Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, Yasumi Matsuno's Game Boy Advance sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics, sees composer Hitoshi Sakimoto return once more, fresh-faced and ready to create a score that is on par with Tactics' in terms of musical maturity, yet with an entirely different aura to it. Just like the game it accompanies, the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Original Soundtrack is a fun and joyful romp in the world of Ivalice, free from the sinister themes and action basis that characterised Tactics' soundtrack; it's much lighter, much more innocent, yet just as nourishing as its predecessor. Tactics' co-composer Masaharu Iwata was not involved in this project, perhaps saddening given the quality of his contributions to Tactics, but understandable given the darkness that shrouds most of his best works. Still, three other musical forces join Sakimoto. Nobuo Uematsu is involved, creating the main theme, likely a ploy from Square Enix to attract a greater number of people to the soundtrack given the composer's popularity, while Sakimoto's special relationship with Super Sweep's Shinji Hosoe results in the involvement of two of his employees Ayako Saso, Hosoe's principle collaborator and prolific game composer, and Kaori Ohkoshi, whose only major work to date is this score. The soundtrack is split into two, the first disc being dedicated to the Game Boy Advance original version, which is of decent sound quality given the console's limited capabilities, though inferior relative to the second disc of the score, which features superbly remastered versions of most of the original themes. Ten of the briefer ones were not remastered, but this is no loss, given that it essentially removes all the filler tracks from the remastered disc and ensures it is largely a consistently high-quality experience, despite the clarity of certain melodic progressions being occasionally lost.
Nobuo Uematsu's "Main Theme" suitably sets the scene for the soundtrack. The theme's imposing introduction and sweeping melodic progressions in the latter half make it grandiose in places, though the lyrical nature of its initial melodies, thin textures, and prominent use of the harpsichord create a light and whimsical overall feel. It's more than clear from the liner notes (a quote from them is provided below) that Uematsu wasn't entirely happy with what he produced here both in terms of fulfilling Matsuno's vision as the game's producer and with regards to complementing Sakimoto's musically mature works and, indeed, the theme's bothersome harpsichord use, underwhelming brevity, and unremarkable conclusion mean that it is, at best, an inconsistent musical experience. Uematsu nonetheless accurately portrays the scene, creating a theme that bubbles and bounces with lightness and wit to characterise what Tactics Advance and its soundtrack are all about. Sakimoto flatteringly exclaims that he was 'awestruck by the fantastic main theme' he received from Uematsu prior to starting work on the album, and, despite its flaws, it fits the game wonderfully and likely provided an inspiration for Sakimoto's creations on the album. Some of Uematsu's humility, as promised, follows:
"I hope that my sorry excuse for music somehow matches your world views of this game without destroying the beautiful scenery." - Nobuo Uematsu
Sakimoto's "Snow Dancing in the Schoolyard" begins the broader Final Fantasy Tactics Advance musical and artistic experience. Here, artistic representation the way the theme lives up to its mesmerising title by painting abstract and beautiful images of youthfulness and nature becomes complemented by a new level of musical sophistication. Three major forces buoyant string and harp arpeggios in the background, a series of imitative structures from glockenspiel and 'cello, and a charming and gliding clarinet melody correspond nimbly and innocently to incredibly endearing effect. "Companions That Surpassed Their Tribe" uses all sorts of forces in a playful yet temperemental way to provide a constant sense of momentum while demonstrating just how elegantly Sakimoto phrases lines. An underlying sense of turbulence and unpredictability is provided due to phrases being occasionally cut short just as low brass bellows and vibrant timpani rolls make brief appearances. It is, after all, a battle theme, though largely maintains a sense of jubilance away from the aggressive moments and occasional cinematic buildups. The way the soundtrack is also often boosted by its occasionally percussive emphasis is worth special mention; this is best reflected by "At the Bar," where a diverse array of percussion instruments provide the theme's melodic and rhythmic foundations, ideal for a secondary force highly syncopated wind lines to bounce off. Another good example of how fine musicianship allows interest to be maintained amidst a positive atmosphere comes in "Magic Beast Farm." Here, a rich and elegant string melody corresponds intricately with two other forces a plodding wind-based bass line that quirkily opens the piece and a clarinet melody that provides colourful counterpoint creating two-part polyphony with hilarious continuo. It's understated yet highly effective features like these that makes Sakimoto's music worthy of the description 'magical'.
