Before I write anything else about this album, I need to come right out and say it: I’m a huge Shimomura / Mitsuda fanboy. Many of my favorite soundtracks are by them, and I’m automatically predisposed to feel warm and fuzzy about anything they create. That said, my first taste of the Xenoblade soundtrack was as a passenger in a car as I streamed the Special Soundtrack disc through my smartphone, and I was instantly hooked. I listened to the truncated Special Soundtrack several times over, and found it to be an outstanding disc. I’m happy to say that the full soundtrack, while containing a few less-than-stellar pieces, follows in these footsteps and does not disappoint.
What I was surprised to discover was that the full album does not feature Shimomura as prominently as I had expected, and that Mitsuda is involved only with the theme song, “Beyond the Sky.” Instead, two names that I was previously unfamiliar with do the bulk of the heavy lifting: Manami Kiyota and a three-person composing team called ACE+. However, their work is exceptional. Kiyota’s tracks are my least favorite of the album, but that is less because they are lacking in any way and more because Shimomura and ACE+’s contributions are so outstanding.
Listening to this lengthy album, one thing becomes quickly apparent – there is very little repetition. Nearly all songs have multiple sections and change things up throughout their durations, sometimes drastically. For me, this gave to them a sense of narrative thrust; it was as though many songs had a story, and were meant to accompany a piece of story or a cutscene in which things happened and twists occurred. On repeat listens, this kept everything very fresh and had me listening to every track all the way through, an impressive feat.
Disc 1 opens up with the somber “Main Theme” which carries with it Shimomura’s signature sound. Some nice piano backing rounds out the track, which sounds like it would accompany an introductory or a promotional video for the game, and sets the tone nicely for the start of the journey. However, the action truly begins with a pair of Shimomura tracks, “Prologue A” and “Prologue B.” From these songs, the listener gets a sense of weight, as though the events that accompany and follow them are the start of something terribly important, particularly in the latter half of part B.
Manami’s tune “Daily Life” fills the role of “protagonist’s hometown track” more than sufficiently – aside from a nice, peaceful melody and some totally sweet bongo action, the main beat is held up by a nice, grass-and-soil-crunching-underfoot sound effect, which works exceptionally well for establishing the mood this piece is going for. This is made all the more effective by the song’s contrast with the ACE+ tracks that follow it; “Crisis” is an intense piece that give me a sense that the peaceful village described by “Daily Life” is in serious danger, and “Confrontation with the Enemy” seems like a nice segue into the conflict of the game.
Disc 1 continues with “Impatience,” an ACE+ track that absolutely screamed of Xenogears‘ “Knight of Fire,” which I thought was a pleasant throwback to Xenoblade‘s titular predecessors. Shortly after, we have one of the most somber tracks on disc 1 in Kiyota’s “Regret,” which succeeds fully in conveying the emotion its title implies. Finally, after a mid-disc absence, Shimomura returns with a string-heavy battle theme, “Unfinished Battle,” which has a great melody and seems to cap off the conflict of the first disc.
The final track of disc 1 is one of the most unique tracks on the album. “Riki, the Legendary Hero” seems to be a character theme, and it is one of the most amusing and enjoyable tracks on the album. It showcases ACE+’s versatility and acknowledges the fact that whistling immediately makes any song outstanding. It has a fun, distorted guitar song in parts, the aforementioned whistling, and some jazzy bass sounds in the background. Its infectious happiness gives me flashbacks of “Theme of Minigame” from Tales of the Abyss, and that in itself a victory for the song. Listen to it!
Disc 2 opens up with “Aegir,” I track I absolutely thought was Shimomura’s – but is actually Kiyota’s. It has foreboding echoes of the Parasite Eve soundtracks. Either way, it is an atmospheric and foreboding track. “Shulk and Fiorung” is a nice track by Shimomura with a memorable piano melody in the latter half, reminding me of a tender love theme. “Hope,” penned by Kiyota, is an upbeat track that gives me a Tales of the Abyss/Symphonia vibe and wouldn’t sound out of place in either of those games.
“The Night Before the Decisive Battle” is a succinctly titled and exciting song that exemplifies the sense of “narrative” I mentioned earlier. The song has an excellent sense of building tension, and the listener truly gets a sense that the heroes are gearing up for a major fight, Lord of the Rings-style. Midway through, the song intensifies, as if the battle is now upon them. “Anger, the Darkness of the Heart” is an exceptional song as well, and one of Kiyota’s best on the album. It is a slow, melancholy piece that builds up to a peak, and then changes it up to become very dramatic and memorable, while still retaining the base of the earlier part of the song.
“The Spiritual World” is another strong track by Kiyota. It is a quiet, atmosphere-building piece, one that calls to mind the 2300AD “World in Ruins” track from Chrono Trigger. The track immediately following this, “Xanthe,” is one of the best songs on the entire album. It opens up with a haunting vocal section and more distorted sounds, giving it a sense of continuity with “The Spiritual World.” About a minute in, though, the song explodes with expanded vocals and a heavy guitar section—great stuff; it seems that ACE+ is a big fan of the guitar riffing.
