What? A new SaGa game, you say? “Never again”, you say? Whatever your thoughts on the perpetual RPG experiment the SaGa series may be, one area where it has never flagged has been in the music department. Kenji Ito is one of those who has defined the JRPG sound, and when I saw a new SaGa was up for release, the soundtrack went straight to my holiday shopping list.
Notorious for producing difficult RPGs with quirky mechanics, the SaGa franchise functions as Square’s full production research and development think tank. They house creative and energetic talent in a highly iterative and collaborate environment that is allowed to use their budget to freely push the boundaries of the RPG genre. Being invited into the team is a compliment in itself, and much of what is considered normal in modern indie game design was being done in-house by Square’s SaGa Team with the budget and privilege of choosing top talent for their projects.
Technology invented for SaGa games is pushed into Square’s main pipelines, including mechanical ideas, graphic techniques, engine code, as well as audio engineering and music composition/production processes. Kenji Ito contributed regularly to this latter category, and, along with Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu, did much to literally set the tone for JRPG music in the 90s and early 2000s. It is fair to say that if this album sounds too much like a traditional JRPG throwback to you, the reality is that traditional JRPG music simply sounds more like Kenji Ito than many other composers who have helped define the genre.
The SaGa Scarlet Grace OST provides exactly 2 hours of masterwork compositions with perfect audio quality and a large variety of styles, most of them complex, and all of them perfect at what they are supposed to be. The work is outstanding from start to finish, and shows off the best techniques and capabilities developed by Ito over his career. Each song is filled with robust accents, layers of harmony, and thematic variance that keep things fresh and emotional. While the melodies, hooks, and rhythms will remind one of the classic era of JRPG console gaming, the complexity and robust instrumentation makes it truly special, like the ultimate arranged tribute to the era and the genre.
If you intend to buy just one Kenji Ito album, buy this one. He has done a lot of different work in other franchises, but the SaGa series is where Ito has shined brightest. SaGa Scarlet Grace is his best contribution to this series, and one that surpasses even his arranged works.