August 13, 2013

That's A Wrap: Eternal Sonata

warning: may contain spoilers

That's a wrap! Add Eternal Sonata to the "games I've played" list. This game has been a bit of a whirlwind, and according to my twitter friends I'm not the only one who thinks so. This is my most requested/anticipated blog to date, so I will try to cover all the bases to give you guys all the information you need to decide whether this is worth a play or a revisit. My goal is to keep it linear and making sense, as I have about 30,000 opinions to reiterate here and I fear I may not be able to organize them.

My brother and I share the similar taste in video games, and when I told him I had finally accepted the Xbox360 into my life he gave me a few of his favorite RPGs to try. Eternal Sonata was amongst these culprits. In theory, it's a great match for me. I am a classically trained musician, I began on the piano and Chopin was (and still is) one of my favorite pianists and composers. I was really interested to see how the video game world would treat our dear Chopin. Additionally, it's a gorgeous Japanese RPG, and those are right up my alley.

Shall we begin at the beginning? No. Because I have no idea where the beginning is. It sort of takes a while for the pieces to fall into place so that you have an idea of what this game is even about, and frankly, I'm still not sure if it's an ode to Chopin or a random fantasy about a girl named Polka. Also, how long before some celebrity names their kid 'Polka'? It seems, in the beginning, to be two separate stories altogether, and they eventually intertwine. The point of the story isn't extremely clear, which leads me to make horrible jokes.

The game is laden with what I came to call 'history pieces'. It's the game's way of introducing you to a few of Chopin's works. They attempt to explain to you how/why the song came to be and lace it with little bits of Chopin's personal history. I actually love the idea for this game, I just wish the history pieces were more factual and educational and less presumptuous. The beauty of music is that it's interpreted differently by each person, but the game insists each piece has its permanently attached feelings and I don't necessarily agree with that.
The gameplay for Eternal Sonata is pretty brutal. It's slow, tedious and linear. Some areas of the game are puzzle-like and difficult to navigate, and unfortunately it makes the game seem to drag on rather than feel like an exciting challenge. I found (sadly) the areas that were more direct made the game less boring. The game is broken up into several chapters, and I found I could seldom handle more than half a chapter per day before I was too easily distracted by everything (I'm looking at you, twitter!) to keep playing. Eternal Sonata is by no means addictive. In the end I clocked 42 hours but it felt like more. Moreover, after a while, even little things in the game began to annoy me. When you use a character's special attack after banking enough echoes, they say a few lines before initiating their attack. After seeing this about 30 times... I'd had it. Some of these lines are more like speeches and you just want to get on with the battle. I want you to attack the bastard in front of you, not rehearse MLK's "I Have A Dream..." speech, thanks.
At some point it seemed to go completely of the rails. A lot of what was going on felt like filler. The second to last boss - and for that matter the entire final dungeon - were pretty pointless. The last boss was supposed the be the big shocker for the game, but it wasn't set up very well, in my not-so-humble opinion, so it felt like just another chore to get the game over with.

It's not all bad though. The game picks up significantly about halfway through. This is unfortunate because most people won't stick to the game long enough to get there. In fact, that's probably the hardest thing about Eternal Sonata: sticking with it long enough for it to get good.
I didn't really find much in the way of side quests. Most of the gameplay is mandatory save for one optional dungeon at the end - which I skipped because I really wanted to get the game over with - and a short-lived trading game.
The end of the game brought about more questions than answers. This may have been further hindered by the fact that I played the game in Japanese (the game has dual audio and the English was just... painful) and there are no subtitles for most of the (very long) ending scenes. Thanks a lot for that, game makers... So I may be missing crucial information there.

The characters are what keep you going in Eternal Sonata. They are steadily introduced to you in the first half of the game, and you get to work with different teams at different times until they eventually all band together and you get to design your dream team.
For me that team consisted of the badass Falsetto, the powerhouse Jazz, and my little Salsa, who is just too facking cool to pass up. She's a snooty, smug little bitch who likes hats and pirates. As if her Chakram weapons weren't cool enough. And she's named after food. That's always a good sign, right? Yes, I realize salsa is a genre... Salsa gets my vote for best character this game.

There are many playable characters in ES, beginning with Polka, who ended up being the least useful to me in battle. She's key to the story but I don't know why. You then get the man himself, Fréderic François Chopin. He's pretty tough for a dying musician. I didn't use him much in the end, but he holds his own for the first half of the game. You're also introduced to Allegretto, your male protagonist, and his little sidekick (brother?) Beat. Allegretto is strong, but he ended up being neglected for other characters in my playthrough. Beat is an annoying pipsqueak, but he does come with one cool function: he takes pictures. In battle. Yeah, really. Two of Beat's special attacks have him whipping out an old school camera and shooting pics of the enemy. You can later sell these photos in shops for mad money. This is really all it's good for in the end, making quick money.
Then you meet Viola, a goat herder and really random character. She adds little to the game other than power. Eventually you catch up with Salsa and March, who are twins, but it's a while before you get to fight with them both. You also catch up with a rebel group called Adantino, which consists on Jazz, Falsetto and Claves. I found Claves to be immediately useless and abandoned her with Polka. Jazz takes some time to level up but he's pretty boss with that broadsword. Give him a few speed boosting accessories and he'll hack n' slash away most of your troubles. Falsetto is really tough. She's very quick and can attack many times before her turn is up, so she made podium for me.
After you get to mess around with all the characters, you start to fall in love with them, their attacks, their skills, their style. And I know this is ridiculous but I never got tired of hearing them call out their special attack names.

