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Critical Reception: Namco Bandai/Tri-Crescendo's Eternal Sonata

This week's edition of Critical Reception examines online reaction to Eternal Sonata, an Xbox 360 role-playing adventure that critics say has a "wildly imaginative" premise and a story that "isn't just another half-baked RPG plotline."
This week's edition of the regular Critical Reception column examines online reaction to Eternal Sonata, an Xbox 360 role-playing adventure that critics say has a "wildly imaginative" premise and a story that "isn't just another half-baked RPG plotline." Loosely based upon the life of famed pianist Frédéric Chopin, Eternal Sonata supposes that the 19th-century composer entered a dream world upon his deathbed, wherein he and other terminally ill people possessed magical powers. After finding a warm reception from critics and consumers upon its Japanese release in June (as Trusty Bell: Chopin no Yume), Eternal Sonata now squares off against critics overseas. The title currently boasts an average review score of 80 out of 100 at Metacritic.com. Carolyn Gudmundson at Games Radar finds Eternal Sonata to be entirely likeable, and scores it at 9 out of 10. "It's hard to explain the premise of Eternal Sonata without making it sound a bit absurd," she acknowledges. However: "Regardless of its seemly out-there plot, Eternal Sonata presents an engrossingly imaginative world with awesome gameplay and a story you might actually find yourself caring about." "First off (and most importantly), the battle system is super fun," Gudmundson explains. "At the start, your action gauge pauses whenever you pause, but later, it will deplete in real time to matter what you're doing, giving you less time to think before acting. To balance things out, you're also given extra slots for items and special attacks as you progress, to make up for the increasing difficulty." The result? According to Gudmundson: "This dynamic aspect of the system also helps keep things fresh, alleviating some of the boredom that often results from trudging through an RPG's many dungeons." Gudmundson argues that Eternal Sonata's perceived downsides are a matter of personal taste. "Some might dock Eternal Sonata for being a tad on the short side for an RPG (around 30 hours)," she admits. "What it may lack in length, it more than makes up for in absolutely every other aspect. The battle system is addictively fun, the multifaceted story is riveting, and the graphics are amazing... we couldn't ask for much more." IGN's Erik Brudvig is similarly positive in his 8.3-out-of-10 review, but gives particular praise to Eternal Sonata's unique plot. "Eternal Sonata has a premise that can be described in no other way than wildly imaginative," he begins. "You may even be a bit incredulous when you first begin playing, but it won't be long before you begin to appreciate the great care that was taken to ensure that the tale isn't just an exercise in lunacy." While some feared that Eternal Sonata's premise may have only served as background for an otherwise generic experience, Brudvig finds that this is not the case. "The game doesn't just use Chopin's name as a gimmick. It uses his music and life to bring context to what is happening in front of you," he writes. "The themes, events and motivations for characters have correlations with Chopin's real life. It's not quite obvious, which is why the game has brief interludes, complete with a composition by Chopin, between chapters which inform the player about events which occurred in Chopin's life." Brudvig continues: "It's educational, but it's also incredibly fun and interesting as you piece together what happened in the game and correlate it to reality. Though it's not a direct correlation (What dream is?), it's close enough to make one smile as you realize this isn't just another half-baked RPG plotline." Eternal Sonata contains its share of faults regarding its camera and linearity, however. "Eternal Sonata has a fixed camera. Outside of battles, it can't even be switched from one static angle to another. You're stuck with the chosen viewpoint," says Brudvig. Additionally: "The path through the game is linear with few side quests and almost no direction from the player. You're just along for the ride." Despite these and complaints about its short length and lack of complexity, Brudvig remains confident in recommending Eternal Sonata to RPG neophytes and fans alike. "Eternal Sonata is a great RPG to give to your kid, but it’s also put together well enough for older gamers to enjoy," he concludes. "Hardcore RPG fans might find the game a bit lacking, but we found enough to enjoy in the game to keep the limited role-playing elements far enough out of mind from start to finish for the game to keep from growing stale." Andrew Fitch at 1UP.com is less forgiving of Eternal Sonata's gameplay issues, and rates the title at 6 out of 10. "Frédéric Chopin is no plucky teen, and he's certainly no bald space marine, so all the elements are in place to tell a different kind of videogame story," he writes, "which is why it's all the more frustrating that Eternal Sonata squanders its imaginative setting." Fitch describes Eternal Sonata as an exercise in wasted potential, especially in regard to its plot. "So many themes could've been explored in a tale like this," he laments. Unfortunately: "For most of the game, Chopin simply plays second fiddle to a ragtag collection of teens, tweens, and pretty young adults on a typical RPG journey." "Rather than fleshing out its characters, Eternal Sonata focuses on a brewing conflict between Forte and Baroque, the two major political powers in Chopin's dream world," Fitch explains. "And as with any story steeped in political intrigue, Eternal Sonata's got the obligatory betrayal and death scenes." "But how is your trust supposed to be shattered when no loyalty has been built?" he asks. "How are you supposed to mourn for a character you only just met? The story seems like a truncated tale originally intended to be much longer (in fact, a lot of the game feels strangely unfinished). With a playtime clocking in at around 30 hours (if that!), there's just not enough time to build up a complex, believable political conflict." Fitch admits that an engaging battle system serves as one of Eternal Sonata's bright spots, but claims that this isn't enough to redeem the rest of the game. "If anything, the engaging battle system shows Eternal Sonata's massive untapped potential," he asserts, "if the rest of the experience had been as fleshed out, we might be talking about the first great 360 RPG. This isn't a bad game per se; the biggest problem is that there's just not enough of a game here." While Eternal Sonata was hailed prior to its release for its intriguing premise, there seems to be some disagreement among critics as to whether it truly stands above its cliched peers. Its short length and linearity may be deal-breakers for some, but an interesting battle system could provide incentive enough for RPG fans to give Eternal Sonata a try.

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