In the world of Western RPGs, 2011 has two top contenders for best music: Deus Ex Human Revolution and Elder Scrolls V Skyrim.
In the land of the rising sun, a latecomer just cut any possible competitors down to size.
No one should have doubted that XIII-2’s soundtrack had a shot at greatness. Hamauzu defined himself, once again, as an incredible mass-appeal composer with last year’s score for Final Fantasy XIII. And, joined by Square Enix in-house sound guy Mitsuto Suzuki for composition, it was a match made in heaven. Impressionist electronica? That’s possible?! You bet your sweet face it is.
But the big surprise with this soundtrack is that a great many tracks were actually composed by underdog Naoshi Mizuta. Mizuta’s career at Square Enix is mostly comprised of the MMORPG Final Fantasy XI and its expansions: enjoyed by some, but not with nearly the appeal that Uematsu, Sakimoto, and now Hamauzu have enjoyed as standard-bearers for the series’ music. Mizuta’s also had moments of sheer weakness as a composer (see: Blood of Bahamut). But, perhaps with the help of an incredible sound/recording team, Mizuta’s compositions for XIII-2 shocked me. They are fresh and original. This gives me great hope for Mizuta’s future as a composer.
Though I’m tempted to go track-by-track on this mammoth four disc set, I’m going to remain (relatively) brief. I hope, if you were considering getting the soundtrack, my enthusiastic endorsement might be the tipping point for you. Let’s just hit some highlights.
First: all of disc one. There’s not a single bad track on there. The first five tracks are an onslaught of power and glory. Some of the best, and most listener-friendly, tracks are found there. My favorite among them is “Run,” composed by Mizuta. But everything on the first disc is great. I especially enjoyed “Historia Crux” for making me feel like Ar tonelico / Gust sound style broke through to the ultra-mainstream of JRPGs (Square Enix).
On disc two, there is one song that I initially found displeasing: “Invisible Invader.” The last thing I need are preachy, politically correct one-liners trying to motivate me to embrace people of all races and creeds so we can (and I quote) “win the war against the world.” Talk about a mixed message! However, lame as the lyrics are (and that may end up being the primary complaint listeners will level against the entire soundtrack), the track itself is darned good. Shout-out to my friend Don Kotowski for helping me see the positive aspects of this particular piece.
I love that all the big area themes have a standard version and then an “Aggressive Mix” (I assume for battle sequences within that area). The disc two tracks that do this (the aforementioned track, as well as “Eclipse,” “Ruined Hometown,” and “Invisible World”) blew my mind. Both versions of each song were fantastic. “Ruined Hometown” has a vibe that is eerily similar to my favorite R&B/pop tracks on that Evangelion image album ~refrain~ from Yoko Takahashi. And “Parallel World” has the vocalist doing that sweet space opera Star Trek thing, but the backing track is nothing like that. It’s like the best of PSO Ep III, made even better.
Also, if you loved the big choral glory of “Ragnarok” from XIII, you’ll love Caius’s Theme in XIII-2. Check out that audio sample!
The rich, full sounds continue into the third disc. The bright, vibrant violin (a signature of Hamauzu’s, now being used by all composers on XIII-2) from the first track is put up against some intentionally muddy background ambiance. It’s a powerful contrast that really pulls me into a Fabula Nova world.
Weird talky-vocals, somewhat akin to Meguro’s P3/P4 soundtracks, are found throughout the soundtrack. 3-03, “Limit Break!,” particularly in its first minute, is the one I would soonest believe to come from the SMT universe. This one is performed by Shootie HG, the same band that does the butt-rock “Crazy Chocobo” that the fankid-community initially reacted to so negatively. I have much appreciation for both tracks, and would argue the latter is a very self-aware, humorous reconstructing of one of the best-known tunes in RPG-dom. Laugh it off and move on. Minus the lyrics, the band does a pretty good job too!
“Starting Over” is neo-disco at its best. The rest of disc three goes uphill from this supposed “low” point (note, I love this song, but I know many won’t). The jazz masterpiece “Xanadu” (3-09) is a personal favorite on disc three. The jazz, smoth though it may be, continues on 3-11.
Also also also, “Yeul’s Theme” is a sappy ballad that manages to stand high above the theme songs for XII and XIII in terms of quality. Very impressed, I am.
Disc four is a fantastic finale. With the exception of “Crazy Chocobo,” the silly and peppy vocals are tossed aside for far more serious tracks. My favorite among these is Noel’s Theme ~The Last Journey~, performed by veteran game/anime vocalist KOKIA. Wow. This is simply the best vocal character theme ever, and it’s a girl singing from the perspective of (effeminate) male protagonist Noel. So much love, so much to be interested in.
Most of the endgame tracks (final battle, final scenes, staff roll) are on par with, if not better than, Final Fantasy XIII’s respective themes. I got chills, and shed a few tears, for events I do not yet know about.
Also, track 21 of disc four doesn’t have a song title. I’m assuming it’s sort of post-end-credits “true/bonus ending” music, and any song title would’ve spoiled things too much. Speaking of the Ending Roll, that’s almost 10 minutes of orchestrated music, a medley of the character themes. IT IS SO GOOD!
Purchasers of the Japanese limited edition get a bonus DVD, and purchasers of the limited edition (game, not soundtrack) in North America will be able to get this full soundtrack in just one month. I highly recommend patience for people who want to own the game. $60 for standard, $80 for limited, or $60 for standard game and another $60 to import the LE soundtrack. Square Enix is giving you a sweet deal, and if I had known about it before I set my preorder for this soundtrack, I wouldn’t have imported. Nonetheless, I don’t quite regret my decision, because I like to flaunt big ridiculous box sets and I also love hearing this music days after the Japanese release. This is a no-questions-asked kind of purchase. Unless you’re totally sure you hate everything about this soundtrack, you ought to be figuring out how you’re going to add it to your music collection.