When Eternal Sonata was revealed in this country, it met with a relatively muted fanfare. While keen RPG fans have eagerly traced its progress, the average gamer has paid little interest in this wistful technicoloured adventure, perhaps thanks to the recent saturation of quirky Japanese output, spearheaded by the Katamari and LocoRoco series. Sliding the disc into the 360's disc tray for the first time, however, it becomes very apparent very quickly that it should have been right up near the top of anyone's watch list, supported by rapturous trumpeting and full orchestral backing.
The reason why is because Eternal Sonata is set in the mind of legendary composer Chopin, in the last three hours of his life, as he lies dreaming and deeply unconscious. Far from being a miserable, solemn place for a game, instead it looks like renowned composer and game creator Hiroya Hatsushiba has brought to life a wonderful world full of colour, beauty and, most importantly, lots of music.
While this curious premise sounds like an unlikely starting point for a fully-fledged RPG, a quick look into the game's past reveals a great deal. Developed by tri-Crescendo, who most famously provides audio elements for its parent studio tri-Ace, who has created important titles like Valkyrie Profile, Eternal Sonata has a long running musical heritage. Add to that input of Motoi Sakuraba, who co-founded tri-Crescendo, as well as being composer across movies, anime television and games, and it becomes clear that from conception, Eternal Sonata is a game lead by audio.
The idea is apparently that the game can introduce more people to the wonderful, dreamlike music of Chopin. Engaging technology-hungry gamers to enthuse about classical music may sound a little ambitious, but Eternal Sonata is far removed from the dusty, dreary connotations orchestral music evokes with many youngsters raised on more modern stuff.
In reality the game is a RPG through and through, but the way almost every element is some way based on music, and its unique take on cel-shading, guarantees that it stands out amongst its genre peers. Yet whilst it is immediately vibrant and mesmerizing, do not expect synaesthesia along the lines of Rez or Every Extend Extra.
Instead the game's relation with music is through association. On a most basic level each character, from Viola to Beat, is named after a musical word or instrument. The terminology of rhythm and sound continues throughout the game, but is most thoroughly used in the combat system, which many RPG fans will be glad to know features no truly random battles.
Of course genre dictates some complexity to the combat, and you will have to master using echoes in the place of hit power, and harmony to handle combos, but essentially the system boils down to time management. After selecting your attacks an increasingly miserly meter counts down the seconds as you strike, meaning you have to plan carefully how to make the best use of your allotted time. The end result is a battle system that neatly combines the best elements of both traditional turn-based strategic clashes and action-game melees.
A more typical dark and light system is also in place; however, in the case of Eternal Sonata it is directly affected by where your character stands as the fight progresses, and with later fights taking place between moving patches of light, quickly this system become fairly demanding. The combat as a whole remains accessible and instinctive, but is grossly let down by repetitive fights against a continuous cast of repetitive monsters. Happily, the characters that join you in your quest are far more detailed, and in fact are some of the most developed seen in the recent spate of RPG releases. Graciously, they are supported by a rich and sharp narrative, which rivals some of the most thoughtful scriptwriting seen in modern games.
Though details on the storyline are best kept under wraps until you explore this wonderful title for yourself, Eternal Sonata's plot is perhaps most accurately described as taking you deeper and deeper into an increasingly dream-like world that is filled with whimsy and reverie, as Chopin moves ever closer towards his last hour. This movement towards the composer's final curtain is presented in sumptuous detail, and reinvents a graphical style that fades in and out of fashion with gamers as quickly as high street clothing in Top Shop. I'm of course talking of cel-shading, a technique that Eternal Sonata juggles intimately with traditional looks, resulting in a game that is bold yet subdued, and stark whilst intricate.
The colour palette is taken straight from the contents of a packet of dolly mixtures, and the game's capricious pace is as soft and sweet as its candy colour scheme. From the box art through to the manual, every element of Eternal Sonata shines with originality, and is peppered with the kind of eccentricity that made the aforementioned We Love Katamari and Loco Roco so popular with both hardcore gamers and the artistically inclined mainstream press.
If sacrifices have been made to allow for Eternal Sonata's astounding looks, they have affected most harshly the volume of additional content beyond the main game. Side quests are sparse and unimaginative, and a trading sub game, along with an ungainly mini-game that encourages you to 'jam' with other NPCs , work as little more than an insult to the main game.
The soundtrack of course is based on the work of the maestro himself, meaning it is as rich and elaborate as the game world. Some might see taking the compositions of an internationally respected musician as a little on the lazy side, but the game world is the perfect companion. There is also plenty of original score in place, and the way it ties into both the plot and the rhythm of the game is near unrivalled in any game.
This mesmerising harmony of pastel colours and peerless audio is without doubt one of the 360's most significant RPGs, and it is essential for fans of the genre. It suffers from repetition with regard to battles, but it is still worth every beat of your heart that passes as you play.