Eternal Sonata is a quite good Japanese RPG for the Xbox 360. Unfortunately, the main lesson that I’ve learned from it is that I don’t particularly like JRPG’s; I won’t say I’m swearing off of them forever (in fact, I’m glad I played this one), but I won’t give them the benefit of the doubt in the future.

My first impressions were good. I pretty much decided I had to play it as soon as I heard that it took place in the imagination of a dying Frederic Chopin; they didn’t do as much with that theme as they could have, but there were other compensating virtues. The art style is very nice: I loved the color palette, and it used cel-shading in a subtle, less stylized manner than other cel-shaded games that I’m aware of, to good effect. You could see your enemies and avoid them, should you chose (in particular, there weren’t any random monsters), and the battle system was reasonably clever, with you taking an active role controlling movement, with light and dark areas on the battlefield giving access to different powers, and with a party level system making the fights more complicated (albeit not much more complicated) as the game went on.

It started to go south in chapter 2, in the Fort Fermata dungeon. This is the first puzzle dungeon (almost the only one, really), where you press switches that cause a few of the rooms to move; you’re supposed to figure out the effects of the switches and gain access to areas of the dungeon that you couldn’t before. Unfortunately, there were two problems with this. The lesser problem was that it, frankly, wasn’t a very good puzzle: it was hard to tell the effects of the switches, so ultimately I ended up wandering around more or less at random until I eventually noticed a new room that I couldn’t get to before; repeat three times and you’re done. Which would be okay, except that the areas were quite large, with almost all of it unaffected by the switches, so it was heavy on wandering and light on thinking/progressing.

The more serious problem, though, was that this was where the monsters started getting to me. There was a reasonably high density of monsters in this dungeon, but the monsters (like pretty much all (non-boss?) monsters in the game) just weren’t that much fun to fight. So about five battles into the dungeon, I’d gotten all the pleasure I was going to get from fighting in the dungeon, and was only fighting battles to make sure I’d be appropriately leveled up when I reached the boss; ten battles in, I was actively avoiding the monsters, and cursing when I accidentally touched one of them.

Even that might have been okay, were it not for one very serious flaw: the monsters respawn each time you re-enter an area that you’d previously left. So if I find a room and press a switch, the monsters outside will reappear when I exit. The dungeon was divided into two halves; each time I went from one into the other, the monsters respawned.

There is, as far as I’m concerned, no justification for this. Maybe there is a video game player who would fight all thirty or forty monsters in that dungeon and still be thirsting for more; I have to believe that such players are few and far between. More seriously, there are only so many ways you can enjoy the core mechanics of a game like this; one of those ways of enjoying the game is exploring, seeing what’s around the next corner. But the respawning directly attacks that way of enjoying the game: if poking around a corner brings you into a new area, and then you decide that you wanted to look around the original area some more, tough like, you’ll have to refight all those monsters again. I really would like to know what the thinking was here: did they not think about the matter at all, did they think that players would enjoy respawning monsters? Did they playtest the game or not; if they playtested it, did this issue come up?

Fortunately, that dungeon was the one that was most hurt by that flaw. Having said that, the respawning enemies problem kept on biting me on a lesser scale. Most dungeons were relatively linear, but you frequently came to a fork in the path where going in one direction would keep you in the same area and lead to a chest while the other direction would lead to the next area. The problem is that you couldn’t see the chest from where you were: you’d have to go part way down, and then the camera would shift for you. And if you picked the wrong one, it was very hard to figure out how far to go before deciding that the camera should have shifted by now; if you went too far, you’d be in the next area, at which point you’d have to go back (assuming you didn’t want to skip the chest), and the monsters would respawn.

I should emphasize that there are a lot of traditional RPG mistakes that they didn’t make. As I mentioned above, the battle system was better than normal, and at least you could see and avoid the respawning monsters. And avoiding them was a realistic possibility: most of the time, you could avoid almost all of them if you wished, and while doing so would mean that you weren’t leveling up enough for the boss battles, you certainly could skip several of the monsters and still be strong enough to fight the bosses without breaking too much of a sweat. You had up to nine people in your party, of whom only three could fight at once, but the others leveled up anyways; I believe they leveled up at a somewhat slower rate, but not enough to make the characters unusable if a plot twist forced you to use somebody other than your favorite characters.

The overall rhythm was off, too. Typically, RPGs have a mixture of fighting, exploring your environments, and plot advancement. As I’ve said above, the fighting got in the way of exploring your enviroments in the overworld and dungeons; unfortunately, you spend far too much of your time such environments. The towns are nice enough, but they generally felt like way stations that you’re just passing through. As far as plot goes, I like it, but it’s conveyed by cut scenes that are way too long: about once per chapter, you’ll run into a cut scene that is long enough that your controller will go to sleep if you don’t fiddle with it during the cut scene. (I believe that the sequence of cut scenes at the end of the game lasted a full thirty minutes.)

Having said that, the cut scenes are pretty good. Mostly they’re advancing the plot of the game, but once per chapter there’s a cut scene (usually paired with a traditional one) that consists of somebody playing a piece by Chopin, along with pictures showing places where Chopin spent his life and subtitles explaining that portion of Chopin’s life. So you get some quite nice music and reasonably interesting history mixed in with your adventuring. Also convenient for me was that you can set the game to Japanese voices with English subtitles, so the cut scenes (and many other areas, e.g. battles) let me practice my Japanese; I certainly wouldn’t have been able to follow most of the conversations without the subtitles, but I was glad to be able to pick up words and phrases. (Warning for other people who do the same thing: for whatever reason, they leave off subtitles for most of the final cut scene, so you might want to switch back to English right before the end.)

It’s a quite good game; I’m happy to have played it, though I’m also happy that it’s now over. Miranda really liked it, and has started playing it herself; I’m curious how far she will get. They made several decisions which I consider boneheaded, and which soured me on the genre: Lost Odyssey is getting some amount of buzz right now, for example, but I’m going to stay away from that one. (Admittedly, enough games are clamoring for my attention right now that I would probably have stayed away anyways.) But there are more than enough surprising good decisions that the good outweighs the bad.

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