Largely at the hands of indie developers, the gaming industry has seen a return to form. With the continued development of retro-style roleplaying games, studios seem to be attempting a return to the “golden age” experienced in the mid to late ’90s. Square Enix was a frontrunner in the aforementioned period of gaming history, so it is no surprise they executed every aspect of the era expertly while freshening it up in their HD-2D hit, Octopath Traveler. Helmed by Yasunori Nishiki, a composer largely unknown for his work at KONAMI, at least in North America, Octopath’s soundtrack is no exception.
A graduate of the Tokyo College of Music with a degree in Film Scoring, Nishiki went freelance in 2015. He was brought on board to compose for Square Enix’s then latest title, and this work became what will likely be known as his breakout project. In an interview with Video Game Music Online (with our dear friends Stephen Meyerink and Derek Heemsbergen working on the translation!), Nishiki revealed that his orchestral roots needed to change, and thus, he shifted his approach to this soundtrack: “I tossed out, to some extent, the traditional method of arranging for orchestra. Instead, I arranged the orchestra instruments in a style akin to simple, catchy vocal songs with strong melodies.” It paid off, evoking nostalgia for the short motifs from gaming yore, but with the backing of a full orchestral suite to create a sweeping sound that the small 64 KB of RAM on the SNES could not. While it is not without its minor flaws, the Octopath Traveler Original Soundtrack does so much right.
The journey of these eight travelers begins with a piece that plagued Nishiki up until the final days of the soundtrack’s delivery. In a post on Nintendo’s official blog, the composer admitted he struggled with putting the main theme to paper: “To be honest, at this point I was in complete disarray….I honestly considered resigning from the project (even though I’d already composed half the soundtrack!).” Thankfully, this did not occur, and in the crucible of stress and pressure, Nishiki pulled from his prior work to derive what is the now rousing and memorable main theme. Punchy strings really emphasize the sense of adventure off the top and hint at something getting started before they open into a sweeping rise that soars with the rest of the woodwinds before returning to the melody once more. The track continues to build in grandeur, becoming truly exciting as the woodwinds barrel through the melody, punctuated by blasts from the brass section, with some exotic percussion from bongos that run the listener to a rising crescendo. The finale builds with sweeping brass that gives way to a more explosive bass that thunders along with the heavier percussion, joined by thrilling woodwinds that end with such an impressive orchestral flourish that you are left with goosebumps. I feel the main theme is a triumph that leaves you almost breathless, having run a marathon alongside such a driving piece of music. If nothing else, Octopath Traveler’s “Main Theme” proves Yasunori Nishiki’s mettle as a composer, and I am grateful he stuck to his work. The piece perfectly sets the tone for this game as a grand adventure that builds with each step, as the player’s experience builds with each path they walk as these eight heroes.
The protagonists themselves are given their own motifs, which are heard throughout the game but culminate in individual themes as well. What is wonderful about these themes is, again, the nod to classic RPG soundtracks, when brilliant composers like Nobuo Uematsu, Hiroki Kikuta, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and others were limited in the amount of information a console could handle and had to distil a character’s being down to a single musical moment. With a robust cast to draw on, Nishiki needed to make each of them stand out in their own way, which he does wonderfully by assigning a specific instrument to feature for each carefully crafted motif and theme. Ophilia’s theme features the flute and is as tender and contemplative as the cleric herself, but it also becomes hopeful, suggesting she seeks more out of life as she knows it. Conversely, Therion’s theme hints at a life of mystery (and possibly pain) in its opening notes on the clarinet, before it too becomes something more aspirational. All the themes, in their tight loops, tell the journey each character will take, changing or growing by their respective ends. My personal favourite is the driving waltz of “Cyrus, the Scholar,” offering a glimpse into a man that is always working, always striving to discover more. In “H’aanit, the Hunter,” I was surprised at the use of the piano for the huntress. While the wonderfully performed piece offers some stirring emotions, I am not certain it fits the image of her I conjured up. That being said, in context of the game, it may work out suitably. As they take in each theme, listeners gain an understanding of the eight travelers due to Nishiki’s compositional prowess, with the essence of each character beautifully captured in their melodies.
