I’ve personally witnessed ‘net-chatter among FFXI fans clamoring for a third “Star Onions” arranged CD. Fans of this MMORPG tend to be quite faithful to all things related, whether it be collectibles, manga, or (of course) the beautiful music.
Well, it seems the Star Onions either broke up or went on indefinite hiatus, but in its place arose a trio of amazing musicians making funky, jazzy, solo-heavy arrangements. With Machi Okabe on violin, Takuro Iga on piano, and lead composer Naoshi Mizuta handling the backing track, “Nanaa Mihgo’s” was born. They started as a live-only troupe to perform at Japanese FFXI fan fests and other Square Enix events. Okabe herself would dress in a style similar to the FFXI NPC Nanaa Mihgo, and something strangely beautiful was born. Eventually, they came together and recorded this hour-long CD.
That’s right, one full hour from only 8 source material compositions. These are long-form arrangements if I’ve ever heard them. They rival the prog-rock insanity of Motoi Sakuraba live concerts, but are far more melodic and less cacophonous in nature.
Since there are only eight tracks, please bear with me as I go in-depth with each arrangement.
First, we have “Kazham,” a key theme from FFXI’s first expansion, “Rise of the Zilart” (and certainly, where Naoshi Mizuta began to really demonstrate his talent). This arranged version runs a full eight minutes, and generally features Takuro Iga being an amazing pianist. The background percussion placed by Mizuta is more complex than the original piece. And whenever the violin takes center stage to present the melody, a chill runs through my spine. This track is nothing short of perfection.
Clocking in at five minutes, we have “Bustle of the Capital,” the opening track to the OST for FFXI’s third expansion, “Treasures of Aht Urhgan.” It’s wondrous what a little syncopation can do to a melody. While this is a lovely source tune, I personally tire of it, having spent hours of my life in this town, hearing this song over, and over, and over. My wife swears that it’s her least favorite song, but when she heard this arrangement, she hardly recognized her musical mortal enemy. This arrangement breathes new life into the Aht Urhgan town theme in a way I didn’t believe was possible.
Next up, the single longest track on the album, “Fighters of the Crystal,” at just under eleven minutes. WOW! I’d nearly forgotten about this battle theme, as it’s so rarely heard in-game (only used for one or two special boss battles from Rise of the Zilart). This new arrangement doesn’t just do the original “justice” — no, that’d be an understatement. While the previous two tracks are credited to both Iga and Mizuta for the arrangement, this one is all-out Mizuta self-arranging here. It’s filled with wild EDM drum loops and all kinds of synth arpeggios. It takes a over a full minute just to establish the chord progression. Then, over the busy noises, Okabe’s violin cuts through the insanity with the simple, beautiful melody. And it isn’t until the 2 minute mark that Iga tickles the ivories. When he does, it features some wild, jazzy, somewhat atonal chords and clusters. This fits with the sound of the original, but it’s so much brighter and ephemeral now… talk about a facelift! This is pure genius. And just three people? I can’t believe the amount of creativity here. If you tire of over-reaching solos, the length of this track (which comes from the solo sections, primarily) may turn you off. For me, I could let it go another five minutes before tiring of it. That would’ve been overkill, though. But then, if this fight is a 15-minute battlefield time limit in-game, they could replace the current audio with this arrangement, and that would be all kinds of wonderful.
The signature FFXI piece, “Distant Worlds,” apparently had to make an appearance on this album. I could’ve done without it, especially considering the style Nanaa Mihgo’s is going for. The vocal ballad version of the original melody Uematsu penned in 2001, featured at the end of the “Chains of Promathia” expansion, has seen enough love from Square Enix in recent years. They even named multiple concert series after this beautiful piece. For this one, Takuro Iga is the sole arranger, and it’s no surprise that we find his piano stylings leading the way. The song is nothing but piano and violin the whole way, with no Mizuta presence whatsoever. And while it is beautiful, I cannot emphasize this point enough: there are plenty of other songs (such as Fighters of the Crystal) that haven’t been arranged before. Enough of Distant Worlds, I’m begging you!
Another Iga arrangement comes in for track 5, though it’s quite upbeat. “Rolanberry Fields,” from the 2-disc launch OST, is now an eight minute piece of splendor, with rich percussion and synth effects. Mizuta’s work on XIII-2, which seemed to have brought about a sort of electronic enlightenment within him, lends itself well to this particular arrangement. The piano and violin are beautiful as always, but it’s the backing track from Mizuta that impresses me the most (even though, again, Iga is credited as the arranger). The production value on this one is great. Very moody and ambient, contrasting the bright nature of the rest of the album.
Track 6 wins the award for personal favorite track, and Iga-san’s best solos, hands-down. This is the only track they featured from the new expansion, “Seekers of Adoulin.” The track is “The Pioneers,” and this arrangement is just brilliant. Listen to it; I dare you disagree with me.
Iga’s “piano and violin only” arrangement style makes a reprise for Grand Duchy of Jeuno, another of FFXI’s best-known themes. Unlike “Distant Worlds,” however, I have no objection to this arrangement. It takes the song in a direction that no other arrangement has gone before. It covers a range of dynamic levels, and in doing so, it covers a range of emotions. The grandioso/virtuoso piano work is certainly appreciated by this lowly reviewer. Okabe’s decorative work in the final minute is equally impressive.
“Stolen Hearts” concludes with another base-OST track, the classic piece “Ronfaure.” I mentioned earlier what wonderful things syncopation can accomplish, but it is my opinion that syncopation just doesn’t work as well with this particular song. But, to each his own. It’s still a great, groovy track; I just have a hard time pairing that style with this song. The synth bass is extra funky, and I would’ve liked to hear more of that crazy bass in some of the other tracks.
As a veteran FFXI player who has come to cherish all aspects of the game, there is no way I could go into this album review unbiased. But let me tell you, had it been a mediocre experience, I wouldn’t be afraid to report it as such. Instead, I am pleasantly surprised. The piano parts are better than both of the FFXI Piano Collection CDs, and the rest of the instrumentation manages to beat out both of the Star Onions CDs. This late in the MMO’s life, I couldn’t have dreamed up such a fun and lovely musical experience. Thank you Mizuta, Iga, and Okabe for bringing this together. Fingers crossed that you’ll keep up the good work! After all, this album didn’t touch any material from Wings of the Goddess (the fourth expansion), nor did it have anything from the “OST Plus” material (including Noriko Matsueda’s long-forgotten PlayOnline compositions). And hey, I hear they could use a little help coming up with arranged music over in Eor’zea as well. Just saying…