SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack :: Review by Ashley Winchester
When one makes their first major soundtrack purchase (or their first outside of Chudah's marketplace), one would think their selection would be from a game whose score has received massive critical acclaim. Reflecting back on the vast plethora of soundtracks that have graced games (particularly RPGs) over the years as I browsed through the multitude of choices, I came realize it's often the overshadowed works that really remind us of all those glorious hours spent in front of the television leveling up and learning techniques, etc.
In the mind of this reviewer, such a soundtrack would belong to Square's Kenji Ito and SaGa Frontier. The game, released in late 1997 (early 1998 in the US) would ultimately become a cellar-dweller among the rest of Square's star-studded line-up in the eyes of most at the time who were looking for the next big thing from the RPG kingpin. Despite the hard fate had dealt the game (at least here in America) it did manage to build a small cult-like legion of fans, myself included.
As far as the game's score is concerned, the majority of Ito arrangements are somewhat simpler than one might expect from someone hailing from Square's cabinet of musical talent. For the most part SaGa's music doesn't really push the envelope forward other composers have done similar things on a better and larger scale (the same thing could really be said for every other aspect of the game as well). Still, putting the lack of any real innovation aside there aren't any glaring mistakes or unforgivable horrors to be found here.
SaGa's music pretty much follows in the vain of Final Fantasy VII in the sense the synth isn't as nearly refined as later PlayStation titles and soundtracks although it is a small step above previous scores. Ito also tends to work from a much more playful and colorful palette than the majority of his contemporaries would in any given score. There are some darker numbers to be found, especially were Blue and Asellus' scenarios are concerned, but the game doesn't contain as many dark elements and moments as other RPGs do (well, that's really a matter of opinion). While this may initially turn some people off, it's really one of the soundtrack's main strengths, giving a majority of the score a lighthearted and easy listening quality that is easy to digest.
The set opens with the track "The Opening of a Journey," which ultimately sets the tone with its slow, angelic melody. Unfortunately, any kind of beginning continuity is totally shattered by the next track "Opening Title," which is every bit as annoying as it was back in 1998. I can remember frantically hitting the start button during the opening sequence in a desperate attempt to spare my ears. Things quickly quiet down with the bittersweet "Margmel in Ruin," were Ito undoubtedly conveys the since of desperation within Rikki's homeland as it teeters on the edge of oblivion. The fact you don't even need know were and how that track is used to come to this conclusion speaks volumes (the track is also somewhat reminiscent of FFV's town themes). From one emotional extreme to the other, "Junk" is a simple laidback town theme that paints a vivid mental image a lazy summer day spent outside (opposite of those playing games all day) as a child when nothing seemed impossible.
As far as heroic numbers are concerned, one will definitely want to check out "Fight! Alkaizer." Even with the generous use of instrumentation in this piece, this superhero theme never reaches epic proportions, though I doubt it was really ever meant to. As it is, the track's adventurous style makes it fun to listen to, serving its purpose well. "Zap! Caballero Family" falls into a similar category with what seems to be a rather generic Wild West sound, although it alone made one of game's most antagonizing parts somewhat more tolerable. Fans of more techno-electronic influenced themes will find upbeat tracks such "Leonard's Laboratory" and "Nakajima Manufacturer" to their liking. Tracks such as these ultimately act as a prelude to some Ito's strongest arrangements on the later discs containing a similar sound and feel.
Disc One finishes with a few more key tracks that capture the element of the moment. In "Fighting Machine Arena", the listener is presented with what seems a rather standard lounge theme, but it's in its simplicity where it really shines. I can literally imagine this playing within in the confines of a smoke filled pup with people rampantly trying to place bets on the upcoming fight. "Theme of the Cygnus" reiterates on the emotional aspect of "Margmel in Ruin" but depicts a love (between Red and certain NPC character) that has yet to blossom with it solemn melody. With "Koorong" (the town fans know as the central hub of the SaGa world) Ito paints the image of a seedy, underground activity-filled metropolis with the use of an easy going, simple beat befitting of a city that never sleeps. "Battle #3" takes its cue from "Fight! Alkazier" with trumpets and horns coming out in full force. While this track is a little more befitting of the word epic, unlike "Fight! Alkaiser," it still falls short of such a plateau. Still, listening to it I can imagine fighting Black X's cronies atop of Koorong skyscraper.
