This album, likely to be the final bit of (published) original music for Square Enix’s long-running MMORPG, picks up some of Naoshi Mizuta’s fantastic work in the late stages of the MMO’s life, and it also catalogs some forgotten music from a composer I miss dearly.
The first disc is the FFXI “the rest” side. This includes the last few tracks written for Wings of the Goddess (Altana no Shinpei), and all the music written for the six mini-expansions (three story-based quests and the three combat-heavy Abyssea quests). Having played through all of this content, I had familiarity with the music and hold a strong favorable bias. The final battle tracks for the three story mini-expansions (Prophecy, Moogle, Shantotto) are all fantastic. The final battle music for Wings of the Goddess is outright brilliant. And the lengthy (over 8 minutes!) background BGM for Abyssea is one of Mizuta’s best tracks ever. Period.
Though we’ve since learned that Mizuta can do a lot more when not limited to dated sequencers (see FF XIII-2), he sharpened his sword on FFXI for the last 8 years, and it’s done him much good. The Shantotto boss theme, “Feast of the Ladies,” has harmonic structure akin to John Williams’ Star Wars I-III scores. And, in my opinion, that’s a great thing to properly emulate, especially in a non-sci-fi fantasy RPG.
The choice of sticking to electric piano for the ballads I found to be quite weird. It’s as though Mizuta was saying “look, I grew up in the ’80s, and this is what nostalgia sounds like for me.” Both “Summers Lost” and “Everlasting Bonds” are centered around Mizuta’s electric piano. I could have lived without them, and the only reason I like track 11 is because of the palettable qualities of the solo violin melody.
A quick note on the battle themes for Abyssea: “Melodies Errant” I heard one too many times to want to hear again, and I think “Shinryu” is a tad overbearing. Give me “Echoes of Creation” over that, please!
Now then, we need to take a close and careful examination of the second disc. Working in backwards order, the last three tracks are original compositions from Kumi Tanioka, used in FFXI-specific menus in the PlayOnline build. I hadn’t known that these songs were penned by Tanioka. They are very catchy songs. Track 28 is one that any FFXI player will recognize, since you’d have to hear it while setting up your payment plan and troubleshooting anything related to money (unless you muted your speakers during these transactions).
The other 25 tracks are written by the long-lost Noriko Matsueda. No, she didn’t die, but for us VGM fans, she may as well have (unless she makes a surprise comeback). For those who don’t know, Matsueda’s history as a game music composer lies exclusively with Square, usually alongside partner Takahito Eguchi, doing jazz-fusion tracks for games like Racing Lagoon, The Bouncer, and Final Fantasy X-2. Matsueda wrote a startlingly large collection of music just for Square’s failure of a software distribution/control platform, PlayOnline (it only hosted FFXI and a place to play Tetra Master online). After writing these tracks and then FFX-2, sources report that Noriko Matsueda had experienced severe burnout (the kind that lands you in a hospital: see Mitsuda in the Xenogears / Chrono Cross years). After that, she vowed not to work in the industry again. And she hasn’t. As far as I know, no fans know how to even get ahold of her. I imagine she’s happily working some desk job by day and occasionally plays dinner music at restaurants and bars by night. But I could be completely off on this.
In any case, Matsueda’s “lost” music is something of a treasure for me. Anyone who adores the Racing Lagoon OST as much as I do (obscure thing that it is) will be sure to enjoy these tracks as well. I especially enjoy track 17 (check the audio sample). The emphasis on piano (acoustic-ish, not full-on electric) brings a brightness and levity to the whole experience. I suspect S-E fully owns the rights to this music, but if they somehow managed to let Matsueda in on the royalties for the paltry sales this two disc set gets, I’ll be happy to know that a few of my dollars (converted to yen) went into the pockets of the prodigious ex-composer.
Finally, a note about the tracks on disc two. Per the soundtrack’s own liner notes, they are labeled in all-roman characters, and many of the songs are “Romaji” titles. We chose not to translate them, but there are resources on the ‘net to let you see what the song titles are if you aren’t up to snuff on your Japanese.