Final Symphony II – music from Final Fantasy V, VIII, IX and XIII


Review by · September 1, 2023

Over the past two decades, Germany-based Merregnon Studios (led by Thomas Böcker) have coordinated with composers, arrangers, rights-holders, and symphony orchestras to perform and record some of the most high-concept game music arrangements to grace our collective ears. One of their first major projects, Symphonic Fantasies, featured music from multiple Square Enix franchises, and was so successful that the concert was re-recorded with expanded content in Japan with a follow-on published album from Square Enix. Later, the team put together Final Symphony, featuring music from the Final Fantasy series in long-form, layered, dynamic presentations that defy the simple term “medley.” Last month, that same team published a follow-up. This is Final Symphony II, a crowning achievement celebrating some of the more overlooked entries in the Final Fantasy series.

I really do mean what I say about the overlooked “second-tier” notion around this part of the series. In the first Final Symphony, the concert had music from Final Fantasy VI, VII, and X. With Final Symphony II, the team fills in the gap from the first concert by including VIII and IX. Additionally, as Masashi Hamauzu self-arranged his music from Final Fantasy X, he returned to arrange his music from XIII. Then, in what I saw as the biggest surprise of all, there is also an incredible set of music from FFV.

Before going forward, I should note that I hold high regard for — and have high expectations from — arrangers Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo. These individuals have been the key arrangers for Merregnon game music concerts, and the quality of their work has consistently impressed me. Therefore, if there is something that I may criticize harshly, it is in the context of comparison to their indomitable arrangements of the past that I might do so. But, from the start, it’s so far so good! Valtonen opens the concert with his very own composition as a four-minute fanfare to set the tone. It is wild, winding, and somehow captures the spirit of Uematsu’s soundscape perfectly. This piece makes for an excellent opener for the concert and the recorded album, preparing the listener for what’s in store.

In this album, the plan was apparently to work in reverse order. Therefore, we open with Final Fantasy XIII, and this 16-minute arrangement from Hamauzu himself is entitled “Utopia in the Sky.” I may enjoy this symphonic movement much more than Hamauzu’s work with FFX. While melodies remain intact, chord progressions, harmonies, and tempos shift wildly as “Lightning’s Theme,” “Fang’s Theme,” and multiple environmental and battle themes weave in and out of this sonic tour through one of my favorite Hamauzu scores. Given the digital release of this album is on sale for 10 Euros, I’m going to stop right here and say that if this album was only 15-20 minutes long and remained at this high quality, it has already justified the price of admission.

Next, we get to Roger Wanamo. For Final Fantasy IX, Roger brings in pianist Mischa Cheung for a piano concerto approach to Final Fantasy IX. I want to observe that, in Square Enix’s own collection of arranged albums, they dropped the ball on IX at time of release — offering only an “OST Plus” and no proper arranged album. The 22-minute symphonic movement “For the People of Gaia” and its brief encore “Not Alone” finally provides the large-scale, high-concept, highly-enjoyable orchestral focus on FFIX that Square Enix failed to provide two decades prior. And yes, the Distant Worlds team has done a great job arranging specific songs from IX, but what we experience here is a tribute to the entire game’s score. Within the piece, I easily detect the fan favorite “Hunter’s Chance” appearing early, but from there, Wanamo begins to wrap less-celebrated character and environment themes around the more familiar anchors like “Melodies of Life” (including its form as the world map music). Cheung does an impressive job keeping momentum with the orchestra; likewise, Wanamo arranged a fantastic piano concerto for Final Fantasy IX. Consider me impressed.

Perhaps the greatest challenge, from my perspective, was to develop a new orchestral take on Final Fantasy VIII. This is because Shiro Hamaguchi knocked it out of the park with the 1999 album Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec. With the other three series entries covered on this album, I don’t have much comparing to do. Here, though, Roger Wanamo had two difficult tasks to satisfy the listener: (1) arrange some of Uematsu’s best source material and (2) produce something substantially different from the brilliant work Shiro Hamaguchi did when FFVIII was first released. Add to this the choice made by the team to record without a choir, and the prospects are beginning to look grim.