As these intrepid adventures explore the continent of Osterra, their journeys take them through a variety of locales. With each change of scenery comes a companion piece of music that captures the various lands wonderfully. The crisp, twinkling synth notes begin the first steps into “The Frostlands” before the piano takes over in a soft trek through this wintry piece. The entire composition is quite subtle, as if muted by the snow-covered landscape, and uses the synthesizer appropriately to create an ambient backtrack that gives the listener that slight shiver while listening. “The Riverlands” is my favourite of these pieces, evoking the lazy river vibe right out the gate with a chill beat pattern that makes a solid foundation. A wooden flute is the featured instrument, which is incredibly appropriate, conjuring images of reeds blowing in a gentle breeze on the riverbank as the sun sparkles off the water. A xylophone completes the soundscape, maintaining the wooden tones that keep the piece warm and welcoming on its languid journey to our ears. While I may have originally hoped for Nishiki to maintain a unified melody that is altered by different instrumentation and harmonies around each piece, I think the choice to individualize each region serves the game better. Players will find themselves lost in each locale, scarcely noticing when the music loops, as Nishiki took great care to make these pieces collaborative with the gameplay. Listening to them on their own, the loops can get repetitive, but the OST only loops them twice. Despite the repetition, each of the pieces from Osterra’s myriad landscapes are a delight that make for calming and easy listening.
Of course, each adventurer hails from somewhere, and the various cities of the sprawling continent are not without their own themes as well. In every RPG, I often look forward to visiting each new town; I love to take in a city’s theme and see how wonderfully it captures the essence of the architecture and its people. In short, a settlement’s music truly offers a sense of the culture found there. Nishiki’s pieces pull players into the streets of each locale, like in “Atlasdam, Seat of Learning,” which ties in with Cyrus’ scholarly world perfectly. The stentorian march of the brass and percussions sections of the orchestra intones the feeling of power and endeavour. The purposeful throughline of the trumpet and flutes that carry the melody along brings the listener among the bustling, cobblestone streets and stylized medieval buildings of the castle city where the Royal Academy is housed. People are in Atlasdam for research, to accomplish things and uncover truths, and the thoughtful pace of its theme captures that wonderfully. While I have gone on about this one city, Nishiki does not disappoint with the rest, like other favourites of mine, “Grandport, Center of Commerce” or “Cobbleston, Nestled in the Hills.” With the way Nishiki has captured the land in music, players and listeners alike can discover Osterra from end to end and easily become lost in exploring these soundscapes.
Less specific is the majority of Octopath Traveler’s soundtrack, encompassing a variety of pieces that create moods and feelings in various moments throughout the game. As I said earlier, much of the work pays homage to games of yore, but it is certainly not limited to the cartridges or CD-ROMs of classic consoles. This allows Nishiki to render nearly every moment of joy and heartbreak throughout the adventure without needing to reuse the same few themes. The aptly titled “Tension” strikes the right chord, with intense strings that are underscored by a driving heavy percussion and punctuated by blasts of brass that build into the piece’s end. Almost sounding like a battle theme, it definitely throws you into a state of tension as you wonder what is going to happen next. “Sorrow,” “Discord,” “How Amusing!” and the many other pieces meant to capture a feeling do so with equal skill, navigating human emotion in ways that are not intrinsically tropey, which I can only applaud. You hear the piece and the emotion makes sense, but it somehow does not come off as being cheesy. Outside of these basic emotions, you have something like “Among Stately Peaks,” which captures the effect that nature can have on a person. Cresting tall mountains and seeing these towering stone monoliths that have been thrust up from the earth can only inspire awe, which this piece’s rich, warm strings, mystical harp and low brass instill perfectly. Equally impressive is the unsettling “The Trees Have Eyes,” with its chilling choral vocals and melancholic piano notes. Listeners suddenly find themselves in a haunting, damp, dark wood, surrounded by shadows and uncertainty, but if they press on, there may be light (a hope) at the end of it all. These pieces are all intrinsic to the storytelling of the game and connect players/listeners to the characters and world all the more, making each moment matter.
