It is fitting that a game as dark (figuratively and literally) as Shadow Hearts should have an equally dark soundtrack to set the mood. What the game was given, however, is a score of a beauty and quality rarely seen in an OST, that easily stands among the best in recent memory. The compositional debut of Yoshitaka Hirota, along with an additional ten tracks composed by veteran Yasunori Mitsuda, makes for a decidedly dark score. The ambient noise and deep tones heard throughout the collection will make that quite clear to the listener. But the pieces go a step beyond simply the brooding background noise for the game, and each turns into moving, and possibly disturbing, depiction of a mood or feeling. Tracks like ‘Bloody Kitchens’ and ‘The thorn of mind’, for example, are at the core ambient noise, but also have added sounds such as a chanted hymn, light piano, violin solo, or careful use of sound effect-like accents. Hirota’s experience with sound effects in video games shows through in the well timed use of a short sound bit, such as the chimes and bells heard in the gloomier pieces. And his use of a wide variety of sounds is shown in every piece of the soundtrack with live instruments, synth, voices, or otherwise, blending together in a well composed harmony.
The collection doesn’t resort to focusing on the tracks that are simply dark for the sake of being so, but rather features a diverse collection of themes and influences; the truly sinister tracks are relatively sparse and generally limited to the opening or closing of a song. Interspersed between the oppressive tones you’ll find sweet, flowing rhythms that are perhaps too optimistic for the game. ‘Vitamin metropolis’ and ‘Black cat floating in bluesky’ almost seem out of place in the compilation, and convey an uplifting feeling fit for triumphant moments or expressions of heartfelt emotion. The soundtrack also features a fair share of tracks that feel like calm moments in the gloomy storm. ‘Callback from Jesus’ and ‘Coffin Fetish’ have elegant streams of complex synth that flow the listener through the song. On the opposite end, there is also an assortment of blood-pumping battle themes that feature a hard percussion beat the ear hardly ever tires of, no matter how many times they are looped.
The soundtrack makes use of a wide variety of instrumentation, from the complex synthesizer movements, classic strings, traditional Asian, and above all, hard percussion beats. Rarely does a game soundtrack make such heavy use of the percussion family so much so as to bring it to the forefront of many of the pieces, rather than support for some other main track like a violin, piano, or voice. The result is an intangible force driving each of the songs forward along with the listener. Outside influences and techniques such as techno/electronic rhythms are clearly seen throughout the pieces, but this percussion driven technique is certainly the most prevalent as “felt” in beat driving tracks like ‘Much hatred still rankles’ and the beat-thrusting ‘true voice’ (the song added to the OST by Hirota and marked as the ‘plus one’ in the title). The music is also heavily influenced by traditional Asian music, as heard throughout most of the first disc, and often blends with other styles, giving it a feeling of being more than just a song that relies on traditional Chinese (This influence is entirely fitting, of course, considering one of the two major settings for the game, China in the early 1900’s.).
From the well-composed and varied songs, to the overall moving atmosphere, and even to the unique packaging and indecipherable track listing, this is one of the most worthwhile and satisfying scores I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Though this may be Hirota’s first outing as a composer, he has created a work that stands up against the best the industry has to offer. Though it can be excessively dark, the variety of concepts used to convey that brooding make those tracks more than bearable. And in-between those moments of doom and gloom, one will find such skillfully crafted pieces, making this soundtrack THE reason why I buy video game music.