On 14 June, 2007, Kurt Waldheim, Austrian politician and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died at the age of eighty-eight. In his youth, during the Second World War, Waldheim had served as an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht. Despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), Waldheim was elected President of Austria, in which position he served from 1986 until 1992. Never once, in all that time, did he play Eternal Sonata–for Waldheim, fortunate man that he was, died on the very day that Eternal Sonata was released. He went to his grave blissfully unaware of the threat posed to humanity by tri-Crescendo and Namco Bandai. Today, we may consider that Waldheim was the last man able to die in a state of contentment about the future.
Several months later, on 16 September, 2007, in a small, isolated nation called The United States of America, another man lay dying. He had not heard that Eternal Sonata was to come out the very next day; the whispers of a terror from beyond the western sea had not yet reached his ears. As he breathed his last, his soul separated from his body. In that instant, all the hopes and fears of boyhood; all the dreams and aspirations of adolescence; all the successes and goals of manhood spun through the fading mind, and the soul, throughout mortality striving for reunion with its maker, fulfilled at last its divine purpose. The author Robert Jordan was fifty-eight years old, and left behind a significant and enduring literary output, absolutely none of which was about Frederic Chopin.
According to the Starlight Megaphone Internet Database of Gaming and Entertainment (SMIDGE), Frederic Francois Chopin, born Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin, was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist of the Romantic era, who wrote primarily for the solo piano. He gained and has maintained renown worldwide as one of the leading musicians of his era, whose “poetic genius was based on a professional technique that was without equal in his generation.” Chopin was born in what was then the Duchy of Warsaw, and grew up in Warsaw, which after 1815 became part of Congress Poland. A child prodigy, he completed his musical education and composed many of his works in Warsaw before leaving Poland at the age of twenty, less than a month before the outbreak of the November 1830 Uprising.
At the age of twenty-one he settled in Paris. Thereafter, during the last eighteen years of his life, he gave only some thirty public performances, preferring the more intimate atmosphere of the salon. He supported himself by selling his compositions and teaching piano, for which he was in high demand. Chopin formed a friendship with Franz Liszt and was admired by many of his musical contemporaries, including Robert Schumann. In 1835 he obtained French citizenship. After a failed engagement to a Polish girl, from 1837 to 1847 he maintained an often troubled relationship with the French writer George Sand. A brief and unhappy visit to Majorca with Sand in 1838–39 was one of his most productive periods of composition. In his last years, he was financially supported by his admirer Jane Stirling, who also arranged for him to visit Scotland in 1848. Through most of his life, Chopin suffered from poor health. He died in Paris in 1849, probably of tuberculosis.
According to Eternal Sonata, Frederic Chopin is a dandy doppleganger for Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His beautiful sister commands so much sway in the artistic community that she has imported Samuel Langhorne Clemens–Mark Twain–to serve as her brother’s physician. George Sand, Chopin’s devoted love interest, is optimistically imagined as only relatively dowdy as she manages Chopin’s affairs (whilst he reclines, blissfully unconscious, on an ornate four-poster). In one of the many, interminable sololiquies rendered by this masque of idiots, Twain suggests that Chopin is not dreaming–and yet, in despite of this postulation, the game trundles on with all of the dexterity that one might expect of a chronically tubercular patient. Meanwhile, Twain lumbers about, exclaiming turgid drivvel possessing none of the verve found in his published works; Chopin’s sister sits primly on a settee, from which she emotionlessly ruminates on the nature of existence; and George Sand strides about hither and yon, speaking her mind with a freewheeling abandon whilst conveying absolutely nothing whatsoever. The great mystery is not whether Chopin is dreaming, but who will die first and how: will it be Chopin, in the bedroom, with the tuberculosis; or will it be the reader, in the front room, of boredom?
