It's probably fair to say that the Xbox brand hasn't had the best of times in Japan. The land of the rising sun remains firmly loyal to Sony and Nintendo almost to the point of wilfully ignoring Microsoft's consoles despite their promise to crack the market with the release of the 360. The fallout of all this from a gamers point of view seems to have been a distinct lack of the more traditionally Japanese games that are a mainstay of the release schedules for both Sony and Nintendo. Most importantly, at least as far as this review and reviewer is concerned anyway, this means a distinct lack of Japanese role-playing games (JRPG's), the kind made famous by the likes of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series. Until the recent release of the slightly disappointing Blue Dragon all 360 owning JRPG fans had to spend their time with was the playable but oh so very average Enchanted Arms. So, with the market ripe for any half decent entry to the genre to clean up, along comes Eternal Sonata to try and be the first great Xbox 360 JRPG.
Developed by Tri-Crescendo, Eternal Sonata uses the death of Polish composer Frederic Chopin as a starting point with the game taking place in his deathbed dreams. That interesting yet frankly bonkers premise plays out surprisingly well in practice as the game mixes in themes from Chopin's life along with a degree of comment on the world as it is today into it's otherwise clichéd story, resulting in one of the more overtly political games in a while. The slightly preachy nature of the message can be a little hard to stomach at times as points are rammed home with only a wafer thin layer of subtlety but it's interesting to see a game trying to 'say' something relevant rather than just tell a story.
Now the setup is out of the way it's fair to say the most instantly striking thing about ES is that its simple beautiful. Not in a clichéd "Wow, next-gen consoles are great" way, but in a genuinely beautiful, pretty as a picture, oooooh, ahhhhhh, can I use a screen shot as a postcard type of way. I've no doubt that the engine behind ES isn't throwing around half as many polygons as something like Gears of War or BioShock but then I wouldn't want to go for a relaxing summers picnic in the middle of either of those games so quite frankly I don't care. You could cynically call the world of ES a bit innocent and twee, or even more than a tad childish, if you were of that mindset (in which case you may as well stop reading now) but you'd be missing the point somewhat. ES creates a wonderfully detailed world to explore and fills it with lavishly designed buildings, characters and objects while taking care to ensure everything from the intricate needlework on clothing to large screen filling monsters is given the same impressive level of detail.
Of course, such visual treats bring with them their own set of limitations, firstly the prettiness of your surroundings often leaves you wanting to explore the game world in far greater depth than the fixed camera and hidden walls will allow. Only during battle do you get any say over your viewpoint but even then it's merely a choice of set angles rather than any real control. Each stage is also almost always completely linear, walk in one end and out the other dealing with whatever you come across in-between. If that makes it sound a little simplistic or even boring then it's not anywhere near that bad in reality, but there are definitely times when you'll wish there was a little more freedom if only because you want to see more of the world.
Gameplay is fairly standard JRPG fare and instantly approachable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the genre. You guide your party around the game world taking part in regular battles with the creatures that block your way, all the while earning experience points and improving your skills and abilities. Along the way you'll be able to buy weapon and equipment upgrades as well as various potions and remedies at various shops you'll come across as well as talk to any NPC's you meet. The action is perfectly paced with the plot moving along at a decent speed and new abilities and attacks being opened up with pleasing regularity. In a genre often plagued by long-winded XP grinding, Eternal Sonata keeps the player interested by ensuring that characters naturally level up at roughly the right speed, leaving any grinding only for those who enjoy over-levelling.
The much hated (by me anyway) idea of random battles that has long plagued JRPG's in the past is neatly avoided in ES by making the still frequent monsters visible as you wander through the world. The fact that you can, in theory at least, avoid some of the battles this way is a real plus after years of getting bogged down in never-ending random battles. Just remember that to ensure your party all level up in time with the game you'll want to make sure you fight the majority of the monsters you come across.
It's these battle bits where most people fall in or out of love with their JRPG's, thankfully ES provides an interesting twist on the traditional turn-based action. While the system retains the turn-based nature we've come to expect, within each turn the action becomes almost real-time. Each move is broken down into two timed parts, first up is the tactical time when you can plot what your move is going to consist of, then there is the attack time where you freely run around the battle ground performing attacks. As your party moves through the levels (your party levels up separately from the individual characters) things get more frantic as the two time limits get smaller. On top of your basic attack you'll learn various special moves as you progress. These come in either light or dark flavours and, as their name suggests, light attacks are used when standing in the light and dark ones, well, you get the picture. While having such context sensitive moves is a good idea, and the light and dark division is a nice touch, it's not a perfect system. In the increasingly limited few seconds you're given for each turn worrying about making sure you're covered in enough shadow to ensure a dark attack can seem a bit much considering the amount of other things to worry about. One character, Beat, also has the ability to take photographs mid battle and sell the resulting shots at any of the game world's shops. While in keeping with Beat's character this ability does manage to single handily ruin the game's economy with pictures selling for vast sums that ensure keeping stocked up on the latest upgrades etc. is never a problem.
The voice acting is generally solid, at least within the main cast. Although the familiar gaps and overly long pauses between lines that seem to be common place in games of this ilk are still present. One day a developer will get the whole cast into a recording studio at the same time and provide dialogue that flows naturally as actors react to each other rather than reading their lines direct from the page out of context.
For a game based so tightly around Chopin it's a shame that his music isn't more integral to the experience, while the score is impressively lush it shies away from using his music directly instead limiting itself to the chapter interludes and a music playing mini-game you can play with NPC's around the world.
In between each chapter, the game takes time out to teach us a little about the real world Chopin using still images set to pieces of his music while text at the bottom of the screen describes the details of his life. It's a noble if slightly out of place idea, the reality of the photographs managing to drag you out of the world the game creates into a jarringly less beautiful reality. Included as an unlockable extra, or even played out 'in engine' in some way during the flashes back to Chopin's bed side, the idea may have worked better. As it is these interludes are far more distracting than they are educational.
Still, it's hard to be too critical of a game as enjoyable as Eternal Sonata. It's not horribly difficult instead the word soothing seems to sum it up in a lot of ways. It goes out of its way not to let you get lost or bored and it rewards your continued progress with a well told story and some lovely scenery. It's the gaming equivalent or a relaxing summer holiday, something we all need now and again.
If you've never been a fan of JRPG's then there is nothing in Eternal Sonata that's going to convert you, even the picture perfect visuals are unlikely to keep you playing if this kind of game doesn't interest you. However, for Xbox 360 gamers starved of quality in this genre Eternal Sonata jumps right to the top of the pile. It's by no means the definitive JRPG, It's a little unsubtle at times when trying to get its point across and the linear nature of the environments is a bit frustrating when you just want to freely explore. But the exciting and varied battle system, the impeccable visuals and the bonkers yet brilliant central story idea make this one of the most charmingly enjoyable games I've played in a while.