Eternal Sonata Xbox 360 Review

Over the past couple of years as we entered the “next-generation” of consoles, companies have managed to give us a few “Wow” moments at how games have been portrayed. Games like Crysis, Gears of War and Project Gotham Racing 4 have shown us how gritty and realistic-looking games can get. With the new power opened up to the developers, graphics have been pushed into a new area with fancy techno-babble effects, but all so far have been looking the same. There have been debates about whether games are art or not, but there’s certainly no doubt from time to time that games can look beautiful without having to look realistic, it’s all down to how the developer chooses to display their ideas through the screen to the gamer. Examples of this are games like Okami and the cel-shaded Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Both those games have a striking art direction that made you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The wait is now over for that emotion to be felt in this next line of consoles.

Tri-Crescendo, the company we have to thank for Eternal Sonata and its beauty, isn’t particularly old. The founder Hiroya Hatsushiba was a sound programmer and his section, Tri-Crescendo was responsible for sound in a few of Tri-Ace’s games. Now Tri-Crescendo bring their first fully internally developed game (Baten Kaitos had help from Monolith Soft.) for the 360. Apart from the lovely anime inspired graphical approach, Eternal Sonata is chock full of musical inspiration, from levels to characters. It’s certainly a little weird seeing all these places and characters with names like Polka, Beat, and Allegretto, but then again it also shows that Mr Chopin (the main character) is still thinking about music even when he’s on death’s door, and that kind of makes sense in a way. It was probably his dream to live in a world of music.

This musical inspiration is instantly noticed from the get go. The story revolves around a composer named Frederic Chopin. If you know your music history then you know he was a Polish composer who excelled in piano composition. The game starts with poor Chopin laying in his deathbed succumbing to tuberculosis. The game puts you in control of Chopin, yes you’ll be playing as a dying man, but it’s not how you’d think. Eternal Sonata has you playing out what’s happening in Chopin’s head, taking control of him and a few other characters Chopin meets along the way in his dream fantasy adventure. As all the characters come together you’ll be faced with trying to take down the Count of Forte, as he tries to turn everyone into mindless slaves with his devious mineral powder plot.

It’s not the best story you’ll be playing through, but it has its moments and certainly contains a few giggles here and there. There are lots of personal details about Chopin that are given to the player, mainly displayed through still real life screenshots of monuments as text is laid out underneath. It’s nice to get to know a lot about the main character of the game, especially one that’s taken from real life, but these scenes seem to appear in a few random spots where you wouldn’t expect, which can sometimes kill the mood after an action packed scene. At least it’s an informative history lesson at the same time for anyone who just happens to be studying that topic.

On Chopin’s adventure you’ll be running into a lot of enemies, which translates into battles. Like you’d expect from an RPG, there’s lots of battles to be fought in Eternal Sonata. There’s no random battles featured in this game though. All the opponents are visible on the playing field. There’s no attack featured to stun enemies neither, something that Grandia III and Persona 3 had to help you get a surprise attack on the enemy. Instead you can just casually walk into them, or in some cases if they notice you, they’ll start chasing you. While on the topic of enemies, areas never seem to contain that much variety. Exploring dungeons in the game means coming across probably three different enemies, in some cases it can just be areas filled with multicoloured rats. It can feel a bit of a drag fighting the same enemies over and over again.

Thankfully though, the scrapping is fun because the battle system easily makes fighting fast and frantic. It’s a mixture of real time and turn based. There are a few gauges you have to pay attention to in the mist of battle. Early on in the game the Tactical Time (TT) bar is set to infinite. The TT bar is the time you have spare to think about what you are going to do for your turn. As your party level increases the TT bar starts to get time limits, making the safety you had vanish as you have limited time to plan your move. Once you have moved/attacked/ran out of TT time, the Action Gauge bar kicks in. This bar is a time limit that clicks down to the end of your turn. Attacking enemies gives it a tiny increase, but not really enough to make that much of a difference. Special moves take a huge chunk out of the Action Gauge bar.

The game rotates around the people participating in battle, each getting a chance to attack, which is the turn-based effect. Everything else is real-time, moving is simply a job of pushing the left stick in the direction you want to move. Attacking is done with the A button, giving simple combos if you keep tapping it. Special moves are done with Y; these moves are highly powerful and drain a lot from your Action Gauge. If you’ve equipped general items to your character then you can use them by pressing the X button. Little mini actions are also featured, just to spice up battles a little. The bow and arrow used, a Viola (yep that bow instrument, get it?) can shoot arrows from far away, only you have to actually aim the shot, hitting weak spots for massive damage, it’s a nice little feature and something different than the normal battles in an RPG.

