Almost immediately after diving into and reviewing the soundtrack from the original Kingdom Hearts, I began listening to and considering the newest album in the series, which contains the original soundtracks from Birth by Sleep, 358/2 Days, and bonus tracks from Re:Coded. Bonus tracks is an apt description, as there are only seven Re:Coded tracks–the only new tracks that appeared in that game. By and large this is an album that matches or beats its predecessors in terms of quality.
It’s also worth nothing that Square Enix has not included any of the Kingdom Hearts or Kingdom Hearts II Disney tracks that appeared in 358/2 Days or Re:Coded here. There are a small number of other track omissions, notably some battle themes that appeared in both Birth by Sleep and 358/2 Days–in these cases, the Birth by Sleep version was included and the 358/2 Days version omitted.
The music was primarily composed and arranged by series mainstay Yoko Shimomura, though Tsuyoshi Sekito, Takeharu Ishimoto, Kaoru Wada, Hirosato Noda, and Keiji Kawamori have also contributed a handful of the tracks.
Birth by Sleep
Birth by Sleep’s tracks come first and are the most plentiful, covering the entirety of the first two discs and the last section of the third. Without a doubt, these are the strongest tracks in the series since the original game. The compositions for important battles, cutscenes, and original worlds are, as always, beautiful–but what really makes this album rock-solid are the themes for the Disney worlds. They feel less like an afterthought than ever before in the series, and some of them rank among the best the album has to offer.
Birth by Sleep’s iteration of the series mainstay “Dearly Beloved” opens the album beautifully and immediately cements itself as the most mature, refined version of the track in the series. The main components of the song are the piano (of course) and a wonderful violin section, with more layers being brought in and out. The final minute of the song crests into an outright breathtaking peak that slowly lets the song fade out.
This refinement and sense of beauty quickly shows itself to be the guiding principle for the entirety of the Birth by Sleep tracks. As I mentioned in my review of the Japanese version of the game, the music from Birth by Sleep truly carries the story on its own. “The Promised Beginning” is a great way of introducing us to the main characters and showcasing their home world, giving a sense that a grand adventure is about to unfold. “Future Masters,” the battle theme for the first world, continues this sense of “big things unfolding.” It is full of energy and showcases the still-unsullied innocence of the three protagonists–offering a sense of their seemingly limitless potential as “future masters.”
As usual, Shimomura has provided excellent character themes. “Terra” very effectively communicates the position of the trio’s oldest member, giving him a weighty theme that seems to hint at his ironclad resolve and his determination to succeed. “Xehanort” follows up with the theme of the main villain. The track succeeds in evoking a sense of suspicion and lurking menace, which suits the character perfectly. “Ventus” is perhaps the most familiar of the three protagonist themes, but is absolutely beautiful, and utterly succeeds in lending a musical identity to not only the tragedy of the character, but also the lurking sense of hope. Roxas’ theme (from previous entries) provides a basis for the piano to work upon, while the rest of the instrumentation helps set the track apart and ensure that the listener knows that while this is not Roxas we are hearing, Ventus certainly shares some sort of connection with him. “Aqua” completes the trio with the most developed and mature sound of the three, accurately reflecting on the character. The strings and piano combine to lend a sense of sadness and regret, giving a real feeling of weight to the character. Overall, the character themes for Birth by Sleep are undoubtedly the most mature and refined yet in the series, and certainly the ones that most definitely convey a real sense of who their respective characters are.
“The Worlds” is the latest version of the ever-present “Precious Stars in the Sky,” the series’ world map theme. I choose to single this particular iteration out because it is one of the most haunting in the series. The main melody is carried out on piano, with an incredible effect that I can only describe as sounding like falling stars. It gives a sense of a massive sea of stars and worlds that beg to be explored. “Dearly Dreams,” the theme for the multiplayer arena world, is another haunting track, a superbly arranged version of “Dearly Beloved” that really demonstrates the effectiveness of this series’ penchant for consistent musical themes.
“Unforgettable” bears mention as one of the most intense battle themes in Birth by Sleep. Functioning as a boss theme for non-plot-essential Unversed monsters, it has a very tangible sense of otherworldliness that gradually gives way some synth plucking and Shimomura’s signature violins. “The Tumbling” functions very similarly in-game, and shares the same otherworldly effect as “Unforgettable.” Another classic Shimomura tune, it features the very same synthy-sound that also leads into some piano punching and a very dramatic violin line.
“The Silent Forest” is one of the best examples of what I mentioned earlier as the very, very impressive Disney world themes. Serving as the Enchanted Dominion’s (Sleeping Beauty) theme, it is a mature, slow-paced track that evokes a sense of loss–appropriate for both the events that occur in Birth by Sleep and the original Disney movie’s plot. Another Disney track that bears mentioning as absolutely outstanding is “Makaukau?”. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of my personal favorite tracks in the entire series. The battle theme for Deep Space (Lilo and Stitch’s world), it is a very trance-like track with a solid melody and a pounding bit of percussion.
“Enter the Darkness,” one of Takeharu Ishimoto’s contributions, is a memorable battle theme for the game’s other main villain, Vanitas. This character shares a connection with Ventus, Sora, and Roxas, and as such his battle theme is a dark, energetic one that weaves in parts from Sora’s theme (from Kingdom Hearts II) and Roxas’ theme. “Unbreakable Chains,” another Ishimoto track, is essentially the successor to “Enter the Darkness,” and is a more evolved version of it. It brings the same “lurking in the dark” synth effects in the intro, leading into yet another, more pronounced iteration of Sora and Roxas’ themes. As I said before, Birth by Sleep’s music succeeds completely in telling the story on its own, and these tracks are great for demonstrating that.
