For those of you that are unfamiliar with Falcom’s series conventions, The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki Second Chapter Evolution is a bit like a Russian doll. It is an enhanced remake of the second chapter of the Trails in the Sky trilogy, which is the first chapter in the Trails series, which is the latest series within the “Legend of Heroes” metaseries. Still with me? Moving on, then. The Trails in the Sky trilogy was released in Japan from 2006–2008, and it has gradually attained a well-deserved reputation as a modern classic of the JRPG genre. In 2015, Falcom released remastered “Evolution” versions of the first two games with some gameplay tweaks, more polished graphics, and completely new arrangements of their original soundtracks. As it happens, I enjoyed the soundtrack to First Chapter (FC) and gave its Evolution arrangement a favorable review last year. The original soundtrack for Second Chapter (SC), however, was absolutely spectacular, so I was very excited to find out how SC Evolution would fare in comparison.
The first disc gets off to a strong start with a new arrangement of “Gin No Ishi Kin No Tsubasa” (Silver Will, Golden Wings) that doubles down on the dance-pop elements present in the original. It’s cheesy and over the top, but it’s pure fun from beginning to end. It also showcases a technically impressive range of instrumentation and dynamic shifts within its short run-time. This is signature Falcom Sound Team JDK stuff, and it’s easily one of my favorite tracks.
Just like its predecessor, SC Evolution throws some real instruments into the mix, particularly when the lead is a violin or harmonica. This occasionally creates balance issues when the tracks feature a lot of artificially produced sound (as in the otherwise epic “Merciless Savior”), but it’s generally less noticeable this time around. Unfortunately, these mild mixing issues are aggravated by a handful of questionable musical decisions. “Obstructive Existence” is one particularly interesting example. It explodes out of the gate with a brass riff accentuated by guitar hits on the downbeat, and for the first fifteen seconds it rocks. Then the lead trumpet and clarinet take over the melody and jazz it up by bending the notes. Theoretically, this should work, but they bend almost every sustained note, and they bend each note the same way. The end result is just bizarre, and unfortunately it is one of the most frequently heard battle themes in the game.
These strange arrangement quirks crop up throughout. The new version of “The Fate of the Fairies” actually feels like a demake, as the synths are more grating than in the original version. “The Greatest Treasure Released” now features real singers, but it’s clearly only a handful of people and they are nearly drowned out by the backing instrumentation. It’s a shame, as this was one of the high points of the original soundtrack. There is also a surprising amount of sloppy guitar here. Now, the original SC was not afraid to rock out, but even the most guitar-heavy tracks still felt clean and demonstrated an understanding of ensemble. It seems like Falcom took a “more is better” approach with Evolution. Battle tracks like “Fight with Assailant,” “Fateful Confrontation,” and “Gravestone Struck by Lightning” push the guitar even further forward in the mix and throw in some distortion. The end results are muddy, less distinctive, and frequently grating. “Gravestone Struck by Lightning” is almost unlistenable, as the melody is doubled by distorted organ and distorted guitar.
Also like its predecessor, SC Evolution truly shines on its orchestral work. “Visions” was originally a serviceable dungeon theme, but the way its new arrangement gradually layers in new instruments and melodic elements is absolutely masterful. “Lurking Shadow in the Darkness” has a thematically appropriate military grandeur that the original version lacked. The orchestral boss themes “Great Awe,” “Looming Threat,” and “Outskirts of Evolution” each get a healthy dose of impact and drama from their new arrangements. Generally speaking, the musicians at Falcom have taken an orchestral approach to arranging the bulk of this soundtrack. The instrumentation is more textured, strings and woodwinds are more prevalent, and the tracks tend to have more weight. “Looking Up at the Sky,” the world theme, was wistful and even a bit melancholic in its original incarnation, but the new version sounds positively heroic with its marching drumbeat and prominent strings. However, lamentations like “Crushed and Scarred” and “The City Where the Lights Went Out” lose some of their impact with more grandiose instrumentation. The new arrangements of “Hidden True Form” and “Floating City Liber Ark” are well crafted, but they lack the alien atmosphere of the originals. As a whole, the orchestral work in SC Evolution is richer, more textured, and more deliberately paced than the original. On the other hand, the original is tighter, more focused, and a little lighter on its feet.
Ultimately, I can’t deny that the soundtrack to The Legend of Heroes: Sora no Kiseki Second Chapter Evolution is a fascinating product, as it truly showcases Falcom Sound Team at their best and their worst, and it demonstrates that there is sometimes a thin line between the two. It’s versatile and inconsistent. It’s indulgent and excessive. It will dazzle you one moment and confound you the next. This may be worth a purchase for its standout tracks, and the strength of the material still shines through, but I cannot recommend it over the uniformly excellent original soundtrack. And believe me, that soundtrack belongs in your collection, as does the game itself.
Great cover, though…