Final Fantasy XI Treasures of Aht Urhgan Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
The third extension to Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XI Treasures of Aht Urhgan, introduced a whole new continent and empire to Vana'diel. Composed once again by Naoshi Mizuta, the soundtrack emphasised the feeling of 'going East' with some ethnically flavoured tracks. However, it was also continuous with its predecessors in many ways and revisited many familiar soundscapes. Like Chains of Promathia, Mizuta was mostly responsible for implementing the music, though there was a general improvement in synth quality. Hidenori Iwasaki also returned as a synthesizer operator for the opening and closing tracks. With a mixture of continuity and change, how did the soundtrack fare compared to the rest of the series?
The first three themes of the soundtrack are those mainly concerned with establishing the Eastern feel of the soundtrack. "Bustle of the Capital" is similar to other town themes in basic structure, using mellow ostinati, wistful melodies, and moving development sections. However, the strangely synthesized main melody and ethnic drum beats immediately give a sense of a new continent. Though hinted at in a couple of themes earlier, Mizuta's fondness for light jazz is especially evident in this soundtrack. The sailing theme "Eastward Bound...", for instance, creates just the right feel with gliding synth melodies and adventurous jazz piano chords. While the string use can be cheesy at times, this theme has a convincing sense of fun and establishes a bit more richness in the development. "Bandits' Market" is a completely different style once again, this time using Arabian-influenced melodies and instrumentation. Though the main melody of the theme sounds very derivative, Mizuta does an excellent job creating dynamic rhythms and uses a catchy panpipe motif especially well.
Reminiscent of the ambient tracks from Chains of Promathia, "Illusions in the Mist" is introduced with a sparse enigmatic introduction using an alternating time signature. The emergence of a resonant 'cello melody and the segue into a new section led by haunting vocals ensures it becomes one of the most fascinating additions to the soundtrack. In "Ululations from Beyond", the contrast of the playful glockenspiel-based introduction and the ghostly slow-developing body perhaps represents the treachery of the Arrapago Reef. For the Wajaom Woodlands, "Jeweled Boughs" is the most beautiful work on the disc in terms of both music and synthesis. It initially offers a resonant bassoon melody subtly accompanied by acoustic guitar and tuned percussion. However, it later enters a section featuring warped synth melodies, hinting at mystery like the two aforementioned tracks but nevertheless comforting with its continuous harmonic support. For the tunnels beneath, "Whispers of the Gods" is an extended harp solo that stimulates senses beyond just hearing.
There is a large selection of action themes here. The normal battle theme "Mercenaries' Delight" is very similar to its predecessors with a heroic brass melody, rhythmic string accompaniment, and dark interludes. Despite the lack of originality, it is one of Mizuta's most compelling battle themes. "Delve" is written in the style of the "Battle in the Dungeon" tracks from earlier soundtracks, but individualises itself with stabbing introductory phrases and a dab of cinematic influence prior to the loop. More original are "Fated Strife -Besieged-" and "Rapid Onslaught -Assault-", both furiously paced themes with surprisingly deep melodies. For the Chocobo breeding and racing mini-games, two more renditions of the Chocobo theme were created. "Circuit de Chocobo" is a slow-paced happy-go-lucky jazz track while "Run, Chocobo, Run!" is more frantic and even adds a nice new synth melody. Mizuta's ostinato-based approach ensures the melody isn't always in the spotlight providing even more distinction from the theme's endless other arrangements.
Moving to the end of the soundtrack, "A Puppet's Slumber" uses harp and pizzicato strings to create a calm but cheeky character. "The Colosseum" and "Black Coffin" both create rhythmically compelling harmonies with brisk string riffs and hard drum beats, but differ greatly otherwise; the former is a mini-game track that astounds with jubilant jazz melodies while the latter is used in an important mission and constantly builds up tension. Of the darker pieces, "Ever-Turning Wheels" shows no compassion with its repeating string notes and long sombre oboe melody while "Forbidden Seal" does an excellent job bringing together elements from various ambient, action, and tension themes. Compensating for the lack of a true final battle theme, "Hellriders" provides the most horrifying and dissonant theme featured in the franchise to date. The brief and cinematic "Eternal Gravestone" subsequently creates a convincing conclusion to the dramatic arc by revisiting the melody of "Ever-Turning Wheels". The soundtrack concludes with probably the most adventurous and fluid Vana'diel March to date.
Overall, the Final Fantasy XI Treasures of Aht Urhgan Original Soundtrack is a solid mixture of continuity and change. The ambient themes nicely build on the ideas established in Chains of Promathia, the action themes are suitably powerful despite often lacking originality, and there are few softer highlights as expected from a Final Fantasy XI soundtrack. With respect to change, Mizuta shows further cultural influences in the opening tracks to establish the feeling of 'going East' and reflects perhaps his personal stylistic preferences in the jazzy Chocobo, mini-game, and sailing themes. The presentation of the soundtrack itself is quite problematic though. It is very segmented, moving from the initial Eastern-influenced themes through ambient, action, and mini-game themes all the way to a dark conclusion. Also disappointing if inevitable is the lack of the final battle themes "Iron Colossus" and "Ragnarok" and the ending theme "An Invisible Crown", currently only available on the Final Fantasy XI Wings of the Goddess Original Soundtrack. Those considering purchasing this soundtrack may also be better off purchasing Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Premium Box instead.
Overall Score: 7/10