2nd Oct 2007 | 15:46
It's pretty difficult to empathise with a game's tragic heroine when you're too busy wishing she'd just shut the hell up. Eternal Sonata's voice work is often so dismal it's laughable - consisting of tedious drivel and wooden acting (full of... really... odd... pauses) a boatload more irritating than even Blue Dragon. If you last up until the true opening credits, some 30 minutes into the game, we'll come round your house and applaud you as you make your way down your driveway to work. Congratulations.
Dialogue is crucial. It can make a decent RPG exceptional, or it can make a great RPG, well, a little bit annoying. Here it's a fairly major blemish on an otherwise charming adventure. So, do yourself a favour and switch to the Japanese voice from the options menu before you even begin playing, and thank us later.
So with that out of the way, we can concentrate on Eternal Sonata's finer points, of which, thankfully, there are plenty - none more so than its strikingly beautiful looks. It mightn't have the overall polish of Blue Dragon, but in terms of its aesthetic, it's exceptional. The character designs throughout (a kind of saccharine period-costume look, all top hats and petticoats) are never short of wonderful.
Each and every locale is lavish in detail - from cosy interiors, and quaint little towns, to blossom-peppered meadows and sun-kissed woodlands. For sheer prettiness, in the truest sense of the word, few can match Sonata's strength in design.
Concessions have had to be made, mind. Like so much in Sonata, there's an air of superficiality to it all. Incidental details in a scene, like the chickens in the opening town for example, are immovable objects - they may as well be made of wood for all their interaction with your character. And though the pin-sharp cel-shading on the characters is a delight to behold in HD, they curiously (and comically at times) lack expression at key moments - their doll-like faces failing to convey the gravity of certain situations. Sure it all looks lovely, but it's window dressing - a backdrop on which everything plays out.
Ordinarily we'd be disappointed by this - but we're not, because while the initial draw of its presentation isn't without fault, Sonata manages to make up for it in ways you wouldn't expect. The story for example - some nonsense about being inside Chopin's dream in his dying moments - is pleasingly low on the usual cliché, has more than its share of surprises, and it all rattles along at pace.
You can barely go an hour without visiting a new town, meeting a new party member, or facing off against another boss. There's no 'when's-this-going-to-end?' slog through dungeons. You never get lost. You're never unsure where to go next and you never really feel like you're getting tired of any of it - because it never actually gives you the opportunity.
As a result, it has a very satisfying momentum to it. True, you're led by the hand though a very linear adventure, without any real scope for off-the-beaten-track exploration - and this is something we'd normally penalise an RPG for - but after Blue Dragon and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, we've found ourselves actually revelling in its almost complete lack of ambition.
It's also pretty easy too. If you attack every enemy you come across as and when they present themselves, you'll have no trouble working through the game. There's some scope for level grinding if you want to overpower your characters - but on the whole, battles are nowhere near as annoying or intrusive as you'd expect from a JRPG.
It also helps that the battles themselves are far more interactive than your usual turn-based systems, and many of the most common frustrations (like random or unnecessarily long-winded battles) you usually have to endure in this genre, are almost completely absent here.
There's something very simple and very soothing about Sonata. It's easy to settle in to the rhythm of traversing its one-way paths, looting chests on your way, triggering battles and admiring the slideshow of blue skies, flowery plains and ornate towns.
If Oblivion is the equivalent of a month-long trek across the Serengeti, then Sonata's like being chauffer-driven through Tuscany on a Sunday afternoon. You might be surrendering all choice in where you're going, but you can't argue with the view out of the window.