It's hard to explain the premise of Eternal Sonata without making it sound a bit absurd. Take Frederic Chopin, a real historical figure from the 19th century (considered to be one of the greatest pianists of all time), and throw him into an over-the-top fantasy world full of magic, monsters, and political intrigue. 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. Battles are turned based, but each character has an action gauge that decreases in real-time as you move, attack, and use items and special attacks. As you progress, your training wheels are slowly taken off by altering the rules of battle to make things more difficult. 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. 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.
Above: Eternal Sonata's battles are a perfect combination of orderly turn-based RPG goodness and combo-tastic button-mashing satisfaction
While the basics are easy to pick up, the battle system also has enough depth to keep things fun. A major part of battle strategy in Eternal Sonata revolves around the distinction between light and shadow. Not only do enemies dramatically morph depending on whether they're standing in a light area or covered in shadow (a small flying bat in the light will transform into a gigantic scorpion in the shadow, for example), but your own party's special attacks will vary depending on whether you're in light or shadow. Shadow attacks are generally more powerful, while light attacks can either be offensive or healing. There are also status inflicting attacks that can cast a shadow on someone no matter what, preventing that character from using a much-needed healing attack, and vice versa.
So, we've established that the battles are awesome, but the story is no slouch either. As we mentioned, the idea of Frederic Chopin, a real historical figure, entering a magical dream land seems a bit out there at first. While the main story is told in aforementioned fantasy world, with a fictionalized Chopin as one of the characters, the story's chapters are broken up with a series of interludes that tell the real-life story of the famous pianist. This allows players to draw their own parallels between real historical events and what's going on in the game, and brings a sense of realism to the otherwise fantastical world of Eternal Sonata. What on the surface seems to be a wacky premise, ultimately creates a brilliant contrast between reality and fantasy.
The only disappointing aspect of the story is the RPG-typical stilted dialogue between characters in the cinemas. Instead of carrying on a natural, flowing conversation, the characters engage in the all too familiar pattern where one character says a sentence or two, followed by a pause, then another character says a sentence, pause, and so forth. Luckily, the story and writing are strong enough to shine through anyway.
Above: In this world, the ability to use magic is believed to be a sign of having a terminal illness
Some might dock Eternal Sonata for being a tad on the short side for an RPG (around 30 hours), but how much does that really matter? 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. This is definitely the best traditional RPG for the 360 to date, and a must-have for any 360 owner, RPG fan or not.