Japanese RPGs seem to have become less prominent in the US market when it comes to fantasy video games. In previous years there would be a Final Fantasy, a Dragon Quest, or a Shin Megami Tensei game coming out one after another. Squaresoft/Square Enix was releasing RPGs left and right with various franchises eating up the market. However, Western RPGs have established a strong niche with games like World of Warcraft, Dragon Age: Origins, and Fallout. There are the games like Call of Duty that have seemingly taken some of the unique qualities of the genre and made it mainstream as well. With all this competition, JRPGs have fallen behind in their once flourishing popularity in the United States. There was the release of Final Fantasy XIII, which enjoyed some commercial success both here and in Japan after the many long-awaited years, but that game has a long list of issues and problems behind the design that is worth discussing. It stuck to problematic clichés and tried to be different in certain ways without being successful. But this review isn’t about Final Fantasy.
Instead, this Late Bird Review is about a JRPG that went with a traditional style, but consistently delivered an unexpected perspective. Eternal Sonata was a game that has been out for years, but like some hidden eastern RPG gems, it deserves to be put in the spotlight once again.
Rather than starting with story, it seems more prudent to get gameplay mechanics out of the way. The gameplay starts off simple enough like most other JRPGs. There is a path for the player to walk and enemies of the area will be patrolling. Should the character bump into these creatures, a battle sequence will initiate and players will have to defeat all the creatures on screen before the battle is over and he/she can progress on. The more battles you fight, the stronger you become; it’s RPG 101.
The interesting thing about this formula is how Eternal Sonata messes with the norm. Even though it is all turn-based and the player takes control of one character at a time during battle sequences, each character has their own fighting styles and unique special moves. The payoff is that as a character strikes an opponent—with either normal or special attacks—an “echo meter” fills up. The echo meter is essentially a multiplier for the characters’ special moves. So if the number reaches the maximum 32 and a character unleashes a special attack, the results are likely to be very fruitful. And since each character is timed during their turn, there is only so much time to get to the enemy and fill up that meter before it’s someone else’s turn; so a fair amount of strategy is involved in who is going after whom, as well as what moves to use.
Aside from the normal risks involved in the battles in an RPG, there is also the environment to take into account. In Eternal Sonata there is distinct difference between fighting in the light and the dark. The special moves of each character are dependent on whether or not that character is standing in the shade or light. This can be as drastic as making a healer in the sunlight the heaviest hitter on the team once he/she moves into the shadow.
The shadows also have an influence on the enemies as well. Not only do their moves change but they also may transform into another creature entirely. The transformation can have profound effects on the enemies’ health and defense as well. This can force the player to employ tactics to keep the enemies from straying into the wrong part of the battle arena and becoming too difficult to handle.
This is still all relatively simple and straightforward, so much that the average person might think that the gameplay gets boring. But Eternal Sonata constantly throws a curveball into the system. The characters may get more powerful after hours of grinding. And defeating the usual minions might be easy enough, until a point in the story offsets the system and the “Party Level” goes up. This is when the rules change. Simple things change like the amount of time players have to decide on what to do before time starts running out for their turn. While others like linking up the special moves of several characters and counter attacks completely change the game and become crucial to survival. The core gameplay remains, but the strategies become more and more complex, keeping the dungeons from being entirely dreadful.
This cannot completely save Eternal Sonata from being frustrating or redundant. There were many dungeons that felt like an eternity (pun intended). Fight, after fight, after fight, it didn’t matter how rewarding the gameplay was, the dungeons stretched on for too long. Not to mention the fluctuation in difficulty.
There were plenty of dungeons that went on at great length but proved little challenge, until the boss showed up. Suddenly the difficulty level would jump as the computer AI knew various special techniques to prey on character weaknesses. The toughest bosses always employed some complex strategies involving minions, item usage, healing, or status effects. If each of these were by itself, the battles wouldn’t be too difficult, but often they were all part of the enemy’s arsenal. Plus, the bosses tended to be some 10 levels above the characters in their power. There were plenty of retries and strategic plays in order to progress.
