It's not every day that a Japanese RPG hits the Xbox 360. Last month's Blue Dragon didn't exactly make the waves that Microsoft had hoped it would; it was certainly a positive sign that things in the Xbox camp were headed in the right direction. Eternal Sonata, currently a 360 exclusive, now further hammers in the point that Microsoft is starting to take the genre seriously. As a semi turn-based, semi real-time RPG set in the dream of the coma-bound composer, Frederic Chopin, there should be little doubt that Eternal Sonata is something different.
The story itself, despite being somewhat bizarre due to its dream-based grounding, is actually one of the game's strongest draws. Set in the mind of Chopin, everything takes a musical tone, be that the names of the characters and towns, or even the play mechanics. One could even make the argument that the combat is in a way musical. Each character in Chopin's party has a time-based gauge that governs their actions in each turn. Any movement or action starts to lower the gauge, but if the character stops, so too does the gauge. Because of this and the fact that characters have a free range of motion during combat, the battles play out almost like a dance.
The other unique game play feature comes in the use of light and dark. Depending on a characters' location in the field, his or her special moves will change. This, more than anything else, forces players to move about the arena and to use more strategy. With some special moves that feel powerful and look great to boot, battles, which themselves are not random encounters, are fun to play, and players will not always avoid them.
Beyond the combat, there is plenty of eye candy to enjoy. It is nearly impossible to not be in awe of the game's amazing use of color in the rich and varied environments. For HDTV owners, this will be a real joy, as few games display such bright, crisp and attractive colors. The game really exuberates life, and the character models, using a slight cell-shading technique, look impressive.
The game's sound, ironically enough, is probably its weakest link. There are some memorable tunes (namely those by Chopin himself), and even some fun but slightly frustrating musical mini-games, but overall, the music does not stand out as much as it should in a game based around a renowned composer. In addition, the English voice acting does not meet expectations, with characters sounding annoyingly cute. Even worse, odd pauses sometimes punctuate the dialogue, with no one speaking for several seconds, and it comes off sounding more awkward than dramatic.
Eternal Sonata is not perfect. Some people will get turned off by the overly "kiddy" atmosphere that pervades the game world, and the story comes off as preachy. It's also substantially shorter than the average JRPG, clocking in at roughly 30 hours. However, the game brings this imaginative world to life with an engaging battle system and an endearing story.