Within the world of dreams (if Chopin is, in fact, dreaming–but is he dreaming? Is a butterfly dreaming of him? Is he dreaming of a butterly? So deep! So profound! Existentialism through the mind of a fourteen-year-old booby!) a Nietzschean exercise in nihilism is taking place. Frederic asserts that he is dreaming–that all of the characters before him (and the player) are merely constructs of his mind. This the characters roundly dispute, and–if Chopin really is(!?) dreaming them into existence–the biggest mystery of all is why he does not choose to dream up something more imaginative or compelling than a bunch of identical anime-dolls straight off the tri-Cresendo assembly line, each packaged so as to declaim solipsistic babblings that would bring a blush to the cheeks of a first-week freshman in a 100-level philosophy course.
And there is the rub, for this is the game’s monumental conceit–greater than its absurd reimaginings of style and appearance; greater than its wrangling with history and established fact; greater even than its clumsy, thumbless groping at entry-level existentialism–no, the greatest conceit of all is that Chopin the musical prodigy, renowned in his time and at every moment since, author of some of the most delicate and inventive works ever composed for the piano: waltzes, mazurkas, scherzi, preludes, and sonatae, Chopin the undisputed creative genius can invent nothing better than a series of cookie-cutter mouthpieces for the bilious mouth-farting of low-rent Japanese anime producers. To be certain, experienced gamers and anime fans have seen and heard it all before–the laboured expostulations on the nature of existence, the ponderous, navel-gazing pseudo-philosophy–but Eternal Sonata is the indisputable ne plus ultra of the form.
But let us return to the dream world–if, indeed, we are not already dreaming–where we can find a cast of characters whose names are all drawn directly from musical terminology. One can almost imagine the self-satisfied sniggering of the developers, high on their own farts, as they drafted up plans for Polka, Beat, and Allegretto; for the lands of Baroque and Forte; for Prince Crescendo and Fort Fermata (the last particularly appropriate as its movement mechanic quickly overstays its welcome). All of them are uninspiringly voice-acted, with the usual in-battle shouting that gamers have come to loathe. “How pitiful! You soulless creatures!” Chopin shouts, again and again, without variation. “Sacred Signature!” The staggered player, agape on his couch, can only gawp at the needless lip-flapping. “Tuberculosis, hurry!” he shouts in rejoinder, hoping to encourage a faster end to the experience–but the game, uncaring, hears him not.
The battles themselves proceed in the usual sort of porridge-y tri-Crescendo way: there is a move timer, a combo meter, and light and dark areas of the battlefield, each of which result in a different finishing move for the playable characters. –And that is the whole of it, really. Bosses have a lot of hitpoints and most of the significant fights seem designed to wear down the player’s resolve rather than the characters’ life totals. These are often followed by lengthy cutscenes: in one memorable instance, this reviewer left the couch at the beginning of a cutscene. After loading laundry, making dinner, emptying the dishwasher, eating dinner, and loading the dishwasher again, this reviewer returned to the couch only to find that the cutscene was still progressing apace, with very many observances about whether anything unreal exists.
As for the storyline, it may be dispensed with quickly: Floral Powder and Mineral Powder factor in significantly; the former is good, the latter bad, in the usual bifurcative way that the natural world is set against the artificial. The bad count (Waltz) and principality (Forte) push Mineral Powder, which turns people into monsters. The good prince (Crescendo) and kingdom (Baroque) prefer the eco-friendly Floral Powder, which pleases Polka (a flower seller) no end. The game’s descent into madness rolls along, gathering speed as the plot leaps dizzyingly from one absurd point to the next even more absurd point. After falling into the sea and escaping pirates (the party are woefully ill-fortuned), they at last confront Count Waltz who escapes through a magical portal. The party dutifully follows him to the (surprisingly accessible) underworld, “Elegy of the Moon” (haunted by the deceased victims of Mineral Powder), where he escapes again.
What follows next is unclear to this reviewer, despite the fact that he has now played through the final segment of the game twice–both on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For the sake of brevity, the SMIDGE says:
The party advances past Xylophone Tower and the Noise Dunes to Double Reed Tower, where Legato [Count Waltz’s henchman] made another portal. There, the party defeats them and finally fight [Frederic] Chopin as the final antagonist, for him to complete his destiny. Realizing that it is the only way to save the world, Polka jumps off a cliff and is reborn younger, but then becomes older again and embraces Allegretto. Finally, back in the real world, Chopin’s spirit rises out of his body and he plays his piano one last time, in a blooming sea of nocturnal flowers ‘Heaven’s Mirror’, composing a song that was inspired by Polka. [Emphasis added.]
