there is some additional content, but it might take some grinding to get through.

Overall - 7/10: It’s definitely worth playing for JRPG fans and at least worth a look for everyone else.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Eternal Sonata (US, 10/21/08)

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