Originality; it seems to be a term in gaming which players both crave and despise. On one hand, players want to be immersed in something fresh and original in order to escape from the large market of shovelware that does nothing except attempt to clone another product. Yet on the other hand, the player still wants to feel relaxed within this originality, in that, they usually don't want the new title to be so different that it forms a completely new genre which no one has any idea how to approach. In the case of Eternal Sonata, it would seem as if the developers were trying to aim for a perfect balance between these two parallels. Eternal Sonata is a Japanese RPG which follows the exploits of a number of characters within the lucid dreams of famous pianist, Frederic Chopin in the final hours of his life. Though the premise for the plot of Eternal Sonata is quite extravagant, it mixes elements of turn based and real time combat in an attempt to keep the gameplay familiar, while still keeping it relatively fresh. However, experimentation will always bring the risk of failure, so the big question is, does Eternal Sonata manage to deliver on its creative ideas?
Like I've already mentioned, Eternal Sonata is set within the dreams of Frederic Chopin. More specifically, it chronicles the experiences of Chopin within his dream as he searches to try and find his inner self, while tagging along with a number of other characters within the dream who are trying to form a rebellion against the tyrannous Count Waltz. Although there are some small, redeeming qualities to the plot, such as the constant references to musical terms, sections where you are shown a piece of Chopin's personal history and some very occasional (and brief) instances of good writing, Eternal Sonata's plot is an utter train wreck compared to its highly imaginative premise. I could write an entire article explaining, in detail, why the plot in this game is poorly written, however all of the plot's problems boil down to a simple case of ideas over substance. By this, I mean that the writers seemed to place expressing ideas over actually creating a logical and cohesive plot with which to express them.
Now, don't get me wrong; I absolutely love it when video games explore complex themes and issues, as it stands of evidence of video games being much more than a child's plaything. However, in order for those issues to actually resonate with the viewer (regardless of the medium being used), those who are presenting them will need to feel believable. Unfortunately for Eternal Sonata, as its plot lacks the required substance to make the issues that it presents believable, it ultimately fails at both telling a plot and expressing philosophical ideas. A perfect example of this is a scene in which one of your party members dies. In it, before (finally) dying, this character delivers a very long monologue explaining the resentment that this character feels towards herself for the competitive nature which she showed towards another party member. While this character does try to express some ideas, I, as the player ultimately did not care for what she was saying, as firstly, I had only acquired her into my party a few hours before the scene and secondly, she had only had a couple of lines of dialogue since then. It also does not help that Eternal Sonata suffers from a number of other narrative related issues, such as a somewhat awkward translation into English, voice acting that is average at best and an interesting premise which very quickly devolves into the clichéd skeleton of taking down evil nobles. As much as I hate to say it, all these problems add up to a story that does not just fall short of the creativity of its premise, it also misses it completely and ends up crashing head first into the stagnating pile that is the very bottom of the pit of bad video game writing.
(Polka contemplates her badly translated lines.)Credit: Giant Bomb
Thankfully though, Eternal Sonata does have a number of aces up its sleeve which save it from descending into the abyss of mediocre Japanese titles. By this, I am referring to Eternal Sonata's stunning presentation, which manages to clearly separate it from its competitors. Visually, Eternal Sonata represents a world that exists within a dream, so naturally, it features water-colour styled visuals similar to that of Valkyria Chronicles and Tales of Vesperia. What makes Eternal Sonata stand out from these titles, as far as visuals are concerned is its excellent use of effects such as fog and sunlight to create a sense of emotion in each environment. These visuals are also backed by a great musical score which combines classical melodies with an animé style beat to create an original and thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack.
In comparison with the premise of its plot and presentation, the gameplay in Eternal Sonata is surprisingly traditional. The game is similar to other Japanese RPGs, in that it consists of an overworld and a battle system. In the case of Eternal Sonata, the overworld consists of small towns and mostly linear dungeons which you will need to pass through in order to reach the next part of the plot. Enemies in Eternal Sonata are visible on the map and touching one will initiate a battle. Battles consist of a mixture of turn based and real time combat, with a maximum of three allies and three foes being present in a battle at any one time. The action is played out in turns in which only one entity (an enemy or an ally) is able to act at once. Once the turn of one of your party members arrives, they will be able to freely run around the battlefield and perform actions in real time until a timer runs out. Once a character's allotted time is depleted, the action will shift to another character. The battle system also makes use of a "light and dark" system. Depending on whether a character is standing in the light or the shade, the forms of enemies and the special attacks which party members can use will change. Although strategy is required in most battles to conserve healing items (particularly towards the end), battles in Eternal Sonata mostly consist of running up to an enemy, mashing the X (or A) button and occasionally hitting triangle (or Y) to unleash a special attack. Though that might seem quite repetitive, it manages to somewhat redeem itself through a system called a party level. As you progress through the game and defeat bosses, your party level will go up. Essentially, the higher your party level, the more advantages and disadvantages you have to keep track of during battle. For instance, at party level 1, your turn timer does not start running until you move and you can only equip one special attack. However, by party level 4, you can build up the power of your special attacks with a system called echoes and can unleash chains of special attacks called Harmony Chains, however on the downside; the speed of battle is increased by 50%. Although this system does not manage to completely save Eternal Sonata from a never ending cycle of button mashing, it does manage to provide some variety in a game that would otherwise be extremely repetitive.
To be perfectly honest, Eternal Sonata is a game that has some very large flaws, but can be appreciated with the right mindset. It's not a bad game by any stretch of the word; however it is criminally overrated in my opinion. Ultimately, your enjoyment of this game will depend largely upon whether you can put up with slightly repetitive gameplay and a plot that puts expressing ideas over creating a cohesive, believable story. If you think that you can put up with those things then by all means, go ahead and check out Eternal Sonata, however, if you value plot above everything else in an RPG, then avoid Eternal Sonata at all costs.
See this post elsewhere: