In a series as famous and prolific as Final Fantasy, there are bound to be proverbial red-headed stepchildren within it who get mercilessly beaten upon. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for the GameCube was one such red-headed stepchild for a variety of reasons. One reason is the music. Kumi Tanioka’s atmospheric and sometimes new-agey compositions were bland and forgettable. Therefore, it did not inspire confidence to know that Tanioka would be composing the music for the sequel. But you know what? Kumi Tanioka totally stepped up her game for the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles – Ring of Fates soundtrack. The soundtrack has the orchestral pomp and bombast one would associate with the Final Fantasy moniker along with plenty of the atmospheric new-agey material that Tanioka specializes in. The soundtrack is quite varied, exciting, and dare I say really freaking good.
The MIDI synth quality of the soundtrack is quite good. I am not sure how well this music will translate through the DS’ tiny speakers and less-than-stellar soundchip, but players will definitely want to play this game with headphones. The developers’ blog on the US Square-Enix website mentions that Tanioka wanted to emphasize “ancient instruments” on this soundtrack. She definitely does in tracks like Mog’s Private Tutoring which uses wooden flute and wood block percussion style sounds. However, she also utilizes more modern orchestral sounds such as strings and horns in many tracks as well, such as the opener Ring of Fates. In terms of feeling, mood, and melodies, I would not find many of these pieces out of place in a 16-bit Final Fantasy installment, which is saying a lot since those were considered some of Uematsu’s better soundtracks. Some tracks even evoke feelings of staple Final Fantasy themes. For example, Light of the Crystal reminded me of the Final Fantasy Prelude theme. The bottom line here is that Kumi Tanioka delivered an excellent soundtrack with compositions that are unmistakably Final Fantasy but that are delivered using her unique voice and signature style.
The tracks are generally short but are packed with variety. For example, the variety of instrumentation, layers, sonic textures, and even some melodies and harmonies heard in a single two minuts track is often more than I’ve heard in some game’s entire soundtracks. I did not once hear a boring track and every piece was wonderful. I’ve not played the game yet, but given the strength they have on their own, I am sure they enhance the gaming experience by effectively evoking the mood and feeling of the intended locations and events. There are joyful and whimsical tracks. There are lugubrious emotional tracks. There are bombastic battle tracks. There are even some brief and fun 8-bit sounding tracks for what seems to be a racing mini-game. The game is not an overly serious minded game such as Xenogears but rather a story about a brother and sister on a high adventure. Therefore any foreboding and sinister tracks are more exaggerated than would be in, say, a Shin Megami Tensei title. Really, every type of track needed and wanted in a Japanese RPG is here and executed very well.
A term used often regarding media is “sophomore slump” wherein a second effort does not quite live up to a strong first effort. Well, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles flipped that script and had a freshman slump with a weak game and weak music. Kumi Tanioka’s music this time around is vastly improved and makes me want to hear more of her work on other Final Fantasy games. The game itself seems to have marked improvements on gameplay and story over its predecessor, but I and other US gamers will have to wait until the Ides of March to see that for ourselves. Regardless, listening to this soundtrack makes me want to experience the game and I think that is pretty high praise for the success of this composer.