A nostalgic night in with Eternal Sonata (PS3)

I’m not into classical music. It was never a part of my childhood in the way it is in some families. We listened to Magic FM in the car. My dad’s friend also made us a great mixtape with Fleetwood Mac, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and other classics. So much of my childhood was about pop music generations before my own; those tunes bring back memories from before my parent’s divorce, from a time that seemed happy and golden. The idea that people could get nostalgic over Beethoven, Mozart or Mahler is a bit weird to me. So how can this game make me feel warm and fuzzy about a classical composer I’m barely familiar with?

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Eternal Sonata’s production helps explain the warmth and nostalgia the game exudes. It was made by Tri-Crescendo, an offshoot of Namco’s Tri-Ace team made up of their sound team. It is, in effect, a game made by musicians. Their love and admiration for Chopin and his music really comes across, even though in many ways Eternal Sonata looks, sounds, and plays like a standard Japanese RPG.

That love comes through in the wacky, but emotionally hard hitting, storyline. The game opens with Chopin on his deathbed in Paris, suffering from TB. He slips in and out of  conciousness; there is the real world (which you see in cutscenes) and Chopin’s dream, where the game takes place. Chopin himself is self-aware, and tells the other characters he is dreaming. The characters that inhabit the dreamworld are all named after musical terms, with varying degrees of obscurity – Allegretto, Polka, Beat, Salsa, Viola, Serenade, etc. The premise involves your team, including Chopin, travelling to visit the evil Count Waltz (who looks about ten years old – wtf!) to find out why he’s raising taxes on flower medicine whilst lowering taxes on mineral powder. I told you it was wacky.

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The environments are beautiful, reminscient of RPGS like Final Fantasy IX, the Tales series and Xenoblade.

Running alongside the fantasy storyline about taxes – other stuff happens, I promise! – is a second storyline about Chopin’s life told through photos and a voiceover narration, all set to Chopin’s music. These are informative mini-documentaries which give some insight into the real Chopin’s life and compositions, indicating the real life scenarios that may have inspired his music: falling in love, being exiled from his homeland of Poland, war with Russia, the waltz dance, listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and watching a dog chasing its tail.

It’s extremely rewarding when you see how Chopin’s dreamland was inspired by the real events in his life. Ultimately Eternal Sonata boils down to a meditation on the creative process. The characters reside in a world of Chopin’s making – or so it seems. The game asks how much of our inner creative world is really under our control, and how much of it comes from some other source. Doesn’t music live on, even after its composer dies? Surely it does, since Eternal Sonata exists! I had a lot of fun pondering some of the big philosophical questions that the characters raise (I love Polka and Chopin’s relationship especially), and the dreamworld/real world storylines encourage you to consider how the two are connected.

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For a game that I assume is pretty obscure and niche, Eternal Sonata has inspired some incrediably varied and accurate cosplay! Google is your friend.

The game’s weakest moments is when it forgets this relationship and relies on cliche JRPG tropes rather than on what makes the game unique – Chopin’s life. At times it can feel a bit linear. The environments are often grand and impressive to look at – outdoor sections are reminiscent of the Xenoblade games – but in practice they are fairly limited. But, as I said previously, it’s completely forgivable – not all games need to have a scope like Xenoblade! And the sense of smallness helps to make it feel cosy and sweet. All in all, Eternal Sonata is a wonderfully unpretentious encounter with rather nerdy classical music history. Emotionally it’s very impactful. Even if classical music isn’t your thing, this quirky title will have you reaching for the hot cocoa – and maybe even some history books.

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14 comments

  1. The Otaku Judge

    I thought Eternal Sonata was okay, because it came out at a time when the PS3 was starved for RPGs. The setup is very original, but the combat got a bit stale for me towards the end.

  2. Athena | AmbiGaming

    I’m going to try really really *really* hard not to be a music nerd about this game, but Polka is actually a representation of Chopin’s youngest sister, Emilia. Emilia died from TB when she was 14, which is the same age as Polka during the game. So I really like how they portrayed Polka, her incurable illness, and her desire to do something special before she died.

    I only ever saw a Let’s Play of this game, but I do like Chopin’s music, so I had a good time watching the story unfold. I’m glad you wanted them to Chopin’s life a little more, as well. I was thinking I was biased!!

