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Review #224

Eternal Sonata
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Developer: Tri-Crescendo
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 10/22/2008

When Eternal Sonata came out this time last year for the Xbox 360, it received some nice praise from critics and positive reviews. The game sold decently and now we see a remixed version of the title coming to Sony’s Playstation 3. October 2008 seems to be a good month for 360 castoff’s onto Sony’s third place machine. Both Bioshock and Eternal Sonata came out on the same day and both originally saw success on the 360. I know many PS3 fans were both happy to be finally getting these games and grumbling because the titles weren’t multisystem in the first place. Me? I’m just happy to have both of them with some extra content. Eternal Sonata was the only real game that interested me for the 360 besides Operation Darkness. Now that it’s here on the PS3, I have no real need to pick up a 360 save for a few games off of live that I want like the HD remake of Ikaruga and TMNT: The Arcade Game.

So has my year of waiting for a PS3 port of this JRPG been worth it, or have I instead found myself disappointed after experiencing the likes of Disgaea 3 and Folklore for the PS3?

Let’s Review

1. Story

This is the story of Frederic Chopin’s death. Except it isn’t. This is the story of Retto and Beat, two brothers trying to help the poor and oppressed survive in a heavily taxed society. Except it isn’t. This is the story of Polka, a young girl with magical powers suffering from a fatal illness and who longs to experience love, friendship and adventure. Except it isn’t.

Eternal Sonata is a very surreal game constantly forcing you to ask yourself if you are playing through Chopin’s fever induced dream right before he passes from this world, or if Chopin’s consciousness has actually entered an alternate dimension or reality and is watching the events of this world unfold before unexpectedly become part of the story himself. The original ending of this game was frustrating to many gamers as they seemed to want a clear-cut answer of what was going on rather than a taste of existentialism in gaming. Well, the PS3 version of ES does in fact have multiple endings, but from the two I have seen, the game seems to remain clearly in the realm of open interpretation rather than hand holding for the Albert Camus-deficient. Needless to say, I really enjoyed this story twist and muddling of the basic nature of the plot. Without it, this would have been just another generic JRPG in tone and feel.

The game has some pretty long cut scenes. And I mean very long. At times I felt like there was more time watching the game then actually playing it. Interspersed with the game’s story are actual historical anecdotes about the life of Chopin. Each of these stories has an allegorical meaning towards what is actually happening in the game at that point, although these points are subtle and may be lost on the average gamer. This was another fun point of the story for me, as I liked a little bit of real world history mixed into my games.

This was a fun whimsical story that alternated between melancholia and cute light hearted Japanese fun fluff. I really enjoyed the characters and the first real look at reality by an RPG since the first two (actually three) Persona games.

I dreamt I was a butterfly. I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming. But when I woke, I was I and not a butterfly. Was I dreaming that I was the butterfly, or was the butterfly dreaming that it was me?

-Soshi

Story rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

Eternal Sonata is a nice looking game. It’s not something that pushes the graphical capabilities of the PS3, or even the 360, but it’s as strong as the best titles for the Xbox/PS2. I really enjoyed the character designs and the almost but not really cell-shading that the game has. It keeps the game feeling like the dreamlike state it is supposed to represent.

The backgrounds of the game were my favorite part From the wind rippling through a vast field to the clouds in the sky, everything was nicely done and I was impressed with all the little touches put in the game.

The only thing I can really nitpick on are the enemies. There’s not a lot of variety in the enemy designs and most of them are foppish or even ugly. I was generally disappointed with the boss fights as I was looking for something more detailed or fearsome in those major battles. Still, at least these bosses were original in appearance, which is at least something going for them.

The game is quite fun to look at and the graphics fit the mood of the game perfectly. Is Eternal Sonata going to blow anyone’s mind visually. Nope, but it’s still acute little game with acceptable graphics that add, rather than detract, from the experience, and that’s all that matters.

Graphics Rating: 6.5/10

3. Sound

This is easily Eternal Sonata’s strongest point. Not only is the game filled with the music Chopin wrote in his life time, which should automatically get the game a perfect score here for thematic continuity, but the voice acting cast is wonderful and contains some of my favorite dubbing actors. Beat, the younger brother of Retto? He is played by Mona Marshall, best known as Sheila Broflovski from South Park and the replacement for Petrea Buchard as Ryoko in Tenchi Muyo! You might recognize Viola as Lenneth Valykrie from Valkyrie Profile or as Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny from the Pokemon anime. Jazz is D.C. Douglas aka Albert Wesker from Resident Evil And Claves is Tara Platt best known for voicing the most hasted character in Megaten history – Elizabeth. This is just a sampling of the voice cast, and what a great crew it is.

With amazing music and a top notch voice acting cast, Eternal Sonata would almost make a better animated movie or TV series then a video game. I could just sit back and close my eyes and listen to the game unfold and be perfectly content. The vocal and aural aspect of the game met and then surpassed my expectations.

