The Kingdom Hearts series has a rich musical legacy. Artists like Yoko Shimomura, Takeharu Ishimoto, and Hikaru Utada have left their mark on the franchise, creating memorable motifs and refrains that call back to certain characters and their struggles. It’s no surprise, then, that something like Project Destati should exist: a triumvirate of talented musicians consisting of David Russell, Sebastian Wolff, and Kristin Naigus all paying tribute to Kingdom Hearts’ legacy and offering their own unique take on the games’ musical repertoire.
DARKNESS is Project Destati’s second full-length album, part of a duology exploring the series’ theme of light and darkness. And, as the name implies, DARKNESS offers a different take on Kingdom Hearts’ musical catalog. While LIGHT had moments of conflict and drama, such as the excellent rendition of Rage Awakened, the soundscape of DARKNESS is far richer, ominous, and more odious and sinister. This is immediately apparent from the first track, “Overture,” a bombastic compilation of motifs brought to life by the Youngstown Scoring Stage, who provide the strings for the piece. It’s a great harbinger of what is to come.
From there, we take a more low-key turn into piano music, with a beautiful rendition of “Passion” (better known as Sanctuary to Western fans), the iconic opening track from Kingdom Hearts II. I say low-key, but despite lacking the synth-pop trappings of its namesake, this version of Passion is still quite energetic. David Russell really gets to flex his skills as a pianist in this track, making it an early highlight. From there, we are catapulted into a quartet of songs hailing from Birth by Sleep. “Future Masters” hearkens back to simpler days of staring at the stars and imagining a future as Keyblade Masters, while “Ventus,” “Aqua,” and “Terra” do a great job of aurally communicating each character’s personality and the struggles they face. Aqua’s track, in particular, is melancholy and wistful, befitting her journey into the Realm of Darkness that we only recently saw resolved in Kingdom Hearts III. Birth by Sleep is a fan favorite in the series for a reason, and this set of tracks does a good job of showcasing that.
We’re just getting started, however. “Night of Fate” brings us back to the night where Sora’s journey began: Keyblade in hand, fighting wave after wave of Heartless before watching his home and his friends consumed by dark forces. What I like about this track is that, unlike the song it’s based off of, it begins as a slower tune that conveys a creeping sense of dread, almost as if hundreds of yellow eyes were staring from places unseen. The following track, “Organization XIV,” is among my favorites on the album, a dirge-like rendition of the Organization’s theme accompanied by the ringing of a bell, before traipsing into the battle theme for Xion, the oft-forgotten 14th member of the Organization with a tragic fate. It’s an incredible take on an already fantastic piece of music, and perfectly conveys the sorrow and loneliness hidden beneath the Organization’s mysterious facade.
I’ve only dabbled in Union X, the mobile-exclusive Kingdom Hearts title, but hearing Project Destati’s gorgeous rendition of Daybreak Town’s theme made me want to try it again. With a suite of woodwind instruments, piano, and guitar (among other instruments), Daybreak Town is a multifaceted track, soothing and wistful as if recalling an age gone by. “The Silent Forest” is another mellow track, this time from one of the Disney worlds in Birth by Sleep. While this isn’t one of my favorite compositions in DARKNESS, it’s still a really pretty song, and kind of reminds me of older JRPG tunes like the dungeon music in Final Fantasy IV. “Sacred Moon,” the track following this, is another highlight, with woodwinds and a vibraphone gradually setting the scene: if you’re familiar with the rain-swept streets of The World That Never Was, the Organization’s home base in Kingdom Hearts II, then this song ought to feel quite nostalgic. This trio of mellow tunes all builds to a dramatic crescendo with a truly outstanding version of “Lord of Castle Oblivion,” the final boss theme from the PS2 remake of Chain of Memories.
