Eternal Sonata Reader Review
Frédéric-François Chopin is a legendary composer from Poland who's life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis in 1849 while in Paris, the city where he'd fled to before the Polish revolution began. All of this is common knowledge to his fans. What they don't know however was that he moonlighted as a considerably more attractive, giant clock and leather-heart motiffed anime bishie in an alternate dream world filled with magical creatures, mad counts and forest/fire/ice staples. Oh, also as he was a European the Americans in charge of voice casting have done the completely expected by staring intently at their map of the area, carefully noted "Lond-ohn" as the capital of "Eyarop-ee" and in another sterling example of research and general intelligence given the great composer a decidedly British accent. I'll be sure to ask next time I'm in Warsaw if they want some tea and cricket then.
While initially a strange experience, the game cuts to a photograph slideshow once every chapter with the piece of Frederic's music the chapter is named after in the background, and a few passages about the life and times of the man himself, which isn't actually a strangely blurred American sitcom.
The artwork is wonderful throughout and is one of the main initial draws, though the sexified Chopin does seem a little bit too Tetsuya Nomura - the world's local belt fetishist and possible bondage-fiend. Likewise the plot is just as wonderful and colourful. While Chopin lay on his deathbed in his final hours he dreamed of a world filled to bursting point with diverse characters and obligitary spoonfulls of tyranny. Though while Chopin drives the main parts of the plot he isn't the lead character in this ensemble cast. The game tries to force it's own "leads" on you with the bread thieving Alegretto (Or "Retto" to his circle) and the sugar-sweet, umbrella-wielding fourteen year old that doesn't really look it - Polka. This pair stand in for the "heroes that aren't very good at hiding the fact they want to bone each other" required in Japanese RPG's (and they don't care she's 14 either). Though the story chapters don't really allow anyone to take spotlight as it switches party members around seemingly at random. The cast bulges very quickly with variations of characters named for musical elements. The characters aren't all that deep but there are enough to keep things interesting, they tick all of the boxes from interesting to generic and some of the inter-character banter is genuinely alluring, including a very unusual love quadrangle after the leader of the anti-establishment group; Jazz.
What we have in the box is a selection of JRPG staples; Bug-eyed girls in outfits that would never be practical for fighting against the surge of violent wild animals, stock males that all the female characters have unrequited crushes on despite the fact they all follow the same basic design (In fact Jazz is composed of Alegretto overlayed onto Chopin essentially) and a beautifully realised world threatened with destruction by some misguided youth trying to peddle his drugs. Generally the game is quite nice even though the running theme is death, the colours are rich and the characters are genuinely appealing for the most part.
Rules of Conduct-ion
Battles are a big part of the game and thankfully they aren't random encounters. Eternal Sonata follows the "Tales of..." pattern further with the enemies being represented on screen, though you won't know the full details of the enemy alliance until you've actually engaged. There are surprise attacks where you are subjected to a brutal kicking from behind if an enemy triggers the battle from your rear, likewise you can gain the upper hand by sneaking up on an opponent. The battle system in itself is pretty unique in application. Best described as a "hybrid" system it gives you turns which are timed and during the allotted time you can kick seven shades out of the enemy in theory, however the turn time still drains away while you are running so you have to know what you want to do in advance and think ahead. In fact as you progress the time to act is reduced and options are opened, keeping things challenging.
Each character plays differently enough. Sometimes you may mess up the angle (Or miss an enemy due to their anatomy by swinging between their legs or something) and waste a turn due to the time restriction as generally a special move or flurry of combo's eats up the turn. Combo are a big part of the system though as they build up "echoes" which serve to power up your special abilities, be they healing or damage. Characters like the unusually Texan redhead Salsa and stocking-wearing emo-gal Falsetto are very good at gaining echoes as they can get hits in fast and have quite absurdly powerful finishing moves whereas Jazz, the "big sword guy" and the worryingly cute cohort of Alegretto; Beat are slow in comparison.
Light and Dark play a huge role in the proceedings as they determine what special skills are at your characters disposal. For instance standing in the light will allow you to heal with the button that in the dark would create a multistrike melee attack. Early on light and Dark are quite obvious but as you move on up areas can be flooded with one or the other with small, often moving (Swinging lanterns or clouds for instance) patches of the other. Certain enemies create light around themselves while almost every enemy creates a shadow you can tactically abuse. The enemies themselves are also altered by the light and dark, changing forms depending on where they are standing. Luring an enemy into either could be to your advantage by making them slower and easier to counter or shearing them from their healing skills.
Another interesting aspect of the combat system is guarding. If you are facing your attacker then a small shield will appear giving you a chance to reduce the damage taken by your character or characters in range of the attack, regardless of it's physical or magical properties. When you get further party levels the initially blacked-out "Counter-attack" becomes available which gives the character that countered a free turn but chances are you'll miss the opportunity by anticipating a guard instead. However all of this applies to enemies too, who are fully capable of guarding with an indetikit purple shield and if you are attacked from behind you can't guard but tap it at the right time and your character will turn in time to guard a second combo with any luck.
The only real problem with battles beyond the aforementioned missed combo is the lack of variety with enemies. Beyond the bosses (Most of which appear more than once anyways) the enemies come in Dragon, Fish, Stereotyped Pirate, Different kind of fish and Bird in armour shapes. Like those pasta shapes you get in tins that are apparently for unaffiliated series but all wind up looking like Frogs with bad backs. It's not annoying enough to ruin the experience though.
There aren't really many sidequests on offer here as with most RPG games, which is a shame. Theres an optional dungeon that you need to do to see the full story of the game, a treasure hunt against a heavily titilated pirate with a hook for a hand and all the trimmings (You can't obtain the treasure til your second playthrough though), an item trading opus and an incredibly annoying minigame where you play music from your collected sheet music. Essentially making all but a few unbeatable until your second playthrough (Where some of the score sheets are exclusive to). Annoyingly the crappiest compositions seem to be the ones in favour with the NPC stooges that grade you. The game is short enough to condone replaying, clocking up at 19 hours without the optional dungeon (Which is one of the longest and most convulated dungeons I've ever played through in any game)and those limited sidequests. You could probably fly to the airport that bears Frederic's name in the time it takes to do the sidequests.
The "encore" playthrough attempts to stretch the longevity by increasing enemies vitality by 50% and their attack and defence by 1.5. This actually makes things pretty rough but you can access all of your unlocked party levels (Should be 6) that you had when you beat the game the first time. Unless you stopped playing and pulled the plug out of the wall from guilt when the game decides to go up itself and blame the player for animal extinction, global warming and every disease in the world (Ok... maybe not the disease one but it will make you feel a bit odd).
In all, it's a great game where the flaws (Game length and lack of variety with enemies) don't hamper the experience too much.
9 / 10