For the three prior Etrian Odyssey (Sekaiju no MeiQ) games, Yuzo Koshiro would compose the soundtrack first in a retro sound source (FM synth, 8-bit emulated “chiptune” hardware, etc), and then upgraded those tunes for a more modern synth sound to fit the DS. Players of the games could choose which version of the soundtrack to listen to, and the OSTs would ship with both versions intact.
Everything changed with Etrian Odyssey 4, and as much as I love Koshiro’s ability to write in the retro soundscape, I think this change was definitely for the best. Wait until you hear what Koshiro can do now…
Chances are, the decision behind this change had to do with the 3DS and the cartridge’s ability to hold large amounts of high quality audio. But the point is this: have you listened to the 7th Dragon or Etrian Odyssey “Piano and Strings” albums? Well guess what: that’s what this OST is. Live recordings, real instruments, absolutely gorgeous. To be specific, we have the string quartet, the piano, and then we also have guitar, bass, drums, auxiliary percussion, trumpet, trombone, saxophone (played by none other than Norihiko Hibino), and flute.
As I listen through this OST, the first thing that comes to mind is this question: how the heck will the “Super Arrange Version” improve upon this? It’s already perfect. We’ll cross the SAV bridge when we get there (release date September 5, 2012), but for now, let me just say that this soundtrack is about as close to musical perfection as Koshiro has ever gotten. More than Actraiser, Bare Knuckle, and yes, I do dare to say it, better than his source compositions for Ys and Ys II. And, among the Etrian Odyssey series, this soundtrack is – in my mind – better than the other three combined.
In the first few tracks alone, we find the power and the true value of this OST. The opening track, used for the title screen, is a beautiful, ethereal little bit of music. And I do mean “little.” While it does run up to 2.5 minutes in length, it is one of the shorter tracks on the OST. Yes: many tracks run just shy of, or even over, the SEVEN MINUTE MARK. In this way, almost every single “Area” or “Labyrinth” track is instantly epic. I mean, length alone doesn’t make a song awesome, but … well, you’ll see. Or hear, rather.
“Area I” and “Labyrinth I” work very well together. Each sets this perfect, relaxing pace for the player/listener, and each is able to evoke images of a wooded area even without the help of the game’s visuals. Then, the first two battle themes (regular battle and boss battle) hit us with a one-two punch. But it doesn’t feel like a quick sting, considering each track is, yes, just under 7 minutes in length. The former is a rock battle track, the latter an intense orchestral theme that sounds strangely and magically like a Dragon Quest boss theme off one of the Symphonic Suites. Yeah, I know, who would’ve thought Koshiro had it in him?! Never again will I doubt.
I think, however, things get even better the deeper we go. “Area II – The Red Stone Forest” uses harp, orchestra bells, and the minor/diminished chords that all make me simultaneously think of Sakimoto’s Vagrant Story and the Harry Potter film scores. I get chills just thinking about it, but when I hear it, those chills manifest themselves as goosebumps and a quick wave of lightheadedness. Why must this music be so … perfect? I must have a 3DS so I can play this game when it comes out. I am awestruck by the mere thought of having this music put to the beautiful anime-style graphics of the series.
Digging ever deeper, “Labyrinth II – Misty Ravine” has a decidedly oriental slant to it. The instrumental choices are perfect for it. I love that piano part running in the beginning, reminds me very much of Yoko Kanno’s slower tracks for a variety of KOEI strategy RPGs.
But it’s not all acoustic / beautiful / sublime. The opening of disc two, for example, sends us into definitive progressive rock territory. An uncommon time signature (7/8), some crazy synths, and a sweet guitar melody with some *jazz flute* appearing for decoration? This song is nuts. I cannot wait to see “Library of Puppets” for myself. Just hearing it makes my feet want to dance. When Hibino comes in for the saxophone solo, the prog-rock switches more to jazz fusion. It’s wonderful in its own way; and certainly, quite different from the tracks I highlighted on the first disc.
Another 7/8 time-signature track is the first of the four (reverse-order) “Minor Labyrinth” tracks. This one is super-catchy, and it has a great back-and-forth between the front-and-center guitar and the background layers of flute tracks. The similarity in style between Minor Labyrinth Iv and Labyrinth IV is obvious. As it turns out, so too are the styles for the other Minor Labyrinths, “bonus dungeons” within the major dungeon. They allow more room for improvisation among the musicians and other various ways to expand on the source music. Of them, I suppose my favorite is “Lead Astray in the Lost Woods.”
It’s been fun, and it’s been beautiful, and it’s been epic. But everything prior to Labyrinth V is just a foretaste of how awesome this game and its soundtrack can be. “Labyrinth V – City of Radiant Ruin” pushes aside everything else and makes itself the immediate center of attention. In some ways, it’s just a jazz band standard with some really good performers. In another way, however, it’s an amalgam of everything that made the album good up to this point and takes all those things and cranks it up to 11. Or 12. Or … anything that breaks the bar. A new standard is set. Can the rest of the OST live up to the new standard set by this beautiful song?
As it turns out, Koshiro is the master of saving the big guns for the end. The final boss battle (before the post-endgame madness) is a nine minute orchestral monster entitled “Unrest – The Legend’s Successor.” I am reminded of the Croatoa suite from the indie shmup “Jamestown.” Again, too, I am reminded of Sugiyama’s traditional orchestral style for epic boss fights. I really wasn’t expecting this at all. But it’s a fantastic longform piece that builds appropriately with every 16 bars. Things start getting really crazy after about three minutes, when the harp glissandos start to rage in full force and the tempo is allowed to accelerate ever so slightly. But then, after the climax, it sort of dies out, allowing for the loop to come in and the piece to build all over again. Very, very unexpected music from Koshiro-san here!
Can it get any better? Ladies and gentlemen, I would argue that it can, and it’s about to. “The Relentless Melody” drops all pretense, and most of the live instruments, and focuses squarely on piano for the first two minutes. This is a lovely, slow rubato tune that doesn’t even hint at bringing the ensemble in until we’ve hit the two minute mark. Then, a bright and beautiful trumpet takes the lead while ostinato strings keep everything in a brilliant tension that is also, somehow, reassuring and calming. This track is seven minutes, and there’s no loop. That’s seven full minutes of new, original music. The synth choir voices at the end really help carry it up and away. I love it!
And then, when you think it’s all over, there’s more. We’re thrown into the post-endgame fray with the track “Scene – The Ancient Oath.” A strange, synthesized harpsicord provides the backbone, and the melody is carried by short, punctuated flute and a legato, wavering female choir behind it. And now, folks, we dive as deep as we can into the game, the part that only the most hardcore will ever experience. Is the music willing to reward the true gamer in the same way the game is?
Sadly, I don’t think so. Koshiro definitely saved his chops for the fifth labyrinth and final battle theme. Labyrinth VI “Den of the Dark Realm” is an ambient/atmospheric track that, while exhibiting all the talent and professional production as the previous tracks, doesn’t have much in the way of substance. The new battle themes make up for the weak labyrinth track, though. Specifically, the two tracks arranged by Takeshi Yanagawa (“Unrest – The End of Raging Winds” and “Unrest – Scatter About”) stand up as a potential preview to what we might get to hear in the Super Arrange Version. These are simply fun, wonderful tracks, newly arranged from EO3 to fit EO4.
I think we’re all going to be blown away by this Atlus/Index title when it hits North America. Until then, maybe you can get a jump on the hype by picking up this OST. It comes with the highest recommendations I can possibly give: essential listening for RPG fans, and perhaps the best soundtrack of the year.