However, one cannot play through Octopath Traveler’s rich world story without taking up the struggle of each of its eight heroes. Some of the most interesting, and definitely riveting, tracks are the battle themes Yasunori Nishiki has put together. Each of the three “Battle” themes are a thrill, with intense strings and a pumping beat that amps the listener up. For instance, in “Battle I,” the melody that rolls along inspires victory as it builds to the quick orchestra hits that potentially punctuate each sword strike or spell cast. While each of these three are the basic battle themes, they bring such weight to each encounter that they could be any other game’s boss battle pieces. That being said, Octopath Traveler does have its own “Decisive Battle” themes that up the ante. “Decisive Battle I” has a quick march of snare drums and a rising tide of strings that builds the tension and hints at the challenge to come. The full orchestra joins in with quick hits before breaking into the melody proper that rollicks along with a grooving piano rock section. The piece soars through the highs and lows of battle, the ebb and flow as the heroes rise to overcome the threat before them, and then the whole song breaks down with a decrescendo of strings and deep brass, restarting the loop. “Decisive Battle II” also begins in the listener’s face, and both pieces definitely do the job of underscoring some of the game’s most important brawls. But let’s talk about “They Who Govern Reason.” This track is a fantastic dance between the party and their foe, and it’s easily one of the best pieces of music on the whole soundtrack. The intense orchestra hits and steady beat pull you into the action immediately, followed by a tension-filled string section punctuated by heavy bells, reminiscent of Sakimoto’s work on Final Fantasy Tactics. The violin soloist then shows up and commands the piece with sharp, snappy bursts that give way to a lyrical line that seamlessly flows in and out of the rest of the violin section. Between that stunning violin solo and the epic bell chimes and heavy brass blasts, the overall feel of the piece is that everything rests on this battle. While the game’s fights culminate in “Battle at Journey’s End,” I feel “They Who Govern Reason” or operatic powerhouse “Daughter of the Dark God” steal the spotlight with ease.
As the soundtrack winds down from the various final battle themes and stirring, purposeful reprisals of the character themes in the “For” pieces, listeners can lose themselves in the “Ending Theme.” It captures their musical journey in a beautiful orchestral rendition of all the “Land” pieces, much like how Final Fantasy VI took its players on a heartwarming retrospective in its end credits theme. It’s really a wonderful way to pull the whole game and soundtrack together, with a reminiscent look back on where you have been. Nishiki has rearranged all of the pieces into a more cohesive theme that artfully flows from one region to the next, like a bird soaring between the borders of Osterra. When it’s time for the finale, the main theme reappears in a crescendo full of so much pomp that it ends the entire soundtrack just as it started: with goosebumps.
In this age of collaboration and the multitudes of projects that can pile up on artists, it is almost baffling to believe that a soundtrack this full came from the mind of one composer. I would be shocked if this does not become Yasunori Nishiki’s calling card, as he has proven himself capable of rising to the heights of those who came before. From a boy that toyed with piano at age five, who dabbled for years before taking it seriously, to becoming a celebrated composer whose inaugural work for Square Enix earned him a nomination at the 2019 Game Awards, Nishiki’s story is off to a grand start. Forgive the platitude, but much like this entire soundtrack and its accompanying game, it’s more about the journey than the destination. While it does lend itself to being best consumed in game, the Octopath Traveler Original Soundtrack is a joy to listen to. As someone who grew up with the RPGs of the ’90s, I find Nishiki’s work captures the essence of RPGs past with great aplomb. Fans will feel right at home with this nostalgia-inspired collection of music.