Hype is a fickle and unkind mistress. The games it chooses to touch seem almost chosen at random (or at least, at the whim of a marketing division, which often seems to be just about the same thing), with many wonderful games completely passed over by its gentle caress.
Those games which it does touch may enjoy a moment of ecstasy as their names are splashed around the media with wild abandon and flowing superlatives - but it often all comes crashing down, as few games can ever live up to their headline billing.
Hype is a cruel thing. Witness the current strange situation regarding the burgeoning Japanese RPG market on the Xbox 360 as a perfect example. The two major genre titles appearing this year are both victims of hype, in very different ways.
The vastly hyped Blue Dragon is almost certain to be a vast disappointment to many people, as it is incredibly traditional (almost to the point of being utterly backwards in places) and basic in its composition - but yet has been hyped to the gills as a mass-market game.
Eternal Sonata, meanwhile... Well, if you've heard of it, you're probably one of the few, as hype has passed it over almost entirely. Which is a shame, because on the strength of the demo released in North America a few weeks ago, Eternal Sonata may well be just the thing to turn Microsoft's fortunes around on the JRPG front.
Fantasia on Polish Airs
Eternal Sonata - called Trusty Bell in Japan, for reasons best known to Namco Bandai's Japanese development team - takes a rather unusual approach to RPG storytelling. The game is ostensibly the tale of the last few hours in the life of celebrated composer Frederic Chopin. The Polish composer died in 1849 from tuberculosis, at the age of 39; Eternal Sonata's key conceit is that in his final hours, as he slipped into a coma, he entered a dream world of his own creation.
It's within this world that the entire game takes place. Eternal Sonata's universe is appropriately dream-like as a result, sporting an attractively flat-shaded look filled with soft focus, pastel colours and delicately glowing light. The short demo US audiences have seen (which is almost identical to the demo we played at the Tokyo Games Show last September, albeit with US voice actors - we'll get on to that in a minute) is set in two key locations.
There's an idyllic pastoral village, complete with sparkling streams, well-tended gardens and a field full of colourful flowers, and then there's a haunted-looking forest behind the village - no less beautiful, but filled with strangely glowing flora, deep shadows and rather unfriendly fauna.
The character designs which complement this world are solidly within the traditional Japanese design aesthetic, with a distinctly manga feel which is reminiscent of Square Enix' Grandia series or Namco Bandai's own Tales series. However, the graphical grunt of the Xbox 360 (and the higher resolution HD output) gives the game's characters a visual edge; cel-shading may result in a simpler designs, but getting the shadows and highlights perfectly right on characters is something that hasn't really been done until now.
Where the game really catches our interest isn't in its visuals, however, glorious thought they may be. It's Eternal Sonata's combat system which really sets it apart from its peers in the field - being possibly the most interesting marriage of turn-based and real-time battle mechanics we've seen thus far.
In the demo, you play with three characters - sword-wielding teen RPG stereotype Allegretto, bow-legged mawkish pre-pubescent gunslinger (no, really) Beat, and constantly apologising shrinking violet Polka, who fights using a lovely umbrella. As each character's turn comes around, you control each one in turn - running around the battlefield, hitting enemies and using items.
The catch is that each turn lasts only for a limited amount of time, measured by a bar which counts down rather rapidly on the left hand side of the screen. Thus, you need to balance up what you're going to do very carefully; attacking a distant enemy will involve running to the other side of the battlefield, which will waste precious seconds, while using a potion to restore health could take almost half of your turn.
Each character has only two main action buttons - A for normal attacks, which are basic physical or ranged attacks and can generally be chained together pretty rapidly, and Y for special attacks. As you use normal attacks, a bar on the right hand charges up gradually with each blow; when a character then uses a special attack, the power of that attack is determined by how charged up the right-hand "special" bar is.
Light and Shade
This system is interesting enough on its own, but the developers have added another layer of complexity to the battle system - light and shade. Most battle areas have a dappled pattern of light and shade on the ground, and the positioning of your characters and your foes on this pattern can make a huge difference to the battle.
Some foes, for example, are vastly more powerful in shade than they are in light. Some even change into entirely different creatures when they're in the dark; the fairly innocuous vegetable-like Very Very Empty creatures (some of the names are pretty special), for instance, turn into enormous poison-belching Great Coconuts when they're out of the light.
Your characters, too, change in the darkness - or at least, their attacks do. Special attacks rely entirely on whether you're standing in light or shade, and each character has two specials equipped at any one time - one for standing in darkness, one for standing in light. This makes positioning even more important, since you may only be able to use the attack you need if you're standing in the shade, for instance.
The result is a battle system which is vastly more complex and interesting than it initially looks. It manages to be action-focused and frantic enough to hold the attention of gamers used to a more rapid pace in their entertainment, without actually introducing tricky action sequences which would put off traditional RPG players - a tricky balancing act, but one which the Eternal Sonata demo shows off working very nicely.
The demo also hints at several other systems in the game which could end up being quite interesting, although it's impossible to tell from the tiny amount of content we've seen. Beat, for example, has a special attack which allows you to take a picture in first-person mode, which can then be viewed from the menu screen. We've yet to find a use for this function, but pictures are graded by the game according to their quality, which hints at an interesting photographic mini-game.
There's also a collection game we uncovered in the village, which involves finding pieces of Chopin's scores around the world - and then finding other musicians who have their own pieces of the score, and playing them together as a duet. Some pieces go better than others, and the game will reward players who find the best and most melodious combinations of music.
Overall, as you'd expect, music plays a very major role in the game. Character's weapons and equipment are designed to look like classical musical instruments, and the emblems of music notation are a running visual theme in the artwork. Chopin's own compositions are the basis for much of the music, with his work clearly being a key inspiration for celebrated game composer Motoi Sakuraba (whose music has previously graced series including Tales, Star Ocean and Baten Kaitos).
Rather less impressive, sadly, is the voice acting in the game - which is available only in one flavour, American English, in the demo we've played. We sincerely hope that this is only down to the need to keep the demo file size small, and that Japanese voices with subtitles will be available as an option in the final game.
It's always nice to have the option, for one thing; but more importantly, the English voice acting in Eternal Sonata is some of the worst we've ever had the misfortune to hear. It's a bad sign when you're shouting "JUST SHUT UP!" at the characters in a game only ten minutes into a demo - but the combination of Allegretto's repellant surfer-dude expressions and intonation, and Polka's utterly painful squeaking more than justified our malcontent. Note to dubbing directors - middle aged women trying to squeak out their lines in order to sound like "cute little girls" is exactly the kind of thing that makes Baby Jesus bawl his eyes out.
With its beautiful visuals, great music and fascinating battle system, Eternal Sonata is arguably the most interesting RPG coming out of Japan this year - on any platform. The fact that it's on the Xbox 360 just adds a frisson of surprise to the whole affair, but even judged on its own merits as a videogame (rather than as an unwilling pawn in the Great Console War of 2007), this looks like a stand-out addition to the genre.
We await a more comprehensive look at Namco Bandai's gorgeous, tuneful adventure with bated breath; and, indeed, with crossed fingers regarding the language selection option. The game arrives in Europe this November, and we hope to have a more in-depth look at its charms in the next couple of months.