There may be some among the collective RPG fandom who were unaware of Indivisible, the beautiful RPG with Valkyrie Profile-esque mechanics and a penchant for Southeast Asian culture and mythology, developed by Lab Zero Games, the creators of celebrated 2D Fighter Skullgirls. If that’s you, might I recommend you start by catching up on the game itself: start with Alana’s review.
For my part, the most exciting thing about Indivisible since its crowdfunded inception in 2015 has been the fact that they slated veteran composer Hiroki Kikuta for the entire soundtrack. Yes, the whole thing, all 130 minutes! Kikuta, the beloved composer for Secret of Mana (and its newly localized sequel, Trials of Mana!), has been providing a handful of featured selections and themes for independent studios on both sides of the Pacific for the last few years. But here, Kikuta buckled down and produced over two hours of solid music, utilizing some of his favorite instrumentation and scratching that ethnomusicology itch that he and so many of us feel. For further clarification on that last statement, check out my review of the Secret of Mana remake soundtrack, wherein I delve into the nuances of Balinese Chanting.
As alpha and beta tests were made available to backers, I had the opportunity to preview some of Kikuta’s early musical demos. And that gave me all the more reason to be excited. This was Kikuta in his element. This was the most exhilarated I had been about Kikuta’s work in decades. I was pleased as punch when he made a resurgence earlier this decade with Shining Hearts, but after that he stepped back to featured compositions and arrangements on projects as diverse as Atelier Escha & Logy, Tangledeep, Shiness, and Kakuriyo no Mon. Indivisible would, I had no doubt, be the musical tour de force we have all craved since Kikuta’s unparalleled entries in the Mana franchise.
Now, with the full soundtrack in my hands and blasting in my ears…well, let’s just say I need to take a thoughtful approach in talking about this. So I’m going to go with the sandwich method: open and end with strengths, and put the critique in the middle. Yes, there is room for critique, as much as I want to just gush praise all over this thing. Without further ado, let’s get to it!
Though Kikuta composed this whole beast on his own, with no additional help from arrangers, he did reach out to a select crew of performers for studio recordings to complement what is otherwise a synthesized, sequenced delight. Starting with the opening track, “Eulogia,” Kikuta brings on Akio Noguchi for tin whistle (yes, the same Akio Noguchi who performed piano on the Chrono Orchestra piano duo disc!), as well as Shinichi Hada on violin and Rio “rionos” Okano for some ethereal vocal work. This opening is simply divine. And thematically, opening a game with an actual eulogy speaks to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that guides so much of the game and its spiritual underpinnings. Check the audio sample for yourself: the slow, sustained strains from rionos contrast so nicely with the intense percussion and the graceful, dancing elegance of the violin. It’s a lovely, perfect, beautiful opening.
Vocalist rionos returns for track 3, the protagonist’s theme song “Ajna,” as well as the game’s title theme “Indivisible” (track 10). These vocals from rionos have that distinct Ar tonelico sound popularized by Akiko Shikata — so much so that, before I did my research, I thought it may have been Shikata, or maybe KOKIA. Imagine my surprise to see it was rionos, a relative newcomer better known for her work on anime than games, adding these lovely vocal layers atop Kikuta’s fantastic music. Kikuta and rionos are a great pair, and I hope that they continue to work with one another often in the coming years: they sound lovely together!
The final live recording on this collection is the ending vocal track “Esoterica.” However, we do not have the harmonic, wispy vocals of rionos this time. Instead, Kikuta works with the talented Jillian Aversa, whose vocal style lends itself to many forms, though here it sounds like something classical, even operatic. Perhaps this has to do with the vocals being written and performed in French — when singing in a European/Romance language, it is a natural style to turn to. In any case, this song is lovely for its natural, comforting style that resolves on the tonic chord at the end of each refrain. This is atypical for Kikuta, but with Aversa’s voice, it really is a great fit.
