I have, personally, reviewed over 500 soundtracks for RPGFan, as of this writing. I might be near 600…I’m not sure. For me, there’s a pretty solid test (beside the obvious “wow this is awesome” sensation I get) to determine which soundtracks are truly the “cream of the crop.” With RPGFan’s standard “five tracks per disc” sampling rule, the tip-off for me is when I have a grueling decision as to which five I should sample, for the sake of eager listeners (and potential consumers).
This week, the dilemma blind-sided me. From the start, I limited which tracks to sample down from 16 to 10. After much heartache, I got it down to 7. And I just cannot budge from there; it’s bad enough I had to chop these songs up to one minute samples. So I picked seven instead of five. That’s a hint to all you readers that I really love this music.
The feeling I get when I listen to this album is something of cosmic love, or cosmic consciousness, with this music being the source of the harmony among people. My feeling is that everyone should get the chance to listen to this music, and we can all enjoy it together. Of course, its value is increased by the amount of time you’ve invested in the Square (Enix) games, as well as their original soundtracks. So I’m coming with a bias, since I’ll played all these games (save for the bonus track’s source, of course).
Before I go into my rant further (in a brief track-by-track praise fest), let’s talk about what this album is. Last year, Square Enix financed an album, “Vielen Dank,” for Masashi Hamauzu (composer for FFXIII). The album included an original collection of piano tracks, followed by some simple, chamber-music arrangements from a number of Square (Enix) titles that Hamauzu had scored. There were two tracks whose source(s) were unlisted, and some suspect they’ll be found on FFXIII.
This same package deal came to Shimomura, who has faithfully written incredible music for Square (Enix) in the past 15 years. Shimomura decided to go the route of the full orchestra. She hand-picked and arranged all the songs herself, though the “orchestration” was handled by others. Sadly, two Shimomura classics are not found on this album: Super Mario RPG, and Parasite Eve. As for why they didn’t make it? My best guesses are that there was some legal red tape for putting anything Mario-related into this project, and as for PE, it has its own full length arranged album, something none of these other games have received. Granted, that album was a crappy techno album with arrangements from a bunch of unknown guest DJs, but, whatever. It hardly lessens the value of what we have in front of us.
The word among fans is that, based on the track list, it’s clear that we may have been just as well off with an orchestral arrangement dedicated solely to Legend of Mana. And I tend to agree, especially after listening to the opening track. This song was recorded with real instruments a decade ago, and it sounded great then. But it sounds even better now, and this moody and passionate opening is just what the doctor ordered. This beautiful piece sets the tone for the whole album.
Moving forward, we get one of two amazing battle themes from Front Mission. Shimomura worked with Noriko Matsueda on the Front Mission OST, and both of these lovely female composers wrote wonderful music. “Take the Offensive” was just begging for an orchestral arrangement when it was written so many years ago. Front Mission fans will swoon when they hear this track.
And then we enter the “Kingdom Hearts series” realm. The songs are categorized as part of the “series” because, frankly, most KH melodies were used in all installments: 1, 2, and even Chain of Memories used these songs. “Destati” is a fan favorite, and is also one of my favorites. The choir makes its album debut with this track, and they sound great. The xylophones, the booming brass, the unrelenting percussion hitting hard at the same time the winds fly up and down the octaves: I am in awe.
Finally we get a chance to breathe with “Hometown Domina.” This arrangement, like the song itself, will not bombast its way into your ears and hearts like the previous three tracks. This simple, renaissance-like piece, in common time, is a welcome respite from all the theatrics, the “drammatica,” of the opening. In the scope of the album, this song functions well as a transition piece, and I appreciate it for that. There are so many wonderful songs from the Legend of Mana OST, I was surprised by this pick. But I will not complain; it, too, is a worthy member of the album.
Oh, and then we hear from “Live A Live.” Most English-speaking gamers cannot know how magical this game was, and when I saw that Shimomura chose to arrange music from this classic SNES RPG as well, a hope sparked in me…a remake on the horizon, using these recordings for FMV sequences? One can only hope. Anyway, this particular song is one of the many character themes from this excellent RPG, one for a Chinese Kung Fu master who passes on his talents to one of three students (a young man, a young girl, or a fat kid). I was astonished to see this wonderful song picked for arrangement, and my only complaint about the arrangement is its brevity. Two minutes is not enough for such a beautiful song. I want more!
By this point, we’ve heard from almost every game in Shimomura’s repertoire. Track six, another short, two-minute affair, is the opening for the recent DS release, “Heroes of Mana.” Though most people think little of the game (and I tend to agree with them), the soundtrack was superb. The opening theme was an obvious choice, and I’m glad to have it here.
Now comes my least favorite track on the album. And by “least favorite,” I mean “if this were the best song on the album, and the rest was inferior, I’d still love the album.” Yeah, so even the worst is better than most albums’ “best” tracks. “Twinkle Twinkle Holidays” is a medley of snowy, wintry, Christmas-y songs from the Kingdom Hearts series. It’s like the nutcracker suite hopped up on sugar and sushi. I’ll take that any day. This shows that even when the source material isn’t the best, the recording, production, and arrangements make up for it. This really speaks to the quality of the album as a cohesive unit.