    • veryverygaming

      Ha ha, there are some great touches, many of which I missed for certain! Thankfully the game did flag up the Emilia comparison so I got that at least. The connections between the game’s story and Chopin’s life are mostly indirect (some are pretty tenuous), but over the course of the game you get to see how Chopin’s bio inspired the story the game devs worked. It was only right at the end of the game that I saw how the villain was tied to Chopin, for example. Maybe it’s too subtle for its own good, I don’t know, but I certainly enjoyed it.

    • veryverygaming

      I’m sorry for such a late response. Good question! The original music was pretty decent – actually almost all the music is original, there are only a few Chopin pieces that play during the mini-documentaries on Chopin’s life and they’re played by some prestigious pianist I believe. It’s an interesting decision and I’m not sure the original music does do justice to Chopin to be honest, although it’s not bad by any means. I would probably have preferred something more like the Wii game Little King’s Story, which is all modern arrangements of famous classical pieces.

  3. moresleepneeded

    I have not played this game. It seems like a strange idea for a game, setting it inside the dreams of an actual composer while he dies from tuberculosis. It is interesting how the events in the game reflects events in the composer’s life and seems to be based on how a creative person may gain inspiration. I was also interested to read about how you felt a sense of warmth and nostalgia while listening to the previously unheard classical music, I have always been reminded of my childhood while listening to Night Swimming by REM. I do not recall listening to any REM songs when I was younger and it is ironic as the song is about the singer remembering his carefree youth and comparing his past experience with the actions of people in the present. This game also demonstrates a strange aspect of Japanese culture. Usually in Japanese anime, the characters have more European physical characteristics than Japanese, so it is interesting that this game features a European composer, rather than an Asian one.
    How does Chopin’s music feature in the game? Is there a difference between the graphics of the dream world compared to the waking one? How are parts of the composer’s life inserted into the game?

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for the comment! You’re right about that REM song Nightswimming, it’s very nostalgic for me too even though I didn’t hear it when I was young. Wish I could say the same for Everybody Hurts, but that song was EVERYWHERE and I can’t enjoy it even now as a result.

      Anyway! Chopin’s music is mainly in the mini-documentaries about his life that play throughout the game. A whole piece plays and there’s commentary that talks about the music and aspects of Chopin’s life. The graphics are the same in the dream world and the waking one, both anime-style as you mentioned. The design of the real world is realistic though, with posh interiors, people in fancy dress, servants – basically what you’d expect a wealthy European estate to look like in the 1800s – which is very different to the more fantastical dream world.

      • moresleepneeded

        That is strange, that you find the Nightswimming song nostalgic, despite never hearing it. I think it has something to do with the opening bars, which sound like the beginning of a programme which looks back on someone’s life. It was probably intentional as the song is about someone reflecting on night swimming in their youth and comparing it to the modern day.
        The different designs seems like an interesting way to compare the reality and fantastical imagination of an artist in the game.

  4. Paul and the Backlog

    I wanted to love Eternal Sonata, I really did. The premise was fantastic and it looked and sounded amazing. Unfortunately after about 20 hours in I just couldn’t bring myself to keep going. It wasn’t terrible, I just don’t think I was enjoying it and the writing wasn’t pulling me in as much as it should have. Maybe one day I’ll revisit it. Good post.

    • veryverygaming

      Thanks for commenting, very much appreciated. Sorry for the extremely late response. That’s a shame you couldn’t get into the game, but understandable. As much as I enjoyed Eternal Sonata it’s not a game I’d unambiguously recommend to everyone – it’s so damn long, especially the PS3 version!

      • Paul and the Backlog

        No problem (o^.^)b . And yeah it was the PS3 version that I started playing. Ah well, I’m sure one day there will be a re-release or remake that will pull me into it again.

        That said, do you share your writing on any other sites? I work over at Creators .Co (we’re part of Now Loading) and this is the sort of content that makes for an interesting read. Would you be open to the idea of crossposting your work on our Creators fansite or sharing you wordpress posts with the users in our Facebook group? My e-mail and more info can be found on my page if you’ve got any questions.

  5. Nick

    Lovely write-up. Played this on the Xbox 360 when it came out lol, it was really a lot of fun. Will play it again on the PS3 very soon, apparently it also has some bonuses compared to the 360 version so I can’t wait! Hope it gets a PS4 re-release or something.

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