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Final Fantasy XI - Sanctuary :: Review by Chris

Final Fantasy XI - Sanctuary Album Title: Final Fantasy XI - Sanctuary
Record Label: Square Enix
Catalog No.: SQEX-10143
Release Date: May 20, 2009
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


Sanctuary is the second album of the ever-changing Final Fantasy XI performance group, The Star Onions. After the mixed reception of their experimental jazz-based first album, Naoshi Mizuta decided to stay close to the originals this time and offer an acoustic approach instead. He elaborated on his musical ideas for Vana'diel by offering an insight into what Final Fantasy XI music might sound like had budget and technology not been limiting. A team of four arrangers and numerous guest performers revamp popular themes from the franchise so that they are as refined and emotional as possible. The Star Onions make a clear attempt to offer something musically deep while satisfying a broad fanbase. Do they succeed? Well, I certainly think so...


The majority of the album is comfortably arranged by Takahito Eguchi, a versatile ex-Square employee famed for his work on The Bouncer and Sonic Unleashed. "Voyager" opens the album with a few surreal synth notes reflecting back on The Star Onions' album before quickly establishing the new direction of the series. The melodies and harmonies from the original are kept intact, ensuring the relaxing and nautical flavour is maintained. However, flautist Hideyo Takakuwa is able to bring warmth and humanity to the previously synthesized melodies while the backing Manabe String Quartet add to the rich timbre. These changes already make the arrangement superior to the original and some subtle changes, such as towards the conclusion, ensure it remains relatively interesting too. "Gustaberg" is another piece that closely follows the fluid format of the original, but offers timbral enhancements with live performances and additional forces. Eguchi brings the scenic beauty of the original out more than ever with his wailing flute and soloistic violin passages. Furthermore, he offers a few absolutely breathtaking moments, such as the liberating transition at 3:04; it is moments like these that ensure the album is always emotionally satisfying to revisit.

Wild Arms and Monster Hunter leading man Masato Kouda also returns to offer a variety of solo and collaborative arrangements on Sanctuary. His setting theme arrangements take a similar approach, but seems to be more inspired by acoustic world music than chamber classical music like Eguchi. "Mhaura" is more tear jerking than ever with its nostalgic meanderings of solo accordion and flute. The acoustic guitar arpeggios add a light dynamic to the piece and the occasionally overlaying of strings adds to the intimate sound. It's tastefully done and makes the very most of an exceptional original. On Wings of the Goddess' "Flowers on the Battlefield", Kouda instead focuses on interweaving string quartet into Masakazu Sugimori's already emotional arrangement. The combination of flute and strings is arguably overdone in so many pieces when clarinet, oboe, and voice could have been explored instead. Nonetheless, Sugimori makes the very most of the limited palette he has, providing a sorrowful and brooding tone to the sections portraying the burden of the Crystal War, while offering a slight waltz tact to provide romanticism in the more uplifting sections.

The album features quite a bit of variety beyond the aforementioned setting themes, though fortunately some instrumental and stylistic continuity is maintained this time. "Xarcabard" is transformed from a tedious ambient theme into a slow-building dramatic highlight. The accordionist Manabu Hiyama gives the melody's every note of the melody some human feeling, as if contrasting the shadowy menace with the suffering and fearful masses. The abstract small ensemble use of "Faded Memories - Promyvion" once again inspires imagery of Chains of Promathia's insidious emptiness. However, Kouda has more trouble sustaining interest during the six minute playtime and finds himself accursed by Mizuta's ostinati reliance. Fortunately, Eguchi was sure to add more dynamism to the disc with his arrangements of two battle themes. Rise of the Zilart's "Fighters of the Crystals" maintains the crisp lyricism of the original while recreating the sound of a gypsy dance with its violin solos and accordion infusions. Treasures of Aht Uhrgan's "Rapid Onslaught -Assault-" was a more surprising choice, though its classical-funk fusions and abstract metre recollect some of the features that made Eguchi's Racing Lagoon battle themes so stimulating. Both are very interesting albeit a little inaccessible.

The biggest emotional highlight of the album is Kouda's rendition of the Chains of Promathia ending theme "Distant Worlds". The violin is clearly the star this time round and Yu Manabe more than adequately compensates for the loss of the vocalist with a passionate and sensitive performance. The accompaniment is a low-key but tasteful mixture of jazz and pop influences, although there are some extended sections without the violin before the big climax. There are subsequently two bonus jazz tracks, jointly arranged by Kouda and Mizuta, that serve to cool the mood. Although it lacks quite as many hooks, the semi-improvised interpretation of Wings of the Goddess' "Griffons Never Die" is more mature than all the jazzy material in The Star Onions' first album. The reuse of lead flute here adds a bit of nostalgia for the musical journeys that have passed while the slightly moody chord progressions from the original add a little grit. There is also one more highlight moment for the album with the surprisingly captivating bagpipe solo at 2:24. "Wings of the Goddess", on the other hand, is a silly and jubilant ditty to lead the album out. It's ideal for those looking for a more catchy track, although the cheesy fingerprints of Mizuta's chord progressions and electric guitar use are a little offputting for me. A feel good track nonetheless.


Sanctuary finally fulfils the role of being a satisfying Final Fantasy XI arranged album. Rather than transforming pieces for new ensembles, The Star Onions focus on enhancing the colour and emotion already intrinsic to most of the originals. Many of the arrangements stay close to the originals as a result, but there is sufficient elaboration by the arrangers and expression by the performers to sustain this approach. There is also quite a lot of variety to be found within, particularly in the battle, ambient, and bonus arrangements, for the album to be enjoyable throughout. Bound to be one of Final Fantasy XI's last albums, Sanctuary leads things out on a nostalgic note and is an emotional commemoration of the franchise. It's bound to please those who liked Final Fantasy XI's original music and is also a worthwhile introduction to the franchise for those who are wise enough to stay away from MMORPGing. It should stand the test of time too, at least if the amount of times I've relistened to it are anything to go by.

Overall Score: 8/10