Eternal Sonata – “A symphony to remember”

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Originality is sparse in game concepts. Most follow standard formulas and are easily categorized in terms of plot and gameplay. “Eternal Sonata” is one of those rare games that risk everything with an original concept. Alas, like many others, “Eternal Sonata” is in many ways refreshing, but is also filled with a huge array of worn out clichés, that just like bad music, never allow the game to reach its “crescendo”.

Frederic Chopin is dying. While he lies on his deathbed, he starts to dream of a magical world where every note, song and symphony he ever wrote come to life in the form of characters and locations. The game can be depicted as his inner journey throughout this dream, where a dense plot lies, filled with the classic themes of love, betrayal and death. Since Chopin was a real life character, realism would have been the way to go in terms of art design. But strangely, the only speck of reality in this game lies in slideshows that recount Chopin’s Biography, through captioned live-action pictures accompanied by the sound of Chopin’s greatest music.

But apart from those memorable sequences, the aesthetic of the game is very anime-like… actually, it’s pure anime. Cutscenes have dialogue, action, comedy and directing that follow anime’s principles. And they’re actually pretty good, filled with cinematic camera angles and great use of soundtrack. Characters are young, cute, act like silly “j-pop” kids, and have the unusual tendency to start digressing about the meaning of life and death. That might’ve been a downside, but the truth is that the dialogues in these philosophical sequences are sharply written, in the tradition of animes like “Evangelion” or “Ghost in the Shell”. However, like the “animes” it resembles, most of the hidden meanings of the narrative only become clear after the game-over screen, and even then, they are never fully explained. Unveiling the hidden meanings of the plot requires some thought, since many actions and dialogues are of an allegorical or metaphorical nature, bursting with spiritual meaning. Art usually lends itself to be open for interpretation, and though games rarely do so, “Eternal Sonata” clearly wants to stand out, and thus become like one of Chopin’s melodies: enigmatic and beautiful.

And beautiful is certainly the right word to describe the visuals of “Eternal Sonata”. Lush environments, filled with vibrant colors and lighting schemes, merge to form crisp, awe inspiring imagery, with some impressionist references. This aesthetic choice fits perfectly with the game’s theme, as Chopin lived roughly around the same time as when the impressionist movement emerged. There’s also a rare amount of detail in every game element: buildings’ architecture, characters’ wardrobe and accessories are portrayed with surgical-like precision and show a great deal of creativity, even by “japanimation” standards. Even the best “Final Fantasies” may look a bit shady when compared to this game’s bright color palettes.

“Tri-Crescendo” has been the sound designer of “Tri-Ace” (“Star Ocean” and “Tales” series), and was behind the “Baten Kaitos” games and it shows. Soundtrack (among other things) will feel familiar to those who played any of these games, but, since the subject matter is Chopin, Composer Motoi Sakuraba’s music is heavily influenced by his work, which results in one of his best soundtracks so far.

Where “Eternal Sonata” does hit a bad note is in gameplay elements. Hiroya Hatsushiba’s creativity appears to have run out after designing the plot and art aspects, something that curiously didn’t happen in his previous works (“Baten Kaitos”and “Baten Kaitos II”). The actual game inside “Eternal Sonata” is extremely formulaic, as if it was an afterthought in the creative process. Probably, the designers thought that there was enough innovation in other aspects to risk breaking any more conventions in gameplay. And, looking at the rant “Final Fantasy XII” got for trying to break the mold, maybe they weren’t so far off. Action is therefore, business as usual, with towns and dungeon-like areas to explore in the same tiring way as every other J-RPG (talk to very villager, get items in small wooden boxes), and combat is turn-based (with one or two gimmicks that try to cover it up). Battles are somewhat fun (for the first hours anyway) and relatively easy, which is a plus, since that means you don’t have to tire yourself too much with the repetition of the attack-attack-heal strategy, which is basically everything you can actually do during combat. On the other hand, dungeons are too elaborate for a game with no map whatsoever, which means consistently exploring every nut and crack of the scenarios, which also means… more dull and insipid combat.

If it wasn’t for the blandness of the gameplay aspects of the game, “Eternal Sonata” would probably be one of the greatest RPG’s ever made, period. But as it stands, it manages only to achieve one of its goals: create an “artsy” audio-visual interpretation of Chopin’s works. The game sees itself as fine art, and fine art it is… it’s just not interactive fine art.

Overall: 4/5

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    • Angelheadedhpst
    • March 3rd, 2009

    This was a nice review. I recently downloaded the demo off PSN, and I found the lush visuals and charming character designs to be immediately appealing to me. However, I did want to find out more about the game before dropping $60 on it–your review helped me in that aspect. Maybe it was just the demo, but the battle difficulty did seem pretty hard for the first portion of the game. Anyway, I became desensitized to repetitious JRPG battles a long time ago, so that aspect won’t deter me. Thanks!

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 3rd, 2009

    Thanks for your compliment, always glad to be of help.

    • Foreignertwice
    • March 26th, 2009

    I got this game several months ago, but only started to play it this week.
    I’m still at the very start of the story (big credits-intro marking the mid-point of my play so far), but I think I’ve got a pretty good perception of all that this game has to offer. And I must admit that reading your review sums up my thoughts exactly!

    Interesting gameplay is one of my big interests, and after just having played Braid, the flaws in gameplay design in Eternal Sonata become that much more apparent. But to be honest, it only bothered me for a little while. All the fantastic art, the music, the theme and the story make up for those flaws. It’s no excuse, but they do make the game enjoyable. All the pointless running around only surmounts to beautiful images in your head afterward, and for that I’m grateful.

    Finally, I too must praise the dialogue and the story (so far at least :P). Yes, it’s very much “out there”, just like animes tend to be, but I just see it as an art form – their way of conveying a message. And it’s beautiful in all aspects 🙂

    Now I’m going to make all my friends read this review to make them play this game as well 😉

    • ruicraveirinha
    • March 26th, 2009

    Thanks for the support. Glad you liked my review.

    • Lovin_da_Magic14
    • July 2nd, 2009

    I just finished up the 360 version, I gotta say it was worth every cent in my opinion. The art was amazing, the music was beautiful, and what I think was best was the story itself. Going through the game, the storyline really moved me. As for the dungeon maze part of your review, I agree its frustrating, but it teaches patience, I probably know that better than anyone hah! And while they kept the battle content somewhat limited, they seem to have put quite a bit of work into what is there.

    • Ben
    • October 15th, 2009

    Thanks for the first screenshot, this is my favorite screen in ES 🙂

    • PolkaXAllegretto
    • January 15th, 2010

    This is the best game ever no matter what i hear i always think that allegretto and polkas world existed first lolz i cant think of it as a dream if every1 else was already alive this is THE BEST game i have evr played it made my expectations of other games much much higher lolz now oi cant find any good games

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