NIS America’s PlayStation Vita port of Stranger of Sword City (Ken no Machi no Ihoujin) released late this April with an excellent limited edition that included the full 2-disc soundtrack. The soundtrack features the music of Naoaki Jimbo who has slowly but steadily matured his style over the years. This album continues his work with Experience Inc., and both the soundtrack and game take strong cues from Experience’s prior release, Demon Gaze, while deploying a darker, military tone befitting the game’s setting and art direction. The titular track “Stranger of Sword City” is a just prelude to the game and the soundtrack, and demonstrates a lot of what Jimbo brings to the table this time: improved synths, complex melodies, and plenty of synthetic voices known as vocaloids.
There is a lot going on with each piece’s layered melodies and background tones. However, some poor engineering choices hurt many of the songs. Jimbo weaves heavily reverberated synths, with volume levels that often overwhelm the complexity of the song. Most pieces feature a dominating, almost midi-sounding string synth, complemented by high quality woodwinds and percussion with accents of brass. These come together perfectly in “War Song of the Strangers,” one of the many combat pieces that blends Japanese action and military themes of the 70’s and 80’s with the album’s Gothic style to surprising and energetic effect. However, in some songs, such as “Escario,” things just don’t mesh well and the result doesn’t hold up outside of the game.
Jimbo’s vocaloid work is impressive and features prominently throughout the album. Unlike other synthetic instruments, vocaloids accept both lyrical and notation input and then, like a human singer given the same information, attempt to combine them into a song. It is then up to the composer to refine this output by providing specific instructions on how certain words should be vocalized or modified to change pronunciation. It takes significant artistry and dedication to coach a vocaloid’s output into consistently good results, and Jimbo has managed to do just that. Several songs, such as “Fate of the Sword,” feature a vocaloid as the lead, singing above the music in no particular language. Each of these songs are paralleled by a non-vocalized version if you prefer. Overall, I prefer the vocalized versions of these songs, but some may find the A.I. singers fall too deep into the uncanny valley and thus are unenjoyable. One technique Jimbo seems to have perfected and deployed in almost every song is a vocaloid chorus. His choruses feature a mix of several male and female voices singing different parts, with single or group voices occasionally standing out, as with a real choir. This chorus takes the lead in the chant “Ark of Eternity,” to enchanting effect, but it is unfortunately drowned out in the other pieces, forming a kind of background noise.
The album is certainly an improvement in quality and technique from Jimbo’s prior works, and I find it growing on me with each listen. My first impression was that, outside of the game, only a few tracks would hold up. However, combined with the game’s theme’s and art, the album takes on a strong presence and does an excellent job of conveying the story in its own way. After dozens of listens, the album is still enjoyable, and the complex melodies still offer surprises here and there. Since the only way to get the full soundtrack is to purchase the NIS America limited edition release of Stranger of Sword City, I would rate that a must buy for anyone interested in the game or this album, and I consider it well worth the premium over the base game price.