Eternal Sonata’s battle system doesn’t just stop there. Adding a twist to fights is the dark and light element. Around the battle area are patches of shadows, light that appears from enemies can cast shadows too and light sources add extra shadows to the field. These light and dark patches affect what special move is usable, as characters come with both light and dark specials. Other major thing are the enemies. Some enemies in the game can walk into shadows and transform into much harder opponents, for example the onion baddies that you meet right at the start of the game transform into giant coconut monsters and are much tougher to take down than their eye-watering pre-transformed light form. It adds that little bit of strategy to the battles, making it not always about just hitting that button.

As you progress throughout the game your party’s level increases. Every time this happens it affects certain aspects of the battle meters. Also you usually earn a new ability. Some of these abilities are incredibly helpful; stuff like being able to counter by pressing B at the right time can really help minimize the damage. Others include the Echo meter. Building this meter up is simple, make a string of combos and it builds up, increasing the power of your special moves. Don’t worry if all this seems a lot, it’s not and it all fits together nicely and makes a great battle system, which is what’s needed in an RPG.

The game’s presentation is magnificent, everything about it screams out “adore me!” The game isn’t going for a realistic approach, but damn it’s attractive. The world is bright and rich in colours. Eternal Sonata’s crisp visuals help this game become one of the best looking games on the 360 regardless of it not looking real. It’s not like you aren’t visiting areas that you’ve never been before, hell Eternal Sonata is full of RPG clichéd places, but because of the presentation, you just don’t care, be it cliffs, forests, towns, whatever the venue, you’ll play and welcome the world with warm open arms.

Character models are just mouth watering. It’s easily shown through cut-scenes that Eternal Sonata is the best cel-shaded game ever released, there’s no contest about that. The models on display are very close to becoming interactive animé characters. There are little graphical niggles that rear up every so often, usually pixilation problems, but to be fair, marking it down for that would be like having Jessica Alba for a wife and saying she isn’t that lovely because she has a hairy mole on her bottom, not that I actually know if she does or not! One thing that is a bit of a shame though is that the characters will always look the same. It would have been amazing getting to see all the weapons, armour and accessories appear on the models, but disappointingly it doesn’t happen. No matter how awesome your weapon is, it will just look like the first weapon you acquired in the game, which sucks really!

Since the game is heavily focused on music, there shouldn’t be any problem with the soundtrack, and there isn’t. The music is delicate and of a high standard. The game features some music composed by Chopin, but it’s not jam-packed full of it, most of the soundtrack is original. The voice acting isn’t as great as the music, but it’s certainly not bad. Some of the characters are done great, while others are kind of average, it’s a mixed bag between them. One thing that is great is the ability to switch over to the Japanese language soundtrack, something games need to do more often nowadays.

So while Eternal Sonata has most parts right to make a great RPG, it fails to deliver in some areas. The game is extremely linear. You can’t stray off paths and there’s no world map. Also the game doesn’t really feature side quests. There are score pieces and EZI items to find, but that’s about all you’re going to get really. It seems the game was really more focused on telling a story, rather than letting you go around exploring. You can expect to get around 25-30 hours of game time on your first play through, not exactly the longest RPG out there on the market either.

Achievement-wise there are 1000 points to earn from this game; spread over 22 achievements. There’s simple ones for getting past parts of the game and then harder ones that require a second play through of the new game+ mode that allows new areas to open, giving the player the ability to collect the missing pieces.

It’s great that Namco-Bandai decided to bring Eternal Sonata to Europe. If it was a few years earlier it probably wouldn’t have made it over, but it seems those times are slowly vanishing and thank goodness because Eternal Sonata is an RPG that should certainly be played by fans of the genre. It’s a good, entertaining RPG that just doesn’t quite make it because of its short comings and repetitive problems. It’s an experience though that will be remembered for its warm, delicate presentation, kind of like sitting in front of the fire in winter with a nice cup of hot chocolate. It’s that kind of feeling you get while playing Eternal Sonata. So just sit down, relax and take in the beauty it oozes out to you.

One of the best looking 360 games and the best Japanese RPG on the system at the moment.

8 out of 10
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