The cry of the role-playing fan during the early stages of a new generation is always the same: “where are my RPGs?!” Unfortunately for PlayStation 3 owners, this cry oppressively hung suspended in the air for quite a long time, especially for fans of the old-school JRPG format that has sadly disappeared. Perhaps it’s even more upsetting that the first quality JRPG we receive is a year-old port of a Xbox 360 title, but hey, we’ve got good news. Eternal Sonata really is a top-notch role-playing experience. The PS3 version is certainly the best, and although we also got Valkyria Chronicles a week ago, that’s more of a strategy/RPG hybrid and a very different animal. Sonata is one of many recent Eastern RPGs to blend real-time and turn-based combat, so it’s not exactly 100% traditional, but it’s about as close as you’re going to get these days. Many gamers will gravitate towards this charming and entertaining title, which not surprisingly features wonderful sound, beautiful visuals, and a competent and original storyline. It has a few irritating flaws, but it’s still a great choice.
For those of you complaining that too many of the next-gen titles seem bland and washed-out with tons of grays and browns (despite the obvious detail and technical achievement), Eternal Sonata is a very welcome breath of fresh air. It’s vibrant and warm, with a color palette bursting with a wide array of shades and hues that some of us thought we’d never see again in current games. This is the ol’ Japanese flair for RPGs that we haven’t seen in quite some time, and while it’s not exactly drop-dead gorgeous (there are a few glitches here and there), it’s one of the prettier titles you will ever put on a high-definition TV. The character design is good, and although we’re not the biggest fan of the enemy creativity, the locales and many serene environments remain appealing throughout. Sometimes, we wanted more diversity in the actual battlefields and zooming in close to the graphics revealed a few shortcomings that detracted from the overall presentation, but that doesn’t change the bottom line. This really is quite refreshing, and RPG fans will appreciate this style.
With a title like “Eternal Sonata,” one would have to assume that the music is a highlight of the adventure. Thankfully, it’s exactly that, as the soundtrack is exquisite from front to back, with beautifully arranged orchestral pieces and even a few of Frederic Chopin’s more recognizable compositions, performed by Stanislav Bunin. The original stuff by Motoi Sakuraba easily passes muster, and we really couldn’t ask for a more professional-sounding arrangement. We had hoped for better combat tracks, though, as they got a little repetitive and the boss music really didn’t captivate us. The sound effects are great, though, and that’s the true focal point of enemy encounters, anyway, despite a bit of a balance issue. You may want to fiddle with the effects and music sliders in the Options menu when you first start, but beyond that, there’s little to complain about. The voice acting is surprisingly good, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a game out there that features a better soundtrack. Everyone, regardless of whether or not they’re role-playing fans, will appreciate the music, plain and simple.
Eternal Sonata tells the intriguing story of legendary composer Frederic Francois Chopin, the French piano genius that turned out his amazing pieces in the 19th century. We’re actually a little surprised that Namco Bandai got the license to not only include the name of the real-life Chopin in the story, but to base the entire plot around him. At the start, Chopin lies on his deathbed while concerned onlookers hope for his ultimate revival. But even though he’s unconscious, that brilliant mind has constructed a vivid world; an alternate reality of sorts, which is where the player will spend all his time. To fit the mind of the musician, the towns, characters, and items all carry a musical meaning of sorts: you begin in the small village of Tenuto, the characters (aside from Chopin himself) are Polka, Allegretto and Beat, items include things like Angel Trumpets, you will find various pieces of sheet music, and your first major adventure has you headed to Castle Forte. To add to the originality, Chopin is actually in his own dream, and he’s aware that it’s a dream.
Doesn’t this beg the question- “if he knows it’s a dream…how can it be a dream?” Well, as you learn early on, it will be up to Chopin to decide what is “really real,” and until then, you will follow along in what we’ll simply refer to as the “dream.” The characters can be a little whiny – that’s standard fare for a JRPG – and they’re a little clichéd, but you can’t deny that they fit the atmosphere perfectly. And while we typically dislike children in games, we have to admit that Polka is downright adorable; we just wanted to wrap her up in a big bear hug and tell her everything would be okay. Thing is, if you can use magic in this colorful and naturally luscious world, it means you won’t live very long, and the public believes that this disease (whatever it is) is contagious. Polka is one of these unfortunate souls, but strangely enough, so is Chopin. We won’t reveal any more than this, but let’s just say the storyline is good enough to keep you playing for a very long time. Like the graphics, the pacing is refreshing as well; the cut-scenes fit together nicely with the adventuring aspects, and things move along agreeably.