All this talk of musicianship aside, Mr. Sakimoto made it very clear in the liner notes for the album that it was imagery that was the principle source for his inspiration to employ such musical styles. Sakimoto's inspiration varies from the most subtle to the most obvious, but is nearly always expressed in an delightful way whether it be dreaming of a scene that interprets 'snow dancing', imagining the experiences a gamer might face during a simple stroll through Ivalice, representing the devious yet important activity of receiving rumours and mission information at each town's bar, or interpreting the nature of several characters with four complex yet adorable themes, Sakimoto creates music that fits and endears. Consider, for instance, the way a variety of exotic instruments are integrated into the light march "Different World Ivalice," the kazoo included; it gives an organic and unusual musical representation of an exciting yet alien world. Often, the representation of a certain image or emotion can be quite misleading. For example, the feeling of overwhelming apprehension that inspired "Unhideable Anxiety" is not initially reflected by its rather peaceful and lusciously phrased exterior; however, the theme is soon made to sound incredibly eerie as the main passage reappears unexpectedly mid-phrase following development sections featuring some rather sinister diminished chord progressions. The rare dark themes are especially inspired by imagery, as shown by the dark melodic progressions and ethereal timbres of the chorale "Crystal," which interprets a powerful and precious object that inspires and is corrupted by malovolence, or the claustrophobic chord progressions and Tactics-esque percussion use of "Prison," used in the most chilling location in the game. Though the majority of Sakimoto's inspiration is probably not evident to even the most perceptive of listeners, the soundtrack manages to be a visually and emotionally engaging experience, as well as aurally satisfying, largely thanks to Sakimoto's musical expression of his own fantasies. Given the quote below, Sakimoto should be a very happy man indeed:
"Alright, I tried to create the score while fantasizing about the things everyone will think of when they play this game. If only a fraction of my thoughts have come across to you, then there is no greater happiness for me." - Hitoshi Sakimoto
The involvement of the two Super Sweep composers on this album adds contrast and continuity; Saso and Ohkoshi create four pieces each, which contrast musically from Sakimoto's, though are still very much based on the style he and Uematsu moulded elsewhere. Ayako Saso's "Amber Valley" is perhaps the single most enjoyable and memorable theme on the score, boasting a catchy initial melody, gorgeous uplifting orchestration, immensely satisfying development, and some powerfully crafted secondary melodies. Appealing on a number of levels to a very wide audience, the theme is a classic to revisit. Saso's musicality and flair also shines in two of the soundtrack's major battle themes, "Painful Battle" and "Battle of Hope." Both are actually quite optimistic, though sufficiently well-paced and energetic to give a sense of action. The phrasing and layering of "Painful Battle" is really remarkable clean, intricate, and elegant yet unusual, unpredictable, and 'busy' and, in conjunction with the rhythmical stimulus of the harmonic line and its melodic emphasis, this theme is simply lovely, both in the battlefield and as a stand-alone creation. "Battle of Hope" isn't all that different, crafted in a similar and effectual way, though is noteworthy for its 5/4 metre; each measure is well-subdivided to give the theme great bounce and the metre employed is a highly original musical feature in itself, despite Sakimoto perhaps deliberately reusing this metre in "Law Card," the subsequent track. Saso's other creation, "The Road We Both Aim For," initiates the soundtrack's subtle intensification towards its conclusion. It's still rather thin texturally and based on similar instrumentation to other tracks, yet has a completely different tone; this is thanks to lots of dissonance, some effective trombone and timpani use, and Saso's oh so creative and comprehensive development. Having succeeded so well here, it's a real pity she didn't create more tracks here; she ought to work on many more non-electronic projects.
