I have never come across anyone who has played this game before. Released in 2007 originally for Xbox 360 and later on the PS3 (with more content), this J-RPG really didn’t make big waves. I still think sales figures are fascinating things and put these vague ideas I have about what’s underrated into perspective; so I am informed by VGChartz that in the UK, only 3300 copies sold and I own two of those copies (yeah I bought it for both consoles to get the extra content). Clearly not a runaway hit. Again, this is going to be another post lamenting an underrated game, as is my wont to do. Eternal Sonata is by no means perfect, and suffers from many of your standard J-RPG bug-bears, but the experience it provides with its gorgeous graphical style and the amazing use of its strong classical soundtrack all combined with a unique and rather surreal story is what makes this game.
The premise of the game is that in Frederik Chopin’s dying moments, he envisions a magical alternative world influenced by his music and creates a cast of loveable, often quirky characters who travels around with Chopin in the game. I know, how often do you hear about a game which features a famous classical composer as its main protagonist? As a pianist myself, this was a huge part of why this game appealed to me. But if you’re not like me and have absolutely no interest in classical music, even so, I do think that this is exactly the sort of game which might change your mind about it (or at least about Chopin).
The story takes part mostly in Chopin’s dream world, though every so often, a cutscene of ‘reality’ will be weaved in with the main game. It follows the adventures of Chopin as he encounters people like Polka, a young girl whose magical powers mean she is fated to die; Allegretto, a mouthy thief who has good intentions; Beat, a cheerful happy young boy who carries a camera; as well as about a dozen other musically themed characters such as Viola or Jazz. Whilst Chopin is initially confused about the ‘reality’ of this dream-world, the boundary between dreams and reality blur very quickly. In this world, magic is seen as a contagious disease and as a result, Polka is ostracised from society. She is however determined to figure out what exactly this strange government drug called mineral powder is and what its effects are. The party soon learns about the devastating effects that mining for such powder is having on the serene forests, as well as the part it has to play in the international conflict between the cities of Forte and Baroque.
Now, the story itself is both typically RPG-style and yet wonderfully unique. Sure, it has the same kind of basic plot line where a party of ragtag heroes set out to try to conquer a great evil and to restore peace to the nation. But unlike most typical RPGs, the story often puts in big twists and unexpected turns. This is, after all, Chopin’s dream-world and the implications of that become clear towards the end of the game. Without spoiling anything, I just want to say that even though at times it can be sickeningly melodramatic and seem like standard RPG-fare, I urge you to stick it out to the end.
If you do stick it out, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most visually gorgeous games I’ve ever played on this generation of consoles. It really is a huge aesthetic accomplishment. Though all the characters are typically Japanese-looking in style with their anime-esque proportions and huge eyes and weird coloured hair, they have taken a decent amount of care into designing and constructing each of the characters to seem fairly unique. As well as high quality character design, the game also features some absolutely awe-inspiring scenery and beautiful cutscences which highlight the breadth of beauty that this game covers; from snow-topped mountains to midnight forest glades, this game traverses a whole range of terrains and each of them is just stunning.
The combat system is also quite interesting, and in my opinion, very rewarding and fun. It’s a mixture of turn-based and action-based fighting which seems to be the vogue in RPGs these days. Characters take it in turns to fight, but each has only a certain amount of time in which to perform actions. During that time, you can move around freely, use your melee or ranged attack, block an incoming attack, use special abilities or use items. The gameplay revolves around chaining certain types of combos across your characters which charges up the party’s ‘Echo’ meter which can be unleashed when full for an overwhelming special attack.
What is particularly unique to this game is a light/dark system, where the battlefield itself has certain spots which are either in the light or in the dark. Many things can change depending on whether you’re in the light or in darkness. Your attacks change and so do your enemies, so there’s a large element of strategy involved in positioning correctly in order to pull off the best moves. For example, a character’ default ability might be a healing move when in light, but the same ability changes to an offensive move in the darkness. This means you can move into an enemy’s shadow to perform your dark offensive ability, and then quickly dart into the light to heal up. It’s a very interesting combat system and a refreshing change to simple turn-based RPGs, especially because it retains a lot of that flavour but makes it more entertaining by adding a lot of action to it. If you’ve played the Tales series of games, it’s kind of similar to that battle system, but Eternal Sonata puts its own twist on it.
Oh and there’s also a small photography element involved in battles, where the character Beat can take interesting photos during battle which can be sold for more money.
Apart from battling, you’ll spend your time traversing the many maps in this world. Most of them are fairly linear, though there are a few more open areas such as cities and towns. Outside of the settlements though, progress is mostly through linear almost-dungeon like maps where you can choose to fight mobs (they appear on the map itself). The cities contain lots of NPCs, quite a few side quests and even the odd mini-game.
But really what this game and what most RPGs are about is the story. And the story that Eternal Sonata is full of heart, warmth and is thoroughly engrossing. I was greatly emotionally invested in these characters, and all of them seem fairly substantial and well developed throughout the story. They do abide by many typical character tropes, but often times, they do things which were surprising but on reflection, not out of character. As Chopin comes to accept the dream world as being as real as his life on his deathbed in France, so too does the player become incredibly immersed in this elegant world until even we might find ourselves wondering.
Its story is also tinged with the philosophical which of course, as someone studying philosophy, is something I greatly enjoy. Questions about reality and dreams are inevitably brought up given the premise of the game and we could have long discussions about its metaphysical position as well as its possible postmodern attitude to art in general. But Eternal Sonata also provokes discussion on themes such as the relationship between human production and natural resources, the role of the government, propaganda and authoritarianism, the plight of ostracised members of society, as well as addressing revolution and resistance in a much more mature way than most games do. I mean, if you doubt that this game is philosophical, then you should watch the credits sequence which is basically a large splurge of philosophical aphorisms which sum up many of the game’s themes. It’s a little heavy handed, but it’s after the game ends and at least makes the credits something worth watching.
Another interesting feature of the game is how between chapters, there’s a little educational segment detailing true facts about Chopin’s life which are accompanied by some gorgeous watercolour paintings. It’s a little weird to have educational short films in-between segments of gameplay, but I found them deeply cathartic and very well presented. Again, if you couldn’t care less about classical music, you might find these segments to be really boring, but I thought they were a cool addition to break up some of the more intense sections of gameplay.
The only real flaws with this game are basically its limitations. The game can feel frustratingly linear at times. You see all these lush rolling hills in the background and long to just be able to pan your camera over there or send Polka into the flower fields, but you’re forced to go on one set path.
The other bug-bear I have is that it can be a bit of a grind fest at times, when you’re trying to level up to face a big boss. Monster variety is good, but it could be better, and there are times where you just wish you didn’t have to fight another plant monster ever again.
It’s also a game which doesn’t have much replay value, although I did play it on Xbox 360 first and then again on PS3 to explore the added content. For the record, the added content isn’t necessary to the story or the game, but it’s not a bad addition to flesh out some of the more minor characters in the 360 version. If you can, get the PS3 version but don’t sweat it too much if you can’t.
Despite these flaws, the game, for me, is truly an unforgettable experience. Even 6 years after its release, its beautiful cel-shaded graphics still hold up to newer games and its overall design and aesthetic is just outstanding in every way. Although the game is about Chopin, the original soundtrack is just as compelling as Chopin’s pieces (which are mostly only heard in the education sections) and is the sort of soundtrack I listen to just as music rather than gaming music. The story is mesmerising and deep, and the characters are well-rounded and remarkable. If you’re a fan of the JRPG genre, then I would strongly recommend picking up this gem and giving it the attention it deserves.