One of the most revered RPGs of this generation finally comes to the PS3 with new content in the form of additional quests, music, and characters. I missed the game the first time it came around on the Xbox 360 last year, but I'm sure glad that Namco Bandai Games decided to release Eternal Sonata on the PS3, giving PS3 owners the chance to play this rather charming RPG.
Chopin's Dream World
Eternal Sonata tells the tale of a young Frederic Chopin (yes, the composer). The 'real world' side of the story is a sad one, in which Frederic is bed ridden and very ill in Paris, France, 1849. However, as he rests, his mind is fully consumed in a dream world filled with all kinds of creatures and interesting characters. Speaking of characters, the PS3 version includes two new playable characters that weren't playable (although they were part of the story) in the 360 version, Prince Crescendo and Princess Serenade. You will also meet and control Polka, Allegretto, Beat, and Viola. The musical names don't stop there, either. Players will battle through Agogo Forest, and spend lots of time in the towns of Tenuto and Ritardando, for example. Your ultimate goal is to do battle with the evil Count Waltz who is imposing harsh taxes on every substance except the suspicious and addictive cure-all Mineral Powder.
Before I get ahead of myself, I'd like to spend a moment on a few of the characters of Eternal Sonata. Players will first control Polka, a young girl who lives in the village of Tenuto. She has magical powers, but in this universe, that's both a blessing and a curse in that she has the ability to heal and help people, but she also carries a fatal, incurable disease. As such, people avoid her, thinking that what she has might be contagious. This and the fact that her village is suffering due to the heavy taxation and inability to sell their Floral Powder makes her sad, but as you will discover, she is determined to still help people while she is alive. Polka is the first character that our young hero, Chopin, will meet on a starry night at the edge of Tenuto. Allegretto and Beat are a pair of young boys that steal to help feed the poor and the hungry. Allegretto realizes that just stealing bread from Ritardando to feed the poor in the sewers is a band aid rather than a cure. He decides to confront the Count at Castle Forte, although he's not the only one destined to do this as you can imagine.
One of the best aspects in Eternal Sonata is its characters. The main cast is rich in depth and their stories are intriguing. When you really care for each of your characters, that's something special, and Eternal Sonata does a very good job of fleshing out each character's own story and purpose. When the characters begin to meet each other and interact, the strong foundation for each character to that point makes it all the more special and rewarding to be a part of.
Strong characters often go hand in hand with a well thought out and presented plot, and Eternal Sonata does a great job at this, too. The idea of crossing dream and reality is an infinitely intriguing one if you think about it; the line between the two can become very blurry if even visible. The way the developers at tri-Crescendo unravel these ideals is well done, and their presented most often through pretty, sometimes lengthy cutscenes.
Battle System And Leveling Up
It surprises even me at times when I think about it, but I've actually never sat down and played through a traditional RPG. I've never played through a Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger or any of those. One reason for that is that I never thought much of the turn based combat system. When I saw Eternal Sonata featured a much more free flowing turn system than old school RPGs, I was pleased. I'm sure it's not the first game to do so, although it is the first game I've played that does turn based combat in this particular way. What happens is that when a battle starts, each character on the screen gets a turn (nothing new there). When one of your characters has a turn, you can either pass on it with L3, or do your standard actions like heal, attack, move, etc. What's neat about Eternal Sonata is that you have a timer on the left side of your screen. If you're not moving or performing an action like an attack or healing spell, the timer doesn't change, this is known as the tactical mode. In tactical mode you might choose to use an item from your item set or just plan your next move. Your item set is a group of items that you chose to keep handy some time prior to the battle.
However, when you move, you are out of tactical mode and the timer starts to decrease, as well as when you attack or cast a spell. Each spell or special attack, cast by using Triangle, has a predetermined time attached to it. For example, it might take about three seconds to cast Shadow Comet, one of Polka's moves. Each time you cast it, whether your moving or not, your turn-timer counts down. You can see who's turn it is next by looking on screen to see who has the 'next' icon above their head.
There is actually quite a bit more to the combat in Eternal Sonata than just running and attacking or casting. I really liked the light/dark element that is included whereby your special attack/ability function changes depending on if your character is standing in the light or the dark. This has a huge effect on how you might use your turn. For example, say you are fighting with Polka and Chopin. Both characters can cast a healing spell for themselves and their partner (if nearby) when they are in the light, but only in the dark can they use a special attack. For Polka, she can cast a great range attack know as Shadow Comet, while Chopin's 'dark' attack is a powerful short series of melee attacks. Something else to keep in mind is in which direction you're facing the enemy. Most enemies cannot block when you're attacking their side or from behind, and the same goes for you when you're on the defensive. That said, enemies are also affected by the aforementioned timer and light/dark powers. When under attack, depending on whether or not you're facing them, and possibly some other factors, you might be able to guard by pressing circle at just the right moment. Eventually you can even counterattack.
Characters level up as they battle through random battles and the larger, much tougher, boss fights. Random fights are generally very easy to spot well in advance, and they're not too hard to avoid if you want to. Once you get close to an enemy that is 'patrolling' around in an area, it may make a dash at you or you can just walk up to it to initiate the battle. When you do, a cool and very brief crackled glass effect covers the screen, and one of your characters will lead off with a variety of battle cries. From there, the placement of your characters as well as the number and placement of the enemies, is random, as is the order of turns.
Leveling up comes frequently enough to be very satisfying and yet surprising every time, at least for me until I finally got to looking closely at my HUD to see how much more XP I needed. Leveling up increases four categories: HP, Defense, Magic, and Speed for each character, but there are also level ups that effect the whole Party. These level ups are much more rare, but will unlock new abilities that affect turns and allow for team attacks.
Presentation And Closing Thoughts
Eternal Sonata is a gorgeous game, not only in terms of its wonderfully colorful and smoothly animated look, but in the sound department too. The visuals though are quite a treat; I haven't played a game this colorful since Folklore, and I was reminded of Folklore more than once while playing Eternal Sonata. Not only does the game look great, but I have yet to run into any slowdown or technical glitches. As far as the audio, the soundtrack is instrumental, smooth, and very fitting. Parts of the soundtrack are Chopin piano pieces, but for the most part you'll be treated to some great instrumental tracks (including a few new ones just for the PS3 version) created just for the game.
For someone like me that has a very, very light background on what I will call 'traditional' or Japanese RPG games, Eternal Sonata is a real treat. The difficulty is just right, the menus, battle mechanics, leveling up, and items are very accessible and easy to understand. The entire game is accessible due to its intriguing story and characters, simple controls, and forgiving difficulty.