Box sets are all the rage these days. Can't you tell? Everyone wants one for their favorite franchise!
From late 2005 to early 2007, VGM fans saw a marked increase in box sets being printed, for all sorts of different games. I tended to shy away from these releases, but there was one I simply couldn't resist: Final Fantasy XI. I had invested so much time in the game and fallen in love with nearly every aspect of it, this is one item I couldn't be without. And, in a stroke of luck, I had sold all of my separate XI OST releases about a month before the announcement of this box set, so there would be no duplicate action for me.
This, of course, is the complaint many fans leveled against this box and others like it. Five of the seven discs are entirely unoriginal. If you had been collecting all of the OSTs up to this point, and then you're expected to pay $100 just to get two more discs worth of original content, that's certainly absurd. But, for people who hadn't collected, but want a "complete" set, this is the one for you.
(Take note, though, that the "Star Onions" arrange album is not a part of this collection.)
It's the original content that sells the album to collectors, but the entire box is well worth it, especially if you're like me and have grown attached to Mizuta's work on the game and its expansions.
Allow me to gloss over the five discs of OSTs, and then I will speak more about the new music. After all, I myself have already written reviews for the 3 expansion discs, and our site offers plenty of opinions on the "original" Original Soundtrack.
The two-disc OST of "Final Fantasy XI" proper (no expansions, just the original experience) is a masterpiece in and of itself. Mizuta is joined by series veteran Nobuo Uematsu and Square Enix in-house composer Kumi Tanioka (responsible for the Crystal Chronicles soundtrack, among other things) to diversify the soundtrack. The result is, of course, phenomenal. Though the music is synthesized, the FFXI staff chose for the entire two disc soundtrack to be completely "natural," only using sounds for instruments that actually exist in the realm of acoustic performance. Very few of those weird synth leads or pads are found here; it's all meant to emulate the original. And, there are a number of live performances throughout the album as well. Not only is there the fantastic music for the opening FMV (done by a full orchestra and choir), but live instruments appear on all sorts of tracks. I'll emphasize one in particular: the fiddle for the "Selbina" theme.
"Memoro de la Ŝtono" (Esperanto for "Memory of the Crystal") is a musical theme that appears many times on the first two discs, and will come back to surprise us again and again. It's a simple but powerful melody; in many ways, it resembles the compositional style of Joe Hisaishi. I dare say I can't get enough of it!
The worst part of the OST, by far, are the "character" themes. In particular, the four female songs (including Mithra) sound like really poorly written late-70s early-80s pop. Yikes.
The town themes, and the music for the areas surrounding those towns, are absolute classics. If I may, I will cite Gustaberg, Batallia Downs, and Heavens Tower as my examples. These songs are all excellent; each is written by one of the three composers, so again, it adds to the diversity of the album.
The lengthiest track on the album is the music for "Castle Zvahl," which one may technically recognize as the "final dungeon" to Final Fantasy XI. The song runs for over nine minutes, and it is one of the better atmospheric pieces I've ever heard. It aims to haunt the listener, and to bring a mood of tension. The song is simple, but it does what it means to do quite well.
Moving on, we have the soundtrack to the first expansion, "Rise of the Zilart." To this day, I hold that this is the best of Mizuta's three expansion OSTs. Let me tell you why.
The first two songs, which capture the scenery of Elshimo (the southeast, jungle-scaped island of the world), are as fantastic as they are relaxing. Also relaxing is Mizuta's arrangement of the Chocobo theme. In it, he seeks to augment many intervals, working with a major scale instead of the jazzy dominant scale that the song is regularly placed within. The resulting sound is more organic than any other Chocobo arrangement I've ever heard.
The southwest island added to the map, Altepa, has some excellent music as well. Rabao is an especially good town theme, with a melody that you can (and will) quickly learn. The Altepa Desert music features a low woodwind (oboe? tenor sax?) and a marimba as its key instruments. The combination is excellent.
Finally, there are the areas added to the main map. Zi'Tah, Ro'Maeve, and the floating island known to veteran gamers simply as "Sky." Among these songs, I would hold that the Sanctuary of Zi'Tah offers the most enjoyable sounds. Again, Mizuta is a champion when it comes to creating music that soothes and relaxes the listener (always helpful when you're spending hours of your time in the same area). Zi'Tah's theme is simple and soft, and I love it.
The final battle for the Zilart expansion features the song "Belief," which I find to be one of more epic battle themes among FFXI's massive opus.
I used to despise the soundtrack for Chains of Promathia. I thought it was simply terrible. It took time to grow on me, and most of that time happened while I was playing Final Fantasy XI and enjoying the contents of the game's second expansion. Allow me to offer this section of the review as a "second look" at Mizuta's score to Promathia.
The first song that stand out, to me, is the Promyvion music, "Faded Memories." Its haunting sound and simple composition are similar to that of "Castle Zvahl," but there are clear differences here. The wavy, wobbly synth used throughout the song as the looped background help to express the darkness and the oblivion that the player faces when entering the "Promyvion" areas. I see very vivid images of drab, dying colors, one at a time, against an endless black background. When you experience the visuals of FFXI with the aural background, it adds a whole new layer of meaning. I now appreciate this song much more because of it.
