Note: the tracklist is as “officially” translated to English by Square Enix. Comparing the Japanese tracklist to the English shows glaring and obvious changes at some points, but since Square Enix bothered to make their own version of the tracklist in English, that’s what we’re giving you.
Masashi Hamauzu, the king of impressionist composition in game music, has completed his masterwork for Square Enix. It’s his single largest score, and it comes with the support of some excellent arrangement staff and dozens of instrumental and vocal performers. And though the distinct impressionist sound we heard in, say, SaGa Frontier II is hidden under some layers of big-production, film-score-esque music here, this is still definitely Hamauzu. So, with a clever play on words, allow me to give my “impressions” of this full soundtrack.
First, a note about a trend in the series. There’s no question that the Final Fantasy series is drifting further and further from its roots. The evidence? A stunning lack of both the Final Fantasy Prelude and the “Main Theme.” One or both of these tracks is present on every other Final Fantasy; if nowhere else, at least in the opening or end credits. But FFXIII now has its own themes, apparently, so the main theme is out, and the arpeggiated prelude is also fully cut. The only Uematsu track that remains is the Chocobo theme, and it’s so thoroughly rearranged on this soundtrack that Uematsu isn’t even credited as the source composer for the melody in the soundtrack’s packaging. Musically, this is a full departure from any previous FF score. I hope you’re ready for something new, because that’s exactly what this is.
Regarding the two Chocobo tracks: one is a sugary synth-pop track with a female vocal performance that utilizes vocaloid technology. That’s the one on disc three, Chocobos of Cocoon. The other track, “Chocobos of Pulse,” is an incredible Latin bebop jazz track. Seriously, it’s a wonderful performance piece. Now, regarding the name, the Japanese tracklist has it romanized in French as “Pulse de Chocobo.” This has been the traditional naming of Chocobo songs throughout the series, “(style) de Chocobo.” In the case of FFXIII, it serves as a pun. “Pulse” is the name of the world in FFXIII, so this seemingly awkward translation for what would traditionally serve as a descriptor (i.e. “Waltz de Chocobo” is “Chocobo Waltz”), actually works as “Chocobos of Pulse” since that is exactly what the chocobos in FFXIII are. And as for the rhythm, it’s definitely a pulsating beat!
Next, speaking of themes, Hamauzu uses “variation on a theme” as one of the key techniques for the soundtrack. As far as consumers (gamers, listeners) are concerned, it’s a wonderful mnemonic device. First, there’s the melody that I can only think to call the FFXIII theme. Its melody is first heard on the second track: “Final Fantasy XIII – The Promise.” But it might be best associated as the vocal performance piece, “Serah’s Theme.” Using Serah’s Theme, we hear this same melody again in two environment pieces: “Archylte Steppe” and “Sunleth Waterscape.” And both of those tracks, I must say, are excellent electronica-inspired arrangements, clearly showing the influence of Mitsuto Suzuki and Ryo Yamazaki (more on them later). The melody is again found at the end of the soundtrack, on the track “Fabula Nova Crystalis” (“New Crystal Story”). Considering that’s the name of the grouping of games associated with FFXIII (Versus, Agito, etc), the fact that this same lovely melody is used for the “series” title track is a big deal. And, as I was drafting this review, I noticed that “In the Sky That Night” is another usage of the Serah’s Theme medley. I’m sure there are more examples hiding somewhere on this OST that I’ve missed.
We also see this in the battle theme. In fact, it might be wrong to call it the battle theme. The melody we’ve all come to love from a variety of trailers is found in the standard battle music “Blinded by Light” and the opening cut scene music “Defiers of Fate.” But this is the same melody for the protagonist music, “Lightning’s Theme.” The melody is probably best associated with Lightning.
It’s typical Hamauzu, putting variations of a key melody on five to ten tracks across the OST (see SaGa Frontier II as another example). Also, in my opinion, it’s a very good thing to do. With this many songs in one game, it’s good to drive home a few key melodies to remember. Else, the soundtrack itself risks being forgettable.
Third impression: there are incredible blends and balances of electronic and fully orchestral music. Remember how the Unlimited SaGa OST was separated as one disc orchestral, second disc electronic? Imagine if the tracklist was shuffled, and some of the tracks were merged. That’s what you get on the FFXIII soundtrack. And it’s incredible.
Fourth: this OST has more vocal work on it than any prior Final Fantasy, or any Square Enix OST whatsoever. There are choir vocals, solo vocalists, lyrical, non-lyrical, background chants, all kinds of things. By my count, over a dozen of the tracks on this OST have a vocal performance of some kind. I’d guess the total comes close to 20 or 25. The two big choral works on the album are “Ragnarok” and “Born Anew.” The latter of the two tracks, I will happily refer to as “Liberi Fatali pt. 2.” Seriously, it’s got that same Carl Orff (Carmina Burana) style and intensity. It has those huge woodwind flourishes and tympani attacks. Vocally, it’s (at times) a little more subtle than Liberi Fatali was. But generally, it’s another great track. Ragnarok lacks the orchestral backing, but is still intense and extremely musical. These two pieces of music will be remembered for years to come as some of Hamauzu’s most impressive pieces. He should be very proud of himself for this work.
