Eternal Sonata's gorgeous graphics and intriguing story can't cover up its apocalyptically tedious and irrelevant gameplay.
I say this now not because I have finished the game, but because I'm about to start Devil May Cry 4, and I'm pretty sure that Dante won't approve of me playing a dull, dull XBox 360 JRPG during his demon-killing time. I may in fact never come back to Eternal Sonata, which probably means I'll have to find a new way to reliably fall asleep in the middle of the day.
The game is the story of Frederic Chopin. Yes, the real-life Polish composer. Confined to his deathbed, watching the last minutes of his life tick away, his only regrets are that he didn't spend enough time levelling up and finding epic loot. Apparently. Before you can say "Mary Sue", Chopin is deposited wholesale into a nun-punchingly generic fantasy world and teamed up with an assortment of flat-chestedly androgynous five-year olds on a quest to defeat some sort of an evil.
If that sounds like every RPG you've ever played before, that's because it is. But with Chopin. Who, to the best of my knowledge, has not previouisly been a playable character in an RPG. Which is a shame, because apparently he wields awesome magic powers and wears a stylish top hat.
Eternal Sonata is beautiful. Let's get that out of the way right now. This is probably one of the best looking games you have ever seen. It's got great art design, top-notch character models, and the whole thing is a fantastic example of how eye-gougeingly impressive cel-shading can be when done right.
It looks so good that you're going to really wish it's a good game. You're going to scrunch your eyes tightly shut and clench your fists and quietly whisper to yourself, "I do believe in Namco-Bandai! I do, I do!" But all that wishing is going to go to waste, because behind the graphics is one of the most appallingly horrible Japanese-style RPGs in years.
Character progression is linear. You get XP, you go up a level, your stats increase. The only decisions you get to make are what weapons to equip your characters with, and seeing as weapon progression is also linear that's not a big deal.
You can get up to 10 characters in your party, but you can only use three at a time, so in practice you're going to always take the best three and ignore everyone else. And there are very definitely a "best three".
You'll spend most of your time in typical JRPG fashion going from Location X to Location Y in order to fight Boss Z. The path from Location X to Location Y can be either a forest, a cave, a sewer, or, if you're lucky, some kind of cave-forest or sewer-cave. Boss Z is typically large, slow, and completely irrelevant to the story. Along the way you open chests to find useless items that you could have bought at the village store.
Monsters are displayed on the travel screen, so theoretically you can avoid them in order to pace the amount of mindless grinding you have to do. In practice, however, every second monster completely blocks the path, so you'll still be fighting every two steps. Also, the number of unique monster types is so small you can practically count them on one hand. It seems every nook and cranny of Eternal Sonata's world is populated by the same bats, scorpions and killer sheep.
Further cheapening the whole endeavour is the shockingly incompetent level design, which turns the process of travel into a kind of foreign-language Where's Wally? You'll regularly travel around the same three screens for hours while waiting for the necessary spark of genius that tells you the single yellow pixel in the extreme distance is the end of a rope that you can climb down to continue. Every location is unnecessarily mazelike, and picking one of the endless dead-ends results in having to fight another half-dozen totally unnecessary battles against the local sewer-cave's bat-scorpion-du-jour.
The battles themselves could have been good. They take place in real time, letting you freely move characters into appropriate tactical configurations and ranges. Some of the characters have unique attack mechanics, such as the archer Viola who requires you to actually aim at enemies with a crosshair and does more damage the farther she is from her target.
Also, the game uses an interesting light and dark mechanic, where characters and monsters have different abilities and stats depending on whether they're standing in light or darkness. Some monsters even change form depending on whether they're in shadow or illumination. That becomes better still when you realise that characters and monsters cast shadows, which other characters can stand in, and some monsters are phosphorescent and thereby carry their own pool of light around. Unfortunately, the potential of all this is never really explored and it ultimately comes across as more gimmick than mechanic.
What with Chopin in the game, you'd think there'd be some focus on music, and you'd be right. The musical score is wonderful, combining Chopin's music with some great original piano compositions, and it's all yet another reason that you'll be wishing all this artistic quality had been lavished on something with gameplay that didn't quite so obviously feed puppies to hoboes.
The XBox 360 has had a bad run in the JRPG stakes, what with Blue Dragon being such an appalling punch in the goolies, and now Eternal Sonata going commando under its pretty, pretty dresses, but unfortunately you'll just have to hold out a little longer. Unless your tolerance for pointless grinding is at near-godlike levels, this isn't the game you've been waiting for, and you'd be much better served by going and having another go-round with the amazingly, amazingly good Mass Effect.
Did I mention Mass Effect is rather good?