“Beyond the Sky” is the game’s vocal theme song, composed by Yasunori Mitsuda and performed by Sarah Alainn. It is a nice track that reminded me very much of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” for better or worse. The piano section is classic Mitsuda – in fact, the whole song is undoubtedly Mitsuda. It isn’t a particularly incredible song, but it certainly good enough for its purpose. It does, however, make me wish that Mitsuda could have produced a few more songs for the soundtrack. Disc 2 closes out with “Epilogue” (a strange organizational choice, given that it marks the halfway point for the album), a song that is distinctly Yoko Shimomura—her familiar violin sound comes out in a grand and sweeping finale piece that is full of emotion and finality.
Disc 3 is made up primarily of what sound like town and dungeon/field themes. A very nice wrinkle, though, is the presence of “Night” versions of many of the tracks. “Colony 9 – Night” changes up the sound of the original “Colony 9” track to a nice, peaceful sound that still retains the melody and progression of its source. However, the best of these day/night tracks is undoubtedly “Sator – Phosphorescent Land,” with its pleasing combination of sounds and quiet melody. The night version of the song adds a vocal section and a remarkably somber sound that brought me back to some of my favorite tracks from the Dark Cloud 2 soundtrack.
For me, though, the highlight of disc 3 is the absolutely stellar battle theme titled, appropriately enough, “Fight!” This was the first song I heard from the Special Soundtrack, and without a doubt the one that hooked me on the soundtrack. It is an intense and high-energy conflict song with amazing piano and violin sections that literally made me want to order the game and get into fights right away. I’m not sure if this is a boss theme or a standard battle theme, but it brings with it the weight and intensity of some of the best battle themes I’ve ever heard. Hit the sample to check it out!
The final disc is filled with dramatic tunes that really convey the sense that the story is approaching its conclusion. Shockingly, it includes no songs by Shimomura – the entire disc is filled with Kiyota and ACE+. The opener, “Prison Island,” is a foreboding track with a piano and violin that evolves over the course of its duration to really give the sense that things are heating up and that the story is nearing its end. The track slows down as it wraps up, but leads directly into the very high intensity “Hectic Pursuit of the Enemy,” which conveys the exact story its title implies.
The listener is then presented with several more day/night combo tracks, all of which are pleasing to hear, particularly in their night versions. However, I would argue that the tracks from disc 3 eclipse all of those on this disc, as their melodies were more memorable and their night versions far more haunting.
Near the middle of the disc is the ACE+ track “Those Who Bear Their Name,” another song from the Special Soundtrack, and another exceptional battle theme. It sounds like a major boss battle song with an epic guitar-heavy intro and an awesome melody coming into play about a third of the way in. Shortly after this track comes Field of the Machinae, a dissonant song with a distorted background and an eerie, tech-sounding soundscape. Like numerous other tracks on the album, the song expands to include a much broader range of sounds and opens up its melody about halfway through. This is an excellent song—and probably the best of the fourth disc, if not a contender for one of the best tracks on the album.
“Mechanical Rhythm” is another guitar-heavy ACE+ song, one that sounds like a cutscene or major battle song. The intensity of this track is evened up by the calm sounds of the “Agni Ratha” day/night combo—which serve as a nice palate cleanser before the final few tracks of the album, all of which contribute to the sense of the impending finale. “Central Arsenal” is an excellent example, as it starts out with a sense of purpose – we feel as though the heroes know what their mission is, and that this is the song that sends them off to complete that mission. The pair of “Inside the Giant” tracks are full of strange sounds and are very reminiscent of Gongora’s recurring theme from Lost Odyssey.
I am not certain if “To the Last Battle” is the final boss track, but it certainly could be. It is an intense, epic track that has a great melody and a memorable beat to it. If not a final boss track, then it certainly could be the song that accompanies the “pre-final battle” cutscene. It carries a sense of finality and is a release of the tension that has been building over the past several tracks; the game is undoubtedly coming to its close, and with this song, the listener knows it. The final track on the album is a collaboration between Kiyota and ACE+, and is an upbeat, happy theme that seems appropriate for a song that comes after all of the intensity and tension building of the tracks before it.
In the end, despite my favoritism towards Shimomura, I have to say that ACE+ was the star of this album; every track by them is at least good, if not exceptional. Their tracks showcase a wide range they demonstrate that they are capable producing everything from somber themes and dramatic battle accompaniments to atmospheric and emotion-building pieces. After this album, I can be counted among their fans. Shimomura’s tracks all bear her trademarks and complement ACE+’s very well – and in particular, her battle themes are outstanding. While I thought Kiyota’s tracks were some of the album’s weakest, as I said earlier, that is less because of their lacking anything and more because of the absolutely outstanding work by the other composers on hand here. Much like ACE+, Kiyota shows that she is capable of a wide range, and while some of her tracks don’t quite hit the highs and lows of the ACE+ tracks, they are still quite good and fun to listen to. Lastly, Mitsuda’s vocal track is a nice, albeit somewhat forgettable piece – its main purpose seems to be to make us wish he was more involved with the album.
So, ultimately, was the Xenoblade soundtrack what I expected? No. It was more than that. I expected an album full of great work by Shimomura, but what I got was an album full of outstanding music by names I had never heard – but absolutely hope to hear again. This is a fantastic album full of a wide variety of styles and sounds, one that hits all the right highs and lows of emotion that we love so much about the best RPGs, and I believe anyone could find something to enjoy in it.