Now then, a note about the arrangers. Though Hamauzu is the sole composer, there’s no question that this soundtrack was a huge group effort. Ryo Yamazaki has been a faithful synth manipulator and sound programmer for Square Enix for years. But he’s also a good composer (see the FFCC Crystal Bearers OST), and his arrangements for this OST definitely stand out. Even more exciting for me, however, was seeing that Mitsuto Suzuki, an incredible electronica artist in his own right, participated in arranging some tracks for this OST. His contribution allowed for the tracks that used very “computerized” synth (I’d call it “chiptune-esque” or “chiptune-lite”) and it brings a lot of goodness to the album. He also is able to create a great background ambient drone using computerized noises and other samples. It’s great stuff. I’m also happy to see Junya Nakano’s name associated with the soundtrack. Nakano co-composed FFX with Hamauzu and Uematsu, and I often feel that Nakano gets overlooked even though the Nakano contributions to FFX were just as great as the other tracks. A small part of me wishes Nakano had gotten the chance to compose a few original tracks for the FFXIII OST, but I also understand that this was a project that allowed Hamauzu his chance in the spotlight. And he got it. And he deserves it. I just wanted to give the arrangers their due credit.
Impression number … six, are we at now? The drama album left a distinct impression on me! The 20 minute “Episode Zero” drama album was released as a bonus item with the Limited Edition (SQEX-10178~82) and is not available with the regular edition (SQEX-10183~6). Now, I don’t know enough Japanese to understand exactly the events of the album, but here’s a brief review of the disc from RPGFan contributor and interpreter of the Japanese language, Ryan Mattich:
The Final Fantasy XIII Drama CD could’ve been the “Xenosaga Episode II of Drama CDs” if its character focus was in the right place. Xenosaga Episode II was centered around the history of the URTVs, Albedo, Nigredo and Rubedo, a comparatively small subset of the character cast. The difference, however, is that at the conclusion of Xenosaga Episode I, the player didn’t have a lot of information on these characters and was naturally interested to learn more on their role in the grand scheme of the storyline. And it is with this idea in mind that the Final Fantasy XIII Drama CD falls a bit short of my expectations.
“Episode Zero.” With the title’s implication that this would be a prologue, I expected to learn more about a few characters’ histories (namely Fang, Hope and Vanille) who, despite having a significant role in the storyline, took a back seat to the flashback romances of Snow and Serah, not to mention Lightning’s inner conflict and reconciliation of her feelings towards the two of them. To my chagrin, I discovered that almost all of the disc is devoted to the latter trio as they throw around the idea of “protecting people” ad nauseum, while the former trio barely make an appearance and have little more than half a dozen lines. Granted, Snow and Serah *are* one of my favorite ‘RPG couples’ to emerge in recent years, but I already had a firm appreciation and understanding of their relationship thanks to several hours of cutscenes devoted to them in the game itself; I couldn’t help but feel that the attention/focus was in the wrong place for a drama disc.
Overall verdict? It’s fun for bonus content, but if you don’t have the drama disc and/or don’t understand Japanese, don’t worry, you’re not missing out on any mind-blowing revelations about Final Fantasy XIII.
Thanks Ryan! From my perspective, I will say that the drama disc has some of the best production I’ve ever heard among drama albums. The music is mixed in very well, the sound effects tell the story as well as the voices, and the characters deliver their lines with perfect levels of range and intensity. Frankly, I wish an English equivalent would be developed.
Alright, final impression! After listening to this album many, many times in a row, I’ve come to realize this is exactly the album I wanted from Hamauzu. But the strange thing is that I didn’t realize this from the start. I didn’t know what I wanted. I knew I wanted Hamauzu compositions with the highest of production values, with lots of frill and decoration. But I didn’t know what it would sound like. I knew I didn’t just want a carbon copy of SaGa Frontier II, Unlimited SaGa, Sigma Harmonics, or other Hamauzu works. So, what I wanted, I couldn’t even imagine it.
With each subsequent listen, I found what I was looking for. No, I don’t like Kimi ga Irukara (the end vocal track). And not every track is a “home run.” Not every track should be. Some music serves a specific purpose in the game, and I can accept that. But for the most part, this is an excellent soundtrack. It is very different from my other favorite “modern” FF soundtracks (VIII and X), but I think I’ve fallen in love with it. Hopefully it’s not just because I wanted to fall in love with it so much, but because the music warrants it.