Resurrection of Music
Once in a while, a game will come along that will stay in your memory long after you’ve played it; and yet you may think, “This could have been better.”. Eternal Sonata is one of those games.
The game opens with Polka, a likable female protagonist who is on her way to the city of Ritardando to sell floral powder, a powder potent enough to cure most ailments. However, another powder called mineral powder is being sold cheap and tax-free. Before too long, Polka is joined by others, all of which want to find out the truth behind mineral powder. But the composer Frederic Francois Chopin wants something more...to find out whether this world he has found himself in is just a dream...or if it is something more…
Many of the characters and attacks in the game are symbolic of people/things in Chopin's life. For example, two of Chopin's attacks are "Piu Grave" and "Orzel Bialy". One represents the enemies getting what's coming to them (Piu Grave in music represents "more serious or solemn"), and the other represents the national coat of arms of Poland. The characters have names like Viola, Crescendo, and Waltz. It further complicates Chopin's desire to find out whether the world he is in is a dream or not.
The opening does a good job of establishing the characters. It also establishes the battle system well. The core of the system has you press A to attack, B to defend, Y to use your special attack, and X to use a set item (you can switch between these items with LB and RB). Characters in a party of up to three receive turns according to their speed stat. The turns are played out in real time. However, TT (or Tactical Time) is given to extend the time you have to plan your moves. At first, you have infinite TT, but later on, it decreases until you have no TT. This is according to your Party Level.
After certain events in the game, your Party Level will increase. This not only decreases TT, but can allow you to set more items and use/build up echoes. These “echoes” are vitally important to the gameplay. As you attack, you build up echoes, 1 echo per attack, and they are saved in multiples of 4 (up to 16) or 8 (up to 32). The more you build up, the more effective your special moves will be, such as healing spells and special attacks. At later stages of the game, you can even chain special attacks together if you have 24 or 32 built up. Of course, your echoes disappear upon use of a special attack, making it a balancing game: Do you use your echoes early to cast a healing spell? Or do you hope to survive and cast the spell next turn, increasing its effectiveness?
The system is exploitable, however. By standing far enough away that not every strike of your special attack will hit, you can keep the echoes you’ve already built up, and perhaps even add some to it. Sometimes you can even pull this off even if every strike hits. I am not sure how/when this works, however.
Another thing I must mention is the guard system. You simply press B with good timing (as the button or indicator flashes on the screen) in order to guard. This rewards learning and predicting enemy attack patterns, especially due to its low reaction time. Sadly, for most, it will likely make the game too easy. Even if you mess up the timing, it may make the difference between your character falling or staying up. The system may be too simplistic for its own good.
The counterattack system goes hand-in-hand with the guard system. It’s a risk vs. reward system. If you press the counterattack button at the right time, you will not only take 0 damage, but also will end your enemy’s turn and be given 2 seconds to attack. Fail, though; or press
at the wrong time, and you will fail to even guard and take the full brunt of the enemy’s attack. If you can train your mind to react to the counterattack sound, it’s worth trying. If not, it’s worth sticking to guarding. An interesting tidbit: The counterattack sound sounds very much like the weather vanes from The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
There is even a typical “surprise” system. This works very much like surprise system in other games. Get the jump on an enemy (run into them from the back) and you’ll be able to attack them as they are turned around and unprepared. If they get the jump on you, then you’ll be turned around, unable to guard until you turn around towards them. If you encounter each other regularly, the battle proceeds normally, with both parties facing each other. It does little to set itself apart, like the surprise system from Paper Mario does, for example. But it is still a great mechanic, and one that is welcome.
But the thing that sets the combat apart the most is the light/dark system. Whether you stand in light or shadow will determine what special attack your character uses. It also may change enemy forms, making their attacks and stats change, as well. This system is mostly done well, but like many things in this game, it is exploitable. For example, an enemy may take up all their active time getting to you simply because they passed through shadow and light along the way, changing forms each time. Therefore, you may be a short distance away but still stay safe due to exploiting this system.
The game also suffers from the “reskin factor”. Many of the enemies you face are just more powerful reskins of enemies you faced before, including some bosses. More casual players will likely rejoice. Hardcore players will likely be disappointed.
Another glaring flaw is the “run away” function. You have to hold LB and RB for the entire duration of a character’s turn, and it rarely works. Perhaps the intent was to encourage players to fight enemies instead of avoiding them. However, I wish it was a gentler push.
The game is also very easy much of the time, especially if you take lots of pictures of bosses early on with Beat. These pictures can be sold to shops for a fortune, especially useful later on when using Beat isn’t so practical. This essentially does away with the need to run away, but doesn’t prevent the system from being frustrating for some.
The ease is despite an odd leveling system. The game encourages you to use every character in your party by giving more experience to the characters you play as. The other characters in your party will still get experience, but if you continue to use the same three characters again and again, the rest of your party will fall behind significantly. Considering how much the game encourages experimentation with attacks and characters, this isn’t so much a flaw as something I didn’t care for much in the game.
But despite all its flaws, the game still manages to be fun, even quite fun sometimes. Grinding is, at times, a fun learning experience and is rarely a chore. The system mostly eases you into more difficult to grasp Party Levels. And the thrill of finding hidden items and chests is common.
There are even “Score Pieces” (four-measure melodies) hidden throughout the land, that when played together with other melodies presented by NPC’s, can net you special items. This is a wonderful feature, and one that helps to define the game. You are given a rank according to how well the NPC judges your Score Piece to match with his/her melody. However, you will not get every “S” rank in a single playthrough. Some Score Pieces can only be found in Encore Mode (a sort of New Game +).
The visuals and music also add a ton to this game. They are absolutely wonderful! The music, although not generally based on Chopin’s works can be wonderful, peaceful, arousing. The graphics compliment the tone quite nicely, and are often gorgeous to look at. However, they do appear dated. This game is perhaps among the most deserving of an HD remake.
There are also snippets between chapters that detail Chopin’s history and play his music. These moments are among the most memorable of the game, or any game, and add to the flavor of the game quite nicely.
But despite all of this, the story seemed to fail to connect. The game seems torn between glamorizing violence and giving a touching story.
Perhaps it cannot do both fully, and it seems to lean towards the former. It also had many confusing moments. For example, Polka can use magic, but supposedly, no other party member can. Why then do so many of their special attacks seem augmented by magic? Is it their weapons that are magic? Other problems exist, but I will not spoil them in case I am wrong.
Overall, though successful on certain fronts, it is plagued by what it could have been. A better story, deeper gameplay, fewer complications all would have contributed to something not only worth playing, but also something worthy of the attention of those who appall most video games.
It saddens me to say this, but Chopin’s legacy has received better treatment. I look forward to the day that an RPG will come with a story like Eternal Sonata’s, and tell it better. Even though it seems the devs tried their best, they simply failed to deliver in the way, for example, “To the Moon” did. There are too few games out there like that.
Yet despite its flaws in just about every area, the good outweighs the bad. And it shows. For that reason, I cannot in good conscience not recommend this game. Something kept drawing me back in, despite my frustrations with it. And you will likely find yourself drawn in by this attempt at a new type of game. One that weaves symbolism into not only the story, but into the very gameplay. It doesn't do it perfectly, but it tries to do it well. And I applaud the devs for this attempt at higher entertainment.
Lasting Appeal: 7/10 (although the game can be 30-40 hours long over the main quest, it doesn't seem to have the "staying power" of other RPGs)
Nota Bene: I might suggest the PS3 version above this, although I haven't played it. It has two additional playable characters and extra dungeons and items.A user of this
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