There is very little in the world of RPGs, be it storyline or gameplay, that can really surprise me anymore. Seriously. I am utterly convinced by now that aside from the sexual innuendo and pseudo-dating of Ar Tonelico or the Magnolia-esque approach teenagers peruse of shooting themselves in the head in Persona 3, I have seen it all. Well, except for Eternal Sonata. This game caught me a little off-guard.
Eternal Sonata is Namco Bandai and tri-Crescendo’s vivid re-composition of the dying moments of Frédéric Chopin, as he slowly fades on his deathbed and re-awakens to a colorfully bizarre world where all children fated with a terminal illness are also donned with magical powers. Themes in Eternal Sonata are heavily inspired by the art style used in anime, no less by a Japanese developer, with staple keynotes of cute, yet colorful architecture, monsters and characters that perfectly pitch the design of Chopin’s adventure taking place as nothing more than a surreal dream.
Eternal Sonata is drenched in music-related themesq, with character names, locations and skill lists all making blatant references to musical themes.
Since this is a game from tri-Crescendo, long known for their collaboration with tri-Ace, it would only go hand in hand to expect some borrowed ideas from past tri-Ace games. Tackling any on-screen monster (say goodbye to random encounters) materializes party members and enemies alike on a large 3D battlefield, akin to games like Star Ocean. Timing is crucial to Sonata’s battle system, as each character has but a few seconds to execute all of their desired moves. Each character can assign one weak attack and one strong attack to their arsenal and though there is no limit to how often you can use either one, it’s fundamental to string your first attacks as weak ones to build up Echoes and use one powerful strong attack to hopefully finish a foe off. Echoes are points based in multiples in four, which tally based on a character’s hit combo. Using Echoes in tandem with heavy attacks significantly boosts their damage and eventually allows characters to continuously chain heavy attacks to seriously rank in some encores of pain.
As the party levels up, the rules during battles constantly change to keep battles interesting and above all challenging. As you progress, the game attributes less and less time to react and move through the battlefield, as well as adds new chaining systems to deal larger amounts of damage. So you can never apply the same tactic with a higher party level and expect the same relative ease or result out of it, since time constraints are a big issue. It keeps you on your toes and forces you to adapt, creating very original and consistently exciting gameplay. Eventually, you even get rewarded with the power to chain your larger attacks over and over between party members, but that's another story altogether.
Eternal Sonata is drenched in music-related themesq, with character names, locations and skill lists all making blatant references to musical themes. It’s the little touches, like floral and fauna which are loosely-based forms of actual instruments or party weapons like a conductor’s baton. Chopin’s score compliments his own story through this 25 hour epic quest with renditions by Stanislav Bunin and bite-sized intermissions depicting key moments in Chopin’s life between every one of the games several chapters, making it by default the most entertaining biography of all-time, if not by being a video game, than by the end-chapter achievements making you grin from ear to ear. Motoi Sakuraba also shares a few of his notes in this score, with his own fair share of piano pieces and his typical progressive rock and blood-pumping battle themes.
The biggest complaints Eternal Sonata will draw are just conventions of the J-RPG genre, and whether this is your kind of game or not. If the idea of an RPG with spiky-hair, colorfully cutesy anime-ish characters and childish voice acting don’t take your fancy, then it’s more of a knock on not liking RPGs altogether than just Eternal Sonata. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful, engaging and ridiculously addictive game much thanks to its ludicrous amount of details, bubbles and cel-shading. And unlike most RPGs, only clocking in at a 25 hour quest feels just right, with a New Game +, secret dungeon and roughly half your achievements to unlock on the second playthrough. There is no telling whether Frédéric today could appreciate the masterpiece that is tri-Crescendo’s latest, but one thing is for certain:
He’d sure as hell write a song about it.