Shortly into Disc Two one will encounter "The Ancient Ship," an easy going ambience-infused track that works extremely well, heightening the sense of mystery and discovery with its various sounds and suppressed electronic feel. Soon after, Ito presents the listener with yet another excellent technological theme in the form of "HQ," where one can dream of sneaking around a secret, high tech facility poking their noses where they don't belong. By this point, one can tell these kinds of tracks are one of Ito's strengths... and it only gets better. As for downright goofy tracks, one will want to check out "Theme of a Kylin." Listening to such a track, one can tell the composer must be in touch with their inner child to write such a piece, or at the very least have a good sense of humor. The same could be said for the developer who created the area in the game where this piece plays as well.
Once again switching gears, "ALONE" leaves the listener alone a million miles in every direction with its cold, yet mystical and solitary vibe. It's more than your typical forest dungeon theme and leaves the listener with a overwhelming feeling of sadness and regret. Next up is the polar opposite of "Theme of a Kylin" in the form of "Melody of Time." As if the pervious track "ALONE" didn't drive home the feelings of isolation and despair, "Melody of Time" undeniably imparts such feelings with its long-winding melody. The "tick-tock" of the clock throughout the track also deserves special attention as well as it starts in the left channel and eventually crosses over to the right (you probably wouldn't notice such an effect playing the game, especially on a mono television). Near the end of Disc Two one will find the battle theme that the game is most known for, "Battle #5." A personal favorite, this track is almost beyond words, a in-your-face, rock 'n' roll metal feast with an exceptional amount of meat on its bones ~ no fat to be found. The track itself falls along the lines of "The Darkness Nova" and "Pain the Universe" from Yoko Shimomura's Legend of Mana score. Even if you never hear any other track from this soundtrack, one owes it to themselves to at least hear "Battle #5."
Disc Three winds the set down in style, containing the final dungeon and battle themes, not to mention the various endings. "Wakatu" is interesting piece with its thundering drum and ambience backed up by a solitary flute, driving home what kind of place the region has become after its populace was slaughtered. "The Ultimate Weapon" (T260G's final dungeon theme) is another technological influenced track with a very likable clapping beat you'll find yourself listening to over and over again.
As for the final battle themes, all of which are very well constructed and worthy of attention, the one that really stands out from the crowd is "Last Battle -T260G-." The pinnacle of Ito's techo/electronica influenced tracks, I could honestly see this track being played in a club as it is definitely more techno-like than the previous tracks of its type. Even though there are similar compositions like this out there, this track is a great example of a composer perfectly matching the music to the events in the game (those who have played the game know awesome the end of T260G's scenario is). Along with "Battle 5," this is the track that ultimately deserves any VGM fan's attention. The ending themes follow suit with T260G's ending "A Memory of Childhood (Ending -T260G-)" coming out on top. Rikki's ending "Lamox Beast (Ending -Coon-)" also deserves mention being in the same vein as "Theme of a Kylin."
Despite what this score has going for it, there a few hitches that really hold it back. The fact many of the best tracks are scenario-specific (nearly half of them) means those who don't completely immerse themselves in the game and complete every scenario (especially those of Red, T260G and Rikki) will miss out, unlike most linear RPGs where one will most likely hear the majority of any given score in one play through. This isn't really a soundtrack problem considering most SaGa games are set up in this fashion, but it ultimately limits the score's overall marketability depending on the listener's experience with the game.
The other factor that hurts the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack so much is the massive following for Masashi Hamauzu's SaGa Frontier II score. While this is like comparing apples and oranges, saying that SaGa Frontier II's score's success and fan base hasn't come at the expense of this score would be lying. While SF2's score is good in its own respect, the fact the SF1 soundtrack will probably be stuck in its shadow for the rest of time ultimately makes me only root for this score all the more. So, despite all my babbling, if you liked what you heard in the game, this is definitely a good purchase.
Overall Score: 8/10