Monday, June 12, 2017

Eternal Sonata (PS3)

Eternal Sonata is a JRPG that was originally released for the Xbox 360 but was ported over to the PS3 with additional features a year later.  The game feature excellent cel shaded graphics that's amazing to look at and still holds up really well 10 years later.  However, the environments are a mixture of pre-rendered backgrounds and real-time rendering, as a result, the camera is fixed, even during battles.  JRPGs live and die by their battle systems and Eternal Sonata has an intriguing mixture of turn-based and real-time combat.  Your characters get turns and once it is that character's turn, the player only gets a limited time to perform actions such as moving around the field, attack, special attacks or use an item.  Restrictions and bonuses per your turn are dictated by your Party Level.  As you play through the game, you get higher and higher Party Levels.  At the beginning of the game, you get an unlimited time before you do anything to plan how you are going to spend your turn but eventually, the clock starts ticking down immediately towards the end of the game.  This help keeps battles engaging.

Battles take place in a separate screen and the other unique aspect is the Light and Dark elements.  Each battle has lighter areas and darker areas.  Each area will affect the enemies' strength, attacks and even appearances.  Likewise, standing in Light or Dark areas will affect your character's special attacks, which makes moving around the battlefield a bit more important if say, you needed to heal and so are required to run to a Light area.  Eternal Sonata is not shy of throwing difficulty spikes to the player, at times even feeling unfair.  Enemies are tough in the beginning of the game since HP recovery is solely reliant on limited items or a weak special ability of specific characters.  Unlike other JRPGs, health isn't restored when you level up or use save points which is an unusual choice.  As interesting as the battle system sounds, enemies are damage sponges making battles later in the game extremely tedious since it takes so long to kill an enemy.  The reason for high HP is due to a feature called Echoes, where it builds up when a character does consecutive normal attacks.

Once you build up your Echoes during combat, your special attacks will be more powerful depending on how many you've built.  Sounds good in theory but slow characters are a pain, normal attacks are weak and you end up repeating the same motions again and again.  Furthermore, it's extremely aggravating when you're already got very little time but your character doesn't automatically adjust themselves when near an enemy such that your attacks hit.  It may look like you're close enough but you are just a tad bit too far so half your attacks doesn't reach and by the time the attack animation ends, your turn is over and you've just wasted it.  Lastly, you can guard against enemy attacks but it takes careful timing to hit the guard button when the prompt appears.  Its use is crucial in surviving boss battles otherwise you'll be wiped out in one hit.  You can only save at save points in Eternal Sonata, thankfully they are spaced frequently and there's always one before a boss battle.  If your party is wiped out (and you can only use three characters during battle), then you will have to load up a previous save.

The story of Eternal Sonata has a good premise, being that you're in Chopin's dream as he lies in his bed near death.  Inside the dreamworld, which is inspired by music (everything has a name related to music), Polka and Allegretto travel to Forte to try and stop Count Waltz from selling mineral powder as it has severe side effects.  Naturally, the plot escalates and Count Waltz is evil.  Allegretto's party rapidly grows, to the point where you will have access to up to 12 playable characters.  The party ends up travelling to prevent an invasion from Count Waltz into the neighbouring country of Baroque.  Unfortunately, the story is extremely bland and you fail to care about the characters, events or anything at all really.  There are numerous cutscenes and a few of them are several minutes long.  There were even a few scenes where it is so long that your controller turns off.  Cutscenes are boring and hard to pay attention to.  The game is punctuated with scenes in each chapter spouting facts about Chopin but it feels shoehorned in.  The facts told do reflect somewhat to the game's events but it's not done very well.

The ending is confusing and hard to comprehend what you have just witnessed.  It'll take a while to process in your attempt to understand it.  So the story is a bust but what about the exploration?  While the game's environments are mostly linear, some of the dungeons can be somewhat convoluted with limited guidance and due to the pre-rendered environments, it can be hard to pick out pathways.  Dungeons have your typical JRPG gimmicks such as jumping points, one way doors and blocked doorways unless you have a specific item.  Environments are mostly thin pathways making some monsters impossible to avoid, which is annoying when you want to skip them.  The theory is that enemies roam the battlefield so you can decide whether to engage them or not.  It fails here in that when there are so many enemies crowding the thin singular path that the choice is taken from you.  It's made more aggravating when enemies can run faster than you meaning you can't even outpace them most of the time once they spot you.  The cities that you arrive at are tiny and don't take long to explore, most cities only have two to three screens to run around in.

Apart from the main story, there is a lack of meaningful sidequests.  The PS3 version has two additional playable characters, costumes for three characters and two bonus dungeons.  One of the bonus dungeon is compulsory and the other is optional in your second playthrough.  After you finish the game, you can enter Encore Mode where you can play through the story again.  Enemies are much more powerful here but you don't get to carry over everything.  You restart at Level 1 which makes the game a much bigger challenge.  While Eternal Sonata is critiqued for its short length, if you don't skip the cutscenes, it still takes 25 to 35 hours to finish and then you have the additional dungeon to complete.  Overall, Eternal Sonata is an average JRPG.  It has beautiful graphics, a unique battle system and good music.  Unfortunately it is heavily let down by the bland story, long dragged out normal enemy encounters and excessive cutscenes.  Eternal Sonata is still worth a play but make sure you are aware of its flaws.


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