You don’t see “resplendent” used as a descriptor often enough, but after listening to Final Fantasy Series Acoustic Arrangements, I can think of few other words to describe the experience. Gathering together some lovely and memorable pieces that are franchise powerhouses, veteran violinist and lead on the Acoustic Arrangements series Atsuki Yoshida has compiled an outstanding album. Starting at Final Fantasy and working its way through each mainline series entry until Final Fantasy XV, you’ll be captivated by a couple delightful surprises among classic favorites along the way.
The first selection of “Opening Theme” from the series’ humble NES beginning may be a safe bet, but it sets the tone for Acoustic Arrangements perfectly. Kevin Penkin has arranged lovely layers from the outset, with those telltale notes on the flute dazzling listeners with nostalgia and a particularly playful nuance. Then the strings join, and you know exactly what you’re listening to. It’s moving and finds its stride at the two-minute mark, where Yoshida can let loose on the violin, ramping up to a beautifully poignant, stirring finale hinting at the incredible adventures to relive as you continue listening.
Now, “Opening Theme” isn’t alone in seeming a safe bet. As gorgeous as the album is as a whole, looking at the tracklist, there are times when you worry about hearing “Battle on the Big Bridge,” “Zanarkand,” or “Blinded By Light” arranged or remixed yet again. In the same breath, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to recall a better version of any of these pieces out there, meaning it’s not a “Yoshida and his team problem,” it’s an “everyone else needs to diversify their material or step it up” problem. But let’s let you hear it for yourself.
“The Rebel Army” is given an almost dueling flamenco dance vibe by Ai Kuwabara, making it a standout from the stentorian marches you’re used to hearing, feeling more alive to the ear. Following is Yuma Yamaguchi’s “Eternal Wind,” one of the best renditions of the Final Fantasy III overworld theme ever, bidding the quartet to capture a little bit of the chaos that shifting winds can sew, which is again different from any popular take.
Shifting console eras, you’re immediately wrapped up by the drama and action of Yasunori Nishiki’s take on a classic fight, “Battle With The Four Fiends,” that feels familiar at first but finds new highs and lows with some clever dynamics. A fun departure in the bridge shows Nishiki’s Octopath Traveler colors while paying homage to his roots. “Battle on the Big Bridge” feels unhinged, with Atsuki Yoshida seemingly inviting listeners into the crazed mind of Gilgamesh as the strings go nuts off the top before keeping it familiar throughout, only to reach soaring new heights at the piece’s pivotal moment. Then, in another highwire tense fight, Yuya Mori blends “Kefka’s Theme” (and a callout to his laughter) beautifully into this “Battle to the Death” arrangement, making it an astoundingly vivid track that is full of menace and an ebb and flow of dynamics that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Then, after those old favorites, Acoustic Arrangements throws in its first surprise. “Gold Saucer” has undoubtedly had its due here and there, but many more tracks jump to mind when one thinks of Final Fantasy VII‘s extensive tracklist. Capturing the delight of that magical casino and theme park above the clouds with an almost folksy string trio ensembled alongside a flute and piccolo, Ayana Tsujita’s take provides a new form of whimsy. The immediate playfulness of a band seeming to tune or warm up, then kicking off the piece as we know it, sets us up for fun. Then, as the piccolo finishes the first line of the melody, there’s this mind-blowing way that the strings dance their bows over their instruments to make them come alive, the voices of the patrons clamoring over the rides, games, and famed chocobo races. Yoshida and the strings take over, and Misaki Hatori’s masterful flute comes along for the ride. The whole piece is a rollicking, festival-like dance until it takes a dour interlude at two minutes because all isn’t as it seems at the Gold Saucer. These somber notes injected amidst the joy are a truly unique way to experience the theme, as they contribute to crafting a standout arrangement here.
The fight is back on with “Don’t Be Afraid & Force Your Way.” Tsubasa Ito rekindles the flames in an electrifying, punchy take on these battle themes. The two blend one into the other seamlessly and have an added edge of mystery and danger from the spicy Spanish-style guitar and oppressive contrabass work. “Not Alone” is almost what you’d expect, except for the depth of passion delivered in this duet Yoshie Hatano and Atsuki Yoshida arranged and performed together, raising hairs and leaving tears as it stirs something profound inside you.
Jumping into the PS2 era, Takatoki Suzuki’s “Zanarkand” elevates the piece beyond what you’ve heard, mainly thanks to the use of his bandonéon to lend the piece a romantic, timeless feel that evokes the German word “fernweh” or “far sickness.” “Awakening” is truly that, as Shingo Nishimura’s powerful take on the underrepresented piece is invigorating, thrusting listeners into the height of the action and never relenting where the original takes time to build into it, which seems brilliantly counterintuitive given the size of the band. Takaaki Nakagawa takes us on a romping visit to “The Dalmasca Estersand,” where Hatori’s flute shines alongside Taguchi’s piano to distill the location’s sunlight into the music before becoming captivatingly reminiscent through the middle before rounding out with adventure once more.
Shu Kanematsu lets the piano roll with his work in “Blinded By Light,” tagging in and out with some beautifully nuanced strings. This piece feels simultaneously grand and intimate, its few choice instruments ablaze. Favoring listeners with his final addition to the album, Yoshida somehow strips the epic that is “The Final Day” down to elegant simplicity while maintaining the soaring heights of the battle it underpins, swinging between warmth and tension with masterful ease. Closing out the album, a newer staple, “Valse di Fantastica,” à la Ren Tsukagoshi, hears him leading a trio that changes the waltz feel of the song into a deadly dance full of passion, tension, and momentum until its grand finish.
Listening to decades worth of Final Fantasy history, captured in a single arrangement each, is a delight. While you can only wish every song from each entry could receive the same treatment, what listeners have here is ample. Each arranger clearly has their own voice but has brilliantly kept to the overarching thematic work to maintain a cohesive album. When thinking “acoustic,” seeing so many battle themes make the list may give pause at first, but as you listen, you start to wonder if the team selected these pieces because of the challenge that could present. The challenge to expectations and maintaining the original works’ heart while working with a limited, or perhaps simply different, palette. Final Fantasy Series Acoustic Arrangements features some of the finest virtuosic performances, with colorful arrangements that lend new life to fan-favorite music. This is not an album to deprive your library of.