It's hard to write a "review" for a game that I have such mixed feelings about. Actually, it is hard to write a review for any game, but that is besides the point. Eternal Sonata for the XBox360 was released on September 17th here in the US, and it is the reason I bought a 360 when I did. The game is a traditional Japanese RPG, and I emphasize the traditional there. Eternal Sonata is a combination of a lot of other existing RPGs, namely the Tales series from Namco and smaller parts the Dragon Quest/Warrior series from Square-Enix, Final Fantasy series and Xenosaga and Xenogears.
The gameplay is traditional RPG fare, with towns and dungeons mixed together, a turn based battle system and epic story. But each of these main elements features major flaws that prevent the game from being truly great. Battles are action based, like the Tales series, but with a few twists, namely the amount of time you have to act, and how long each action takes. As you progress through the game, your team as a whole goes up a level at predetermined times, and this changes certain battle elements, such as how long you have to attack, how much time you have to make a strategy for your turn, and if you can link special attacks together. This is a great system that slowly ramps up the difficulty, while also opening up new battle elements. The battles are always fun, and figuring out a strategy for each enemy type is lots of fun.
Visually, the game is jaw-droppingly stunning, the best looking game I have ever played. Graphical touches like butterflies and lizards crawling around, nearly on par with atmosphere set by Metroid Prime 3. Everything from the towns to the characters is imaculately detailed, even the character's pockets and shoes have a higher level of detail than I have ever seen. This looks even better in HD, and the vibrant colors are stunning. While somewhat cartoony or anime inspired, the graphics are phenomenal, fun, and fantastic. However, the good ends there.
The story is my biggest issue with the game. Without getting into details, the game world takes place in Frederic Chopin's mind as he lays on his death bed. He is one of the charcters IN the game, and knows its a dream world. You start the game with the goal of getting to the capital to discuss taxes on certain items in the world with the king. This never happens. The story takes 2 sharp turns every third of the way through, and completely changes the pace of the game. You start on a quest to talk to the king about taxes, then you want to prevent a war, then you need to stop a monster in an alternate parallel dimension. No single main plot point is ever actually resolved, making your quest seem pointless for the most part. The ending resolves nothing, and actually causes even more questions to be asked (who did Polka love, and who loved her for example) and the final quarter of the game has absolutely no story to be found whatsoever. Admittedly, the ending has a great little time-travel twist halfway through the final 45 minute cut scene, a cool "aha!" moment, but other than there, I never felt resolved with the story or characters.
The negatives don't stop there:
-Towns and dungeons are real, almost too real. No map or markers to show the entrances and exits or doors, so you may accidentally miss a room or treasure, or an entire area of the game.
-When first entering battle, you can't always see the enemies, and have to move the camera. This is annoying, especially when forced to start attacking immediately by the end of the game. This is balanced by having the same exact 2 or 3 enemies in every group in the same 1 or 2 positions in every battle. Very little variation on enemies, and by the final third of the game, there is no reason to switch characters once you have found a good strategy for your 3 favorites.
-LOOONG cutscenes, but the voice acting and visuals are so good, that sometimes it doesn't matter. Sometimes....
-The piano piece minigame is largely flawed. You can collect +-30 musical scores, and play them with random NPCs, however, there is no way of knowing WHICH piece to play unless you have a musical degree from Julliard. I have taken musical theory and can easily read music, but not even I could discern which score should be played with which character.
-Chopin takes a back seat in the story after the first few hours and just pops back up at the end. He is supposed to be the main character, but after the 2nd chapter (out of 7) he has nothing to do in the story.
-The two main side quests, or only side quests, can't really be completed until you play the game a 2nd time. You could theoretically finish the hidden dungeon your first play through, but the level of enemies ramp up so fast, it's not even fun. Also, the hidden dungeon is boring and almost feels like a random assortment of screens, where 5 floors in, you already feel lost and are no longer having fun.
Despite all of these complaints, the game is a lot of fun, especially the battles. If you don't mind being bored for the story portion, and just in general don't care about the character you will meet (of which there are too many playable for a 3 party system, another complaint) then play away. The game is fun, has a great battle engine, and is visually astonishing. Forget the story elements, or at least try not to invest too much into the outcome, and you will have a good time. Gun to my head, I would give it 3.5 stars out of 5.
Image courtesy Namco Bandai