This reviewer defies our readers to find something more staggeringly idiotic in a game made by a respected, experienced, practised developer. In addition, this reviewer submits that this is the only ending to a game which is worse than that found in the otherwise similarly lamentable Final Fantasy X.
The music is an area where–all else failing–it would be reasonable to expect Eternal Sonata to deliver satisfaction. After all, it is a game centred (at least in principle) upon one of the most famous composers ever to have graced the Euterpean arts. And, indeed, when the game chooses to present the music of Chopin, it does this quite well: the recordings are of a very good if not outright exceptional quality, with all of the selections presented in 5.1 surround sound. Moreover, and most critically, the quality of Stanislav Bunin’s performance is exceptional in places and very good in others–the Etudes in particular demonstrate a profoundly developed lyrical technique on the part of the performer. But, aggravatingly, these very few moments in the game–easily and without contest the best part of the entire Eternal Sonata experience–are delivered as mere vignettes: they are moments not of gameplay, but of historical presentation, accompanied by brief snippets of Chopin history utterly disconnected from what has been taking place within the world of the game.
Here is yet another opportunity squandered, for had the developers attended more carefully to the music, they could have created a game that would allow Chopin’s compositional genius to speak for him–to accent the action of the gameplay; to serve real, narrative purpose within the soundtrack of the game itself. But, alas, just as the game world of Eternal Sonata is nothing so much as a a farcical caricature of the real–the existentialist universe as seen in a carnival fun house mirror–so too is Motoi Sakuraba’s un-Chopin-like and forgettable soundtrack but the unsophsticated and juvenile imitation of real compositional brilliance–an inescapable inferiority shown all to the worse by its unfavourable juxtaposition alongside the works of a real master like Chopin, presented below:
The stirring and vivacious Polonaise in Ab, Op. 53 of Chopin is followed–in what must be the ultimate damp squib—by the enthusiastically dull strains of some saccharine, string-infused Sakuraba selection, served up for the savory delectation of the suitably tin-eared listener. Philistines rejoice! Sakuraba has turned out yet another drosswork–the perfect background music for a life of no consequence!
At the end of it all, Eternal Sonata is a very bad game. But it is not–it must now be asserted–the worst game ever made, nor could it ever realistically aspire to reach such lofty heights and occupy a position alongside games like Deadly Towers and Fable. As the work of nothing more nor less than a team of over-practised amateurs, Eternal Sonata can never rise above its own firmly-established mediocrity to be anything more than a footnote in the annals of game reception. Where Chopin was brilliant–where he caught the world by the ear and inscribed his name upon history through works of genius and beauty–the developers of Eternal Sonata have instead been mediocre, subpar, uninspired, and workaday. Sakuraba’s stringy, forgettable earbilge is, in many ways, the perfect audio accompaniment to the uninvested blathering of the Wednesdayish voice actors; to the unsophisticated pseudophilosophical musings of the giddy-with-their-own-brilliance writers; and to the uninventive battle system, the development of which is purely a tool by which the developers hoped to force the increasingly apathetic player to look ever-more-closely at the mind-numbing piffle playing out on the screen.
A work of stunning mediocrity, more than anything else Eternal Sonata is a missed opportunity. Had the developers hearkened to the oeuvre of their ostensible subject, they could have created a game which would have allowed Chopin’s genius to speak for him. Instead, the developers chose to let their writers speak for Chopin. The result is not an “Eternal Sonata”, but rather a passing, fleeting “Variation on a Theme of Disappointment”.
Title: Eternal Sonata
Genre: Japanese Role-playing Game
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform Reviewed: PlayStation 3 (NA)
Release Date: 21 October 2008