Among the composers in the SaGa series, the one man Square Enix has turned to most often is Kenji Ito. Ito rooted himself with Square around 1990 with both SaGa 2 (Final Fantasy Legend 2 in the US) and the first Seiken Densetsu title (Final Fantasy Adventure in the US).
Ito wrote, on his own, the soundtracks for all three Romancing SaGa titles for Super Famicom, as well as the first SaGa Frontier for PS1. He returned to the series in 2005 for the ambitious remake of Romancing SaGa 1 (subtitled “Minstrel Song” in Japan), where he worked with a host of fantastic arrangers to beef up the original melodies he wrote for the Super Famicom classic.
While not necessarily a great arranger, Ito’s melodic strengths fit right in with what you want and need in an RPG: soothing town themes, imposing dungeon music, the occasional emotional/sorrowful piece, but most important of all — face-melting power rock battle themes. Kenji Ito has been flexing those muscles in the past few years with a (so far?) trilogy of Re:Birth albums where he basically hijacks Falcom’s JDK Band and does amazing rock covers of the great battle themes from all his past SaGa works.
Which brings us, finally, to the Imperial SaGa Original Soundtrack. Though I am usually an optimist, I hold out no hope that Square Enix will localize this browser-based PC game in North America. It is a new entry in the series that takes place in a world that vaguely matches up with the Romancing SaGa universe, and features a demi-god (think Hercules) protagonist named Adel (no, not Adele, though that could have been great too: “Hello,” Square Enix!). The game is just drenched with all things SaGa. To make Kenji Ito the chief composer was a no-brainer.
Having learned, however, that the Ito of the 21st century is best presented alongside the help of others, Square Enix brought on those “others” to create something even more impressive. I should note that exactly three songs were not composed by Ito: the victory and defeat themes, tracks 8 through 10 on disc 1, are written by Tsutomu Narita, himself a young upstart working under the tutelage of master composer Nobuo Uematsu. Other than that, everything here was composed by Kenji Ito.
Now, you may look at the track list and think you’re just getting four arrangements of the same five songs, grouped by character sets: Adel, HEROES, Lazareth/Iris, and Ivan/Olga. Good news! They are in fact 20 unique compositions from Ito. However, each of these grouped sets comes with its own unique arranger to add style and additional substance. So, let’s start by talking about these 20 tracks, as they make up over half of the OST.
Adel’s set is co-arranged by Ito and Narita. We can consider Adel’s grouping the “vanilla” setup. Here, we’re setting a baseline for the overworld and battle themes for the character sets. “Altermenos Empire ~ Adel” sounds like a major town or dungeon theme from the Etrian Odyssey series; this can only be read as a compliment, especially for fans who cherish the golden era but still want something fresh and new. As soon as we hit the trio of battle themes, well … you know you’re listening to a SaGa soundtrack. This is very much reminiscent of Ito’s work for Romancing SaGa 3, but now with a sound palette closer to Minstrel Song.
The HEROES section is the funkiest of all. And if you know the arranger, you’ll immediately understand why. Noriyuki Kamikura is a former member of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s BASISCAPE and was later loosely affiliated with Falcom during the Celceta and Kiseki era (he was also the general producer on all those “Zanmai” albums). Kamikura came in and arranged five tracks to make them sound like a mix of a CAVE shooter and chill Falcom music. “Altermenos Empire ~ HEROES” is an epic EDM fusion mix of totally artificial sounds and completely believable synth orchestra, including low and high brass. And, frankly, it’s catchy as hell. “Advance” sounds like an ode to Final Fantasy Tactics and, hence, Kamikura’s former boss, Sakimoto. Not only are there those familiar descending chimes accenting the intro, but there’s a B section (which our audio sample starts at) that uses a very famous lick from the FFT intro FMV.
There’s actually an interesting story surrounding this hidden reference to FFT. I missed it the first time around, but Jayson Napolitano (of Scarlet Moon Records) pointed it out to me the moment he heard it, and he went on a quest to find out if it was intentional, and if Sakimoto knew or cared. For those who may be curious themselves, Sakimoto was unaware and did not really care, especially since the rights to the FFT music belong to Square Enix and not to Sakimoto. Jayson wasn’t able to obtain a definite answer on whether or not Ito and Kamikura did it intentionally … but it’s obvious if you listen to it for yourself. There’s no way that wasn’t a nod to FFT. And, considering the more strategic nature of the Imperial SaGa battle system, it kind of feels right to include that little homage.
HEROES’ standard battle music starts sounding like a fun, jazzy piece, not unlike the first Sora no Kiseki battle theme. But the longer you listen, the more you’ll find. The sax solos are absolutely stunning, and the modern point-counterpoint action during certain parts of the song are amazing. It just never lets up! “Fierce Battle” and “Decisive Battle” for the HEROES section are all-out power rock. “Decisive Battle,” in particular, sounds like something Dragon Force would’ve recorded for the sole purpose of releasing it on Guitar Hero and ruining our lives.