Track 8 is my favorite of the three “Heroes of Mana” selections. I’ll summarize: “accordion for the win.” That’s right, alongside an incredible orchestra, the star instrument is an accordion. Gotta love that!
“Earth Painting” brings us back into Legend of Mana territory, a wonderful place to be. The dynamic variations in this arrangement keep the performance afloat for a beautiful three minutes. This is out and out my favorite “dungeon” theme from Legend of Mana, and if for some insane reason you think the composition a weak one, that’s fine. You can disagree with me there. But this recording?! I will not allow any disagreement; that’s how passionately I feel. What a beautiful song!!
For the next song, it should be noted that the subtitle “Wasurerareta Tsubasa” translates to “Forgotten Wings.” The title is listed in English, then in Japanese, according to the tracklist. It should also be noted that this song has been arranged once before, on a little bonus CD released with Live A Live’s strategy guide. However, I believe this arrangement to be slightly different, despite having almost identical track times. “Forgotten Wings” is the most memorable song from Live A Live, of that there is no doubt. Slow, emotional, and beautiful, this song stays with you awhile.
The next medley of Kingdom Hearts music is the best of the KH tracks, in my opinion. A whole mess of amazing boss and event themes are strung together to show just how awesome Shimomura can be. A lot of people complained about the quality of the synth used, particularly for the strings, in both Kingdom Hearts titles. Fret no more! This live recording sounds beautiful, exactly as you would want it to be. This track is the longest on the album, almost seven minutes long. The last of the melodies used in this collection is a “Chain of Memories” exclusive track, and it is brilliant.
But it gets even better! The next two tracks make this album for me. Yeah, I enjoyed “Take the Offensive,” but the Front Mission song that most deserved an arrangement was “Manifold Irons.” This was one of the first tracks to be sampled on drammatica’s official website, a month before its release. This song is what brought about my full excitement for the prospect of this album. I was not disappointed. The strings and winds move briskly while the high brass takes the melody and the low brass hitting hard on a syncopated rhythm, alongside the percussion, to keep pace. Perfection for a VGM battle theme is found here.
And perfection, my friends, can also be found in the next track. Almost every RPG has a “theme of sorrow.” Legend of Mana’s “City of Flickering Destruction” (English translations vary on this title) was already perfect. But the song was short, and was mixed with a bunch of other excellent tracks on the OST. I’m just happy that Shimomura saw eye-to-eye with me, and picked this song to be recorded by an amazing German orchestra. The best part, for me, is the piano part that stands out in the middle of the song, riding back and forth on a few high notes. In the right mood, it has brought tears to my eyes. Oh, and I love those string parts that rise and fall against each other throughout the opening minute. What a perfect song!
After this extremely highh point, it’s time we be brought back down. We are eased gently by this final Kingdom Hearts medley. This song functions, on the album, much like “Hometown Domina.” It is a sweet, sentimental piece of music, but still never boring. The dynamics assure us of this, with the volume rising high and then quickly cutting to a soft drone; this happens more than once in the performance of this arrangement.
The German orchestra’s performance ends with, well, an ending theme. The ending piece for Heroes of Mana, compositionally, does not impress me. But the power and subtlety of the orchestra, particularly near the end of the track, can and will hold the attention of any person’s ears.
But the album does not end there. Tacked on as a sort of encore piece, and indeed as a preview of the things to come, is “Somnus” from Final Fantasy Versus XIII, which will eventually see the light of day on PlayStation 3. If you’ve been following the pre-release hype (which started at E3 2006), you’ve already heard most of this song from the game’s trailers. What we hadn’t heard before, surprisingly, were the first 20 seconds of the vocal performance. This song was recorded in Japan, and though we’ll probably see it take a prominent place in the game and its soundtrack, for now, this is all we have. It is a fitting, and startling, ending to the album, hinting at Shimomura’s future creative ideas. The opera-style vocals are fantastic, the piano and strings accompany so well…I simply love this piece of music.
So there you have it. I love this album, and you will too. Any VGM collector, even a casual one, should buy this album. I am ready to declare this album the best VGM release of 2008, and it was only released in March! It will take a lot to top what Shimomura has done here. This album blows my mind.
But I’d like to end this review with a bit of speculation. Square Enix has been good to their composers lately, perhaps suggesting that they are better off there than going freelance (though Shimomura technically is freelance, her game-related compositions have been almost exclusively Square Enix material). What will come next for Square Enix’s composers? Who will get the next “spotlight” album? Noriko Matsueda has been absent for awhile, but she has plenty of material. Kumi Tanioka’s repertoire is small by comparison, but she has been a dedicated Square Enix composer since Crystal Chronicles and FFXI. Then there are people like Sekito and Ishimoto, who have gotten much attention thanks to the resurgence of FFVII mania. Whatever happens, I hope that Square Enix continues to support their music staff in this way, and in turn, hopefully make a profit. Shimomura and Square Enix deserve praise, both verbal and monetary, for this incredible achievement.