Outside of the live recordings, Kikuta is a miracle worker when it comes to sound design. Some readers may be aware that Kikuta had to create custom sound banks for Secret of Mana (which he also used in SD3/Trials of Mana) because he was unsatisfied with the quality of the standard sound banks on Super Famicom (SNES) hardware. Anyone who listens to those soundtracks immediately recognizes something different in the percussion, the ethereal synth choral voices, and the endless barrage of mallet or “pitched percussion” material. No longer limited by storage space, Kikuta pulls no punches across the Indivisible score. The mallet work is especially impressive, as is his masterful knowledge of instrumentation unique to Southeast Asia, from regions of China and India to Thailand, The Philippines, Indonesia, and more. From the soft, calm tonal work of “Shastra” (track 32) to the manic energy of the standard battle theme “Crisis” (track 5), Hiroki Kikuta synthesizes his knowledge of music and culture in a way that few other composers today are doing.
That said, I believe it is time for some critiques.
Now, I do not know to what extent the following critiques fall to Kikuta himself. Some of these may fall at the feet of mixing/mastering engineer Vincent Diamante, though I cannot be sure. But my primary gripe with this entire soundtrack is the homogeneity of dynamics; in other words, someone left the volume set to “loud” and never bothered to turn it down, or even vary it between instruments. A quick study of the waveforms suggests a lack of care with the levels. Each track starts so loud, and there is so little silence between tracks, that it can all run together. Trying to listen to all of this in one go gave me a very real headache. Additionally, as long as the soundtrack may already be, there is a consistent trend where almost every song runs just about two minutes in length. I think this is with one loop built in, though I noticed some areas where there were no loops, but for good reason (a prime example: “Ortho – Meta – Para,” which is already five minutes long!). I wonder if some post-production work with the way these songs are looped, and perhaps the introduction of a palette-cleansing soft introduction for many of them, could have improved the overall listening experience, and perhaps the integrated sound experience in the game as well.
Further, again regarding the listening experience, I feel that a kind of intentional partitioning would have been beneficial. Separating this album into separate discs, even in digital format (though a very rare physical edition was printed for some Indiegogo backers, as I recall) may have been helpful. Alternatively, giving headers to separate the tracks into their usage within the game could have helped. For instance, the last two tracks on the album are from the early demos, but no track listing or digital artwork informs the listener, so they can’t discern the context of the music in the listening process. It is just one big, loud blob of music. It’s a blob of great music, sure, but a blob nonetheless!
So, yes, varied dynamics and more interesting mixing, along with some labeled grouping of the tracks for context, would have really taken this one to a new level.
Now then, let’s end our critique sandwich with more strengths! These are a little haphazard, sort of miscellaneous compliments, but I would be remiss if I remained silent here.
First of all, the track titles themselves are fantastic. I don’t know how much of this was Kikuta’s work, or how much falls to Lab Zero or even Scarlet Moon producer Jayson Napolitano. But these titles are really great. I am a huge fan of the track title “Crucial Fixture.” In the context of the game, the song title is very fitting. The name also sounds a lot like “crucifixion,” which I believe was intentional. Then there are these other “adjective noun” dungeon and battle themes that really work. From “Semitropic Destruction” to “Cyclic Soul,” the specificity of the titles is simply delightful. I would argue the same is true for Secret/Trials of Mana, which once again suggests Indivisible is the musical successor to those games that we’ve really been waiting for.
And then there’s the fact that these songs are, by and large, very fun! Whether they are intense, comforting, or novel in nature, there is always a fun spirit present. That liveliness reminds me of the kind of cultural Mahayana Buddhism prevalent in Southeast Asia. Yet again, I cannot emphasize how well Kikuta captures this in his own synth style.
Ultimately, Kikuta’s work here is tantamount to a masterpiece. Yes, there may be some flaws, and there is a part of me that wants more live instruments. But hey, maybe that leaves room for a decent arrange album in the coming months or years? If anyone has the time or budget to make it happen, I am pretty sure the fans would welcome it! If not, this majestic soundtrack holds its ground as a worthy addition not only to Kikuta’s body of work, but to your VGM collection as well.
This review is based on a free digital review copy provided to RPGFan by the publisher. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer’s opinion of the album.