Big, bombastic, but somewhat lacking in substance, Hitoshi Sakimoto brings a fully (synth) orchestrated score to the table. With only one composition contributed by Uematsu (the vocal theme), this soundtrack marks a completely new era for the Final Fantasy series. I, for one, have a lot of mixed feelings about it.
Opening with the prelude and the Final Fantasy “main theme,” we are given the impression that there is much tradition to be heralded with the newest installment in the series. However, both songs get a twist that lead to a whole new sound by the time the opening movie track is played. Clocking in at 7 minutes, the opening movie theme is one of the better (and more traditionally tonal) compositions Sakimoto offers. Simply put, I liked it.
The rest of disc one, however, is a bit of a yawn fest. I hate to speak in such slang terms, but I’m not awed enough to speak with reverence about this soundtrack. There are songs that stick out as pleasant compositions, ones that remind us of Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story (Sakimoto’s other cherished works from Square). The rest of disc one, however, has a lot of songs that ramble. Many songs all over the four-disc set are guilty of this sort of “rambling,” in my opinion. The melodies go somewhere, but…where? Modulations in key, overuse of secondary dominants and diminished chords, it sounds much like some of the less enjoyable compositions from early 20th century composers.
The second disc has a lot of fast-paced songs, but these are not the sort you’d expect from Sakimoto. Some songs focus entirely on rhythm and percussion and abandon chords and melody entirely. Others experiment with chordal structure and patterns so much that even advanced theory students will find themselves at a loss of understanding how these compositions came to be. This isn’t the Sakimoto I remember.
However, even with my complaints, there are plenty of great songs on the first two discs. “Nalbina Fortress Underground Prison” is one of about a dozen songs to feature a synthesized choir effect that I quickly came to love. The percussion here is effective without dominating, and the lack of a stand major/minor chord progression doesn’t upset me in the least. The harp and flute are used in ways other than the standard glissandos and trills we’ve heard from previous Sakimoto soundtracks.
Something new added to Sakimoto’s standard instrumentation is the xylophone. Many songs feature prominent xylophone parts that send the listener for a frantic musical run-around. This, too, I appreciated.
The third disc takes a turn back to the more standard Sakimoto compositions, but even these seem to be watered-down versions of what we knew to be the glory days of the Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story soundtracks. If you wish to criticize me to comparing the new Sakimoto to the old, go ahead and criticize me. After multiple listens to this soundtrack, I just can’t get over it. I had high expectations for this soundtrack, and I was let down.
What stood out on disc three? Arrangements of old Uematsu tunes were quite well-done. The new chocobo arrangement is very different from anything I’d ever heard before, and I was quite pleased. I felt like I was in a concert hall listening to this song. Also impressive is the remake of the Final Fantasy V Gilgamesh battle theme, “Clash on the Big Bridge.” I never would have guessed that Sakimoto would be able to adapt this composition to his 20th century orchestral style, but he did so very well. It makes me wish Sakimoto had re-arranged even more of Uematsu’s classic tunes.
Of the four discs, disc three had my favorite compositions on it. The use of more “standard” composition techniques, chord progressions, and tonal melodic patterns made me feel that I was right at home.
The fourth disc brings a somewhat climactic end to the experience, though I was still left unsatisfied. Many of the near-end dungeon and battle themes sounded like the music from disc two: booming, imperial, full of energy, but still lacking in focus and structure. Of course, harp glissandos are found every fifteen seconds, and the low strings and brass wrack the sound system to the point where one must either turn down the bass or the volume entirely. One of my favorite songs on this final disc was track 11, “To the Place of the Gods.” The soft vocals, the strings, the piano: this was a song that I felt to be superior to even my most favorite songs from Sakimoto’s older soundtracks. It was a light in the darkness for me.
The soundtrack ends with some of the obligatory themes we saw on the singles that were previously released. Angela Aki’s “Kiss Me Good-Bye” is a lovely ballad that stands in stark contrast to Sakimoto’s compositions. Taro Hakase’s Symphonic Poem “Hope” is a short but multi-versed instrumental ode that is not easily forgotten.
Speaking of, my chief complaint about this soundtrack is that it is difficult to find a place in one’s heart and mind for many of these songs. Some are fleeting, and others are dark and looming, but very few are “sticking with me” so to speak. I know it hasn’t been long, and my opinion could change after experiencing the music within the context of the game: in fact, I’m sure the music sounds great with the game. But as a stand-alone work, I’d much rather be listening to either Sakimoto’s older works or the soundtracks to older Final Fantasy titles. Why, you ask? I’ve said a lot already, but let me narrow it down to this…
Is Sakimoto a masterful writer? Yes, without a doubt. Is this four disc, 100-track soundtrack a marvel and a great achievement? Yes. Does that mean I have to like it? No.
There you have it. It’s great work, but it simply didn’t suit me very well. You may find yourself holding a different opinion, especially if you can handle experimental, chaotic, diminished, and unresolved tonal patterns played by traditional instruments. The limited edition may only be available for a short while, so if you want this soundtrack with a load of beautiful packaging, get it quick or hunt for it on eBay. The standard edition will be much more widely available.