Gameplay was perhaps the weakest link in the chains that bind Eternal Sonata together, which isn’t saying much. The story is phenomenal and the presentation is stunning. What is truly interesting about the game is how it presents itself on the surface level and how much that contrasts with the deeper meanings buried in the writing. At first glance the style and look of the characters and the world may seem like they were from a cutesy anime, as though this could be a game for all ages. But it is far from any child’s game. Characters die—with monologues that rival Hamlet—and they talk about impending death at great length with a certain detachment in some areas and a fearful passion in others. There is an ominous foreshadowing that plagues the minds of the characters about the destinies of people and what should be done in either fighting or accepting it.
The reason for such a pessimistic attitude amongst some of the characters is that one of whom is Frédéric Chopin, the classical composer from the 1800s, dreaming his last dream before he dies. The story of Eternal Sonata centers around a sweet and thoughtful girl named Polka who is destined to die at an early age and is showing signs that her death will be soon. She knows this, yet is relatively accepting of everything and prepared for whatever fate may bring her.
Then she meets Frédéric on the cliffs, who claims that he is experiencing a dream and that she is merely a fabrication of his mind, thus he is something of a god in this reality. She doubts him and tests to see if he’s right or not, however, she does not give an answer to the test till later. This interaction is well written in a way that lets the players become involved and guess on who might be right or wrong. And even when the answer is given, it’s difficult to determine who might actually be telling the truth.
It doesn’t take long before the two meet some other characters and the story quickly becomes involved in bigger matters than the last wishes of a young girl or the ravings of a man claiming to be dreaming while he is on his death bed. The characters begin a journey to inform a noble of his wrongdoings in a very naïve fashion and quickly get swept up in a poverty stricken rebellion and political battle between two nations on the verge of war.
With the various subject matters at its disposal, it’s surprising how interesting the story stays to the end of the game. The random passing of a group of simple people to change the tide in the poor people’s rebellion and the rising tension between nations is not a new concept in an RPG. And if the game were constantly obsessing over death or political unrest, the heaviness would keep the game from being truly enjoyable. It would be a tiresome journey with little to look forward to.
But Eternal Sonata manages to take these heavy themes and bounce them around characters that have a particular perspective that manages to make the game seem more relatable. The naïve and innocent nature of the children in the group as well as how the adults are seeking some solace on their journey makes it easier to want some sort of happy ending for these people. It’s enough happiness to make the player forget about all the major troubles for a moment in time before the heaviness hits really hard once again. This pacing is what made Eternal Sonata so difficult to put down.
By the end of the game, practically a dozen people have joined the party, each providing their own unique uses and flair to the game (the PS3 version received 2 extra playable characters), but none were more intriguing that Chopin. Though a brilliant classical composer in reality, his role in this game was something along the lines of a Jedi Knight. He would travel with the other characters and observe as the plot of their world would be discussed. Tensions growing between two nations, sickness spreading in the village, a poisonous medicine were all subjects for discussion, yet Chopin stayed relatively silent about the issues, until the conversation needed to shift. In many ways Chopin was a plot device, almost a foil to the plot itself. There would be many moments where the story seemed to be going in a certain direction, and his interference would change things drastically. This only became more interesting as the game approached its finale and it became difficult to tell where or how the story would end. It was undoubtedly a brilliant end, albeit a very confusing one.
Throughout the story it would rely on archetypes and clichés. This would normally turn most players off, but it became apparent rather quickly that there was more to the storytelling techniques of Eternal Sonata. It seemed that though each story arc or situation would start out with a familiar scenario, it would end in a somewhat unexpected way. For instance, at one point the group suspects betrayal, and though the culprit is obvious, the interaction between characters and how the situation is handled is hardly expected. One could see the plot twists coming but not know how they would be resolved, which is what made the game so interesting.