“Keyblade Graveyard” begins the series of finale tracks, and serves as both the main theme of and battle theme for the final world. It is the series most mature, melancholic final area theme, and with good reason. This is another case of the music telling the story, as the history behind the area and the events that take place in it are tragic, and the song succeeds in communicating those things, along with that important sense of the journey coming to an end. It serves as a great foil to “The Promised Beginning,” because it carries with it the weight of all the accumulated experiences of the formerly innocent protagonists.
“Rage Awakened – The Origin” is a returning track from Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix, and it features some stronger production values and, thanks to the events of Birth by Sleep, retroactively gives meaning to the battle it accompanied in that game.
“Dismiss” is the track I knew I would mention even before this album had come out. It serves as the theme for the true final battle of the game, and is without a doubt the crowning achievement in Shimomura’s collection of Birth by Sleep battle themes. Without spoiling the story, the track is a fusion of a few character themes, the final battle theme from Kingdom Hearts I “Guardando nel Buio”, and “Rage Awakened – The Origin.” When I want to explain to someone how Birth by Sleep manages to “tell its story” through music, I point to this track. You can hear the story of the ultimate enemy of the game in this track, and trace the evolution of the character. It helps, too, that the production on the song is stellar and bears significant weight. Fans of the series will fall in love with this track, and with good reason.
The third disc begins the 358/2 Days tracks, opening up with another excellent iteration of “Dearly Beloved.” This particular version features some lonely harp plucking, and, while not reaching the same level of excellence as the Birth by Sleep version, is still a great song that does the original proud. “Critical Drive” is an iteration of the battle theme from the final world of Kingdom Hearts II, and conveys the same sense of otherworldly “emptiness” that the original did, though it certain has a darker edge to it.
“Musique pour la tristesse de Xion” is the theme for Xion, and again makes use of Shimomura’s penchant for leitmotifs. Opening up with a music box-like plucky sound, a synth and string combination with hints of Kairi’s theme from Kingdom Hearts I and II make up the majority of the song. This is an absolutely heartrending and beautiful theme that I can’t recommend enough. It gives weight to the character, tells her story, and is a multilayered success. This is truly one of the best tracks on all three discs.
“Vector to the Heavens” is one of the penultimate battle themes, and is shockingly different from other battle tracks in the series. It makes use a set of inverted chords and weaves in appropriate character themes and “Dearly Beloved” in a manner that makes the track just as effective as “Dismiss.” The dissonance in the song is exceptionally potent as well, giving the listener a sense of being off-balance and taken aback, much as the characters involved in the battle are.
“Another Side – Battle Version” is, as the title suggests, a battle version of the track “Another Side,” the secret video from the end of the original Kingdom Hearts. It plays in both the final battle of 358/2 Days and one of the final battles in Birth by Sleep. It opens up with a calm rendition of the Organization XIII piano theme, leading into an intense, dramatic synth and percussion beat. This is one of my personal favorite battle tracks from the series, and really suits the battles it accompanies. There is one particular break in the middle of the track with some great synth and piano back-and-forth that helps offer a brief moment of respite in the midst of the intensity.
The Re:Coded version of “Dearly Beloved” is strong, and is likely the best track from that game, which was primarily comprised of rehashed versions of 358/2 Days Disney tracks. “On the Debug!” is a brief, repetitive track that is relatively catchy and has a very “computerized” sound, like nearly every track from the game. “Wonder of Electron” is the main new exploration theme from the game, and is not particularly memorable–less because it has a strong melody and more because it is essentially the only new world theme in the game. The accompanying battle theme, “No More Bugs!!” is also fairly catchy. Initially it features a nice melody and some bleep-bloop computer-style effects playing around in the background, and eventually breaks down into an intense finish. The next two tracks essentially the same tracks with a more dramatic and dissonant sound.
Unfortunately, the basic summary I can offer for the Re:Coded tracks is that they serve their purpose, but are very forgettable. This is likely because of the complete lack of character themes (or, for that matter, a decent story and characters to go with the music), and also due to the very clichéd usage of “digital” sound effects to convey the “we’re in a computer!” vibe.
Birth by Sleep: Final Mix
The final tracks on the album come mostly from Birth by Sleep: Final Mix. They continue in the very high quality vein that the rest of that game’s music did. The track most worthy of mention here is the final track on the album, a secret boss battle theme called “Forze dell’Oscurita.” It is another track in the vein of “Dismiss” and “Vector to the Heavens,” melding two major character battle themes into one very epic, intense track. My own personal reaction to this song (as a rather large fan of the series) was to melt into a puddle of excitement at the storyline implications. While the battle this song accompanies is a side battle and not at all plot related, historically the series has been known to place important characters to future games in secret boss roles, and if the character themes present in this song are any indication, fans could be in for a very, very dramatic show.
If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll very likely love this album, especially for the Birth by Sleep and Final Mix tracks, as well as the fan favorites from 358/2 Days. If you’re not a fan of the series, you might appreciate the maturity, powerful melodies, and high production values of the tracks. Overall, this album packs in a lot of variety, and offers a pretty good value since it essentially includes the complete soundtrack for three separate games. If nothing else, it’s worth the buy just to get your hands on the stellar Birth by Sleep music, and the inclusion of everything else is simply a bonus. Definitely worth a listen.