Nobuo Uematsu, Kenji Ito, Hiroki Kikuta, and Yasunori Mitsuda represent Square’s first generation of composers. They helped to shape game music from an amorphous, unfocused mass into a viable art form independent of other genres. All of these, as well as a few others, have since left Squaresoft to either work freelance or fade into obscurity. To fill the gaps left by, but not to replace these artists, Squaresoft has hired excellent fresh talent. Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Junya Nakano, and Kumi Tanioka have all been instrumental in the creation of some of Square-Enix’s most important projects in recent years, but the task for composing Front Mission 4’s score was handed to someone else entirely: a synthesizer programmer named Hidenori Iwasaki. Iwasaki (and helper Ryo Yamazaki, who wrote 8 of the soundtrack’s 50 tracks) took as inspiration stylistic elements from previous Front Mission games, and created a score that is both distinctly Front Mission, and yet independent of its predecessors.
There is a dual nature to this soundtrack in several respects. It encompasses two completely different soundtracks, each with two separate composers, and even within Front Mission 4, there are two distinct categories for the majority of the tracks to be placed in.
Iwasaki’s Front Mission is a sharp turn away from the very abstract and heavy music of Front Mission 3. It is mostly melodic, occasionally light, and is much more thematic: a return to the style of the first game. Early on in disc 1, “Durandal” is a slightly mournful horn solo that wouldn’t be out of place at the beginning of a war movie; in the game, it transitioned perfectly into “Move Out!,” an energetic piece that builds on the same theme, but that is unfortunately changed for this release. The Durandal theme makes many appearances throughout the album, but it is never used in a way that feels like filler; it instead gives the album a more cohesive feel. A standout track from the first disc is “Intruders.” It features slightly erratic percussion rhythms and a constant techno-styled beat, yet the horn section that comprises its melodic section is methodical and not frantic in tone. The track is very well put together, from the odd electronic sounds to its low register piano sections.
The second style used in Front Mission 4 is the “South American” section music. Eschewing the orchestral feel of the Europe side, pan flutes, tribal percussion, and heavier bass give the tracks on this side of the ocean a deeper sound. The first of these tracks is “Free Spirit,” a very relaxing piece. “Break Free” is the first battle theme in this style, and it works surprisingly well; the strings provide the melody, leaving the South American themed instruments and electronic bass to give the track its own flavor. The pan flutes sound very realistic: they are also prominent in the short “The Revolutionary,” which resembles a funeral march.
In between the battle tracks, Iwasaki proves that he can write atmospheric music of all kinds with proficiency. From the ominous “The Central Assembly” to the darker “Conspiracy,” to the non-battle tracks on the South American side, such as “Whispers.” “Lock and Load,” the set up theme, is a great electronic-themed track, with a few elements that sound like Masashi Hamauzu’s work. “Harbor Town” has a nice jazz piano, and some odd electronic sounds, with a hint of dissonance that fits surprisingly well. Also in the jazz vein is the more traditional “Grapevine,” featuring piano work somewhat reminiscent of Ichiko Hashimoto’s score to the anime RahXephon. The guitar and pan flute in “Southern Breeze” create a calm feel that rivals the best of Mitsuda.
Stand out battle themes for the second disc are “Rampage” and “Knights of Steel.” The modern dissonant sounds in the main section of Ryo Yamazaki’s “Rampage” (the only one of his tracks I sampled) are followed by a slow string section that sounds a lot like Xenosaga. Interestingly enough, the melody in “Knights of Steel” sounds like the main theme to the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, but the track itself has a heavier feel than that piece.
Some tracks don’t work quite as well. The opening track “Assault” sounds a little bit disjointed. “Siege” is a SA battle theme that, while not bad, is somewhat repetitive. “Intermission” doesn’t do much of anything outside of its context. While “Threat” has a nice beat underscoring it, it is too short to really develop into anything. None of this material is really ‘bad,’ but it doesn’t stand up to the quality of the rest of the soundtrack.
The final battle themes “Pride and Honor” and “Iron Tempest” are very good, although they don’t stand out as much as some of the others, despite their extremely loud cymbal crashes and catchy melodies. They fill their roles however, and “Iron Tempest” uses the Durandal theme in a minor key form. The ending music does something that, because of the seemingly ubiquitous vocal track on nearly every game these days, I haven’t seen in a while. It has a credits theme that is an amalgam of several of the game’s main themes. This one in particular is done well, incorporating the Durandal theme (obviously,) the Knights of Steel theme, and the theme in “Aggressors.” It ends very nicely as well, with a reprise of the horn solo of the Durandal theme.
The other two discs on this set are the “Front Mission 1st” soundtrack. 1st was the PSX remake of the original Front Mission, and its music got a sort of update to suit it. Many of the tracks’ arrangements are limited to mere synth upgrades to Matsueda and Shimomura’s original pieces, but a few have significant alterations, or rather additions, in the form of some extra electronic sounds. Sometimes, this doesn’t hurt, or even benefits the original, such as in the new version of “Rage! Rage! Rage!,” but occasionally, it doesn’t fit the track at all, such as in the new version of “Decline,” or ruins the feel of the track entirely, such as in the no longer ominous “Bloody Temperature.”
The music itself is a prime example of everything the Super Famicom era stood for: simple yet memorable melodies and a willingness to experiment with style. The roots of Matsueda and Shimomura’s later work can be seen here: Matsueda’s “Natalie” shows her early talent at writing beautiful pieces, Shimoura’s “Destructive Logic” is the grounding for her later organ-themed music like that seen in Parasite Eve.
Stylistically, it is also the base for its successors. It has the sort of twisted orchestral music which the series is to be known for: it is very intent on rhythm for conveying mood. “A Minefield,” the opening, creates an interesting tension, despite not being orchestral in a traditional sense. Interestingly, it also uses a piano for its bass, a technique which I am very fond of personally. “Canyon Crow” is an electronic piece with little melody to speak of, yet its repetitive beat carries the track surprisingly well. Many of Shimomura’s battle themes here, such as “The Evils of War,” “Take the Offensive,” and “Manifold Irons” have become iconic to the series, and the shop and bar themes show Matsueda’s early experimentation with Jazz-styled music.
Front Mission 1st also featured a new scenario in addition to the original one on the SFC version, so Hidenori Iwasaki wrote some new music for it. His additions are good, and he makes them fit in well with the rest of the music here, although it is obvious that these tracks were the only ones specifically created for the synthesizers used here. The piano on the beautiful track “Maria” sounds better than on the original tracks the instrument is used on, and “Theme of Blackhounds,” a more techno styled track, doesn’t sound quite like anything else from the soundtrack. “Driscoll” and “New Enemy Turn” are arrangements based on “The Evils of War” and “Manifold Irons” respectively. Iwasaki takes enough liberty with these tracks to make them interesting both separate from and when compared to their source material. “Ending U.S.N.” is good, but it doesn’t stand up to most of the other material on here.
While I prefer the first two discs over the second two, the Front Mission 4+1st soundtrack is an impressive album that is a landmark in Square-Enix’s recent deluge of CDs: the first work of a promising new composer. It is impossible to make any judgment on his ability yet, but if he proves to be versatile over the years, as Uematsu, Hamauzu, Mitsuda, Sakimoto, and others have, then he will be a great asset to Square-Enix’s talented team.