Xenogears Original Soundtrack :: Review by Aevloss
Following the release of Square's classic Final Fantasy VII in 1997, the company was pressurised by fans into making a new game of the same standard in regards to storyline and music. Xenogears was the product of that pressure the next game to be released, just before the following Final Fantasy instalment. Understandably, Square's flagship composer Nobuo Uematsu was preoccupied with his score for the eighth Final Fantasy, resulting in the employment of composer Yasunori Mitsuda for the Xenogears soundtrack. Renowned for his work on the popular Chrono Trigger soundtrack, Mitsuda, at the time, was probably the best choice for the job.
The game itself was a traditional/futuristic hybrid featuring pirates and castles alongside advanced technology and battle mech entities known as 'gears'. Relying more heavily on symbology and religious overtones than in any RPG before it, coupled with its medieval come technological nature created a daunting task for the composer. Yet, even today, the Xenogears soundtrack is heralded as one of Mitsuda's finest works.
For its time, Xenogears was an innovative game. It was one of the first of its kind to incorporate anime cut scenes, instead of the traditional FMVs and it supported a well-layered science fiction story that was as deep and complex as many novels. "The Light From the Netherworld" is the very first piece on the album, and it accompanies the opening sequence of the game. Although the track isn't orchestrated, Mitsuda has made use of some recorded Bulgarian choir chants, which help to create the ominous opening atmosphere. It is interesting how well the techno instruments actually work with the choir, and while it might not be the easiest track to listen to outside of its context, the futuristic and religious overtones are made apparent in the score from the very beginning. As the game progresses, you learn how important the scene was, and that the themes conveyed by the music (as well as the on-screen imagery) are very appropriate. Some might argue that it has suffered since newer, more original introduction themes have followed it rendering it obsolete, but I think that no track could have suited the cutscene better, so it deserves at least a little credit for that alone. The best part of the track is the haunting choir solo at the 3-minute mark and the introduction of the main theme; unfortunately, many may find themselves skipping the track before it gets that far. The track that follows is "Stars of Tears (Out Take)," a vocal piece that was not actually in the game itself. It was an unusual choice to include the track here, as the transition between it and its atmospheric predecessor is not particularly smooth. While it does introduce the main overworld theme, as an out take it might have been better placed at the end of the CD. The track itself fails to appeal to me as I have never relished the contemporary pop ballad styling, but Joanne Hogg's voice adequately suits the melody and the lyrics are interesting and symbolise events and characters in the game.
After the two opening tracks the main game soundtrack begins with the magical "Bonds of Sea and Fire," which is mainly used in the game to show characters experiencing sadness as well as retaining a heroic determination, though it sounds like it could have been used to accompany a forest setting as well. If the track had not looped so quickly, it probably would have been even more successful. The town themes on the soundtrack are generally not bad, but I personally find "My Village is Number One" quite annoying. Something about the instrumentation and the choir orchestra hits(!) is unpleasant to listen to any more than once and while the piece itself is actually quite well composed, the synthesizers and poor choir samples let it down a lot. Luckily, its rendition on the Xenogears, Creid: Yasunori Mitsuda and Millenial Fair arrange album is a lot better and is much less grating on the ears.
The first disc is populated with what you would expect from any traditional RPG soundtrack, from battle themes to mood setting pieces. Genuinely speaking though, the first is the lighter of the two discs. "The Valley Where Wind is Born" is an example of the simple but effective light-hearted pieces on the album. It is a remix of the "My Village is Number One" theme, and creates a nice welcoming feel to the early location it accompanies. Mitsuda has, on more than one occasion, created an arrangement of the main theme with a music box, which he later renders in a grander more epic style. "Faraway Promise" is that track on the Xenogears Original Soundtrack, and certainly has a nostalgic air about it; although simple (as many pieces using the instrument are), the track manages to show off the memorable main melody that is used throughout the soundtrack.
"Steel Giant" is a surprisingly effective theme that is used in conjunction with many of the enemy gear battles throughout the game. Its first use is when Fei's village is under attack near the beginning. With its harsh military drumbeats and powerful instrumentation, the piece succeeds in inducing a sense of panic and still works quite well as a standalone piece. Contrastingly, the following dungeon track "Forest of the Black Moon" is bland and uninteresting after the discordant string passage closes. It is used well within the game, but lacks the interesting composition that makes tracks such as "Steel Giant" successful by themselves.
A marginally weaker area of the soundtrack is the main battle and boss themes. Mitsuda has never been very good at composing interesting battle tracks, and his attempts on Xenogears are, while good by his standards, as mediocre as ever. The main battle theme (Disc 1, Track 19) is actually quite good, but it still lacks an interesting bass line and is not really the type of piece that you would want to constantly hear if you were stuck in the game. Some of the later sections of the track sound similar to some of Mitsuda's work on Chrono Trigger it develops well, but doesn't seem to quite fulfil its potential. "Knight of Fire," the boss theme, is similar in the way that it certainly isn't badly composed, it just doesn't quite sound fitting. It's as if Mitsuda tried hard to make the battle themes good but ended up compromising in their effectiveness; unfortunately, it loops far too quickly, and the most interesting part is the inclusion of some voices speaking as if through some kind of transmitter. It is very much a militaristic track, and doesn't always seem to fit the boss battles it accompanies.
