Version tested: Xbox 360
Videogames have always been a rich vein for ardent fans of the surreal. From the overtly psychedelic efforts of Jeff Minter's Tempest or Tetsuya Mizuguchi's Rez, through to the curiously domestic unreality of Keita Takahashi's Katamari Damacy, games provide some of the most unusual brain-fodder of any modern medium.
To our minds, though, things get downright weird when game designers start playing with historical figures - Japanese game designers, especially. Their willingness to perform eye-popping rewriting on their own history is legendary; witness the transformation of one of Japan's three key unifiers, Oda Nobunaga, into a fiery vengeful demon in the Onimusha series. It's no surprise, then, that European history comes out looking even more surreal when it's passed through the wringer.
Which roundabout introduction goes some way to explaining why I've just spent the best part of a week defeating an assortment of fantasy monsters with the aid of a spectacularly dandy-ish Frederic Chopin and his lethal conductors baton.
No, I'm Not Going Mad
Eternal Sonata - a game sadly renamed from its brilliantly odd Japanese title, Trusty Bell - is the latest RPG from Japanese studio tri-Crescendo, and the company's first Xbox 360 title. tri-Crescendo's major previous project was the great but largely ignored GameCube RPG Baten Kaitos, but the team's background is as the audio division of parent studio tri-Ace, working on titles like Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile.
That history gives some clue as to why a Japanese developer would choose to make a game heavily based around the life and work of Polish classical pianist Frederic Chopin. tri-Crescendo's boss, Hiroya Hatsushiba, is an audio guy; he has worked for years as audio programmer for prolific composer (and fellow tri-Crescendo founder) Motoi Sakuraba.
In other words, Eternal Sonata is one of those rare but wonderful games whose design is led by the musicians. Here, though, the musical influence is even more obvious than in the likes of Silent Hill, whose development has been driven for years by composer Akira Yamaoka.
The premise of Eternal Sonata is exceptionally odd. It suggests that as Frederic Chopin lay dying in Paris in 1849, in his final comatose hours he entered a fantasy world in his dreams - which is plausible, we suppose, although we'd be rather surprised if a 19th century Polish composer's dreams featured colourful, large-eyed anime characters and turn-based battles. Still, you never know.
Despite a premise which seems, at first glance, downright pretentious, Eternal Sonata actually builds a solid narrative around a strong ensemble cast of characters. In fact, Chopin himself is one of your regular party members, but arguably not really a lead character. His initial certainty - and later doubt - that the world is really just the product of his own dream is an important plotline, but his actual character (youthful and handsome, albeit bearing a strange likeness to existing paintings of Chopin, and resplendent in a top hat and dandy-ish coat and tails) sits in the shadow of the rest of the cast.
That cast is notable for being named entirely after musical terms. Arguably the "lead" character (although this is one of those unusual RPGs where the cast truly is an ensemble, which is one of the very few parallels that could be drawn with the likes of Final Fantasy XII) is Allegretto, a young man who steals bread from stores in his home city to give to orphan children living in the town's sewers. He and his relentlessly likeable younger brother, Beat, encounter Chopin travelling with a terminally ill flower girl, Polka, and embark on a journey to find the root of the injustice in the land of Forte.
Along the journey, the cast swells significantly as a wide variety of new characters are encountered - from the bow-wielding shepherdess Viola to the charismatic rebel leader Jazz. Not all of these characters have particularly deep back-stories, and some seem to be introduced more for the variety they bring to the combat system (of which more in a moment) than anything else. However, the largely well-written dialogue mostly manages to avoid descending into philosophical babble - a trap we were wary of from the outset - and crucially, we genuinely liked the characters we were sharing the journey with.
Tied to the Present
Even Polka, the shrinking violent who occupies the stereotypically quiet and demure female role beloved of Japanese storytelling, manages not to be annoying - not least because her story is a perfect example of Eternal Sonata's clever combination of Chopin's life story and modern narrative.
Polka is dying of a fatal disease; but as a result, she has magical powers, and can heal wounds simply by laying on her hands. In the world of Eternal Sonata, these things are intricately linked - a reference, certainly, to Chopin's own fatal disease, which affected much of his later life. Equally, though, Polka finds herself feared and rejected by people who falsely believe the disease to be contagious - a plot thread which bears far more relevance to the modern phenomenon of HIV than to anything in the 19th century.
The fierce intelligence of the storytelling, even couched within the confines of a fairly generic role-playing fantasy world, doesn't end with a single example. Revolution, too, is a major theme; ostensibly exploring the 1830 uprising in Poland which affected much of Chopin's view of the world, but also delivering an interesting allegory for more modern events in Iraq and elsewhere.
