I dislike bullet point reviews almost as much as I dislike people who smile too much and eat pasta salad. And yet, there are so many different aspects of Eternal Sonata that bear commenting on that I find myself gravitating towards the wretched format. So, instead of cleverly disguising a bullet point review with the absence of bullets, let me simply reassure myself that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like me” and dive into the shallow depths of sound bite commentary.
Quick review: Eternal Sonata is a truly beautiful but ultimately flawed game that delivers barely enough substance to warrant my recommendation.
ES got largely positive reviews both on major US review sites and in the international community. The Japanese sales numbers for the game also speak of its popularity. The accolades that are heaped onto the game focus on its look and immersive atmosphere; but no one seems to notice, or care, that Eternal Sonata fails as an RPG. (Provided you think, as I do, that a solid, comprehensible, narrative is the lifeblood of any decent RPG)
There are many more things that are wrong with Eternal Sonata than those that are right. And yet, for me, in the end, the scales are pretty well balanced based on the sheer ‘fun’ factor of those things that are right. Here is a tidy list.
* The villain is so young that it is hard to take him seriously. I think he’s 12. Seriously. For me, this really hurt the plot. I did not know whether to battle Count Waltz or send him off to bed without supper. He certainly inspired neither fear nor awe. Now, I know it is a long standing tradition of Japanese RPG’s to make their characters look young and effeminate but this one sent me over the edge. Most of your characters in Eternal Sonata range from 8 to 17 years of age. And they look it. And I’m tired of it. Enough with the thinly disguised Lolita fetish folks. I really wish the Japanese would just go ahead and start practicing their pedophilia openly instead of repressing it into my God damned games. Not that I’m bashing pedophilia, oh no. Some of my best friends are pedophiles (‘Wink’ — Jay). It’s just that pedophiliac tendencies tend to spoil a plot.
* Money is simply too easy to earn. It takes away the joy of acquiring items and makes the game so easy that it feels a bit unbalanced. All you have to do is take pictures of a boss, (with a character who carries around a spare camera when he is not using his hybrid hammer/gun, of course) and then sell them for a tidy profit at the nearest store. About a third of the way through when the most expensive item in the game cost 1,500 gold pieces I had 500k. At that point I just stopped taking pictures and the money easily lasted me through the rest of the game.
* The built in Musical Score mini-game is entirely pointless. Matching your piece of a score to someone else’s in order to harmonize them is a cool idea, but it nets you very little. (At most an item that is a couple of points better than the one you already have.) Under these conditions, I felt no incentive to obsessively collect all the hidden score pieces. (Also, I hate to nitpick but…if this is all Chopin’s dream, which it is by the way, how come some of the score pieces are in the Rock genre, electric guitar solos and all? Chopin died in 1849. Unless Nicolas Cage’s Book of Secrets reveals that Rock was invented in 19th century Poland, this shit don’t make no sense. Also, there is a character called Jazz.)
* Speaking of Chopin and retarded… Between every chapter of the game the player is forced to watch a series of still photos while the brief and wildly speculative biography of the actual Chopin scrolls on the screen. When I saw the first installment of these interludes I actually got excited thinking that they were going to tie the actual events from Chopin’s life into the game. But no such luck. It seems the developers just wanted to force a pseudo, non-sequitur, history lesson on my ass; one which every so often would completely disrupt the flow of the game. As it pertains to the rest of the game, those juicy tidbits of Chopin’s life were as useless as a third nipple. And they stuck out just as much.
* The female characters of the game, in particular the main character herself, Polka, are so annoyingly voiced that in my heart of hearts I actually wished ill upon all those responsible for bringing them to life. If you don’t have a problem listening to Polka, you may have had an accident as a child. She is more annoying than Gilbert Gottfried talking to you about Jesus.
* The dialogue sounds very tired and repetitious. Every concept voiced in the game gets reiterated at least 27 times by every single character, a la:
Character 1: “Hey, we should go to the temple!”
Character 2: “Wait a second… what if we went to the temple?!”
Character 3: “Guys, I have an idea, let’s head over to the temple!”
Character 4: “Hold on a minute, what if instead of going to the temple… nah, I’m just kidding… Let’s go over to the temple!”
Meanwhile, I’m thinking: ‘I wonder if I should go to the temple.’ You get the point: ‘move it along people.’