The game is just beautiful. It's bright and vivid and colorful and has this great max/min detail style. The backgrounds are absolutely stunning and the characters really stand out on them. It's kind of awkward at first, but you get used to and it really becomes a good thing.
That brings me to the tunes. Obviously the game includes Chopin's works and I'm partial to them, but anyone who doesn't appreciate classical music might get bored with that aspect. I feel the pianist who recorded Chopin's tracks for the game did a wonderful job. The game also features an original score, which I'm pleasantly surprised to say is quite good! The OST is very simple, "animated" and fits really well with the style of the game. It's very pretty and I'm impressed that they managed to make a score that doesn't trample on the classical music theme.

The difficulty of the game on 360 might actually be a joke. I've heard it gets harder on the second playthrough but regarding the first, as long as you adhere to the standard "fight all enemies" method, you'll be just fine in the beginning. Toward the end you'll be much too strong for most of your enemies. I only struggled with one boss the entire game and it was after a period in which I refused to fight any more battles and fell behind in my leveling. As the game progresses the amount of enemies increases, and they all dish out a pretty healthy amount of experience, so you level up quick.

And that brings us to the battle system! The first note that I jotted down in my notebook says "the cam is awful" and it really is. I cannot say enough bad things about the camera in this game. On the regular field it's sufficient, not perfect, but you can manage in most every location, but in battle... so frustrating! Many of your battle fields are dark (in addition to the dark/light battle feature) and/or include various obstructions and multiple enemies, and this mixed with the horrid camera is a recipe for game over. It's so tricky to see where everyone is and line up your characters so that their attack connects with your enemy. I can't tell you how many turns I wasted because I simply couldn't see where I was or even whose turn it is (without consulting the top of the screen). A couple of other things that annoyed me were the sensitivity of the 'skip' button, and the battle direction. The left stick, which you use to direct your characters, is also the "skip my turn" button. Normally you would need to fully press the LS down to execute a skip but I found on innumerable occasions that simply pushing to the left or right was enough to end my turn. It took me some time to sort this out. There's no indication of a skipped turn, it simply suddenly switches to the next character in spite of your action gauge still being full. There are a dozen buttons on the Xbox controller, could they not have picked another to be the useless skip feature?
If you've looked into Eternal Sonata's battle system at all, you see that it's turn based, but also time-dependent. You only get a few seconds to execute your attack, so time is precious. When you enter a battle, sometimes you attack your opponent to the left of the screen, and sometimes to the right. I thought I had it figured out at one point but the game continuously proved me wrong which leads me to conclude that it's random, and that is beyond annoying. I wasted seconds of many turns running in the direction I anticipated rather than the direction of the baddies. This got on my nerves real quick.
Another 'button fumble' on the part of the game makers is the second special attack. Throughout the game your characters learn multiple attacks and you get to choose two to have loaded for battle. The system requires you press 'Y' to use a special attack, and to use your second, you press and hold 'Y'. In a battle where time is everything, this is a completely useless feature. More than half the time, the attack didn't initiate at all, and sometimes it would simply use the first attack instead.

Other than that, the battle system is quite cool. It's a nice hybrid between turn-based and real-time, and incorporates some neat features, like the action gauge and tactical time, and the handful of turn options which all add the much needed challenge of the game. The party level intensifies this as well. One of the more difficult skills is multi-tasking in battle. Learning to attack an opponent, perhaps move to a safe distance, and use a healing attack/item all in 4 seconds is tricky. I must have improved my button mashing skills with this game too. Something about the battle system makes you feel like you're doing more if you press the button 1000 times.

The enemies in Eternal Sonata wander about the field like in 'Tales' games, and you engage them by simply running into them. The chief difference is that Eternal baddies do not spawn at random. There is a set amount on any given screen and once you kill them all, they're gone, until you leave and return to the screen once more. This makes grinding quite the chore. The game doesn't demand a lot of grinding in the first playthrough, so thats a good thing. Having to constantly battle gets old after a while, and you just want to hurry the game along. However, in the beginning of the game, you sort of feel obligated to fight all your battles so that you can keep up with the next set of enemies. You see where this gets tedious?

In the end, I'm happy I gave it a playthrough, but I don't expect I'll replay this until I've completely forgotten what it is, if then. I'd only recommend this game to people who aren't terribly concerned with gameplay (do those exist?) and are willing to commit the time. Perhaps if you're easily entertained this might be for you, but for the experienced gamer, it tough to commit to. Might make a good "my first RPG" for a new gamer.

So there you have it. Many of you expressed interest in my playthrough on twitter and asked about the game, so if your question is not yet answered, by all means post them here or on my twitter and I will do my best to answer!

Hmm... what's next? Stay tuned!

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