Back in 2007, there was only one game that I genuinely anticipated. No, it wasn’t Bioshock – though Irrational’s (mostly) excellent game certainly occupied plenty of my time that year. And it wasn’t The Orange Box, whose contents were a largely unknown quantity until we finally managed to get our hands on them after release.
No, the game I really wanted was tri-Crescendo’s wonderful Eternal Sonata (known as Trusty Bell: Chopin’s Dream in its native Japan), a game which plucked legendary Romantic-era composer Chopin out of history and placed him in a beautiful cel-shaded world that may, or may not, all have been a dying man’s fever dream.
For those that aren’t aware, Chopin’s story in real life is one of tragedy. The Polish pianist, who died at the age of 39 after contracting tuberculosis, left his home country at the age of 20 after seeing the way the wind was blowing and made himself a home in Paris. A month later, his homeland attempted to rise up against the might of the Russian Empire in an event that would later become known as the November Uprising.
Eternal Sonata is remarkably mature in its approach to telling what is, by and large, a relatively straightforward JRPG tale of evil Empires and international conflict. It’s Chopin’s presence that elevates it to something special, and the development team were keen to ensure that their tribute to the great composer, remained as faithful as possible within the limitations of the game’s script – even going as far to ask Warsaw’s Frédéric Chopin Society to proofread the game’s localized script. Despite this desire for accuracy, the story of Eternal Sonata doesn’t take place in the real world, and the game takes many liberties with historical fact. The entire game takes place as Chopin lies on his deathbed in the final hours of his life, looked after by his long-term partner – the female novelist George Sand – and his Doctor. Throughout the story, the game cuts back to this room, and the short interludes provide a change in tone from the otherwise light-hearted atmosphere, while serving to remind the player that everything is playing out inside Chopin’s fevered imagination. In real life, Chopin and Sand’s relationship ended in 1847 after a bitter break-up.
Indeed, the real-life Chopin was anything but light-hearted. Famously rude and arrogant, he had a habit of driving his loved ones away, even as they found themselves unable to leave his side due to his frequent bouts of illness. He was also an anti-semite. None of these things can be said to be desirable characteristics, and so tri-Crescendo opted for a more romantic interpretation of the composer (pun not intended), making him far more agreeable, albeit with a deep sense of loneliness – a portrayal that has often been adopted over the years in an attempt to cast the man in a far more sympathetic light, one more deserving of his legendary status.
Over the 20-30 hour story, Chopin is gradually brought out of his shell by the supporting cast, particularly a young girl named Polka (most of the characters in the game are named after musical terms). Polka, like Chopin himself, is dying. Not from tuberculosis, but as a side-effect of being born with the ability to use magic. Despite this, and despite being shunned by the rest of society, Polka is a remarkably chirpy character. This relentless happiness can become a bit grating, and really she isn’t all that different from the legions of annoyingly cheerful young girls in hundreds of other Japanese RPGs, but for the most part, her interactions with Chopin are often surprisingly touching.
What immediately impresses about Eternal Sonata is, without a doubt, the gorgeous visuals. While many other games from the last generation are showing their age – just look at early titles like Perfect Dark Zero and Resistance: Fall of Man – [pullquote]Eternal Sonata has a timeless beauty thanks to its use of a cel-shaded anime style and vivid colors[/pullquote]. It’s as impressive to look at now as it was upon the game’s release – barring its lack of anti-aliasing – with gorgeously-realized environments only let down by the lack of an adjustable camera. You’ll want to admire each locale from every angle, but unfortunately you’re locked into seeing the world through a series of static angles. tri-Crescendo juxtaposes this cartoon beauty with real-life photographs and art portraits throughout the game, recounting the life of the composer and lending the game an educational element that teaches you without being obnoxious or obvious about it. A JRPG that teaches you musical history? It shouldn’t work, but it does, and it’s a shame that we don’t see many other games attempting this. Perhaps if we did, more would value the potential of videogames as a learning tool, and not just as throwaway entertainment. Certainly, it would be a new way for kids to cause their parents to back off and let them enjoy their favorite hobby.
The characters, while largely consisting of the standard tropes and stereotypes that will be familiar to anyone with experience of the genre, are also well-designed, with an impressive amount of detail and lively animation that brings their personality to life. [pullquote]From Polka’s ruffled dress to Crescendo’s intricate and elaborately detailed royal garb, the game’s cast are awash with lovingly-crafted detail[/pullquote] of a sort we don’t often see in a medium where it’s often far easier for artists and animators to clothe their characters in tight-fitting outfits. Even the hair in Eternal Sonata, while not animated, is made up of multiple layers of differing lengths, rather than the short haircuts and tight ponytails that were so ubiquitous throughout the last generation. A level of detail is applied to each character that clearly shows Eternal Sonata was labor of love for the developer.