* The above point is related to the fact that the ES is fairly short. Some of the conversations, and even entire cut scenes, often feel like filler material for a game that wants to hit a 20 hour mark and is straining to do so.
* Some puzzles are so hard/tedious, you’d be hard pressed not to refer to a walkthrough. Just remember this comment during the cemetery level and you’ll know what I mean. That level is more convoluted than Escher’s ‘Relativity’.
* The monsters in the game could be a little more creative. As it is, they feel like your run of the mill RPG monsters that do not stand out in any way. I would not normally make such a comment but I just got through playing Dragon Quest VIII and my standards got a little elevated. In my opinion, Eternal Sonata could learn a lot from that game when it comes to monster design.
* Eternal Sonata is vomitously full of pseudo intellectualism, preachiness and wistful discussions about life, death and art. At the end, as the credits roll, each character turns to the camera and asks the player to contemplate a philosophical question. I kid you not! Questions like: “When will human beings stop killing each other?” and my personal favorite, “If I eat a piece of bread and my neighbor eats a piece of bread, aren’t we really the same?” I’m not even paraphrasing here. This is verbatim what they say while standing against a black screen as the credits roll. Barf.
* I saved my biggest gripe for last. The narrative for Eternal Sonata is abysmal. The scale, the scope of the plot, is not nearly grand enough for an RPG. So, two countries are at war… Big whoop. Who gives a damn! Where is the supernatural evil force? Where the hell is the motivation of my characters? If this is Chopin’s dream he sure as hell dreams a crappy plot. I went through the entire game without being sure what the stakes are if my hero fails. That alone is instant death for any adventure narrative. Ultimately, this is where Eternal Sonata fails most spectacularly.
* No random encounters. All enemies are visible as you walk around. Thus, you can choose to avoid them or not. If you have killed them all and want to beef yourself up a bit more (you’ll never actually have a reason to do this) you exit an area, then re-enter it and the enemies reload. I like this quite a bit. Life is random enough, I don’t need it in my RPG’s.
* Visually, Eternal Sonata is stunning. It is dreamlike, fairytale-like, and intensely atmospheric. At one point the game takes you through a system of sewers that is so beautifully done that I quite sincerely said to my girlfriend, who likes the game a bit more than I do: “I’d like to live in those sewers.” She turned and said: “ummm, yeh!” as only she can. It’s ‘purdy’ is what I’m saying.
* The score is also delightful. It is obviously influenced by the music of Chopin but more importantly it’s one of the few truly non-repetitious RPG scores out there.
* There are many different playable characters to choose from, each with fairly distinct characteristics. At any given point you can only have three of those characters in your party. The good thing is that, in order to prevent favoritism, Eternal Sonata forces you to play with different configurations of those characters. This necessarily prevents a feeling common to many other RPG’s that some characters are useless. But if you like to play favorites, have no fear. Towards the last third of the game, once your party stops manically breaking up and reuniting, you settle into a permanent group of nine characters. At that point you can choose you favorite three and forget the other six or you can choose to alternate. (Even though only losers alternate when they don’t have to. ‘Wink’ Jay.)
* The strongest aspect of Eternal Sonata is by far the battle system. If anything redeems this poor excuse for a story it’s the battle system. It is engaging and dynamic; frantic yet well structured. Please note that this is coming from a guy who is fanatical about pure turn-based action. I take turn-based to mean just that. I go, then you go. And I like it that way. I know there have been other RPG’s that have tinkered with the turn based system to introduce a more ‘actiony’ feel but I have not played them because, as I said, I am fanatical about the purity of the turn-based action. So, for all I know Eternal Sonata may be borrowing some elements of it’s battle system from previous games. I can’t really tell because I have no context. All I know is that ES managed to challenge my previously held conviction about console RPG battle systems, and I want to give it the credit it deserves. The ‘tactical time’ allows you to plan your actions and the limited time of your turns sustains a well-balanced (and this is key) sense of pressure throughout the game.
Bottom line: Eternal Sonata succeeds in battle and miserably fails outside of it. So, if you play RPG’s for the leveling and monster bashing this is the game for you. If, however, you are looking for a game that synthesizes gameplay with an engaging narrative (you know, an RPG) you might want to give Eternal Sonata a second thought.
Also, Jay has sex with children.