With a soundtrack longer as its predecessor and the promise that it would draw upon themes from both the first Tactics Advance game and Final Fantasy XII, I was looking forward immensely to listening to Grimoire of the Rift’s soundtrack.
Since the inception of Basiscape, Sakimoto’s distinctive style of composing has been slightly diluted by the group effort, but this hasn’t hurt the quality of the releases. Whereas older Sakimoto soundtracks were defined by their strong, unique tracks that stand out as being memorable classical compositions in their own right, recently–most visibly evidenced by Final Fantasy XII–individual tracks have lost their prominence in favor of being considered a piece of the whole soundtrack, a single movement in a symphony. Now, Sakimoto never fails to turn a video game soundtrack into an entire symphony, and quite often I’m almost disappointed that the individual tracks haven’t been merged together into a handful of movements lasting around half an hour each.
The one thing did give cause for concern was Basiscape’s preceding effort for Square, the woeful soundtrack for Revenant Wings. Tracks were taken straight from Final Fantasy XII with no effort made to make allowances for the difference in quality, I did fear that Grimoire of the Rift might receive similar treatment. But as soon as I started listening to this album, all thoughts of Revenant Wings (and its conspicuously absent soundtrack release) were forgotten, and I found myself listening to one of the most rewardingly pleasant soundtracks this year.
The first thing that immediately becomes apparent after sticking the disc in the player is that the DS is not capable of sound like this. Whereas the soundtrack for the original Tactics Advance consisted of the ‘ripped’ tracks from the game and the ‘original’ soundtrack before it was encoded, this just contains the original themes, not the ones encoded for the game. While this may slightly put off those who like completeness in their handheld soundtrack releases, the majority who would only be listening to the original soundtrack anyway have two fewer discs to worry about, so this isn’t really a serious criticism.
As for the music itself, it’s fifty odd tracks that are perfectly charming to listen to as an accompaniment to other activities, if not wholly memorable through a first listening. After a reprise ‘Main Theme’ from the original Tactics Advance game, the principle motif makes its initial appearance in ‘Putting Words Together.’ ‘Green Wind’ and ‘Unfold the Map’ are standard strategy RPG fare, and things don’t really get going until ‘Companions That Surpassed Their Tribe,’ which is the first rousing track, hailing from the original Tactics Advance. Also from the previous game is ‘At the Bar,’ which has relatively few components to it and takes a while to get going, but after the first thirty seconds sounds as warm and friendly as the denizens of the eponymous tavern. ‘Engage’ and the other short themes for battle victories and leveling up aren’t the strongest part of the soundtrack, and unlike Final Fantasy XII’s rendition on the victory theme I felt I could live quite happily without these short interludes breaking up the figuratively seamless transition between themes.
Despite occasionally rambling over the place, ‘Knowledge of the Adventurer’ never feels boring, and after the opening, settles down into a exciting theme with an overworld air about it. ‘Luso,’ the first of the character themes, is probably the weakest of the three, though more for being forgettable than for being an inferior track. The adjacent ‘Gathering Allies’ and ‘Signpost’ are likewise, simple enchanting melodies unlikely to make a big impression, especially on your first listening. The second character theme, ‘Cid,’ subsequently stands out for its slower pace and discernible tune, as does ‘Adel,’ my personal favorite of the character themes.
‘Mysterious Shop’ and ‘Unpreparedness is One’s Greatest Foe’ continues the soundtrack’s penchant for cheerful themes, though ‘Mad Dash’ and, to a lesser degree ‘Unhideable Anxiety’ taken from Tactics Advance, contains the first lingering hints at a hazardous situation. ‘Into the Fantasy’ should be familiar to those who played Final Fantasy XII, and its here that it become apparent just how much of a step forward Grimoire of the Rift’s soundtrack is. While not as subtle or ultimately as deep as Final Fantasy XII’s soundtrack, Grimoire of the Rift is far more suitable to the light, airy nature of a handheld, and I commend Basiscape for putting in the effort to make tracks that fit the platform as well as the game. Determination sounds like it should have been in Final Fantasy XII, but is–I think–an original track.
Both ‘A Grand Spell’ and ‘A Time Eternal’ are more reminiscent of Sakimoto’s work on Legaia: Dual Saga’s soundtrack, mixing a melodic percussion instrument with flute synths. In between is the fittingly named ‘A Shadow Lurking,’ the first track with a genuinely murky feeling to it. It’s not unpleasant to listen to, but it’s hardly suitable for a calm forest grove.
One of my favorite tracks on both the disc and the album is a reprise track from Tactics Advance, ‘Beyond the Wasteland,’ for although it isn’t really different about to other standard strategy RPG fare, it is a perfect combination of whimsy and substance. It’s followed by another track from Final Fantasy XII, ‘A Beating Heart.’ These tracks don’t share the same name as their ‘parent’ tracks, but presumably the track titles allows for some flexibility for their use. It would make little sense including labeling this track as ‘The Mosphoran Highwaste’ when no such locale appears.