This is a level of depth which we simply didn't expect from the game, and it's compounded further by the more direct allusions to Chopin's life and work throughout the narrative. Each chapter of the game is named after a famous piece of music created by the composer, and the influence of that score can be felt throughout Sakuraba's music in that chapter. At some point in the chapter, the piano music itself plays unaccompanied - while photographs of buildings and locations from Chopin's life appear on screen, and the background and history of the piece is explained.
These odd interludes initially feel somewhat jarring, taking the player out of the game and forcing them to watch and listen to what is, essentially, a well-researched and passionate history of Chopin's life and music. However, they are mostly quite short - and as the game progresses, and parallels between the music, the history and the story become more clear, they actually form fascinating and welcome breaks from the game.
As you might expect from something with such a strong narrative, Eternal Sonata is a resolutely linear game - even to the extent of lacking a world map, with players instead wandering through entirely realised locations much like Final Fantasy X and its ilk. Each location is, however, stunningly beautiful. Taking the design flair which defined the visuals of Baten Kaitos and applying it to the Xbox 360's capabilities, the team at tri-Crescendo has crafted a world which is colourful, bright, and visually stunning, filled with fantastical shapes and designs.
The characters, too, are gorgeously designed. The visuals use what is arguably the best cel-shading technique ever seen in a videogame, rendering lavishly designed and varied characters with a consistent style and a surprisingly wide range of emotions and expressions. We were slightly disappointed to note that weapons and equipment don't change visibly as you equip new items, though - a concern which actually escalated into our largest gripe about the game as we played through.
The sad fact is that the quality of the content on display can't quite disguise the lack of quantity. For instance; the game boasts a wonderful battle system, which works by giving each of your characters a certain amount of time in which to act. This is just enough time to move around a bit, fire off some attacks, or use some healing items or special attacks. Location is vital, and as the game progresses it makes things more interesting by reducing the available time, but increasing the combat options at your fingertips, so things get progressively more challenging but also more open.
We have very few complaints about the combat. On a couple of occasions, we messed up our depth perception and ended up wasting a turn waving Chopin's baton in mid-air (no sniggering at the back), but with a little practice the system feels fluid and enjoyable. New special attacks are unlocked as you progress at a nice rate, and each character has a very different play style - some have ranged attacks, some need to be aimed, some can attack multiple enemies at once, and so on.
There's even a great system in place which changes your special attacks, and the form of your enemies, depending on whether you're standing in light or shadow. Early in the game, this is easy to manage - but as you progress, you find that some items and attacks cause spots of light or shadow to appear around you, some enemies cast pools of light, and there can even be moving cloud cover overhead, all of which has to be taken into account.
So far, so good - the game drops the ball not in terms of the system itself, but in terms of variety of enemies. Each zone in the game tends to have two, or at most three, types of enemies to throw at you. These enemies are usually fairly challenging to begin with, but once you work out a strategy for dealing with them, things get a bit less interesting... And when, half an hour later, you're still fighting the same enemy types over and over, the game becomes positively dull.
Each dungeon is a basic maze with a number of equipment upgrades and a lot of enemies, and we quickly found ourselves getting bored of each one and desperately pushing onwards for the next storyline section. All it would have taken to alleviate this would have been a larger number of enemy types - but in fact, enemy designs are so sparse that we started finding re-coloured versions of previous enemy models in some later dungeons, which was seriously disappointing.
Our enduring suspicion after completing Eternal Sonata is that the game was a victim of its own graphical beauty. Developers have been talking for years about how much work is involved in creating content for next-gen consoles - and Eternal Sonata's huge main quest and wide assortment of locations and characters clearly stretched tri-Crescendo's resources.
The variety of creatures and enemies suffered as a result, as did the option to have visible equipment. So, too, did the availability of side-quests or mini-games; there's a trading side-quest which is incredibly sparse and barely worth a mention, and a frankly horrible mini-game involving finding pieces of musical score and then playing them in "sessions" with NPCs, most of whom are seemingly tone-deaf and will give you great items for horrific, jarring compositions, played through an unresponsive and annoying interface.
Picking out the Notes
The wonderful narrative, great cast, enjoyable battle system and stunningly beautiful music and artwork are all compelling reasons to explore Chopin's deathbed dream. However, we can't escape the feeling that this isn't so much an eternal sonata, as an unfinished symphony.
It's disappointing to see such a fantastic game being let down by a simple lack of variety - but it's worth noting that this flaw drags the game down from being an instant classic to being simply a great game, and one which is undoubtedly worthy of your attention despite its failings. If only to check out Frederic Chopin's monster-bashing special moves.
8 / 10