While the moment to moment gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a JRPG before, innovations do exist. The biggest of these are to be found in the game’s battle system. Encounter an enemy on the field (there are no random battles to be found here) and you’ll find your party transported to a miniature arena. So far, so standard. But light and dark play a large role in combat. Each character in your party (there are 12 to choose from in all, but you can only have 3, including Chopin, in battle at once) has a set of unique abilities which entirely change depending on whether they’re currently standing in a lit area or in shadow. Some dynamic elements, such as clouds which roll over the arena, casting different parts of it in shadow as battles progress, mean that positioning is of huge importance in the game.
The monsters are affected as much by light and dark as your party, too – though while it’s only your abilities which change depending on how well-lit you are, some monsters undergo complete transformations – so a small, weak creature might suddenly becoming a huge threat once plunged into shadow, requiring a complete change in how you tackle it. It’s a clever system with plenty of depth, with some of the game’s boss battles taking on an almost puzzle-like feel as you attempt to work out their weaknesses and how to deal with the changes in lighting.
Attacks can be blocked with the right timing (providing you’re facing the enemy), simple combos can be strung together, and as characters gain experience and increase in power, you also earn experience towards an overall Party Class Level. Party levels unlock additional slots for combat abilities, as well as offer varying stat bonuses. These levels usually come with a downside to offset their benefit, however – additional ability slots may come at the cost of a reduced Action Gauge, meaning you have less time to execute your moves. It doesn’t have the staggering amount of depth as, say, the Disgaea series or Final Fantasy X‘s advanced sphere grid, but there’s still plenty to consider and the dynamic light/dark mechanic essentially doubles the skills available to each character.
[pullquote]The soundtrack, as you might expect from a game about a famous classical composer, is a particular highlight[/pullquote]. Original compositions by Motoi Sakuraba – best known for his work on Namco’s well-loved Tales series – sit alongside a number of Chopin’s works, here performed by Russian pianist Stanislav Bunin. These piano pieces span the whole of Chopin’s career and include well-known classics such as the Composer’s Polonaise Op. 53 in A flat major and his Revolutionary Etude. Throughout the game, you can collect pages of sheet music as part of a lengthy sidequest, which allow you take part in a neat conducting minigame. The voice acting is also of good quality, surprisingly so for a genre that’s typically blighted by poor translation and ill-suited voiceovers, while the option to switch to the original Japanese voice acting is a nice touch that’s still relatively rare in games these days. It’s nothing particularly award-worthy, but it’s a step up from its peers.
The only real downsides are that it’s pretty short when compared to other JRPGs. At around the 20-30 hour mark (depending on whether or not you tackle the optional dungeon), and with most of that being pretty linear A to B questing with notably few distractions, dedicated players will likely finish it within a few days. That said, this could be seen as an asset when it comes to being more approachable to gamers put off by the 80 hour+ slogs found in titles like the Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy series’. An encore mode, unlocked after completion, adds in a smattering of new content here and there, and the ability to manually set your Party Level is welcome, but this isn’t a game that you can go back to time and time again. If you do, it will likely be to revisit the game’s wonderful cast and those gorgeous environments. The later re-release on PS3 bolstered the content by adding two more playable characters and some additional dungeons and areas, so if you have the option then that’s probably the one to get. Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are worth your time, however.
As the march of progress continues and the popularity of more open RPGs from the West continue to dominate the genre, traditional Japanese role-playing games are in danger of dying out. Even Final Fantasy is getting in on the act, with this year’s 15th numbered installment taking place entirely in a large, open world that’s free to explore. As cliché as it is to say, they just don’t make JRPGs like they used to. That might be fine for some – welcome, even – but I miss the days of being able to settle down with a nice adventure and just enjoy the story, rather than endlessly having to decide where to go and what to do next. While the traditional JRPG hasn’t entirely died out – the Tales series is still going strong, and last year saw the release of the wonderful Bravely Default on 3DS – it’s becoming rarer, and that’s a pity. Even Eternal Sonata, despite receiving high scores across the board, failed to sell enough units to ever be regarded as a commercial success.
But when I want a dose of escapism and to lose myself in a fantasy world filled with gorgeous scenery and unforgettable characters, it isn’t Skyrim or Fallout 3 that I boot up. It’s Eternal Sonata. Now, if they’d only remake it for the current generation of consoles…