Eternal Sonata - Staff Review  

Eternal Beauty
by Michael "Macstorm" Cunningham

Eternal Sonata
Xbox 360
20-30 Hours
Click here for scoring definitions 

   Eternal Sonata, known in Japan as Trusty Bell: Chopin no Yume, focuses around a fantasy world created in a dream of dying pianist and composer Frédéric Chopin. The game features a wonderful cast of characters, engaging combat, beautiful artistic designs, and a masterful soundtrack. It also features a few musical history lessons in the process, taking time during each of the game's chapters to fill the player in on the actual life of Frédéric Chopin.

   In the game, Chopin's dream world is filled with musical references, from characters with names such as Salsa and Jazz to areas such as Ritardando and the To Coda Ruins. The story within the fantasy world can be thought of as a deeper look inside the mind of Chopin. It features an amazing cast of characters and the manner in which the plot unfolds is very impressive. Each character has their own unique personality that is developed not only through the main plot directly, but through the game's numerous cutscenes. Many of the cutscenes are not just methods to further the plot, but instead give players a deeper look at the characters. The story, especially the ending, can be confusing, but it really quite detailed if looked at in terms of a story within a dream. It details Chopin's subconscious, reflecting on his life as he nears death.

   The game begins with Polka, a girl with magical powers. In a world where the only people that can use magic are the terminally ill, Polka feels like somewhat of an outcast as people without magic fear catching her illness. She soon meets up with Chopin, the energetic youth Allegretto, and his younger sidekick Beat. Chopin is a kind man who is almost certain that he is in a dream world, but still has his doubts due to the many passionate characters he meets along his journey. Allegretto is a young man who is a Robin Hood-like character, as he is first seen with Beat stealing bread to feed a group of homeless youths living in the sewers of Ritardando. The four soon team up and begin their quest to Forte Castle on a mission to talk with Count Waltz about the problems arising due to the Count's mining of a healing substance known as mineral powder. They are soon swept up in a war between the countries of Forte and Baroque, meeting a large cast of characters along the way. The story wraps up in a rather odd manner, but that doesn't change the fact that the path leading to the end was a great ride.

Fugue Fugue hates getting his clothes wet.

   Combat in Eternal Sonata is simple, yet engaging. All enemies are visible on screen and can be engaged or avoided as so desired. This also allows for back attacks, so the player can get the jump on enemies. Enemies can also attack players from behind, so it is best to take care when running away that enemies don't sneak up and get the best of the party. Once in combat, attacks are turn-based with enemies and party members swapping turns, turn order being decided by a speed stat. Characters then get to move around a battlefield and attack the encountered foes, pressing the attack button numerous times to strike the enemy. Characters also have special attacks that vary depending upon their location on the battlefield. Well-lit areas of the field give characters access to light-based abilities, while shaded areas grant dark abilities. There are also items that can modify light and dark status. Some enemies will also change form when moving between the light and dark areas.

   The combat system is slowly introduced to the player through the use of party levels. This allows for an easy learning curve. At level one, players are given unlimited time at the beginning of their turn to decide what to do before moving. As the story progresses, higher party levels are gained, taking time away from the planning stage, but offering more useful features such as building up echoes (a method of storing attack power) when using normal attacks, unleashing those echoes to perform more powerful special attacks, and eventually being able to link special attacks together in a Harmony Chain with other characters. If attacked head-on, characters can also guard and eventually counterattack using timing-based button presses. The timing varies by enemy, so it may take a couple of tries to get the enemies' attack patterns down. Each of the game's cast offers a unique style of combat, allowing the player to customize their team however they wish. There are healers, ranged attackers, powerhouse melee characters, and a few other unique mixes. It should be noted that characters sometimes pop in and out of the party for various reasons, so it is best not to neglect characters too much.

   Eternal Sonata is quite simple to pick up and play. It offers smooth interface menus, a large variety of weapons and armor, and plentiful, well-spaced save points. There is no overworld map and the game progresses linearly, but this means no backtracking is required. This can be good and bad. Playing through areas over and over is not required; however, items can be missed without any hope of finding them again. Items can be bought, found in chests, found in hidden locations marked by an on-screen question mark, or won by performing duets with NPCs using items known as score pieces. These score pieces are found throughout the world, creating a sort of musical match game as player must pair the correct pieces together in order to win items. It can become somewhat frustrating due to the fact that some duets are not able to net the player quality items until a second playthrough. Camera angles are not controllable, but the game does a decent enough job of not blocking the player's view throughout the game.

Rondo Rondo... of Invisible Blood?

   Visually, Eternal Sonata is amazing. Characters may not be completely realistic looking and most have arms that stick out from their bodies like dolls, however the artistic design makes the game look like a watercolor painting come to life. Graphics look outstanding both in and out of cutscenes, offering a seamless transition between the two. Area maps and characters all offer a decent variety in their design, but enemies are reused a little more often than would be nice. The music is just as impressive. Chopin's actual pieces, performed by award winning Russian pianist Stanislav Bunin, are featured at certain points in the game, and Motoi Sakuraba did a wonderful job with the game's original pieces. Battle music is catchy and town themes and event pieces are grand and dramatic. Overall, the soundtrack is perfect for a game so musically themed. Voice acting is extremely prevalent and well performed as well. All major characters have their own unique voice that fits their personality: Salsa features a country twang and is full of sass and Chopin has a noble air about him. The only detriment to the voice acting is the repetitive battle chants, but those are easily ignored.

   Eternal Sonata will take most about twenty hours to complete, maybe a few more if players want to complete the game's optional dungeon. It is beneficial to complete that final dungeon, as it will net the player powerful equipment among other things--not that the best equipment is required to finish the game, as Eternal Sonata is rather on the easy side. A second playthrough known as the Encore features a higher difficulty setting with more powerful enemies that have higher hit points. In order to obtain all Xbox Live Achievements, the player must dive into Encore mode, as not everything is available in the first playthrough. Thankfully, all score pieces are kept as is the highest obtained combat party level, making the Encore mode feel more complete then the first pass. Eternal Sonata may not be the most original game in terms of concept, but its design is very unique and refreshing. Everything about the game is solid and comes together into a very impressive package, both visually, aurally, and in terms of story and gameplay.

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