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?
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.
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.
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.