Next up, we have Tsutomu Narita’s grouping for Lazareth/Iris. Yes, Narita did work with Ito on Adel’s tracks, but for this set of five songs, the arrangements were done exclusively by Narita, and you can hear his influence all over the place. If you’re not familiar with Narita’s work as a composer, I’d start by pointing you to the PSP/3DS dungeon crawler, Unchained Blades. It borrows from the Etrian Odyssey series in terms of gameplay, but the soundtrack stands apart from the source material because Narita offers a unique blend of Uematsu-esque stylings (certain chord progressions that Uematsu uses throughout the Final Fantasy series, for example) and his own bag of tricks. For example, in “Advance ~ Lazareth/Iris,” Narita immediately establishes that this is going to be a more reflective piece with a slow trilling wind/string ensemble and a descent of wind chimes. But he doesn’t waste any time letting us know that there is a bit of bombast to this theme as well: five seconds in, the full orchestra is making its declaration, not unlike something out of the Final Fantasy XII OST. Once the melody is established, Narita goes back to the softer sounds in his B section, allowing flutes, bells, and string ensembles to tell a slightly different story about the adventures of Lazareth/Iris.
The same sound palette and instrumentation are carried forward into the standard battle theme, though with more percussion and with strings taking the chief melody. While Kamikura was doing a mix of rock and disco/dance fusion, Narita is offering us pop-orchestra. And, again, the backbone to all of this is Kenji Ito’s genius melody-making. The soundscape continues all the way through the other battle themes, with a grave, even spooky climax at “Decisive Battle.” Drums are used in concert orchestra fashion, and drag triplets prevail over double-bass insanity. No electric guitars here, ladies and gentlemen.
Finally, we get the most exciting set of all. When I saw this man’s name on the credits, months before I ordered the soundtrack, I was psyched to hear what he would do. Kenji Ito brought on Yoshitaka Hirota, of Shadow Hearts fame, to arrange the last grouping: Ivan/Olga. Hirota’s series of tracks will quickly remind fans what it is that makes his stylings so perfect for RPGs: a blend of ethnic instrumentation and voice that is often found in the genre, but rarely in such a high quality. Listen to the shamisen in “Altermenos Empire ~ Ivan/Olga.” It’s absolutely brilliant, and it fits the rest of the song so very well. The composition itself, by Ito, makes for a great song; but there’s no doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t sound even half as good as it does without Hirota’s influence.
Considering Hirota’s expertise as someone who can write “dark” music and make it catchy, it’s no surprise he was put on the Ivan/Olga path, which seems to be the “dark route” character for Imperial SaGa. There is always an element of tension and fear in the music. As evidence, I refer you to this grouping’s “Decisive Battle.” Yes, it is beautiful, but it is also quite dark, not unlike some of Michiru Yamane’s better tracks in the Castlevania series.
Outside these 20 tracks, what else is there to say? On disc 2, Narita has an opening and ending for his “light path” section with “Triple Deity” and “To a New World,” the latter of which uses a classic Ito melody that, if I am not mistaken, comes from Romancing SaGa 3 (though it may have been used throughout the trilogy). Likewise, Hirota has an opener in “Lost Ground” and a closer in “Point Beyond the Darkness.” Noriyuki Kamikura brings everything to a close with an overarching end credits track, which is simply divine. “The Woven Era” was one of the big surprises of the OST: definitely one worth checking out.
Disc 2 ends with four tracks based on the same theme. A silly, Sentai-style hero named Wonder Man Robin exists as a DLC character that you can recruit for free using a code included with the soundtrack. Wonder Man Robin gets his own ridiculous, anime hero vocal theme, and then he also gets a spoof version that’s all about eating food. Instrumental versions of both songs are tacked on as a bonus.
Natsumi Kameoka, one of the most active orchestrators in Square Enix’s recent arsenal (see: all things Kingdom Hearts), did the arrangements not just for Wonder Man Robin, but also for the opening “Main Theme.” This theme, too, feels right at home with the SaGa series, and if anything, lifts it to newer and greater heights.
There have only been a handful of soundtracks in the past few years that do what Imperial SaGa does: leverage the great memories of the past decade (or even further back) and bring it back, but with loads of enhancements that make it work with today’s graphics, mechanics, and user expectations. Legend of Legacy was another one, and the two Etrian Odyssey Untold games do it as well. Arguably, so did Persona Q. But these soundtracks are too few and far between. For that reason, I would urge fans to consider purchasing this album. This OST is the first set of original SaGa tunes in a decade, and they seem to be at least partially inspired by Ito’s activity with those rocking Re:Birth albums. I say we keep this upward trend going by supporting these artists so that SaGa: Scarlet Grace for Vita has an even better soundtrack! And, with luck, a localization!