I was able to play Eternal Sonata because my brother recently bought himself an Xbox 360 and have packed away his PS2 (which means no P4 for me unfortunately). It was the beautiful graphics and interesting looking battle system that caught my attention on this one.
Originally known as "Trusty Bell: Chopin' no Yume", the story is loosely based on the real life story of a Polish pianist named Fryderyk Chopin and his work back in the 19th century. In the story, Frederick is on the verge of his death at the age of thirty-nine and is dreaming of himself in another world. In that world a girl named Polka is also ill, allowing her to use magic as a side effect. People are avoiding her because of this and now after meeting Frederick, she decides to go on a journey to make what little time left of her life useful.
There's actually a number of parts to the story which is told through several chapters, each based on a piece of Chopin's piano pieces. While most of the story is told through Chopin's dream, there is also another part which tells of how he doing in the real world and another which gives a historical insight into the real life of the pianist.
I've found the blur between dream and reality fairly compelling but, if this was the only good part of the game, it wouldn't have made me play all the way through. I feel it's very under developed and the mystery it has going is very thin. The real life history parts about the real Frederick Chopin also feel somewhat broken off from the main fantasy story and forced in as part of the game even though they are supposed to be related.
However, saying that, its look at philosophy has been pretty thought provoking which helps make up for some of the story such as describing how people affect each others like ripples in water and how people are using many senses yet most of the time they only rely on and get impressions from their sight.
Behind this, the story is also backed up by a very interesting real time, turn based hybrid battle system. First plus point is that there are no random battles and there is pretty much no level grinding either. As with nearly all RPGs that let you see the enemy on the map, battles are initiated by running into them and by doing so from behind, you have the first strike advantage.
Once a battle has been initiated, what happens is for each turn there is a set amount of time for one of your party members or the enemy to act, allowing them to move around the battle field and attack. Once this time runs out, it's the next turn. You also won't find yourself standing around doing nothing while it's the enemy's turn because you can time your button presses to guard against attacks and when it is your turn, the control scheme can differ slightly.
There are many other interesting points about the battle system and one of them is there are no points to limit the usage of special skills. You just have to make sure there's enough time to execute them. The only downside about using special skills is that you'll use up something known as "Echoes" which are the combos you accumulate from successive normal attacks. These act kind of like a limit gauge only you don't have to wait until the Echo gauge is full. You can use them up as part of your special skills, increasing their power such as healing more HP. This makes battles more flexible and hence, a lot more interesting.
Also, depending on where you are in the battle field, the skills you can use are different. As usual, characters gain new moves as they level up but it's up to you to assign them yourself. Skills in ES are divided into dark or light skills and only when you are standing in the dark areas can you execute dark skills and vice versa. If the monsters you are fighting are big enough, you could find yourself using dark skills when standing in their shadows!
Another interesting point is as your party members level, your "Party Level" also change affecting the way battles work. You have less Tactics Time to sit and think, you can use more skills and even chain them. To sum it up, it basically evolves becoming more action oriented and the fun increases as you begin to deal some serious chained skill attacks. It grows a lot satisfying as you progress through the game.
Graphics are brilliant, vibrant with colour and character animation are smooth and natural as expected from motion capture. The screenshots here (and indeed anywhere else) don't really do the game justice.
There are plenty of good piano scores and while you will hear the real Frederic Chopin's work, most of the music is composed by Motoi Sakuraba who also did the tracks for Tales of series, Valkyrie Profile and Golden Sun games. Cutscenes are all presented in-game and be prepared lots and lots of them. They are long. Very long! They're probably the longest cutscenes I've come across in RPGs so far lasting anywhere between fifteen to twenty minutes each before you step into the next area and another one takes place! Fortunately, you can pause if you need to and you can also skip them although I didn't just in case I missed out on anything.
Those of you not too keen on English dubs due to bad voice acting or a lot of the Japanese language being lost in translation such as name suffixes will be glad to know there's an option to use the original Japanese voices. The Anime fans amongst you will probably recognise Ayano Hirano's voice as Polka who also played the popular Haruhi Suzumiya's voice. However, you might want to change it back to English just before the final boss fight because there is one scene that isn't subtitled.
While in most RPGs where level grinding can be a tedious chore, Eternal Sonata keeps battles interesting with its changing turn based/action battle system. It really is a quality game in terms of sound, graphical presentation and gameplay. The only let downs I would say are its story and perhaps the length of the cutscenes. Other than that, I have truly enjoyed the thirty hours I got from it (twenty if you don't play the extra dungeon too). Hopefully Tri-Crescendo's "Fragile" Wii adventure game will be of the same quality and it'll appear West. Otherwise I will have to rely on the Wii Freeloader!
For those of you yet to play this game, you might want to wait for the PS3 version which will contain extra cutscenes, add Crescendo and Serenade as playable characters for your party, costumes and new quests. I don't know whether it'll make it to Western shores, though.