"It would be wonderful if those who develop an interest in the traditional music on this CD have their eyes opened to music from around the world. It's a dream I hope will come true." - Yasunori Mitsuda
In the album Xenogears, Creid: Yasunori Mitsuda and Millenial Fair, Mitsuda has arranged many of the tracks from the original soundtrack and given them a more effective 'worldly' feel, in the sense that he has taken inspiration from music from many different cultures. Although it is perhaps not quite as obvious in the original tracks, the town themes in the game seem to reflect this sense of ethnicity. "Dazil - City of Burning Sands" uses the Arabian-inspired sound that has become somewhat of a predictable interpretation of a desert scene. It's distinctive use of choir, flute and percussion create a sound you might attribute to Egyptology, and while it is hardly the most original idea when compared to pieces for similar settings, it works perfectly well in the game. Similarly, "Aveh, Ancient Dance" effortlessly manages to depict a bustling, festive city with its fast paced use of the harpsichord. Once again, Mitsuda chooses to use choir chants as a part of the piece I think this helps to make the score feel more coherent, as not only does it symbolise religion, but tribalism as well; it makes everything sound connected.
"Thames, Men of the Sea" utilizes similar ideas like the area themes before it. However, since this one is used to accompany a ship setting, its purpose appears to be a little more directed towards an epic, sea-faring feeling. The choir sounds make an appearance once more, this time used in a way that makes them sound like sailors grunting as they work. "Singing of the Gentle Wind" and "Shebat - The Wind is Calling" are quite similar in their calming intent. I personally find the latter track more effective as the melody seems particularly soothing, and it could represent a small town in the snow as well as it does a city floating in the sky.
It seems rather ironic that the final town theme on the soundtrack, "Solaris, Eden of Heaven," is so cheerful Solaris is the city in which Krelian resides, and is essentially thought to be an enemy stronghold within the game. As such, you might expect a militaristic or atmospheric piece with lots of religious overtones, yet Mitsuda surprises us by providing quite the contrary. Instead, we have a track that could have been used in many other situations. It actually manages to work well in the game however, and I consider it to be one of the best developed of its kind on the soundtrack.
It is, perhaps, the emotional themes that are the strongest on the soundtrack. "Shattering Egg of Dreams" seems to be primarily used as a love theme. The melody is nice, but I can't help but feel that the accompanying harmony really lets the piece down as a whole, and makes it seem a lot more run-of-the-mill than it should do. The theme's second rendition later on the first disc "Lost... Broken Shards" improves on the original by using just a piano and a violin. Its simple instrumentation is a better way of conveying the theme itself, but it would have been more effective it had developed a little more. "The Treasure Which Cannot Be Stolen" is a beautiful track that corrects many of the shortfalls of the aforementioned tracks. Although it still does not develop very much, the instrumentation is perfect and the composition is more sophisticated, creating one of the highlights of the first disc. Another lovely track comes in the form of "The Wounded Shall Advance Into the Light." This emotional choir piece progresses wonderfully and is used to great effect within the game itself. Firstly, it is used as a hymn sung in a church, and it evidently represents that scene very well. It is also applied to a battle scene later on in the game, where the sorrowful melody really shines, and it feels as though you are fighting to purify the part of Fei that is Id. By this time, the female lead Elly has become somewhat of a religious icon, which makes the piece seem even more appropriate in its context. It is this very piece that was arranged as the title track of Creid, where it benefits from being sung by a real choir.
The second disc begins with another very nice piece for a church setting through "Ship of Regret and Sleep." This time, Mitsuda uses a harpsichord melody with a choir that interjects on its second loop. While it is not as moving as the last religious track, there probably could not have been a piece that fit the setting any better than this one. "June Mermaid" is one of the most highly acclaimed tracks on the soundtrack. Though simplistic, the tune perfectly depicts the mysterious Emeralda, and conveys ambiguity as well as sorrow. I think its development is quite unpredictable especially at the transition to the calmer part of the melody at around the 1:30 mark, which adds to the effect of the overall track; I think the only problem I have with the track is the choice of a woodwind instrument to accompany the vibraphone, when a violin probably would have suited the piece better. The next character theme is "Gathering Stars in the Night Sky," which is a beautiful representation of the young girl, Maria. The track is very emotional, which hints at the girl's personality. The piece that follows it, "Tears of the Stars, Hearts of the People" is also particularly nice, and follows on very well. It is, rather predictably, used at many of the more poignant moments in the game. The title itself explains what Mitsuda was trying to achieve a tune that could show sadness as well as determination; I think he succeeded admirably here.