If there’s one recurring element you’ve probably noticed throughout this review, it’s that a lot of these songs call to mind specific images, characters, or places from throughout the Kingdom Hearts saga. This is very apparent in our next song, “The 13th Struggle,” which once again hearkens back to the Organization and Roxas specifically. I absolutely love how this song transitions seamlessly from a 1:1 rendition of the original track into a callback to the series’ main theme, “Destati,” driving home the connection between Sora and Roxas. This series of nods to the Organization doesn’t end here, though: the next track, “Xion,” is full of them, with a beautiful and moving piece of music that brings back the Youngstown Scoring Stage for a lovely interpretation of Xion’s battle theme (which even ends on a sweet little reprise of Passion). Xion, Axel, and Roxas’ friendship was at the center of the Nintendo DS-exclusive 358/2 Days, only for their bonds to be shattered by the machinations of the Organization and the torn loyalties that ensued. It’s fitting, then, that this piece (which clocks in at a whopping 8 minutes) is immediately followed by “At Dusk, I Will Think of You” and “Missing You, Namine,” seeing as Xion and Namine are foils to one another, with their shared connection to Kairi and history of misuse at the hands of the Organization. Together, these four tracks make for a very concise thematic exploration of the story of 358/2 Days and the prologue to Kingdom Hearts II. Like with the story of Aqua and the Wayfinder Trio, we wouldn’t get resolution on this arc until the release of Kingdom Hearts III this past January.
As you can see, the songs in DARKNESS are often grouped thematically: Project Destati seems to have taken great care in selecting each track and the order they go in. Both “Cavern of Remembrance” and “Critical Drive” are excellent accompaniments to the Organization-themed songs from earlier, since both songs originate from Kingdom Hearts II. Unfortunately, we had to get a dud sooner or later, and it comes in the form of “No More Bugs.” Just as Kingdom Hearts Coded was a bizarre and ultimately pointless inclusion in the series mythos, this recorder-infused track is just kind of there: it’s not bad, per se, but when stacked against the musical titans present in this album, all of which bring to mind beloved characters and their interwoven relationships, Coded just doesn’t have that pedigree or affection driving it. Still, perhaps a light, jaunty romp was a necessary palate cleanser after what came before.
Fortunately, we get right back into it with “Magical Mystery.” If you’re a fan of Disney’s Fantasia, then this track is sure to delight. “Sweet Spirits” is also a surprisingly lovely retooling of one of the most grating and obnoxious tracks from the games (one which I used to torment my college roommate with when I was playing through Dream, Drop, Distance), although it is also mercifully short. The same applies to “A Day in Agrabah”: not a bad composition, just kind of an overused song at this point in the series’ lifespan.
Speaking of darkness, though… remember that one Penny Arcade comic where Winnie the Pooh turned into Sephiroth? I bet you weren’t expecting a bombastic orchestral remix of “Bounce-O-Rama,” of all things, but my god, you got it. It’s an unexpected delight, that starts out whimsical and becomes a soaring and dramatic piece complete with accompanying chorus. “Home of Dragons” is also a lovely piece of music, using traditional Chinese instruments to create a tune that wouldn’t sound out of place in the film it’s based on (Mulan). Both of these tracks provide a nice reprieve before what is to come: an absurdly epic suite of battle tracks.
Beginning with “Unbreakable Chains,” these next four tracks are easily some of the most amazing music present in DARKNESS. “Unbreakable Chains,” of course, is the final boss theme for Ventus’ campaign in Birth by Sleep, and it’s well-represented here with a nice little reprise of Ventus’ theme leading us into his final confrontation with Vanitas. “A Fight to the Death” is very similar to its in-game counterpart (this rendition would not sound out of place in the HD Remixes), but provides a brief interlude before the one-two punch of “Dark Impetus” and “Darkness of the Unknown.” “Dark Impetus” begins slowly and ominously before transitioning to epic violin solos and the haunting vocals of Laura Intravia, a fitting accompaniment to the dramatic clash with Birth by Sleep’s superboss. But it’s “Darkness of the Unknown,” in my mind, where Project Destati had their work cut out for them. This song, which serves as the final boss theme for Kingdom Hearts II, is one of the most memorable pieces of music from the entire series. Suffice it to say that they more than did it justice with this album: this song is a treat, and even includes a wonderful nod to Terra’s theme to underscore the connection between him and Xemnas. As a conclusion to this array of battle themes, the Youngstown Scoring Stage gets one more chance to shine, offering a wonderful coda with “Black Powder – The Final Union.”
We close out the album with “Dearly Beloved II: Themes and Variations,” which clocks in at a lengthy thirteen minutes. This is perhaps fitting, given Kingdom Hearts’ fixation with the number 13. But honestly, what better way to close out a Kingdom Hearts arrange album than with the series’ most iconic piece of music? All in all, Project Destati: DARKNESS is a loving homage to the Kingdom Hearts series; the talent on display in this album is unreal, and I would unequivocally recommend this album to any fan.