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Video game reviews
Eternal Sonata review for Xbox 360
 
Gamermall.com rating:
8.4
Eternal Sonata has a premise that can be described in no other way than wildly imaginative. You may even be a bit incredulous when you first begin playing, but it won't be long before you begin to appreciate the great care that was taken to ensure that the tale isn't just an exercise in lunacy. The idea is this: Frederic Chopin, the famous pianist and composer, is on his deathbed having a fevered dream. The game takes place inside that dream. The heroes may have a typically anime design, but the idea here is anything but typical. This original concept, along with a colorful and detailed design, is enough to make up for a few shortcomings in the JRPG experience.

Although Chopin is the inspiration for Eternal Sonata, in the game he often takes a backseat to the dream world around him. As soon as you turn Eternal Sonata on, you'll find that this is no big surprise. The world of Eternal Sonata is detailed with a meticulousness not often found in JRPGs. You can see the threads crisscrossing on tapestries. The rich use of color turns a standard flower into an enchanting sight. This is a game that, while likely not taxing the Xbox 360 hardware, is a great example of why you want an HD television. Or at least a reason to show yours off.

It's not just a matter of looks, either. The world is the dream of a composer and, as such, is chock-full of musically inspired characters, locations, and knick-knacks. Polka, Salsa, Jazz, Allegretto, Beat, and others join Chopin to fight the evil Count Waltz and his imperialistic desires. Jazz fights with a giant sword crossed with a trumpet. Allegretto's sword has violin strings adorning the hilt. Even small scraps of music can be found scattered throughout the land which can be played with agreeable persons you meet along the way in a fun little mini-game.

It almost goes without saying that the music in the game is good, with a good number of Chopin compositions accenting the original soundtrack. The voicework doesn't quite keep up with the rest of the audio, but it is slightly above average for a JRPG. And if you find it particularly annoying, you can switch to the Japanese language track at any time. Bonus.

Sure, Eternal Sonata is a great looking game and exploring the musically inspired world is wonderfully original. But let's not overlook the fact that Eternal Sonata does several important things in terms of game design that should be recognized. It isn't that often that you can point to a game as an example of entertainment that is both socially responsible and fun at the same time. With Eternal Sonata, you can.

Eternal Sonata screenshot
You've never played an RPG like this before.

Several forward thinking educators, such as Professor Jim Gee, have argued that videogames have great potential as tools in education. It isn't a far stretch to imagine a role-playing game where you take on the role of a chemist to learn science, for example, rather than a young anime hero. Done properly, you could enjoy yourself and learn without cracking open a textbook. It sounds like a pipe dream - most educational games are downright boring. Eternal Sonata takes a step in the right direction.

The game puts you in the role of a historical figure. In doing so, it teaches music appreciation and history. You see, the game doesn't just use Chopin's name as a gimmick. It uses his music and life to bring context to what is happening in front of you. The themes, events and motivations for characters have correlations with Chopin's real life. It's not quite obvious, which is why the game has brief interludes, complete with a composition by Chopin, between chapters which inform the player about events which occurred in Chopin's life. It's educational, but it's also incredibly fun and interesting as you piece together what happened in the game and correlate it to reality. Though it's not a direct correlation (What dream is?), it's close enough to make one smile as you realize this isn't just another half-baked RPG plotline.

In using reality as a basis for an otherwise wacky world, the designers of Eternal Sonata were also forced to do something else games often shy away from -- tackle real-world issues. War and the struggle for power, death, and conservation of natural resources are just a few of the issues faced in both the game and all of our lives. At times, Eternal Sonata isn't exactly subtle about it. At other times, the game can feel downright preachy. Just watch the closing credits if you want a nice motivational lecture. But in the end, even if it doesn't do it tactfully, Eternal Sonata puts out messages that are much more sophisticated than the traditional JRPG fare.

All of this talk of intriguing game design means nothing if the game itself isn't any good, and Eternal Sonata won't disappoint many who are looking for something aside from the traditional turn-based JRPG. Though the combat still takes place in small arenas that you teleport to when running into an enemy, the pseudo-real-time system has a surprising amount of depth.

Eternal Sonata requires you to actively move around the battlefield, string combos together with button presses, block at the right moment, and decide on the fly when to use special moves and items. Movement isn't just for looks either. The moves you can perform are determined by whether you are standing in the light or the shade, an effect that also causes enemies to shape-shift. Blocking only works from the front, something you'll want to keep in mind when dealing with enemies. Distance from the enemy can even affect the strength of your attack. Then, just when you think you've got it all down, the combat system evolves and new options emerge as it becomes faster and more intense.

Eternal Sonata screenshot
The monsters are cool, but you fight the same ones.

It may sound like we're gushing over Eternal Sonata, but the game does have its faults. The game is a joy to visually take in and you'll surely want to look around to take it all in. But you can't. Eternal Sonata has a fixed camera. Outside of battles, it can't even be switched from one static angle to another. You're stuck with the chosen viewpoint. And you will want to look around. Then you'll be disappointed. The path through the game is linear with few side quests and almost no direction from the player. You're just along for the ride. Each environment you pass through will have you wishing you could just wander off of the beaten path or swing the camera around to get a better look at what's in the background. Then you'll sigh and keep moving down the prescribed path.

Similar limitations are found throughout the game. Changing weapons and armor only gives statistical variances with no change in the on-screen avatar's appearance. Towns are quite small and only take a few minutes to explore fully. The enemies have a nice look to them, but they don't have much in the way of variety -- fighting the same forms over and over can grow a bit stale.

This is no Elder Scrolls, or even Final Fantasy, where choice and customization are key. It certainly isn't an epic. You can beat the game in roughly 20 hours if you're rushing, though most will likely spend over 30 when they take in the bonus dungeon at the end. No, it's something else that may leave the hardcore RPG fanatic feeling like they aren't even playing a role at all. Thankfully, the vibrant world, attractive music, interesting combat mechanics, and original story are enough to often make you forget all of that.

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