The other two "area" themes that I have come to love are for the expansion's final dungeon, which veterans simply call "Sea." The relaxing, wavy sound we heard in Promyvion is back for the music of Al'Taieu, but the scary/haunting vibe is gone. In its place is a more interesting, more thought-provoking soundscape. The melody itself is almost cheerful, were it not for the ethereal background sounds accompanying it. Ru'Hmet, in contrast, stresses the urgency of the situation the player faces when reaching that part of the game.
I said that "Memoro de la Ŝtono" would be back, didn't I? As it turns out, this musical theme becomes prominent as part of the plot for Promathia. I won't say more, other than that, if you want to hear this song (and many melodic variations of it), the five "Odes" are the place to hear it.
A piece that was almost as fun as it was musically interesting was track 16, "Conflict: March of the Hero." This is a unique event/battle theme, very different from what I had come to expect from Mizuta.
Finally, there is the Star Onion's debut recording, a live performance of "Gustaberg" as a bonus track. If it weren't for the poor recording quality, this would be my favorite track on the album. I love this song on so many levels, and the Star Onions did such a great job with it...I really wish they'd have included a studio recording rather than a live recording.
The third (and possibly final) expansion to Final Fantasy XI is the "Treasures of Aht Urhgan." Yes, the expansion that taught us that the "world map" was only the game's Western hemisphere by leading us to the "near East" has a soundtrack to match the new areas quite well. The opening track, "Bustle of the Capital," had me sold the instant I heard it. As a town theme, I thought it was better than Rabao, Windurst, Selbina, and all my other favorites. The syncopated rhythm is what did it for me; Mizuta finally felt "hip."
Tracks 4, 6, and 7 are all area themes for the outdoor-ish dungeons surrounding the main city. The charming and peaceful "Jeweled Boughs," the enigmatic "Ululations From Beyond," and the mesmerizing 5/4 to 4/4 complex time signature of "Illusions in the Mist" kept me coming back for more. Again, "simple" is the name of the game, but it's not so simple that you'll find yourself bored. Particularly, those of us who like to analyze music will love analyzing these songs.
Two more Chocobo variations await us on this disc. If you liked what Mizuta did with "Dash de Chocobo," you will probably like these new songs as well. They were written for the chocobo racing/raising add-ons that appeared months after Aht Urhgan was put on store shelves. Mizuta certainly knows how to take this song and make it sound unique.
Most of the other tracks on the album are event themes. Mixing them with other event themes from this very lengthy soundtrack, many of them appear average. My favorite is the mischievous yet peaceful song "A Puppet's Slumber." Mizuta's love of major 7 (and major 9) chords is found all over this song, as is the lydian modal scale.
Okay. Breathe. Relax. *Sigh*. Go take a quick stretch break. The summary of the duplicated content is over, and now we'll move toward what makes this collection original.
And...we're back. Welcome to disc six, the "Unreleased" disc. What will you find here? Mostly, these are songs that Mizuta composed for the game and its expansions after the soundtrack was released. As it wouldn't be fitting to, say, put music written for Chains of Promathia on the Aht Urhgan soundtrack, these songs were simply left "unreleased." Until now, anyway.
There are some interesting pieces on here. I loved the fun, catchy music for the fishing mini-game. Tracks 6 and 7, both of them, are great songs. There is an "event" theme song that I've heard so many times, I don't even know where it would have originated. But here it is, on the unreleased disc: "Revenant Maiden." Anyone who's bothered to make it anywhere in the mission-based plot(s) of FFXI will likely recognize this song.
Oh! Hey! "Memoro de la Ŝtono" is back! Not only is it the basis for the excellent song "Moongate," it's also the melody used in the ending vocal piece for Chains of Promathia, "Distant Worlds." Previously, this recording was available on an album released by the vocalist, opera singer Izumi Masuda. An instrumental "Guitar" version of this song also appears as a bonus track. Masuda is prone to butcher the pronunciation of a few English words, but in general, her performance is excellent. She solidifies the importance of this melody here and now in this song; everything up to this point, in my mind, was a precursor to the real deal.
No surprises here, when we find another bonus track from the Star Onions. They've rearranged Ru'Lude Gardens in such a way that I can hardly recognize the connection between this performance and the original. This song is like a cheesy, upbeat jazz number that you'd expect on a Tokimemo arranged album...yet, I like it a lot! That's the Star Onions for ya...cheesy, but awesome.
For this being an "unreleased" disc, there are (unfortunately) a few blatant omissions. But one of them is not what some had thought. You may be wondering, where is Vana'diel March #3? Technically, though it's not listed as such, it is the opening track to the Promathia OST, "Unity." So that one's not necessarily missing, but one might look at the tracklist and think it is.
What is missing, however, is a portion of music that I would personally like to see released by Square Enix: that of Noriko Matsueda. Technically, her compositions are for the PlayOnline browser, and not for FFXI in itself. But honestly, has PlayOnline ever been about anything other than Final Fantasy XI? So far it's just been that and Tetra Master. Hmm...
