Striking The Right Note
Here’s a golden nugget of knowledge you won’t get from the History Channel. Federic Chopin, 19th century pianist and composer of some of the most impossibly beautiful pieces of classical music, was also really into anime of the long-winded variety. I don’t know what’s more weird: a 19th century European aristocrat with an Asian fetish, as Eternal Sonata would suggest, or an Asian with a 19th century European aristocrat fetish, as this awesome game would suggest.
Eternal Sonata, a traditional Japanese RPG set in an untraditional world, takes place entirely within the anime-laden head of Chopin during his final days in bed with tuberculosis. As Chopin is dying, unacquainted with J-pop, Hello Kitty, and probably even Japan itself, he finds his dreams infested with visions of the spiky-haired and the squeaky-voiced. What a nightmare.
The game’s ridiculous premise is also its best attribute. Since the RPG world is set inside one man’s brain, the fantasy characters, places, and events are tethered to Chopin’s actual biography. The story revolves around characters with musical names - Allegretto, Polka, Jazz, and so on - as well as Chopin himself inside his own dream, out on an adventure to solve a three-nation dispute over a mineral powder epidemic. The events that unfold mirror, roughly, some of the events in Chopin’s life.
For example, there’s the real story of the song that Chopin composed but wanted burned after his death. The friend he entrusted this task to ended up betraying his wishes and published it. That betrayal resonates in the RPG world when one of the characters turns out to be a spy - a spy with a good heart, but a spy nevertheless. These connections give a solid backbone to a fantasy that feels more mature than usual.
But “more mature” doesn’t mean difficult or X-rated in Eternal Sonata. The themes are adult in a political, ethical, and philosophical way. Sometimes the story is embroiled in political intrigue, like when one nation decides not to pre-emptively strike another nation that appears to be massing its troops. But then the message is repeated several times, slowly, with long pauses in between. This is meant to ensure that children don’t get lost along the way, but any children that dig philosophical, political, and ethical themes aren’t the type to need things repeated.
You won’t get lost along the way yourself (with one giant exception, to be noted later) since the game is more linear than most RPGs. There is no “overworld” roaming, and you pilot your band of merry musical figures from dungeon to town to dungeon. There are few side-quests, and for the most part, your crew levels up at a rate slightly faster than the progression of enemies you face. Some bosses may take you down, but you’ll never hit a rank-and-file encounter that gives you any trouble.
When you do fight, you are taken to the ubiquitous battle screen, where your three-person party squares off against three bad guys. The turn system is time-based, in that you will have a short amount of time to think about your move and then five seconds to perform it. In a typical turn, you can run up to an enemy’s flank, build up a combo by hacking and slashing, and then finish him off with a special attack. Then the enemy gets a turn. It’s like an action game with manners.
Special attacks vary from character to character, but they vary on whether or not you’re standing in a lit or a shadowed area of the arena. This wrinkle is carried over into the enemy strategy, as each enemy has both a light and a shadowy form. When the tiny looking tulip-bulb of an enemy is in the light, he’s a wimp. When he moves into the shadow, he transforms into a giant crab. And you know how badass crabs are.
For the most part, battles run smoothly, but they tend to become repetitive due to the lack of enemy types. Once you’ve beaten a single party of pirates on a pirate ship, you know how every subsequent battle with pirates will play out. Fortunately, you can avoid random battles. But wanting to avoid tedious gameplay is never a good sign.
You might also want to skip some of the many long cutscenes, but you won’t. On one hand, the dialogue is infuriatingly slow, cursed with more pauses than a William Shatner soliloquy and more repetitive than Rain Man in an echo chamber. But on the other hand, the story is so strange and different, and the graphics are so superb, that abandoning a cutscene means missing out on one of the best things in the game.
The cel-shaded graphics are gorgeous, especially in comparison to most traditional RPG environments. From Polka’s golden locks to the bright orange leaves wafting around the forest, the screen is full of colorful motion. At its best, Eternal Sonata looks as good as Chopin’s etudes if they were in Fantasia.
And that’s a high compliment, because Namco Bandai got some well-played performances of Chopin’s pieces to adorn the game’s looks. While the in-game music is merely okay, each Chopin composition, unlocked by progressing through the game, is captivating. Others may not like the way that each Chopin track is paired with realistic backdrops of Paris and Warsaw with subtitles describing phases of Chopin’s life, but the interludes paradoxically make the game more immersive. Hey kids, learning is fun!
But no amount of learning will help you get through some of the labyrinthian level designs, the worst of which is a huge fortress maze with a moving room. Apologies for the nerd-speak game guide language, but for the benefit of those who are currently stuck, or will be stuck, the next few sentences are a spoiler/enhancer:
Stuck in the fortress? Hit the levers to move the moving room into its third position (don’t move it back to its original position). Then, get to the upper outer ring of the east side. Go north until you can’t go any further, and then go south to find the door out. Now, send check or money order to me. Also, your first-born.
Eternal Sonata isn’t a deep RPG by any means. There are few customizable options and very little in the way of exploration or even choice, but it is elegant and pretty. Some of the sweetest tunes are simply beautiful, regardless of facial expression.
Just ask Halo.