Sound Rating: 10/10

4. Control and Gameplay

As much as I’ve raved about the game so far, you may be surprised to learn that I actually didn’t enjoy PLAYING it. There were times when I just wanted to put down the control in a rage of profanity because I had just endured about an hour of cut scenes, then 15 minutes of battles. Then I died and because there had been so save point in a large amount of time, I had to go all the way back to where I was when last I saved, which was right before a boss battle. Annoying as hell. This is 2008. This should not be the time of limited rare save spots. That occurred in the 8 and 16 bit generation due to technology. I want to be able to save anytime, anywhere so as not to have to repeat a massive amount of cut scenes. Thank god you can at least skip them in this game. Still, a lack of save spots and story bits that take up more time than the actual playing time of the game is a big turn off for me.

As well, I’m a bit annoyed that Eternal Sonata took a step back to the consoles of 2-3 generations ago where you can only have three characters in your active party at once. Remember the Sega Genesis? Shining Force offered you 12 playable guys at once. Jesus, even Final Fantasy finally went back to 4 characters with XII. What’s the point in having 8 playable characters when the majority of them have to sit out combat? You just end up burning extra time into the game by trying to keep everyone at a relative level, or you utterly ignore all the characters save for three and thus become only attached to those particular ones. This is huge gameplay flaw in my opinion, but also an empathetic one.

The actual battles are a mix of turn based gaming and action rpgs. When it is your character’s turn you have five second to move and button mash for attacks. That’s right. The more you hit the attack button, the more attacks you will get in. As well, when you repeatedly attack, you will build something called echoes, which is like your special attack meter. The more you fill this, the more damage your special attacks will do. This is all okay, but the game feels like a second rate Grandia especially with how much time it takes for you (or your opponent) to actually do a move.
You also have two choices of special attacks: Light and Dark. As you might surmise, the type of special attack you can do depending on the amount of light in the area. As you level up you learn new attacks from both formats and can set which attack you would like to do. Once in battle though, you are stuck with that one specific attack. Really? A single special move and that’s it? I have to say this too was a gameplay turn-off. I also have minor quibbles with the defense actions in the game, as there really is no rhyme or reason as to when you hit the button. Again, though things like this are minor compared to my bigger complaints.

My biggest annoyance gameplay was the use of items. You have a limited amount of item slots for your team that you can take into battle. That’s it, even if you have a ton of other items in your inventory. Even worse, some items take up two to three slots, limiting your healing items. God forbid you want one Angel trumpet per character as they bring a character back to life. One restoration item per character? Makes sense right? Well as they take up nine slots, that leaves you with a SINGLE SLOT for a meager healing item. Ouch. Even worse, If I have 100 peach cookies (a healing item) and I use one in combat, you would think the game would automatically fill that slot again, right? WRONG. You have to manually fill that empty slot outside of combat each time you use an item. So half of the time you are “playing” Eternal Sonata, you are watching cut scenes and a fourth of the time you are filling item slots. That means 25% of your time you MIGHT be actually fighting or using the controller in some way. This is just depressing to me. Such potential cluttered up by a god awful engine.

One nice thing I can say about the game is that you have three player co-op on the PS3 version. This is nice, but is serves only to leave three people annoyed with the gameplay instead of one. Still, it’s nice to have the option.

I was very disappointed with Eternal Sonata gameplay. As I said earlier, this felt like a third rate attempt to copy Grandia’s unique engine, but then forgetting to put in everything that made that game great. With limited save points, dungeons that go on far longer then they need to, an alarming lack of enemy designs and a poorly implemented battle system in every way possible, Eternal Sonata had me enjoying the story but wishing I was playing the new Castlevania or remake of Star Ocean instead.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 3/10

5. Replayability

With some new endings, two optional dungeons and some more bonus content added into the game, Eternal Sonata on the PS3 offers more replay value then its original version on the 360. As well, since you can only have three people on your team at a time, you can easily replay the game with a different team of characters. Well, for part of the game anyway. For many hours you have that core team of four you’re stuck with no matter what.

Even though ES is a very linear game, some new optional content helps make the game worth a second go around if you can live with the engine, or god help you, you even like it. Even a fun and original story isn’t enough to get me back in the driver’s seat for this title.
Replayability Rating: 5/10

6. Balance

>Funny story. The 360 version of ES was criticized for being too easy and for giving out too much gold. So for some reason instead of balancing out the game a bit, Tri-Cresendo went the exact opposite direction and made things a bit hard at times. Enemies have been made harder and they given you less experience points. You do less damage and take more from enemy attacks. The amount of gold you get has been drastically reduced, especially for pictures taken by Beat. In short the game has gone from almost too easy, to being a douche at times as your characters will be too weak to deal with enemies in a new area when you first enter it. Factor in that nice lack of save spots and the horrible item management system, and you will be swearing at times from how screwed you are.

