First Look Fair: Eternal Sonata

My, my…my first real article in a month, and it’s a game review of all things. This isn’t just any game, though–it’s a very anime-ish game, featuring Hirano Aya no less as the main girl, and it offers a blend of story, music, and sensible gameplay that has me enthralled like I haven’t been since the old Final Fantasy games.

Eternal Sonata’s (aka Trusty Bell) premise is strange, and at first glance seems both hokey and convoluted. The action takes place within the dream world of the dying composer Frederic Chopin. We have no idea, of course, what the Polish pianist was really dreaming about when he was lying on his deathbed–chances are it wasn’t a colorful pastel world featuring big-eyed anime characters who all are named after musical terms, and who also all speak Japanese–but it does seem like an unpromising way to begin. After all, we know that Chopin actually dies, presumably taking his dream world with him. Why bother playing through a story whose conclusion is more or less certain? What’s going to be saved when the universe’s god, for lack of a better concept, ceases to be?

At the stage of the game I’m at, of course, I don’t know. I’ve only played through a few hours, and have only started getting into the meat of the story. What I’ve seen so far, however, gives me hope that they will find a way to address that dilemma, particularly in the story of the main female protagonist, Polka (played by Hirano Aya in one of her higher-pitched voices). She too, like Chopin, is dying of a terminal illness. She is trying to find ways to make her last moments meaningful. Interestingly enough, an avatar of Chopin appears early on in the game to accompany her through her journey, and my guess is that they will together learn something about their life’s value in their dying days. I’m told that the game is going to lean heavily into the poignancy and mono no aware department. While this game isn’t so far reaching the heights of Mushi-shi on that score–there is a definite “kiddishness” quality and feel to the game, akin to Final Fantasy’s lighter moments–it definitely announces its intentions from the start of the game onward.

The backdrops are gorgeous. The world of Chopin’s dreams is a colorful one, and the colors pop out of the screen. The amount of detail in the buildings, the sky, and the flora is far beyond anything from previous generation consoles, though arguably a lot of the designs in Final Fantasy XII are more striking and original. The color-saturated, almost pastel quality to the background art helps give the game a distinctly ‘anime’ look, which is of course accentuated by the character design and costumes–accompanied by the familiar voices of anime seiyuu like Hirano Aya and Kuwashima Houko. Of course, I could be raving simply because this is my first HD game, and since I happen to have a nice, big HD-capable Dell monitor, I was able to view the graphics in their full glory.

In terms of gameplay–this is a standard JRPG. Like in Final Fantasy, you wander around the world, running into enemies and fighting them, clicking on things in order to find hidden items and talking to NPCs who give you information. Save points appear from time to time on the map (though I wonder why we still need them in this day and age, when current generation consoles have hard drives). Thus, gameplay for JRPGs rises and falls on the battle system, and on that score, Eternal Sonata does not disappoint. Like most JRPGs, it’s turn based, but it manages to incorporate some fairly unique features without being overly complicated. Attacks, abilities, and even the shape and size of enemies change whether you are in sunlight or in shade, for instance, and you can adjust your movements accordingly. Movements and attacks are allowed within the time frame of a mvoement meter on the side. As your party grows in strength the system becomes more and more “real time,” where the meter runs down even when you’re standing still and trying to think of your next move. This definitely makes battles challenging at times, and forces one to do some strategizing probably after getting killed–and like any JRPG, it sucks to get killed and have to start over from the last save point. However, it’s head and shoulders above the overly complicated or clunky systems I encountered in games like Final Fantasy VIII and other games which require a lot of item and equipment management.

Finally, of course, there is the issue of music. Any game with a title like Eternal Sonata and featuring none other than Chopin had better have a good soundtrack. So far, Eternal Sonata features outstanding original music alongside selected Chopin piano pieces that play in chapter interludes. The battle music, which is currently playing in my head, manages to be unannoying; the melancholy music that plays in Polka’s angstier moments is quietly poignant, and most importantly seems to fit the spirit of a game that nominally centers around a classical musician. Whether it’s Nobuo Uematsu great remains to be seen, but the strongly melodic feel of the soundtrack so far is more memorable than ordinary background music at least.

It has been a long time since I finished an RPG (Final Fantasy X, I think, was the last one), and so far Eternal Sonata looks like it is well on its way to being one I’ll actually complete. The experience is certainly far more exciting than my few watchings of Tales of the Abyss, at least, and has the kind of aesthetic qualities that I appreciate in good anime. Now that it has both an Xbox 360 and a PS3 version, I highly recommend otakus with those systems to check it out, with the original Japanese language track of course.

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