Saturday, January 7, 2012

Eternal Sonata, or, Chopin in Wonderland

Japan is known for many interesting game ideas, with anything from homoerotic shoot-'em-ups to all-female acting troupes who also defend the earth with giant robots. Many of these games don't make it to foreign shores, but every so often, one finds its way to the U.S. Eternal Sonata (known in Japan as Trusty Bell: Chopin's Dream) is a Japanese RPG with an unconventional plot: as the Japanese title suggests, the game centers around a dream that Frédéric Chopin (yes, THAT Frédéric Chopin) has while in a comatose state on the evening of his death. It's a strange concept, to be sure; however, when you're running around the battle field with a top hat-wearing Chopin and bludgeoning enemies with a conductor's baton, you stop questioning these details.

Chopin, as envisioned by Japan.

Although the game garnered predominantly positive reviews, some reviewers complained about its use of overdone JRPG cliches and simultaneously confusing and over-simplified plot. One thing that was universally agreed upon, though, was the fact that Eternal Sonata's music was some of the best that the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 had to offer.

The soundtrack for Eternal Sonata was composed by Motoi Sakuraba, who's no stranger to whimsical RPG compositions. However, his work truly outshines itself in this game, where music is the central focus. In fact, the first two names in the credits are Stanislav Stanislavovich Bunin (the man who performed the Chopin piano pieces in the game) and Sakuraba.

First, a bit of background about the game itself: as stated above, the game's action takes place in the world within Chopin's dream, where every citizen and locale is named after a different musical term. For instance, the heroic couple in the game are a boy named Allegretto (an Italian musical term denoting a moderately quick tempo) and a girl named Polka (perhaps a nod to the rising popularity of Polka as a musical form at the time of Chopin's death). Towns are also labeled in this way; throughout the course of your journey, the party traverses cities such as Ritardando, Tenuto, and Baroque. The way that the world within Chopin's mind is inundated with these terms is a not-so-subtle nod to the immense importance music had in his life.

But the ties between this game and music don't end there. Every chapter of the game is named after a different one of Chopin's compositions, from his Nocturne to his Revolutionary Etude, that accurately describe the events of the plot. At specific points during the story, the action cuts away to a slideshow and a performance of the titular piece as performed by Stanislav Bunin, a pianist who won the 11th Annual Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1985. During the slideshow, the game provides further information about the piece that Bunin is playing and the context in which Chopin composed the piece. For example, one slideshow explains that he wrote the piece "Raindrops" after he and his lover had been evicted from their lodgings due to complications in Chopin's tuberculosis; when he returned to his former lodgings, he was subjected to the constant pattering of rain on his roof. Bunin has lived part time in Japan since 1988, and because of his accolades, he was asked to record these piano pieces for Eternal Sonata. This video shows Bunin's award-winning performance of Chopin's "Polonaise Op. 53" (also known as the "Heroic Polonaise"), which just happens to be one of the pieces he later recorded for the game. His enthusiasm and technical prowess are evident from the very start, and you can almost see the pride and love with which Chopin wrote this for his homeland.

"Polonaise Op. 52" -- Frédéric Chopin (as performed by Stanislav Stanislavovich Bunin)

At first, though, the original compositions in Eternal Sonata are nothing special. The first cut scenes are largely devoid of music, and when you first take control of Polka, she's placed in a tranquil, pastoral setting; the music is pretty, but also fairly simple. However, when you reach the first battle, the soundtrack shifts dramatically:

"Leap the Precipice" (Battle Theme) -- Eternal Sonata

While the theme is still fairly simple, the orchestration expands to become something far greater than it was in the simple, pastoral area. One of the great things about this battle theme is its scope; with a full string section, full and heroic percussion, brilliant brass, and even a choir, it's clear that Sakuraba put a lot of time and effort into this piece. Other composers may have saved such a composition only for boss fights, and indeed, it seems like it would be difficult to surpass the epic qualities of "Leap the Precipice." But if there is any game composer who could do it, it's Sakuraba. More on that later. 

This is not the only instance of incredible music being found in interesting situations. Take this piece, for example:

"Underground for Underhand" -- Eternal Sonata

This piece starts softly and gradually crescendos with each section, gaining more and more instrumentation and culminating in a fantastic 6/4 section at about the 50 second mark. Although it sticks primarily to the same pattern, the way that "Underground for Underhand" plays three against four complicates it enough to make the descending dotted quarter notes in the A section really exciting. Some may expect this composition to play while storming a castle or perhaps while they are voyaging on the high seas. But not in Eternal Sonata.

In Eternal Sonata, this piece plays in the sewer.

How grand.

Yes, two of the main characters are traversing the sewage waterways, killing rats and flipping switches with this music playing in the background all the while. Of course, the sewer looks a bit more grandiose than what is pictured above, although it remains a long waterway with rats scurrying about. This scenario by itself is about the furthest thing from daring. However, when it's juxtaposed with "Underground for Underhand," it changes the entire dynamic of the area. It truly feels like you're finally starting out on your great quest, reminding the player that all great acts of heroism burgeon from humble beginnings.

Sakuraba also proves that he doesn't require sweeping orchestration in order to provide excellent, moving compositions. At one point in the game, your party accidentally stumbles into a world behind an ancient mirror where they are forced to overcome the perils of a monotone, M. C. Escheresque landscape. 

"Tranquility and Inhabitation" -- Eternal Sonata

This piece shows how even peaceful compositions don't have to be simple. The instrumentation is primarily piano, which seems to justify the blatant symbolism that accompanies exploring a mirror: This all takes place within Chopin's consciousness, and this journey is giving him the opportunity to reflect on his life and his works. While this particular composition may not have been composed by Chopin himself, its freely flowing nature and intricate chord structure feel like something that you may have found floating around in his mind at a tranquil moment such as this. In fact, it sounds almost as if this was comprised of snippets of compositions that Chopin never got the opportunity to notate or play for himself.

Finally, there are the numerous boss battle compositions, but one of the most breathtaking is (not surprisingly) the final boss battle:

 "Scrap and Rebuild Ourselves - from Revolution" -- Eternal Sonata

As the title suggests, this piece is based on Chopin's Revolutionary Etude, which also appears by itself earlier in the game. Without spoiling too much, this final battle helps Chopin resolve his internal conflict between the verisimilitude of the land he has created and the reality that he and everything else in this realm is part of a dream. As the sky falls and the earth crumbles from beneath them, the party must face their final foe to save not only the world but also the very concept of their existence. What better way to punctuate that than with a composition about Poland's revolution accompanied by a choir, a fleet of violins, and a pianist who channels the fervor with which Chopin himself played?

This is one of the great things about Eternal Sonata. Motoi Sakuraba has the musical creativity and enthusiasm to contend with one of the greatest musicians the world has ever known. From beginning to end, the music envelops the player and guides him or her throughout the journey through Chopin's mind. Despite any other failings that this game may have, its amazing soundtrack and information about the actual Chopin make it a joy to play.

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