Final Fantasy VIII was an experiment in every sense. Fresh off of the massive international success of Final Fantasy VII (the first one in the series to be released in Europe) the best marketing strategy would be to immediately use the formulas and storyline archetypes of VII to make their next game. They didn’t. VII had a bizarre, sci-fi/fantasy hybrid world created by the philosophy character designer and co-story writer Tetsuya Nomura describes as “anything goes.” Its plot was based on conflict between a hero and a villain, and the threat of impending world destruction. On the other hand, VIII takes place in a modern-day like setting infused with fantasy elements. Its characters are figuratively smaller, less heroic people. The villain is an indistinct force, and the main events are less centered on traditional hero/villain conflict.
That’s a lengthy preface to a review of the game’s soundtrack, but it is necessary to understand those changes, changes in image, in order to understand Uematsu’s radically different compositions for Final Fantasy VIII. Orchestras, more electronic influence than even VII had, some chanting, and a pop song: there’s a lot here that didn’t seem to be in the series before. However, the main flavor of Uematsu’s compositions, his melodic style, remains consistent, and more importantly, consistently good.
Final Fantasy VIII, and its soundtrack as well, may be considered anomalies. Continuing that sting, the prelude does not make a self-contained appearance here. It does, however, appear twice: once in the game over theme, “The Loser,” and once in the ending. The game over theme itself is very good, despite its length. Starting off with some strings playing a minor-key version of the Final Fantasy theme, it then fades into a synth harp playing the basic notes of the prelude, and a synth “ahhh” sound crescendos in the background for about a second at the end, until the basic prelude tune finishes on a triangle sound that is fascinatingly hopeful. It’s barely 80 seconds long, but it is a fine example of Uematsu’s ingenuity.
The opening, “Liberi Fatali” is another anomaly in the series pre-’99: a choral piece with a full orchestra. This marks the first use of a real orchestra in a Final Fantasy game, although it is not the first track in the series to have a recording used. The piece itself is important to FFVIII, musically and plot wise. Its name is Latin for “Fated Children,” possibly to be attributed of the game’s protagonists. A particular string of 16 notes, 8 and 8 “call and response” seems to describe the heroes, while its opening words, “Fithos lusec wecos vinosec” are used for describing the antagonistic force of the “witches.” These strains appear throughout the soundtrack, although there are really no full “arranged” versions of the track used. Although this technique was used in FFVII as well, with the many tracks using bits of the main theme and Sephiroth’s theme, it is integrated more subtly here, I feel.
Notice the difference in the way “Liberi Fatali” is used as a basis for both “SeeD” and “The Landing” which occur right next to each other on the soundtrack. “SeeD” is a decent track with pseudo militaristic overtones. Although its treatment of the theme is interesting, the track as a whole is somewhat ponderous in its pacing, and ultimately falls flat. “The Landing,” on the other hand, uses its few notes of “Liberi Fatali” in its own call-and-response section, producing a dual call-and-response structure.
The second major theme of the soundtrack relates to the main theme of the game itself: its love story. The first form of this appears when the main two protagonists meet, “Waltz for the Moon.” The track here doesn’t exactly fit the nature of the waltz, but keeps the general sound, which works well in the game, and well enough on the soundtrack. It shows up again in the game’s parallel love story, in the track “Julia.” The theme is here played by a solo piano, and it is pleasant, but it is short, and incomplete. A few versions later, “Love Grows” fits its name by using the theme again: this time, however, it is softer, and yet more rich and fully developed. This theme is completed in the pop song “Eyes on Me.”
“Eyes on Me,” sung by Faye Wong, is a pop ballad. However, unlike its successors in later Final Fantasy games, this song fits in directly with the storyline of the game, supposedly being written and performed by a major character. Wong’s English is decent, but the lyrics of the song are painfully sappy. The composition is good enough, though, and her voice is good for this style of song.
Yes, Final Fantasy VIII is very much thematic. But this is a 4 hour long score, and there are a lot of independent compositions not covered by major themes. Some of these are very good, some of these are the most mediocre of Uematsu’s contributions to the series. Compare, for example, the wonderfully fluid sound of “Find Your Way” to the very bland and boring “Jailed.” Also, the oddly comic yet pleasingly melodic “Timber Owls” and the also very odd yet not as interesting “Silence and Motion.”
Once again, the battle themes here are all very strong pieces. “Don’t Be Afraid” uses a similar structure to VII’s main battle theme, but with a more brass flavored melody. “Force Your Way” somehow fuses techno rhythm, electric guitar, and some orchestral elements for a very eclectic, very exciting sound. “The Man With the Machine Gun” is also techno flavored, although it is not as innovative or enjoyable as “Force Your Way.” “The Extreme,” the final battle theme, is a very good track, sometimes overlooked, as it lies in the shadow of both “Dancing Mad” and “One Winged Angel,” both of which were better. It blends a techno styled beat version of the classic Final Fantasy battle opening notes with synth, percussion, and in its last and intro sections, even a piano and synth chorus.
Unfortunately, as implied above, there is a lot of blandness in FFVIII. This is where I feel the soundtrack meets the same fate as the game it was created for. They are both partially failed experiments. Some of Uematsu’s attempts at creating mood through minimalism fail badly; of especial note are “Fear,” “Unrest,” and “Rivals.” Luckily, however, there is one very good example in “Drifting,” which is entirely composed of strings. Interestingly enough, Uematsu uses actual silence in between sections of the piece, the same way Mitsuda’s “Prisoners of Fate” did, although for a somewhat different effect. It should also be noted that Uematsu’s incidental music for FMV scenes is at least marginally better than it was in VII.
“The Castle,” however, is one of my favorite pieces of music from Final Fantasy in general. It begins with higher-register organ as an introduction, then proceeds to the type of deep organ chords that are associated with old horror movies. This moves into a lighter harpsichord-organ section, using baroque instrumention, but without the sound of baroque music (don’t misunderstand: I love baroque music, especially Bach). The composition is strong throughout, the style is distinct, and it’s just plain unique.
It is odd, now that I think about it. I have taken a very middle-of-the-road position on a soundtrack that appears to divide people completely. Interestingly enough, the same thing occurred with Final Fantasy X-2’s controversial score: I loved parts of it, hated others, and came out in the middle. With VIII, a ‘partial failure,’ the parts I love, I love to an extent that the rest of the soundtrack becomes an extension of the metaphorical amoeba, giving the work a cohesiveness which Uematsu seems able to create easily, and out of very disparate elements. So perhaps, in spite of its glaring faults, I love FFVIII’s score. I only wish that I could have written a more comprehensive review.