There are also a few short jingles missing: the "level up" anthem, the music (technically a sound effect) when a bard performs, the original chocobo-mounting ear-catch music (before Zilart was released), and other little things. These aren't necessarily significant, but there is certainly room for them on the sixth disc.
The final disc of the album was the primary thing that attracted me to the box. Other fans wanted the box solely for this album, and at this point, the Piano Collection has not been announced for a separate release (a cruel and cunning sales tactic if ever there was one). I was worried this disc would never come. We've had Piano Collections for every numbered installment since IV. Then XI happened, and nothing came. Then XII was released, and as of the date this album was reviewed, no announced for an FFXII piano album has come forth. I was beginning to lose hope, then it was announced that Kaoru Ishikawa would be arranged this special piano collection. I was enthralled.
My personal hype over the album was not at all lost after listening to the CD. It's every bit as good as I was hoping it would be. Call me a fanboy if you will, but this Piano Collection is excellent. My single complaint is its length: under 40 minutes? Speaking in technical terms, that's not even an LP, or in other words, a full album. Even worse is that we only get ten songs from a pull of over 100 choices. And though I think Ishikawa did a great job with the songs selected, I was looking forward to hearing piano arrangements of at least 15 other songs that got completely ignored.
But let's not look a gift-horse in the mouth. These arrangements are great! Okay, they're not much more than what anyone would have expected: introduce the accompanying "bass" line, then the melody, then repeat while expanding and elaborating on the theme(s). That's the formula, and it works on all ten songs. However, there are some surprises on the album.
First of all, the album is performed by two different individuals. This was necessary because two of the songs (tracks 5 and 10) are duets, something we haven't seen from Square Enix since Masashi Hamauzu had piano duets on his SaGa Frontier II arranged album. The duets are as big and bombastic as you'd expect them to be, especially considering what pieces they are originally (a battle theme and a march).
Another surprise was the technical prowess of the performers. I was shocked merely by the way the performer maintained the brisk tempo of the first track, the theme to Windurst. Without a doubt, I prefer this arrangement to the original. If you'd like, you can repeat this paragraph replacing the words "Windurst" and "Rabao," because the next track was also great for many of the same reasons.
Choc-a-bye Baby is my least favorite of the bunch. I never liked the song in the first place, and I would have prefered another song (virtually any other song) arranged in its place. This is the black sheep track for me.
Movalpolos was a natural choice for a piano arrangement. Much like Final Fantasy IX's "Vamo' alla flamenco," this song's poignant melody and distinct style made it a strong candidate for this album. The arrangement and the performance are just what I would have expected, and then some (the various embellishments and flourishes knocked me out of my chair the first time I heard them).
I talked at length earlier in this review about "Promyvion," and how the song had grown on me. The song's importance to the game, particularly the Promathia plot, also made it worthwhile for arrangement. Also, its slow and steady pace with a simple melody allowed much room for decoration. Ishikawa decorated this song with so many high-octave touch-ups, I couldn't get enough of it.
While "Jeweled Boughs" is a decent arrangement, this is one track where I have to say I prefer the original version to the piano solo. In the original, there are so many different things going on, it's difficult to imitate with two hands and a piano. They do a great job at it, but I'm not sure this was the right pick for them to arrange from the Aht Urhgan soundtrack. I would have chosen "Puppet's Slumber" or "Bustle of the Capital" over this.
Though "Rabao" was a great choice for arrangement from the Zilart soundtrack, I was surprised to see Tu'Lia make the cut. The minimalist style allowed for some good elaboration, much like the Promyvion arrangement, but this song was (in my mind) subpar compared to the other tracks on the album. It's good, but not great.
Final Fantasy VIII was the first of the series to have a lyrical, vocal performance featured in the OST. Since then, every FF has had at least one song, and every one of those ends up on the Piano Collection. So, it's only natural that "Distant Worlds" made it as well. This arrangement is rich and bold, much like Hamauzu's arrangement of "Suteki da ne" from FFX. The melodic style and the harmonic intervals worked really well on the piano. This is one to remember!
I can't complete this review without mentioning the elaborate packaging. What can I say? I love the Amano artwork. In particular, the front and back covers to Chains of Promathia and Treasure of Aht Urhgan are some of my favorite pieces of Amano artwork ever. Also, the Piano Collections book was a nice addition. In the past, those who wanted sheet music for the Piano arrangements would need to order it separately from Yamaha. I'm glad the box came with the sheet music, because learning how to perform these pieces is a beloved hobby of mine.
I remember laughing when I took all the contents out of the box and looked down the dark, narrow passage. Inside this black box, smack in the center, is a picture of a goblin. It's the little things in life that make it all worthwhile, and the attention to detail that Square Enix put into this box made it my newest, perhaps greatest, treasure.
If you've played this MMORPG for any amount of time and thought the music was at least half decent, you ought to look into buying this collection before it vanishes from retail stores. If you're not into the game, but you appreciate the compositions, that's another reason to pick it up. Me? I was into both the game and its music, so take that as a grain of salt with what is probably a very biased soundtrack review.
Reviewed by: Patrick Gann