Unfortunately, Ohkoshi is a somewhat weaker force in comparison to Sakimoto and Saso, despite her clear efforts to parallel the quality of their work. This is largely the result of development problems, as evidenced by the inappropriately lengthed "Surpassing the Wall" and "Undefeated Heart." The former is an example of the type of theme this soundtrack does best light and carefree yet with a clear action emphasis and march-like feeling but isn't quite as remarkable as it could have been due to it ending after just 80 seconds of playing time, when there was plenty more room for enticing development. "Undefeated Heart," on the other hand, is a Sakimoto-influenced light battle theme with a lovely melody and brilliant finisse, but suffers from being needlessly and inexplicably elongated in the Full Sound Version looped over and over to amount to an actually nauseating 7:33 playing time, when a third of the length would have satisfied. Her other contributions are unflawed, though: "Beyond the Wasteland" retains the character of "Surpassing the Wall," but is more melodic thanks to a playful wind melody and is also a great example of the soundtrack's quirky percussion use. "Unavoidable Destiny" demonstrates the development of Ohkoshi's musical maturity during this soundtrack; the way each instrumental line is so creatively and delicately crafted and pronounced means it could easily be mistaken as one of Sakimoto's best here were track credits not provided. Given that Ohkoshi hasn't created anything since, it seems highly likely that she was summoned to Mr. Hosoe's office one day and given her P45, unfortunate considering the potential and talent she expressed here, though understandable given that Super Sweep only employ highly productive, consistent, and multitalented artists, which she wasn't at that time. The expectation upon her must have been immense, though she made some more than amicable contributions and leaves behind a nice farewell message, bless her:
Since this is a big title after all, and I got to work together with these two people whom I have a never-ending respect for, geez, the pressure was just terrible! And yet, if I can get you to recall the adventure you experienced through the main character, just by listening to my music, I will be happy." - Kaori Ohkoshi
All Sakimoto soundtracks have noteworthy conclusions and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is no exception, partly because of the main theme being beautifully reprised, but also because it reflects a considerable change of pace and emotion in a soundtrack where much intensity and a dramatic arch wasn't especially evident. This turn is initiated by Saso's darkest composition and developed by Ohkoshi's two finest creations, though Sakimoto proves to be the main mastermind, relying on largely the same forces, but changing the harmonic and melodic frameworks of his creations considerably. "Confusion," for example, might seem like 'typical Sakimoto' at first, given no melody is immediately evident, yet the flute melody that emerges, with unpredictable intervallic leaps and lots of chromatic movement, is downright eerie, particularly in conjunction with the complex web of countermelodies and harmonies beneath it. The final area theme, "The World Starting to Move," also deceives. It appears to be another light march at first, but is soon strangled to the point of hypoxia by the development of a schizophrenic clarinet melody into something discordant and aggressive. Initially mellow, its unpredictability literally changes the entire direction of the piece, and the passage that follows is even darker. The drama reaches its peak in "Incarnation," one of Sakimoto's most mature final boss themes, which, much like preceding tracks, uses many light instruments and musical features, but manipulates them in such a way that they become very foreboding and unsettling. Perhaps the only description that can do it proud is 'organised chaos' so much, both musically and emotionally, is packed into one theme, but it is always purposeful and Sakimoto doesn't once lose control, guided by his imagination. With the scene carefully wrapped up in "Vanishing World," Uematsu's "Main Theme" reappears in the two pieces that conclude the soundtrack, though, obviously, as ever with Sakimoto, the arrangements are not straightforward reprises, but feature the melody intricately interwoven into complex pieces with their own musical and in-game purpose. Effectively, Sakimoto takes melodically strong and appropriate original material, but instils his own maturity into it, producing the "Main Theme" in its best, most dramatic, and ultimate form in "Fulfilled Dream Segment," the album's final theme.
Popular response to the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Original Soundtrack sometimes baffles me. It's not heavily criticised or unpopular, generally receiving a positive response, but remains, for one reason or another, perhaps Hitoshi Sakimoto's least acclaimed work. It's a victim to the Game Boy Advance's sound capabilities, limited further by its brevity, and a source of alienation for those who expected a soundtrack as dark, epic, and intense as Final Fantasy Tactics'. Though Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a sequel to Final Fantasy Tactics, the soundtracks are near enough polar opposites in terms of the emotion they reflect, two or three themes excluded, even if Sakimoto's fingerprints can be found all over both scores. The key audience this score might well initially attract therefore, due to their collective morbidness, might well not respond positively to the soundtrack's overall cheerful, blithe, yet highly sophisticated nature. Excusing sound quality of the first disc, a few minor problems with Uematsu's and Ohkoshi's creations, and perhaps a slightly underwhelming number of tracks, there isn't a single major problem with the soundtrack. The composing from Sakimoto and Saso, in particular, is so creative, appealing, and mature that the score is given enough momentum, inspiration, and variety to be a highly satisfying achievement, particularly where the Full Sound Version is concerned. For the new Sakimoto fan looking for a chance to see his versatility in action, a fan of the game's music looking forward to seeing it presented in an immensely superior way, or a general lover of magical, energetic, and inspirational light-hearted scores, this soundtrack is a must-have and one that is well worth regular revisiting, though other audiences should probably consider checking the samples to see if this suits them before making the big plunge as it is re-released.
Overall Score: 9/10