The traditional aspects of the game are obvious. You will explore towns, dungeons, and a variety of intimidating environments, and you will equip your characters with different kinds of equipment. You can find items laying around the towns and in treasure chests out in the field, and talking to townspeople is as simple as pressing the X button. Progressing through the dungeon areas (ranging from sewers to forests to caves and everything in between) isn’t anything new; you simply need to follow the one path that leads to your destination – usually guarded by a boss – and there are chests, save points, and a few secrets to be found. But of course, the gameplay centers squarely on the combat, which is an interesting real-time/turn-based hybrid style that gradually begins to focus more on real-time aspects as the game goes on. There are six Party Levels, and how you fight changes slightly with each Level gained. The alterations can affect the Action Gauge, Tactical Time, Special Attacks, and more, so you have to pay attention when you see the update, “Party Level Up” on the screen after a big battle.
We wanted to tell you this ahead of time because our description of the fighting mechanic may not be completely accurate depending on your Party Level. But we’ll hit the basics. You will encounter enemies in your travels; they’re wandering about in real-time but once you touch one, you will be brought to a separate battlefield that is larger than one might expect. You will run at enemies and attack them with the X button or use the Triangle button for Special Attacks, all the while paying attention to several different factors. First up is the fact that it makes far more sense to run around behind an enemy to attack, because although it will take more time to move, you will always land all your blows and do more damage. The Action Gauge, which decreases differently (again, depending on Party Level) goes down when you’re in the process of performing an “action,” and you can gain back a few tenths of seconds by scoring successful attacks. The regular attack is almost always faster than a Special, so a good plan would be to attack like mad at first, then unleash one or two Specials at the end of the chain.
The other factor you have to consider it the light and dark areas of the battlefield. Not only will your Special Attack change between the two areas, but enemies can change, too. They’re usually far more dangerous when in shadow, so they should be your first targets at all times, especially if you didn’t manage to surprise them from behind. Thing is, going toe-to-toe with multiple foes can be difficult, so it’s always advisable to run into the enemy on the regular adventuring map from behind, thereby giving you a huge advantage. Not only will you move first, but you can sometimes even move more than once before the enemy gets a turn, and when things get iffy, this is a great way to save valuable healing items. As for the light and dark, you really have to pay close attention to that, because a Special Attack in the light occasionally isn’t even an “attack;” it changes to a healing spell of some kind in the case of Polka and Chopin. When the enemies launch their assault, you will be given the chance to Guard, but only if you’re facing your attacker. Press the Circle button fast enough when “Chance!” pops up over the character’s head, and you will defend the attack and suffer much less damage.
Now, all this works very well, but there are a few problems. We really could’ve used a fully functioning 3D camera because it was often frustrating not knowing where all the enemies were, and we weren’t fans of the light/dark system. It’s a good idea, but it ended up being more of an annoyance than an appreciated feature. Thing is, we often paused before rushing into battle to get an idea of how we wanted to proceed (this is when the Action Gauge wouldn’t start moving until you actually moved ), and everything got all screwed up if the character was moving back and forth between light and dark. It just seems like an unnecessary addition to the battles. We also found it somewhat cumbersome to target other members of our party with a healing item or spell, and pressing the Guard button at just the right time could get infuriating. Different enemies have different attack speeds, and many times, we’d just jam on the Circle button as fast as we could. Other times, it felt more like we had to press and hold the Circle button to defend the attack, and in general, this was a real-time aspect of this JRPG we could’ve done without. It’s clear that tri-Crescendo was leaning towards the real-time end of the spectrum, and that wasn’t the best decision in our humble opinion.
But even so, the overall combat mechanic works quite well. Things are smooth and fast, and it does encourage you to think strategically. The characters have very different abilities and skills, which become more fleshed-out over time, and ganging up on a tough enemy is often quite satisfying. And because we could usually get behind an enemy before the battle started, it was relatively easy to really beat the snot out of meddlesome foes without running through a lot of healing items. Wandering around and fighting is usually fun and almost never boring, and simply exploring the world is a pleasing endeavor. The storyline really is very good, the locales are nicely designed and often a joy to behold, most of the characters are interesting, and a few of the boss fights are both unique and even borderline epic. It’s not exactly traditional, as we said in the intro, but it’s pretty darn close, and this is one of the best RPGs currently available on the PS3. JRPG fans may think they have no other recourse at this point in time, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; Eternal Sonata is a pretty, engaging experience that is bound to make you smile.