Such were my thoughts a few minutes into listening to this movement of Final Symphony II. Wanamo appropriately opened with “Liberi Fatali” in its entirety, sans choir. I did not think this was an easy task, and honestly, I would rather hear this song with the choir. Given the limitation, Wanamo did a decent job here, but I wasn’t impressed… at first. However, the next step on the FFVIII train was “The Oath,” a powerful, emotional theme that Wanamo circles back to more than once throughout this 21-minute adventure. After establishing some more common melodic themes — “Eyes On Me” (including its Balamb waltz form), “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec,” “Fisherman’s Horizon,” and a host of battle themes — Wanamo begins playfully entangling these themes together, sometimes layered atop less-celebrated themes.

I knew this was the section of Final Symphony II where I would be most careful and critical. Ultimately, I compare this orchestral movement to Hamaguchi’s 1999 album as something of a matter of preference alone — some like coffee, others like tea. The good news for me is that I like both. So, I guess one might say, “Why not both?” I still wish Wanamo would have gone into greater depths in covering the music from VIII, with songs like “Drifting” and portions of “The Castle” practically begging for orchestral adaptation, but I am still well satisfied.

Now, as promised, the biggest surprise of all: Final Fantasy V. I adore this soundtrack. It is oft overlooked among Uematsu’s repertoire, but the Merregnon team decided to take it on, with Jonne Valtonen at the helm for arrangement. This movement, titled “Library of Ancients,” does indeed include musical reference to this great dungeon theme. However, this 22-minute mega-arrangement gives so much more and so well! Valtonen uses microtonal pitch-bending with the strings to give off an especially eerie vibe when exploring the game’s darker themes (such as Exdeath). In exploring Lenna’s/Reina’s Theme, the added flourish and decoration from an ostinato string section and harps help build this beautiful theme to greater heights than I could have hoped. But just as it’s reaching its peak, Valtonen overlays the FFV Main Theme, weaving the melodies together perfectly. As a result, this might be my favorite moment on the entire album.

Valtonen devotes appropriate time and attention to some of Final Fantasy V‘s great battle themes, but saves the best-known “Battle at the Big Bridge” as an encore piece to the entire movement. Valtonen makes excellent use of brass and percussion (including pitched percussion) throughout this particular arrangement, and he takes extensive liberty with both small-scale and large-scale changes to rhythm and tempo. At one point, fast triplets are thrown into a part of the piece that never had them before. At another point, the song is interrupted by the Chocobo theme performed by the low brass, which seems odd at first. But when you hear how Valtonen recovers the classic Gilgamesh battle theme and then allows “Chocobo” to interlace throughout, it suddenly feels like a musical equivalent to watching Gilgamesh and a Chocobo (Boco himself, perhaps?) do battle!

The album closes appropriately with the Final Fantasy main theme, specifically with the bass-line underpinnings of the theme as it appears in the end credits of Final Fantasy VIII. It’s no surprise, then, that Roger Wanamo handled this one. The theme appears soft, understated, even dulcet, in the opening minute. But the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra pulls out all the stops before the piece reaches its conclusion. The sheer weight and magnitude of the franchise are expressed well in this arrangement, performance, and recording of the Final Fantasy main theme.

There’s a beautiful irony in the name Final Symphony II, isn’t there? As much as it is common practice to mock a game with the name “Final” in it for being a long-running series with too many sequels and spin-offs to keep track of, Thomas Böcker felt it appropriate to also give a sequel to the “Final Symphony.” I appreciate this kind of thoughtfulness just as much as I appreciate the nuanced arrangements from Wanamo and Valtonen (and, of course, Masashi Hamauzu’s self-arranged XIII!). Something I would like to appreciate, that has not yet come to fruition, is a physical copy of this fantastic album! Presently, it is a digital-only release. I am hopeful for CD and vinyl, and perhaps in the future, a live performance released as a Blu-ray may occur as well? Time will tell. In the meantime, patrons of symphonic game music would do well to check out this thoughtful, eclectic set of orchestral Final Fantasy goodness.

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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and guinea pigs.