A genre that seems to be lacking in force on the Xbox 360 is the RPG - more specifically, the traditional Japanese RPG. Although the genre itself may not always sell the greatest in comparison to the several shooters that are churned out on a regular basis, there is definitely a pocket of gamers that want to get deeply engrossed into a massive storyline while battling evil, levelling up their characters along the way to learn new abilities and skills. Earlier in the year, we finally got to experience Blue Dragon - and now, we have Eternal Sonata. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Japanese RPG that you've been waiting for, and if you're a fan of the genre, Eternal Sonata will give you tingles in all the right places.
One of the most important aspects of any RPG is of course the storyline; the thing that's going to be holding your interest from the very beginning of the experience all the way up until the finish line. In Eternal Sonata, your characters all exist inside the mind of famous composer Frederic Chopin during the final hours of his life. As he slips away from reality, his mind turns to fantasy, and the events that take place in the game all have relation to the major events of his life. It may sound confusing at first, but it's all told in such an imaginative way that you won't care if it entirely makes sense (not many JRPG's do anyway), as you will just enjoy being taken on the ride. As the game begins, you'll be introduced to two central characters who, at this point, don't know each other and are living seperate lives with different circumstances. Polka, a young girl who has a fatal illness which allows her to use magic powers and Allegretto, a boy who steals bread for the poor and lives on the streets with his friend Beat.
At this stage of the game, the concept of the game is introduced along with the rules of combat and an understanding of how the game is actually played. Combat takes place when you actually run into an enemy that's in your way - no random battles here. This means that combat can be easily avoided if you move swiftly, which is handy for avoiding battles that don't garner much experience. That being said, levelling up your characters with these battles is important, as the bosses that you'll face are quite strong and will dominate you if you haven't bothered to battle as much as possible.
The combat system in Eternal Sonata is somewhat unique and works like a charm - focusing on the use of light and dark to create different battle styles. Most of the battle-fields that you are taken to once you run into an enemy are mixed with areas of light and dark, created by shadows of the sunlight or moonlight seperating different scattered parts of the field. The attacks at your disposal change depending on where your character is standing; for example, if you're in the light, using a move like Sun Slash would be good at close range, whilst in darkness, you could use a life-draining mana attack from a distance.
This general rule applies to enemies as well, and some will actually change their form depending on where they are standing. A harmless looking little creature in the light could turn into a humungous monster in the dark. It means that you'll need to apply a little more strategy to your battles rather than just running in and attacking, using the variants of the field to try to shift the advantage in your direction. Battles are turn-based, but you can move around and attack in real time for as long as it is your turn, which means that you're never sitting and waiting for your actions to take effect. This in turn makes the combat much more hands-on.
It's probably important to mention here that you can't control the camera as you move your characters through the game-world. It's fixed and will follow you from specific angles as you move. To be honest, it didn't bother us that much, but some people may be put off by the fact that they have no real say on where the camera points, just the control over the characters themselves. It does mean however that the environments remain consistently stunning and, well... beautiful throughout the whole experience. There really is no other way to describe them. Everything just looks so magical and the art style of the game is so visually impressive that it's sometimes easy to lose yourself just looking at the surroundings. Even the cut-scenes boast great animation and visuals, with the characters all fitting in with their unusual surroundings perfectly.
The music in the game is very easy on the ears, and features some works from Chopin himself. Being a game based on the dreams of a composer, we'd expect the music in the game to be top quality, and it is, with the score always being nice to listen to and the battle music being equally as well made whilst also putting you into the monster-killing mood. There is even a mini-game where you can find pieces of music throughout the game and then compare them with other pieces of music that NPC's have found, trying to match them up. It's a simple but fun distraction. The voice acting also isn't as terrible as it is in many other games converted to English from Japanese, although there are a couple of characters that get on your nerves. The option to change to the Japanese voices with subtitles has been added though, so if the voices really are bugging you, you can always switch it over.
There are a couple of problems with what is otherwise a wonderful experience, however. The story drags on at some points, and while RPG fans might not mind, the casual gamer could easily be put off by the amount of sitting and waiting they'll have to do - especially during the opening portions of the game. The game is also a bit shorter than your average RPG, lasting around the 25 hour mark (or a bit longer for those that like to explore every little detail), so those looking for an incredibly long experience won't find it here. The combat is also somewhat easy at times if you level up your characters early enough - only the bosses really become threatening at later points in the game, for example. Some could also argue that it's not entirely original compared to other RPG's available, but given the lack of RPG options so far this generation, we're willing to let it slide.
Eternal Sonata is easily one of the more impressive RPG's that we have seen in recent years. Combining the history of Chopin with a magically far-out narrative and combined with some of the most beautiful visuals and audio we've seen on the console, Namco Bandai have done wonders here. Although it may not draw in anyone who wasn't a fan of RPG's before and it could be a little short or simplistic for the hardcore JRPG fans out there, it's hard to deny the quality of the game when it's been released onto a console whose target audience is usually more interested in blowing up stuff. Eternal Sonata gives us hope for the future of the genre not only on the Xbox 360, but on all current generation consoles, and we recommend this to anyone who has even the faintest interest in this style of game.