The life and death of Polish composer Frederic Chopin doesn't sound like a very fascinating theme for a role-playing game. Who'd have thought, then, that such a game would set the standard for Japanese RPGs on the Xbox 360? Eternal Sonata is a pleasant surprise, full of joy, old-fashioned romance, and set in a gorgeous, fully realized fantasy world. It's also a wonder that the soft, chewy center of the story is complemented by an action-packed battle system that continually keeps you on your toes. It has some issues, but the game will make you feel consistently warm and fuzzy, thanks to its big heart and total commitment to its subject matter.
If that makes Eternal Sonata sound sickeningly sweet, rest assured that it also possesses a good deal of maturity. We watch Chopin sleeping on his deathbed, as the clock slowly counts down to his last moment on earth. But the real story is in his mind, where he joins an alternate reality already in progress and multiple stories that eventually converge. His first friend is Polka, a loveable girl with awesome pigtails that can wield magic, but like other magic users in this world, she is destined to die young. Along the way, they are joined by other adventurers, such as street urchins Alegretto and Beat. They are also accompanied by goat herder Viola and the members of the rebel group Andantino, amongst others. Together, they unite against the rule of the evil Count Waltz, who is turning the populace of Forte into mindless slaves, thanks to an untaxed, addictive mineral powder.
It's not the grandest, most epic tale ever told in an RPG, but it's a highly personal one. Chopin must discover what he is searching for in this moving, thoughtful journey that we take with him. His travel companions are charming, multifaceted characters who develop strong bonds, including Alegretto's touching affection for ever-sweet Polka. You will care for these characters, and if their initial quest doesn't seem all that breathtaking, the passion with which they undertake it will win you over. The story also touches on topics that tie lessons of the past to current events. Blind devotion to the government, the separation of fact from fiction, social persecution, and other themes are all obviously meant to parallel our own modern political climate. The only problem with the narrative is the pace, which is broken up by narrated segments about Chopin's life and the politics of his own time. These interruptions feature photo stills of such cities as Paris and Warsaw, accompanied by Chopin's famous piano works. But the history lessons, as well intentioned as they are, just don't fit because they force us back into a reality the game does such a good job of letting us escape.
Developer Tri-Crescendo has created a beautiful world here. It's easy to get swept up in the French Impressionist color palate and gorgeous lighting, but incredible artistry gushes from every aspect of the visual design. The clothing of your party members is richly drawn, with intricate stitching and other fine details. The interiors of cottages are filled with meticulously designed dÃ©cor, from textured linens to finely crafted plates hanging on the walls. Environments are spectacular, even such traditionally clichÃ© locations as swamps or forests, which use shadows and mild light bloom to create scenes you would expect to see in a Monet painting. But all of this 2D art does come at the expense of 3D exploration. You can't freely explore every nook and cranny, nor can you rotate the camera. So there are times you wish you could head off into the rolling hills to check out every valley and crevasse but are fixed to your narrow pathway. You may also occasionally cringe at the color saturation, which is sometimes a little too Candy Land for its own good. But make no mistake: Eternal Sonata is a visual triumph and a beautiful artistic achievement.
As you might imagine, music plays an important role in the game's production values as well, though Chopin's music is usually limited to the edutainment portions previously mentioned. But that's fine because Motoi Sakuraba's score is as exquisite as the visuals, using Chopin's romanticism as a starting point for a subtle but sweeping musical journey. The voice acting doesn't reach for the stars, but it is solid enough. Chopin and Salsa in particular come to life vividly, thanks to strong acting, though other voices get too syrupy after a while. Sadly, there are some scenes of extended dialogue that, for whatever reason, feature no music and minimal ambient noise. In a musical score, rests are as important as notes, but these extended silences are jarring.
Once you get beyond the glittering production, how does it actually play? Thankfully, the gameplay is satisfying and moves at a slick tempo. There are no random encounters, so you can see every monster. Oftentimes, you can simply go around them, though you will be forced into some battles (and some terrific, challenging boss fights too). Combat isn't a typical series of turns with infinite time in between, though: Eternal Sonata's system is an inventive mix of turn-based and real-time warfare that gets trickier as the game progresses.