Koichi Sugiyama is the measure of the Dragon Quest series in music. The classical style he uses is inseparable from the games, but as their composer nears the end of his life (Sugiyama is now 76 years old), the series producers must search for someone to carry on his legacy. The soundtrack to series spin-off Dragon Quest Swords: Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors, composed by Manami Matsumae, could be part of a test to search for that composer.
A veteran of the industry and a freelance composer since 1990, Manami Matsumae has composed for Capcom, Konami, Imagineer, and Sony Computer Entertainment. At least as far as I know, though, she has never worked on an RPG score. Matsumae’s music bears little to no resemblance to Sugiyama’s work. It feels much more like “video game music” than the “classical video game” style that Sugiyama pioneered, with much simpler arrangement and more contemporary melodic style. It does have a generally orchestral style to it, and it uses some nice rhythmic complexities at times, but the arrangements sound generally rather dull and lifeless.
Although the majority of the album consists of Matsumae’s original work, she also arranged a few Dragon Quest standbys. The album starts off with the “Overture,” that piece which has to be on every Dragon Quest album. The arrangement does a good job of making the piece feel fresh, because Sugiyama hasn’t altered his arrangements of this piece in a long time. The pizzicato strings of “Intermezzo” sound surprisingly resonant on this synthesizer, while the bass in “Bar Boogie-Woogie” complements the piano and light percussion perfectly. The airy rendition of “Healing Power of the Psalms” lacks the power of the orchestral version on Dragon Quest VIII’s symphonic suite, but still shines as a good composition.
Matsumae’s original work tends to be hit or miss. “Alsword Castle,” a regal fanfare, serves well as her introduction. The pizzicato strings and clarinet of the second section segue directly and very fluidly into a short violin solo, as the brass which opened the track returns. “At the Sanctuary” opens in 5/8 with a clarinet/oboe duet. A flute later takes over the melody, and the clarinet and oboe provide counterpoint, as the time signature seamlessly changes to 6/8 for a few bars. “Going on a Journey” has shades of Sugiyama’s world map themes, and “Battle 1 ~ Strike to Kill” begins very similarly to his battle themes, but neither of these pieces have the same strength of arrangement or melodic sense that Sugiyama’s music does.
The game-show inspired “Having Fun?” feels like mini-game music, but it seems almost too light hearted, to the point of cheesiness. “Deep Within the Forest” works better, and it feels almost Sugiyama-like in its atypical chord progressions, but lacks a strong melody, or an arrangement that truly builds tension. “A Damp Cave” creates a tenser atmosphere, with its brief bursts of percussion and oboe followed by silence (something not found often in video game music) and light string and harp arpeggio background. The march “Mount Breige” feels pretty standard, for the most part, but more lacking than normal because the arrangement fails to drive the beat sufficiently. “The Smell of Death,” an arrangement of “Mount Breige” somewhat reminiscent of Final Fantasy XI’s “Galka,” succeeds better than the march version, but “Finale,” which arranges many of the tracks from throughout the score, generally fails. The medley feels awkwardly constructed, and it ends pathetically.
As a whole, the score has good points, but it generally feels like a half-hearted attempt. I have nothing against composers who do not generally work on RPGs, but Matsumae’s music for Dragon Quest Swords not only does not live up to Sugiyama’s legacy or standard, it is generally boring as well. I have sampled my favorite tracks, but cannot recommend this score as a whole to anyone. I hope that, when Sugiyama dies, a suitable replacement can be found to inherit the series’ composition duties; Matsumae should not be that replacement.