That isn’t to say that the game’s storyline is flawless. Though the characters have their own unique quirks and their personalities tend to grow on the player during the experience, there can be moments where they can also be a little grating. The kid characters’ naïve personalities can help keep the mood upbeat, but also feel annoying nonetheless. There were plenty of “duh” moments where it would have been nice if they had just moved on, rather than spell obvious things out for the players via the characters that didn’t understand. Not to mention there were also some awkward moments of comedy using random dialogue or sound effects that had their own purposes that were likely lost in translation.
Perhaps the least interesting character was the villain. The villain is cruel through and through with his motivations not really being clear because of their simplicity. All the way to the end he is portrayed with a blunt viciousness that never transcends brutality. The result is an unredeemable antagonist; this only motivates the player to defeat him but not really to revel in the victory or to seek any deep meaning out of him. But thankfully, he barely garnered much focus throughout the game and more attention was paid to the characters in the party.
The game is stunning for both the eyes and the ears. It constantly feels like the world was conjured in the dreams of an artist; and with the inclusion of Chopin as a playable character in this game, it isn’t surprising the developers would use some of his music to add to the experience.
Every place the characters visit is bright and vibrant with color. Even the dark cavernous dungeons are littered with primary colors that stand out amongst the shadows. The villages and landscapes all have a cartoonish and surreal look. Nothing seems outlandish and wild, but the shapes are all slightly exaggerated where round houses look slightly even more round than expected. It makes the journey feel very much like something out of a fantasy anime.
The characters themselves were mentioned before as being anime characters with their oversized eyes and soft features. They also had a particular stance when they weren’t doing anything that seemed a little puzzling at first. Every character holds out their arms at an angle from their body that just makes them all look like silhouettes of bells. It’s strange in the beginning, but easily ignored.
The main thing that is so interesting is the designs of the characters themselves. There are the basic ones with costumes and styles that don’t stand out. But Frédéricand several others steal the show with their dynamic look. Plus their weapon choice can be intriguing as well. The character Jazz wields a heavy sword that has pieces of a saxophone along its edge. The integration of music into the character and weapon design just makes the presentation that much more surprising and interesting as the game goes on.
Motoi Sakuraba composes the soundtrack that mimics the soft melancholy and dramatic tension that can be found in Chopin’s music. Even the battle music that plays so frequently in the game is able to rival those in the Final Fantasy games in its ability to be heard over and over without easily becoming annoying. The music has the classical sound one might expect from the typical JRPG with the influence of Chopin.
Chopin’s own music makes its appearance as well. Those who aren’t familiar with the man as a composer might find this game a good introduction to his work and his history, though in an unfamiliar fashion. In a somewhat artistic method that is still difficult to understand, the game will break away from the world of Eternal Sonata entirely and show water color landscape paintings with Chopin’s music behind it as text appears detailing moments in Chopin’s life and his possible philosophies. It can be jarring at times to go from an important political discussion among the characters and then suddenly be shown the impressionist view on where Chopin once lived along with the music he may have associated with that place. This text, meanwhile, goes on at great length about Chopin as a person and as a composer, yhe influences of his life, any emotional turmoil he may have been feeling, the political climate of the time, and how the song is likely an interpretation of various influence. It’s interesting material, but told in a rather informal way that feels out of place despite its artistic efforts.
Is this game worth hunting down? Absolutely. It is one of the best JRPG’s in years that isn’t overrun with the typical melodrama or ridiculous plots that try to be more interesting by using cheap gimmicks. From the beginning to the very confusing and dramatic end, there is a deliberate style to the game that makes it difficult to put down. The gameplay is solid and exciting by constantly switching things up. And the presentation is simply stunning both in the visual and audio departments. Go buy it before it disappears!
GamesBeat 2014 — VentureBeat’s sixth annual event on disruption in the video game market — is coming up on Sept 15-16 in San Francisco. Purchase one of the first 50 tickets and save $400!