I was very much looking forward to reviewing Tales of the Abyss even before playing the game itself. This is, as far as I know, the first soundtrack Motoi Sakuraba has done using entirely streamed audio. As an album, it also follows his recent leaning towards tracks with a higher quality of instrumentation, and his compositions benefit enormously as a result.
The opening tracks, Prologue, The Place of Relaxation and Crisis sound subdued while gathering pace for the oncoming adventure, and set the tone of the album well. The main battle theme of the game, The Arrow was Shot, is a fantastic fast paced and upbeat piece that, while fairly bland compared to most Sakuraba battle themes, never goes over the top and gets too confusing to enjoy. He follows it with examples of his typical work, with Wedge using heavy synths reminiscent of tracks from Star Ocean 2 and Valkyrie Profile.
Sakuraba is then interrupted by the first of a number of blocks in the soundtrack containing tracks by relatively unknown composer Shinji Tamura. Tamura’s tracks are softer, partly because he seems to have been relegated to composing town themes like The Grocer’s Village and open lighter ‘dungeons’ like Cheagle Woods. Unfortunately, next to Sakuraba, Tamura is often hopelessly overshadowed. I get the impression that Tamura must have lost a lot of games of rock-paper-scissors to be assigned tracks like the less-than-epic Theme of Mini Game. These sections of the soundtrack, and there are many, feel unwelcome for the most part. This is undeniably Sakuraba’s game, and the sections of tracks just by Tamura make parts of the album seem weak and somewhat featureless in comparison. Nevertheless, some are suitable ambient, in particular I found Zaleho Volcano, Abandoned Factory and Aramis Flooded Caverns to live up to their descriptive track titles. And it is somewhat disappointing that, once the last disc kicks off the last act with The Last Chapter, Tamura is replaced as the secondary composer by Motoo Fujiwara of Bump of Chicken fame.
Unsurprisingly given the nature and size of this soundtrack, Sakuraba does a lot of what on other albums would be ‘filler tracks.’ Here, he treats every track as if it will play during the most climatic part of the game. The three Oracle tracks, Oracle – Conspiracy in particular, manage to cram so much foreboding into a single track that it’s almost hard to take seriously. Still, these are easier to listen to than Tamura’s filler tracks. Confrontation, which follows the aforementioned track, is almost painful to listen to. That said, Sakuraba himself writes so much tracks of this album that it’s inevitable that some of his track are less stirring than others, and Van is one of these. For the theme of the main villain, even a sympathetic one, this track is fairly uninspired, and the result sounds more like a town theme. Indeed, even the town themes are more impressive, and tracks like Kingdom of Sky are full of trepidation.
Unsurprisingly, Sakuraba’s talent is most evident during the battle tracks, and there are a number of great tracks, like Awkward Justice, that manage to be long without becoming dull. The Edge of Decision, another ‘special battle’ track, is probably the best track on the album, that combines his signature electric organ with a guitar and haunting choir samples in an electrifying mix. One of the most memorable tracks on the album is the seven minute epic Everlasting Fight. The first thought that struck me when listening to this was that it was going to be another Highbrow, and while I’m pretty sure it doesn’t loop at all, the track remains with one single style, and Eternal Mind follows on so naturally that they may as well have been the same track.
While the soundtrack seems to lose pace during disc three, the fourth disc reinvigorates the mood and increases the sense of urgency. A stellar battle track, At the Time of Farewell, stands out in the midst a host of cutscene tracks. These are followed by the pieces The Glorious Land Edrant and Crimson Pride, which are used for the final areas in the game. Here Sakuraba is in his element, managing to evoke strong feelings of both foreboding and reminiscence as only he can.
Somewhat bizarrely, Motoo Fujiwara, who composed the main theme, also composed a number of decisive battle tracks, and though all are worthy tracks, it seems odd that he would be picked to do them over Sakuraba. They appear rather quiet, and less epic when compared with Sakuraba’s battle themes. Even the final battle, Finish the Promise, is actually less exciting than the normal battle theme. They aren’t bad, but the difference is more noticeable when standing next to the epic battle tracks earlier in the soundtrack. Sakuraba returns for the ending theme, The Look of That Day, which is very mellow compared to what he usually composes.
Overall, for people who’ve listened to Motoi Sakuraba, this will not be anything new, and fans of his work may find the all too frequent sections composed by Tamura difficult to listen to. For those who are unfamiliar with Sakuraba, I wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to his work, but as a Tales soundtrack it is effective and manages to stand on its own. It would be dismissive to describe this soundtrack as just good background music. The fantastic battle themes and foreboding filler tracks help ignore the slightly lackluster dungeon themes and make this a worthy addition to fans of Sakuraba.