What a great concept for an arranged album, to take the specific terminology of the battle to combine two genres of music into one arranged album. I mean … you get it, right? Oh wait, you don’t? You mean you haven’t actually played Octopath Traveler before?
If I’m describing you, then please stop reading this music review immediately. Buy, play, and beat this game. if you don’t have a Nintendo Switch, no worries, Octopath Traveler is on Steam as of June 2019. You probably have a PC with the specs to handle this game. So, go get it.
To the rest of you who have played the game, perhaps you question my reasoning. “Can’t great game music be enjoyed outside the context of the game?” Surely it can. But to justify my stance with this particular album, I would like to quote composer Yasunori Nishiki, from the liner notes of this very album (thank you Square Enix for providing dual-language liner notes!!):
Personally speaking, I see Octopath Traveler as being like a festival of sorts. It brings me back to the RPGs I played as a child, and rekindles the memories of those vast worlds that stirred my heart. Arrangement albums, too, were something irreplaceable to me — they allowed me to continue feeling that excitement, even after the adventure had come to an end.
Nothing would make me happier than to be able to share that excitement with you, in a “festival” of music. So whether you’re a longtime aficionado like me, or a newcomer to the world of game soundtracks, I hope you enjoy the album!
Nishiki was born in 1985. He’s younger than me. He likely discovered great game music around the same time I did, enjoying great albums like Xenogears CREID, Suikoden II Orizzonte, Uncharted Waters II Special Edition, or any number of Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites. Though he did not arrange these tracks himself, he scouted the talent that would arrange and perform for both the “Break” and “Boost” halves. He had a concept in mind based on what he loved about VGM arrangements and executed. Flawlessly, might I add.
That being said, let’s talk about “Break” side and “Boost” side. When this album was first announced, I assumed (wrongly) that this would be a battle arrangement album. After all, both “Break” and “Boost” are terms used in the game’s battle system. The “break” action involved strategically hitting an enemy’s weak point(s) sufficiently to destroy their defenses and make them immobile for a turn or two. Though this takes place during battle, the act of breaking itself may not require piling significant damage on the enemy. So long as you don’t miss, even 1 HP dealt against the enemy using the right weak point (whether weapon or magic) would put you closer to a break. There was something thoughtful and strategic about it.
As such, the “Break” half is chamber music, mostly piano and strings, focusing on character and environment themes … and a surprise chamber music arrangement of “Decisive Battle II” to top it off!
“Boost,” on the other hand, is the half I was always expecting. It’s time to rock out, á la the many recent “Re:birth” albums that Square Enix released for the SaGa series. Each of these six battle tracks are arranged by a different individual, and the differing styles stand out. Some arrangers are heavy on drum and bass while others go nuts on guitar solos or a variety of synth/keyboard parts. And, like “Break” before it, the final track of the “Boost” section comes as a surprise. Rather than a battle theme, the album ends on the game’s main title theme, which almost serves as a kind of victory piece after all of those intense battle arrangements.
And of course, we have to ask ourselves what “Boost” is in the context of the game. It involves those little orbs that would light up next to your character: an extra charge per turn (sometimes more, with the right buffs), storing up to 5 orbs at a time. The maximum “Boost” you could add to any attack was three of these Boost orbs; for standard attacks, this meant repeating the attack up to 4 times. For other special skills, it might mean an increasing probability of success or number of turns for a buff/debuff. All that to say a Boost is a way to take your individual turn in battle “Up to 11” in terms of impact, or volume.
So, in the Boost half, we rock out hardcore. And it’s great.
But, if I’m being honest? I think I appreciate “Break” more than “Boost,” if for no other reason than because I have been begging for more chamber music style arrangements from Square Enix of late. (See, for example, my review of the NieR Orchestral Arrangement Special Box.) Full orchestra is great. Rock bands are great. Vocal tracks are cool too. But how about picking 5 instruments, some that go together naturally, others that might be a surprise, and making it work? That can impress me a great deal.
One great example: “A Settlement in the Red Bluffs.” The original version of this song was already great, but arranger Atsuki Yoshida takes a daring turn in this arrangement. The strings work here, performed primarily by Yoshida himself (with his string quartet backing him and great guitar work from Harutoshi Ito), merging eastern and western folk sounds. In one sense, the arrangement presents a dueling-fiddles kind of ho-down. But there is so much intentional pitch-bending going on, I suspect that Yoshida wrote quarter-steps into the arrangement, especially in the harmonies — something that was first done in traditional Asian music, and was generally ignored in Western classical music for centuries.
While I love every single track on this album, I also have to give a special nod on the “Break” side to the opener. Objectively, “The Frostlands” is going to be remembered as one of the great “winter songs” of VGM. It’ll rank right up there with “The Streets of Whiterun” from Skyrim, and “A Wish” from Secret of Mana. Yuya Mori’s piano-centric arrangement takes the already amazing composition to new heights and even out-modulates Nishiki with more key changes than I can count.
On the “Boost” half … yeah, I just love all of it. I thought I would tire of it quickly. But I’ve listened to the album a solid 20 times now, and I still love it. I cannot get over how great the “Main Theme” finale works for the album. And then, you gotta love “They Who Govern Reason,” my favorite among the boss battle themes. Some of you may not have heard “Daughter of the Dark God” in game, as there is quite a lot of postgame work required to experience that song in the context of the game. But it is worth it, and the arrangement is simply delicious. That particular arrangement, from Masahiro “Godspeed” Aoki, is the closest thing to prog-rock insanity you’ll find on this album. So, if that’s your style … well, I’ve found the Octopath jam for you.
Many arrangers on both sides of the Pacific rushed to put together their own Octopath tribute albums, and I do think they are very good, especially some of the releases from Materia Collective. But this official arranged album from Square Enix is absolutely magnificent. It simultaneously pulls me back to a gleeful childhood with great VGM arrangements — as Nishiki had hoped to do — and at the same time gives me hope for a brighter future for VGM, one where composers, arrangers, studios, and publishers refuse to rest on their laurels and keep striving for something truly special.