That’s not to say the game is constantly a jerk. Once you gain a few levels and some new items, the enemies become pushovers as they were in the 360 version. So instead of balancing the game, it is now even worse off with the extreme flip flopping on difficulty. Again, this is a real disappointment and god help you that you don’t die an hour or more since you last encountered a save point.

I honestly can’t say Eternal Sonata is balanced in the slightest. It’s poorly designed in this regard and the issues the balance suffers from are compounded by a poorly done engine and bizarre gameplay decisions.

Balance Rating: 3/10

7. Originality

Yay! I can go back to being positive about this game. I love how outside the box the story and characters of Eternal Sonata can be. Even though I didn’t like the engine, I can appreciate that they were trying to build off the ideas put in place by games like the aforementioned GrandiaPhantom Brave.

It’s rare you see an RPG try to use real life characters and historical events in the game. Shadow Hearts and Koudelka spring to mine for me, but they go a little deeper then ES does in these areas.

Eternal Sonata certainly has some noticeable flaws, but it’s a innovative little game that tries to go outside the box, and I respect for this at the very least.

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

Middle of the road here. I loved the story and voice acting. I hated the gameplay and felt it to be an unbalanced poorly designed engine. Every time I really got into the story and wanted to see what would happen next, I’d have to traverse a dungeon featuring only 2-3 different types of enemies who would act and react in the same way every time. This became rather montinous and boring for me and just as I was about to say “Screw it, I’m done.” I’d get a neat story bit…that would go on for way too long and have me start to get bored again. Again, a lack of balance here kills the momentum and the ability to really enjoy this game. If the game has given you a better play time to cut scene ratio and spread the scenes out instead of doing three in a row at times without a break, I think it would have kept the game more interesting. Instead, it’s merely a title that only held my interest in passing.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

Eternal Sonata has a few strikes against it. The first is that there was little to no buzz about this game coming to the PS3. When I mentioned I was reviewing this to some of my staff, the reaction was, “Why are you reviewing a year old Xbox game?” Many EB/Gamestop employees didn’t even know this title had been ported and remixed for the PS3. Bad marketing and PR there Namco Bandai.

Another big strike is the existential nature of the game’s story. People were frustrated with the 360 version due to the obtuse nature of the plot and the constant switching from a dying Chopin in France to the fantasy world where the actual gameplay takes place in. Knowing that most US gamers aren’t fans of titles that don’t spell everything out for you means it’ll be hard to recommend ES to your average PS3 owner.

On the other hand, there’s not a lot of RPG’s out for the PS3. You have Folklore, which doesn’t REALLY count. You have Disgaea 3, which I admit I liked a lot better but is also a much longer and more in-depth game. The only other RPG I can think of for the system is Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom, which is a fun but mindless hack and slash action RPG. So for RPG players who only own a PS3, this is one of their only options. Still, ES is the weakest of the four options I mentioned above, so it’s more a “If you didn’t like the other three and you can’t wait of Valkyria Chronicles, hey pick this up” then a ringing endorsement.

Appeal Factor: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

Okay, someone please explain to me the logic behind charging $60 for a game that has been on the 360 for over a year now and that you can pick up used for about twenty dollars for any major gaming store. Seriously? Sixty dollars for a port? Even Vampire Rain was that stupid. VAMPIRE RAIN. Either Namco Bandai was greedy or they went way over budget somehow transferring this to Blue-Ray. Somehow I doubt it’s the latter.
Fun plot, bad balance. Cute character, awful engine. Great voice acting and music, mind bogglingly bad item management system. I certainly can’t recommend Eternal Sonata, but I can’t give it a thumb’s down either. It’s basically a flawed game where the developers meant well by trying to correct some of the complaints the 360 version received, but then they missed their mark and actually made things worse. Oops. At least their heart was in the right place. Too bad my sixty dollars isn’t in the right spot though.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores:
Story: 7/10
Graphics: 6.5/10
Sound: 10/10
Control and Gameplay: 3/10
Replayability: 5/10
Balance: 3/10
Originality: 6/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10
Total Score: 55.5
FINAL SCORE: 5.5 (DECENT GAME)

Short Attention Span Summary
Eternal Sonata is a bit of a disappointment. It’s strong story and music are at times overshadowed by poor gameplay and an unbalanced engine. It’s still a charming title with a lot of fun bits that are sure to make you smile. Is it worth sixty dollars when you can get the 360 version for two-thirds less? Definitely not. This is only a purchase for those who own just a PS3 and are looking for a more traditional RPG then Disgaea 3 or Dark Kingdoms. Again, I’d love to see this game as an anime or movie, but I’d rather not have to sit through the actual playing of it again.

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