Sakimoto breaks out the harpsichord for the final proper theme of Disc 1, ‘Comparison of Wisdom,’ a merry and whimsical track that would fit any library, bar or town center.
Disc 2 remains much the same in terms of themes, though there. The disc opens with the whimsical ‘Peaceful Days’ which is difficult to judge without knowing the context, though it would most fittingly be a town theme. ‘Summer Vacation’ sees the main theme reappear again, with little variation, and ‘Bookmark’ continues the slide back up to light themes over the hint of peril in the second half of Disc 1. ‘Crossing Over the Hill’ is another track that will be familiar to fans of Final Fantasy XII’s, and once again this may be an improvement over the original. Certainly it’s closer to having that midi quality caused by limitations of the hardware Sakimoto’s composing for, but it’s also clearer, and sounding like a sequenced piece of music does not mean the quality of the instrumentation is bad or the track itself is painful to listen to.
‘A Hurried Guess’ starts off hinting at dark overtones–or as dark as they ever get in this album–before sliding back up to a rather comical, even standard, dungeon/area theme punctuated with returns to the slightly darker atmosphere implied during the opening. ‘To the Peak and ‘That Which Stands in the Way’ shows that the balance of Final Fantasy XII-derived tracks is tilted towards Disc 2, with further tracks to come later in the Disc. However, quality also shines through on the original tracks as well, with Sorrow being one of the most beautiful tracks Sakimoto’s ever composed for both console and handheld. Although the soundtrack is devoid of the same kind of charged emotion that filled Vagrant Story’s soundtrack, there’s genuine feeling in this track, and it’s definitely one for repeated listening.
An updated ‘Penelo’s Theme,’ which grew to beyond its original owner to become ‘The Sky Pirate from the East,’ also contains new instrumentation. ‘Painful Battle’ is another track from Tactics Advance, but has been enhanced to the point where I had to check it wasn’t from Final Fantasy XII instead. Also from the original game is ‘Sleep of Defeat,’ the game over theme. Once again, the main theme reappears in ‘Premonition of Origin,’ and is followed by another two re-sequenced tracks from Final Fantasy XII. Gearing up for the end-game push, ‘Looming Crisis’ contains the most peril of any track thus far, and for the first time there’s a real sense of conflict. This feeling is suddenly cut off with one of the more poignant themes, ‘Requiem,’ which like ‘Sorrow’ contains authentic emotions.
The action returns, however, with yet another track from Final Fantasy XII appears: ‘Finale,’ used for the climatic final area in that game. It’s somewhat strange to hear tracks that have such vivid connotations used in a different context, but I can only assume that this is used in an equally fitting place. What follows is my personal favorite track on the album is ‘Front and Back,’ which has all the hallmarks of Sakimoto, but uses such an effective effusion of instruments that at the same time it feels completely new. It’s a curious track to have near the end of the game, and I cannot say whether it is most fitting as a dungeon, town or cutscene theme. Regardless, it’s a beautiful track, and one for the permanent playlist.
‘Conclusion’ could be both a dungeon theme or a battle, though I’d put money on the latter due to its proximity to the end of the disc. If it is a battle though, it surely isn’t the final battle. I imagine ‘The Unfolding Darkness’ claims that title, but due to the nature of the soundtrack the themes tend to flow together (and the difference between Basiscape’s dungeon and battle themes is not as clear cut as it was with Uematsu. As a composition it doesn’t really compare to Final Fantasy XII’s ‘Battle for Freedom,’ but that may just be my own personal preference. Sakimoto has always preferred final battle themes that emphasize danger rather than ones that are upbeat and rousing, encouraging the player to defeat the final enemy.
If I had a single criticism of this soundtrack, it would be that its end section tends to wander about a bit. It’s as pleasant to listen to as the rest of the soundtrack, but doesn’t have the action-packed quality of Sakimoto’s console efforts. This is an unfortunate limitation of the hardware, whereas the PS2 permitted for Final Fantasy XII’s epic conclusion as a grand ten minute full motion video, this just wouldn’t fit on a DS cartridge, and the soundtrack has to reflect the more subdued nature of the game’s finale. That said, the ending, spread over the next four tracks, reusing the main theme for the first and a another theme over the next three, is still effective, and succeeds in drawing the conflict prevalent in the last few tracks to a peaceful conclusion.
The last track, ‘Words Put Together’ is presumably the end credits theme, it being the only track lasting the right length in the soundtrack. While not as emotionally charged as Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Final Fantasy XII’s end credits, it’s satisfying enough, and the main theme makes a welcome return to provide an effective coda to the rest of the soundtrack. It’s a shame some of the deeper tracks from Final Fantasy XII (and I’m sure some of your favorites won’t have made the grade either). Overall, however, this is a worthy addition to the Basiscape line-up, and I’d recommend this to any fan of Sakimoto.