Then there is "Flight," which seems to complete the musical transition. First we had the moving character theme, then the sad, touching piece and finally the epic track that shows determination and bravery. "Flight" is, primarily, an upbeat arrangement of "Gathering Stars in the Night Sky" used when Maria confronts her greatest fear in the game and takes flight in her gear to face her father. I loved that moment in the game so much that I am still very fond of this piece of music, despite how cheesy or hackneyed people might consider it. I can't stress enough how well it fit the scene (It is like Mitsuda's answer to "Cid's Theme" from Final Fantasy VII if you will), and although people might not enjoy the track if they have not played the game, I think that any fan of Xenogears would probably understand why I like it so much. Admittedly, from a musical perspective it is not developed nearly as well as it could have been and it is very repetitive. Of the darker atmospheric pieces that follow, "The One Who is Torn Apart" is the only one that really stands out. The tune is enigmatic and chilling, perfectly creating the atmosphere for the scenes in which Fei finds out more about himself and Id.
We come at last then, to the final battle and ending pieces. The first of the final battle tracks, "Awakening," is another rendition of the melody used in "Light from the Netherworld" and "Omen" used to portray the all-powerful entity that is Deus. Like "Battle with Magus" on the Chrono Trigger soundtrack, it is actually a surprisingly good battle track coming from Mitsuda, and manages to fit in the religious overtones through use of the Bulgarian choir once more alongside the use of drum beats, strings and the 'Sawtooth wave'. Even so, it seems undeveloped and pales in comparison to final battle themes from other games. It is "One Who Bares Fangs at God" that accompanies the very last battle however. The track is quite controversial as many have diverse opinions some love it and others hate it. I would not like to side with either, as I think that it fails to impress on a standalone basis, but feels incredibly appropriate in-game. It is predominately a layered piece of synth choir work, which builds up as it goes along. Some would argue that it is boring, and I can see where these people are coming from; but it really depends in which context you are reviewing the piece. As a piece of music, it is most certainly lacking. Yet at the same time, considering the boss battle it accompanies, maybe it was intended that way, and there is no denying how aptly it fulfilled its purpose. There are certainly those who will be disappointed, especially those who eagerly await the decisive battle music, but it's not as if Mitsuda's final battle themes have ever been anything worth celebrating.
"The Beginning and the End" is another track that is hard to appreciate unless you have played Xenogears itself. In the American version, the awful anime dub limits the enjoyment of the ending sequence, which is riddled with religious symbolism defining Fei and Elly as Adam and Eve and leaving questions about Krelian still untold. The music fits perfectly, but if you pay too much attention to the bad voice acting or are listening to the CD by itself, its effect is decreased considerably. The Bulgarian choir go out on this note, and the closing track is another vocal ballad, "Small Two of Pieces," sung by Joanne Hogg. The song is a reprisal of the "Faraway Promise" theme, and deserves some credit for being the first of its kind, even if it isn't the greatest ending track. Like "Stars of Tears" it seems to have been influenced by Irish music.
I think the Xenogears soundtrack is a mixed bag. What was an amazing soundtrack in its day now seems quite dated, and has lost most of its initial appeal. Unlike the Chrono Cross soundtrack and Xenosaga Original Soundtrack, it is hard to fully value the music without having played the game itself. There are still some tracks that have long-lasting value, but they are few and far between. Although it might be memorable for the first couple of listens, it becomes a bit of a chore after that I found myself analysing Mitsuda's compositions a lot more than I would like, simply because I had tired of lacklustre tracks like "The Jaws of Ice." Fortunately, few complaints can be made about the sound programming (achieved by Hidenori Suzuki, the same man responsible for the Final Fantasy Tactics and SaGa Frontier II soundtracks), as the sound system is up to the highest standard for the PlayStation and each instrument is, for the most part, easily distinguishable.
Unlike the Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger soundtracks I don't think the Xenogears soundtrack has stood the test of time very well. I would recommend the album only to fans of Mitsuda and of the Xenogears game itself. I would hesitate to call it one of the better soundtracks in my selection or in Mitsuda's own library, and think that the casual video game music listener would probably find Xenogears, Creid: Yasunori Mitsuda and Millenial Fair a more enjoyable album. Nevertheless, Mitsuda has composed a score that fits the game perfectly and has managed to incorporate futuristic, ethnic, and religious themes, all of which give it a feeling of wholeness. While there are faults with his work, I am unsure anybody could have done a better job than Mitsuda in incorporating and melding the various layered themes of the game into the very soundtrack it uses.
"I believe the thoughts of this enormous number of people are packed together on this CD; the air of Ireland, the air of Bulgaria, and the air of Japan. And furthermore, the air of the room you're in. Created thus, I pray that the music of Xenogears calms and emboldens your spirit." - Yasunori Mitsuda
Overall Score: 8/10