With the recent realization that Motoi Sakuraba may be tapped musically, I began to worry that the proliferation of Yoko Shimomura these days may have had her on the same road to repetition and ho-hummery. And while to some degree her sound is becoming quite familiar (and is instantly recognizable in her work, much like Sakuraba’s), I must admit that after many times through Last Ranker’s soundtrack, I became convinced that Yoko Shimomura is simply becoming better and better. Her ability to create a musical identity for the games she scores is astounding, and something that is steadily becoming one of her hallmarks, along with her distinctive sound that all her albums are signed with.
Last Ranker itself is an RPG I am not terribly familiar with, so I’m unable to comment on the quality of the game itself, but based on this album I am inclined to believe that Capcom certainly took the production quality of the game quite seriously. The album opens with the track “Main Theme of ‘LAST RANKER,'” a mood-setting piece that would fit an introductory sequence and absolutely bears the mark of having been written by Yoko Shimomura. It is a well-composed song and certainly catchy enough, incorporating some vocal work with Shimomura’s trademark violin. This piece’s importance to the album, however, is that the main theme is repeated numerous times throughout the soundtrack, and contributes to its greatest strength–its musical cohesion.
Take, for example, the track “Born to Survive,” (sampled for your listening consideration) the first of a few songs that include Joelle Strother (whom I am unfamiliar with) on vocals. It integrates the main theme of the game into an epic vocal piece that is full of energy and power, with layering of Strother’s voice in certain parts to an absolutely outstandingly dramatic effect. I have to stress how high the degree of musical cohesiveness in this album is – this is not “just another RPG soundtrack” – it is Last Ranker’s musical signature through and through. Having one main theme that runs through so many songs is an incredibly effective method for giving the game its own musical identity, and something that ensures that that theme stays stuck in your head long after you’ve finished listening (and likely playing, as I haven’t had the opportunity to play the game yet).
The album continues to trot out strong performances, for example “The Evinos,” a very tense track that channels Shimomura’s Parasite Eve compositions, as well as “Only One Goes,” a track whose story can be understood not only by its name, but also its sound. It is a quiet, melancholy piece that makes outstanding use of wind instrumentation and the violin that is wholly evocative of the type of emotional response I imagine the track is intended to elicit.
By this point, I was already impressed with the album. However, I was still wholly unprepared for “This Journey Without End,” one of the best (if not the best) songs on the album. It is a fast-paced battle theme-sounding track with some heavy electric guitar riffing. What I noticed most though, was that it has an awesome violin bit that comes in and out throughout the song, as well as a great melody that gives it dramatic thrust. Some light piano playing in the background complements the song as whole (particularly the parts that include both piano and violin) as well. All in all, an outstanding song that made me want to go out and buy the game just to hear it in context. The track immediately following this, “Glorious Fights We Call “Life,” is another strong showing. It features Joelle Strother again in a song that most certainly reminds the listener of Kingdom Hearts midway through.
The album’s second disc opens up with “Before a Powerful Radiance,” a solid, if somewhat unmemorable track. Much more memorable is the third track on the disc, “Battle on the Resonal Coast,” another track that channels the main theme, and this time in a brief but hard-hitting piece that seems as though it would accompany a major cutscene or an important battle or revelation.
Changing gears, “Distant Sea” is one of the most melancholy songs on offer. It has the delightful staticky sound of an old-school vinyl record player layered into the background. It isn’t particularly prevalent, but it’s enough to give the song a very powerful sense of weatheredness. The soft, sad violin and the piano hum along throughout this song, and in my mind, the song conjures images of an ancient, dusty place that is long forgotten (until the player arrives in-game, that is). An exceptionally effective mood-setting tune, and one that breaks up the intensity wonderfully.
Moving forward, we have “On the Distant Ancient Land.” This track hints at a slow, measured build-up to something big and dramatic happening in the game. I don’t know that for certain, of course, but that’s the story I’m hearing. In the middle of the song, we get a soft piano line that is absolutely outstanding in its simplicity and its potency. It offers a brief respite from the building tension in the rest of the song and stands out as one of the most memorable sections. Next up is “Crudelis et Magnificus”, a dramatic choir piece that seems as though it might accompany a particularly important battle in the game’s story. It is intense, but unfortunately not exceptionally memorable–not for lack of quality, but simply because it does little to differentiate itself from the deluge of other choir-backed dramatic RPG songs. The next track, “Fatum Foedus”, is a very brief piece that almost seems as if it is meant to immediately follow the previous track, as it is very similar in style.
“The Tower Draped in History” at first comes off as a bit light considering how far into the album it comes, with some light wind instrumentation and a plucking guitar line that reminds me of a desert town. However, shortly after the song begins, Shimomura’s trademark violin sound is layered in, adding a sense of weightiness to the track. This juxtaposition of lighter sounds and the far more serious violin make for a unique track and one that seems like it wouldn’t be out of place in what I imagine might be the game’s final area.
Next up is “Be the LAST RANKER –Battle Version-“, a song that again makes use of the game’s main theme in an epic, high intensity fashion that seems to hint at it being a final boss track of sorts. The middle of the track is particularly high tempo, making absolutely outstanding use of the main theme. As a song, it is somewhat similar to other versions of the main theme, but these subtle changes to it make it an excellent late-album battle track. Shortly afterwards, the album presents another version of “Crudelis et Magnificus,” in this case a vocal-only piece. Much like the original version, this song is fairly unmemorable–by no means bad, but simply not up to the high standard of much of the rest of the album.
“Infinite Spiral,” however, is an exceptional song that does much to differentiate itself from other ‘choir’ songs. While it utilizes a similar set of vocals to “Crudelis et Magnificus,” it is much more distinctly Shimomura in style, integrating some great synthesized sounds with the violin and choir parts. It seems as though it would make an excellent battle or “escape” track, but regardless of its function, it is a catchy piece that more than makes up for the somewhat disappointing pair of “Crudelis” tracks. The album continues this strong finale with “Invitation to the World of ‘LAST RANKER,'” and “Be the LAST RANKER,” two similar songs that utilize the main theme and seem as though they would accompany the ending credits or a final cutscene. By this point, the theme song is well-worn and has done its job admirably–it truly has become the musical theme of Last Ranker and sends off the album in a memorable fashion.
Yoko Shimomura’s talent for establishing a cohesive musical identity in her soundtracks is steadily becoming more evident as she produces more music. Her ability to give a game an aural identity is an essential part of an aspect of video games that is getting more and more attention these days (yay!). Last Ranker’s soundtrack is yet another reason to love her work, and yet another reason why I am excited to see what she manages to produce next. Last Ranker has very few duds (and even those are certainly not bad by any means, they just aren’t up to the standard of the majority of the album) and an exceptionally memorable theme that is well-utilized and allows the game to define its own identity not only through its visuals, gameplay, and story–but musically. This is something Yoko Shimomura should be commended for, and something that makes Last Ranker a musical journey you should undertake for yourself.