Thursday, July 19

Eternal Sonata Combat

Eternal Sonata is in development for the 360 by tri-Crescendo (also rumored to be in development for the PS3). Or was, depending on how you look at it. The game was released in Japan a month ago under the name of Trusty Bell, and is currently being localized for the United States with a planned September release. This is not tri-Crescendo's first title, that belongs to Gamecube RPG Baten Kaitos. But it doesn't take too hard of a look to notice aspects of that earlier title within the newest (namely graphics and music). However, not one to rest on their laurels, tri-Crescendo is once again innovating combat within the RPG genre.
The vertical bar on the left is the timer. Only .20 seconds remaining!

Eternal Sonata's combat is both turn-based and real-time. Players have a party of four characters at a time. Combat is either single-player or multi, as Eternal Sonata supports four-player co-op. Regardless, as in many other RPGs, one character acts a time. Both ally and enemy characters take turns moving and attack one another over the course of a battle. This is where the real-time part comes in, mostly. In RPGs like Final Fantasy, players act via menu selection, and take as long as they please to do so.

Eternal Sonata
is different. For one, characters can move during a fight, and in fact, stratgeic movement is integral to the combat system. Second, players don't select actions from a menu. Instead players can run their chararacters around with the analog stick and use the face buttons to attack, defend, and cast spells or use abilities. This makes for a feel much more reminiscent of Tales of Symphonia than Final Fantasy. But rememer, only one character can act and attack at a time. If the game is both turn-based and real-time, then how are turn length or limits constructed? Good question. And the answer is a timer.

Towards the beginning of the game, players have a 5 second action timer. But as the game progresses, that time is reduced to 4 (and possibly lower, in so far as I know). But the time limit isn't static, not at first. tri-Crescendo is using the timer to pressure players and force them to play more strategically. As opposed to just making harder and harder monsters, this time limit manipulation serves to inflate the combat difficulty. Combat at the start of the game allows for more thought and planning in making decisions. This is because the timer only ticks down when the player is acting. If the player just stops and sits still, so too will the timer freeze. But when the player moves, attacks, or acts in any other way, then the timer ticks down. As we all know video games work in animations, so when players perform an action, such as attacking, then the timer will count down for as long as that animation lasts.I love tihs because it so neatly combines turn-based and real-time. Players can sit and think as long as they want about what type of action they want to take. Do you run in and perform and attack, attack, attack? Or, do you run in and attack, then run away again so the monster won't attack you come its turn? You may change your mind half-way through, and thats ok, because you can just stop acting and reevaluate the situation, then adjust your tactics accordingly. Unlike in turn-based games where players move through grid spaces, Eternal Sonata's system is free-form and allows for 360 degrees of movement. Its more like Warhammer than Chess.

But eventually this system might get too easy, or at least tri-Crescendo feel so. Who needs all that time to think and plan and stuff? The answer is irrelevent because players don't have a choice. Eternal Sonata gets harder. At some point in the game, the player loses the ability to pause time. Now, when the player stops acting, the timer just keeps on going anyway. When a character's turn starts, so does the timer, and it doesn't stop until time is up (therefore ending that character's turn). Players are thereafter forced to think and act much more quickly than at game's start.
Let it be known that water wheels are awesome.

The combat of Eternal Sonata has a whole lot more to it then what I've discussed, including a shadow/light mechanic, combos, and more. The active timer is a really awesome system. It is like the confluence of two great rivers: real-time and turn-based, and it is good.

IGN Pre-E3 Preview
IGN E3 Preview
Gamespot E3 Preview

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