Just before World War II kicked off, a statue of Chopin was put up in the upper part of Warsaw’s Łazienki Park and to this day piano recitals are performed beneath it to commemorate Chopin’s compositions. The stylized tree over Chopin’s figure echoes a pianist’s hand and fingers, which seems like a fitting tribute to the memory of one of the great piano composers; however Tri-Crescendo suggest otherwise. They are bringing to the table another memorial, this time a 360 game! As we will see, what on first hearing sounds like a bizarre and ill advised trip into classical territory, turns out to be something of an inspirational masterpiece. The developer obviously had more in mind, than just to plunder Chopin’s good name for game sales.
The game is a pretty standard RPG, with an impressive over world and involving combat system. It all kicks off with Chopin asleep sleeping on his deathbed. As time runs out on his mortal life, we enter the world of his imagination, and find a multi layered saga that has already been in play for some time. These first moments of the game introduce characters that the next thirty hours of the game will establish as life long friends. Firstly Polka, a young girl magician with pigtails sadly fated to a young death; then comes the street children Alegretto and Beat, and Viola the goat herd. Finally, we hook up Andantino a character with mysterious connections to a rebel group. For one reason or another (without wanting to spoil the plot) they come together to fight the slavish rule of Count Waltz.
This may all sound familiar fare to the seasoned RPG player. But Eternal Sonata does a better job than most of really connecting the player to the different characters they encounter. Ever on their mind is the sleeping Chopin who must discover what he is searching for if he is to have a happy end to his grand life. This is all depicted with some considerable characterization drawing much from other RPG games, and fantasy films as every trick in the book is employed to tug at the heart strings and establish a compelling experience for the player.
There is a clear desire on the part of the development to genuinely connect the game to the actual life of Chopin. Not only is there the sub plot that addresses the danger of blind devotion to an ideal or government, but there are also intriguing narrated segments about Chopin’s life. Whilst some may find these interruptions something of an oddity and just want to get on with the action. The player who is willing to absorb and ruminate on the themes and vignettes presented therein will have a greater understanding of both the fantasy and real life stories that are paralleled through the game.
Visually, Eternal Sonata is simply superb. Many have been waiting for a really stunning RPG to hit the 360, and I would suggest that this (rather than Blue Dragon) really looks the part. The art style draws on the French Impressionists both in terms of colour and lighting. Many painstaking hours have been spent on the art assets throughout this game. Of particular note are the two dimensional background that really jump out of the screen. If you are still using the 360 in standard definition you really should upgrade your TV before playing this. This general art style is not limited to sumptuous backdrops; rather it finds its home in every part of the games visual design. Items as small as buttons to artifacts as large as treasure chests all benefit for the high art ideals.
Being a game themed around Chopin you would hope that the audio was also up to snuff. Thankfully this is certainly the case. The Impressionist visuals are extended through some haunting and flighty themes that perpetuate through the game. Motoi Sakuraba’s score draws on the romanticism for which Chopin was famous, and then riffs on this theme as it develops a musical palette all its own. Although the voice work doesn’t quite hit the same high notes as the score, it serves its purpose nonetheless. The excellent writing compensates for any shortfall here and you are rarely jolted out of the immersive world of Eternal Sonata.
The game itself manages to keep up surprisingly well with the audio-visual treat we have been describing. The action never stagnates for too long in one location, just when you are getting board with an environment than you are swept along to new encounters. Thankfully the game doesn’t fall back on that cheapest of RPG tricks, the random encounter. This means that you not only get to visit every monster through the game, but each battle has an intentional feel to it. Although this can sometimes veer towards being a little scripted, we would much prefer this than mindlessly wandering around hoping to happen upon that last foe.
The battles themselves are also worthy of note. Rather than the usual turn based fighting of other RPG’s, Eternal Sonata employs a cross between real-time and turn-based action. Each round your characters has an allotted amount of action time in which to perform their attacks and moves. During this time you can move around the battle arena at will, which gives the combat a much more open feel.
The killer feature for Eternal Sonata’s battles perhaps draws on the musical rise and fall for which Chopin was made so famous: it mirrors this with a dark and light arena system. If you stand in the light you have different abilities and multipliers as opposed to standing in the dark. Some characters have special moves that can only be unleashed from dark corners. Some weapons perform much better when used in the light. This simple mechanic adds a whole extra level of tactics to proceedings as you battle for positional advantage as well as getting your hits and parries in. The combat is rounded off by a real time parrying system that will allow the quick witted player to block attacks by some timely button pressing. These parries always present a challenge and when achieved fell hard won.
Combine this battle system with the enjoyable over world and you have a pretty tight game. The only downsides we encountered were the relatively linear experience. There are a lot less of the usual side-quests that go along with most RPG’s these days. This in turn leads to a slightly shorted game, weighing in at around 30 hours. Some have complained that you can game the currency system by going overboard with the photo feature, but if you just show a little restraint here it really isn’t a problem.
As you can probably tell, we really enjoyed this game and over time were quite taken by both its world and characters. Add to this the interesting connections they make to Chopin’s musical style and political life and you have a title that works on a number of levels. Like many good pieces of art, although this game sounds over worthy and pompous, it in fact turns out to be very down to earth and enjoyable. If you are an RPG aficionado or want to dip your toe in these waters, you will get a lot of value out of Eternal Sonata.