I don’t normally pre-order soundtracks, but when I heard Go Shiina was returning to help compose Tales of Zestiria alongside Motoi Sakuraba, my wallet leapt from my back pocket to my lap, shivering with excitement that could only be quelled by taking my money out and throwing it at the screen. To have two of my favorite composers working together on the newest entry to the Tales series couldn’t have made me any more happier!
For those joining the Tales series for the first time, you’ll be in for a treat hearing Sakuraba’s work! If you’re a returning veteran of the Tales series, then you’ve already had the pleasure of hearing his exciting, pleasant, and (at times) ominous music. If you’re curious as to whether Sakuraba has deviated from his usual harps, bells, horns, strings and grandiose music: the answer is no. Personally, I actually like hearing Sakuraba’s familiar sound. His musical style acts as an aural safety blanket for me, knowing I can always turn to his music and pull a track out to examine and explain how it’s Sakuraba’s music and why I like it.
However, I don’t want you thinking his music is some sort of formula that you just plug instruments in and out comes a Sakuraba track. One of my favorite pieces, which is particularly colorful, is “Sorey’s Theme ~Purity~.” While being an overall grand track with horns, strings, and bells, it manages to carry a sense of innocence and naivety expressed through the brightness of the instrumentation. This brightness is easily heard throughout, with use of higher range writing and sprinklings of glockenspiel. Sakuraba does a wonderful job reflecting Sorey’s character in this piece, and it’s tracks like these that stand out and demonstrate his ability to compose unique music with a familiar instrumentation and grandiose approach.
“The Essence of Adventure Lies in Exploration” is another piece which follows the same trend of grand music, but unique in flavor. Beginning the track, we have a stringed instrument (guitar or mandolin I believe) and percussion establishing the rhythmic underlayer that is heard through a majority the track. No time is wasted introducing the grand elements, as majestic strings and brass enter at 0:03, eclipsing the duo and setting “The Essence of Adventure Lies in Exploration” off on its own adventure. These two elements, rhythmic drive and grand writing, act as the foundation of this piece; however, what really makes this track unique and special is the section starting at 1:02. The forte of the music pulls back just a tiny bit, allowing the strings to glide overhead the other instruments. It lasts only for a moment, but in that time my ears were filled with beauty that eased my mind and heart. Sections like these really bring out a beauty and sweet flavor I find greatly enjoyable in music — especially in Sakuraba’s writing!
Of course, while Sakuraba is skilled in writing music with grand elements, there are other types of music he does a fine job writing. Tracks like “Modest Living” and “A Wonder that Heals the Mind” are two of his pleasant tracks that I recommend — the primer for its lulling, rural mood and the latter for its quirky and playful nature. As for exciting tracks, pick any of the battle tracks like the the first regular battle theme “Seize Your Sword and Uphold Your Will” or “Load Your Bow and Pierce the Truth.” What’s very interesting in this game is the first battle theme is an arrangement of Sorey’s theme (or perhaps the other way around?), so if you enjoy the theme as much as I do, then you’re in for an aural treat for a good portion of the game! The other battle track is filled with tantalizing bass pedaling that really gives you a blood-pumping experience, while strings build and release tension, and brass carrying the melody. If I had to choose one track to showcase Sakuraba’s ominous music, I’d go with “Creeping Shadow.” In here, you have a great use of dissonance in the strings as they crescendo in volume and suddenly pull back at certain intensities. What I find really interesting, and a little maddening, about “Creeping Shadow,” beyond strings and tension, was that vibraphone playing in my right ear the whole time. I listened with one ear to make sure I wasn’t hearing things, and as it turns out, Sakuraba wanted that vibraphone to ring in your head. It amuses me now that I write about it, because it reminds me of those dream sequences that begin with vibraphone tremolo. Maybe I’m just losing it finally?
Go Shiina, finally making his return from the Tales of Legendia OST, is really one of the highlights of the Tales of Zestiria OST. Whether hearing his tracks in-game or separate from the gaming experience, Shiina’s music stands out and generously spices the overall playing/listening experience. One moment I clearly recall recognizing Shiina’s music right away was during the first encounter with Zaveid. “Zaveid, the Wanderer” plays during Zaveid’s entrance, and will likely get players pumped for the fight with him. A skill I admire of Shiina’s composing is his ability to write dramatic music through whatever instrumentation he uses. For the above track in particular, Shiina achieves that dramaticness by taking a 180° turn after 29 seconds of somber guitar playing, revealing “Zaveid, the Wanderer” to be a dance-like electronic track. With bass thumping, pop-sounding strings, electric guitar, and electronic samples/elements, Shiina energizes this piece and gets you psyched.
Another skill that draws me to Shiina’s music is his capacity to compose absolutely beautiful orchestral music. “Alisha’s Theme” is testament to this, as you are aurally bathed in a radiant shower of angelic voices, swept through string sections that rise from the ground, until the swell of orchestral instruments raise you higher and releases you at the foot of those angelic songstresses. It’s pieces like this that leave my heart tender while hearing it in the game that truly makes a gaming experience something special — something magnificent.
One last thing I greatly enjoy from Shiina is his vocal tracks. Somehow, he manages to find the perfect singer for these tracks — whether he needs someone for exciting tracks like Courtney Knott for “Rising Up,” or Ingrid Gerdes for soothing pieces like “Journey’s End.” Both vocalists assist in shaping their respected pieces by injecting a great deal of energy and soul. I sometimes find myself hitting repeat because they capture my attention. Knott’s fierce control of her voice really grabs you by the ears, rallying your heart to rise up and take up the challenge you are presented in the game. Gerdes, on the other hand, caresses your mind with a peaceful, lulling singing that is sure to calm the nerves (especially around 2:28). However, this is Shiina after all, so don’t get too relaxed as the pieces progresses!
The only crime I find with Tales of Zestiria’s soundtrack is that Shiina scored only a CD worth of it! I would have preferred an even split; however, I am very pleased with the size and quality of music from both composers. I greatly recommend this OST for both returning and new players to the series, especially since Shiina is on board. But enough of this — I’m going back to enjoy this mouthwatering Sakuraba pot roast, seasoned with irresistible spices of Shiina.