Romancing Saga Minstrel Song Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
1992's Romancing SaGa featured one of Kenji Ito's most enjoyable soundtracks, offering unforgettable character themes, colourful setting themes, and some of the finest Super Nintendo battle themes in existence. Its harmonies were functional, its orchestral palette was unimaginative, and many pieces were underdeveloped, but this didn't hinder it too much. After all, its melodies were first class. When the game's 2005 PlayStation 2 remake was announced, there wasn't too much enthusiasm from gamers given the original title was Japan-only and most Western SaGa games were complete flops. Nevertheless, many video game music fans were curious and excited about just what its score might bring. Over a two year production period, Ito returned to lead a score that rearranged the themes of the original's soundtrack in a myriad of styles. Joined by The Black Mages' Tsuyoshi Sekito, Square Enix's king of rock arrangements, and Hirosato Noda, the not so talented synthesizer operator of the Hanjuku Hero series, the score had the potential to be one of Square Enix's best ever. Did it fulfil expectations? No, it largely exceeded them.
The game's fascinating opening movie has a musical focus. Demonstrating a lonely bard wandering across diverse and beautiful environments, he reflects on being love lorn by singing an exceptional song accompanied by his double neck acoustic guitar. With "Minuet", singer-songwriter Masayoshi Yamazaki reflects the artistic intention of Akitoshi Kawazu perfectly, encapsulating the emotions of unrequited love and soothing with a portrayal of the world's colour. The melody is perfect, feeling refreshingly subdued, gorgeously natural, and overridingly lyrical, while its interpretation by Yamazaki's lush voice captures the romantic journeyman feeling of the opening movie. The organic instrumentals, principally from acoustic guitar, accordion, and drum kit, add to the composition's folk influence while fitting fluidly with the triple metre offered. Everything is understated but superlative. Kenji Ito subsequently demonstrates the remake's high production values by employing a full orchestra for the game's overture. It exposes the passionate main theme for the game with a fantastical display of symphonic colour before transitioning into a slightly disappointing arpeggiated conclusion. "Opening Title" compensates with a vibrant and satisfyingly developed orchestral march that uses its source material perfectly.
The first disc of the soundtrack mostly features Kenji Ito's synthetic arrangements of the original's character themes. There are eight themes in total used to represent the individual scenarios of each of the game's playable characters. With Albert's "Hope for Justice", a fanfare announces the importance of the righteous noble heir, but soon inspires compassion as woodwinds gorgeously present the classic melody. The contemplative introduction of "Feel the Wind" gives way to a delightful waltzy interpretation of the carefree tomboy Aisha that has a firmer sense of tonality and motion than its original version. The flamenco treatment of the beautiful dancer Barbara's "Passionate Eyes, Captivating Dance" demonstrate Ito's excellence at creating music in this style, while the swung melodies and dabs of tropical instrumentation of "I'll Take All the Treasure!" enhance the originally weak theme of young thief Jamil. The strongest melody is reserved for Gray's "Absolute Freedom", which features a poignantly shaped and implemented flute line, while the maternal Claudia "Pure Guardian" demonstrates the nuances Ito can create using a piano. Hawk's "My Comrade-in-Arms, Ladyluck" and Sif's "Resolute Bravery" are full of pompous orchestration to reflect two of the strongest characters in the game, though endear once their melodies are introduced. Overall, these are great arrangements that enhance the styles and melodies of the originals to portray the diverse and likeable cast.
The colourful scenery indicated the opening movie is complemented by a diverse selection of setting themes. A perplexing but pictoresque early entry is "Labyrinth of Illusion". This theme transitions between dark sections marked by sullen echoing motifs to more fluid sections featuring lush fantasy instrumentation. The interpretation of the Romancing SaGa classic "Lost Woods" is spot on too; piano and wind melodies are carefully blended to create a boundless and surreal atmosphere with a hint of French influence. "Crystal City" retains a certain magical edge in its classically-oriented arrangement while "Palace Theme" remains gushing despite its Baroque pastiche features. Ito also helps to colour the worldly experience further with wider contributions such as the emotional piano solo "Closed Heart", the relaxing bossa-nova "In a Jazzy Mood", and the understated guitar-based "Minstrel Song". However, some of his contributions are still stereotypical small ensemble pieces such as "A Knight's Pride" and "Voyage". There is also a surprisingly compelling techno remix of the main theme in "Sewers" and a well done fusion of electronic and rock forces in "Chaos Labyrinth". Other highlights are the sensitive acoustic guitar interpretation of Nobuo Uematsu's "Wipe Away the Tears", the spiritual wordless vocal theme "Happiness Tears", and the use of chants from the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus in the two pirates themes.
Tsuyoshi Sekito's major contributions to the soundtrack are the hard rock battle theme arrangements. The normal battle theme "Prelude of Battle" is given a sleak and upbeat presentation powered by infectious rhythms and Sekito's electric guitar performance. "The Soul of Fire" feels wild and dangerous, on the other hand, with its high-pitched distorted guitar passages and off-set rhythms. Moving to something very different, "Passionate Rhythm" blends Kyoko Kishikawa's catchy Latin-influenced vocals with Tsuyoshi Sekito's extremely brisk and elaborate flamenco guitar work. Simply an ardent and breathtaking collaboration. Another definitive highlight of the score is "A Challenge to God" with its juxtaposition of a memorable trumpet melody against hard rock work. Ito also intensifies the soundtrack with several darker themes. "Invitation to the Dark" shows no compassion with its prepared piano crashes and sinister cello melodies while "Isle of Evil" gets organ and timpani out in predictable fashion. Written for orchestra, chorus, and organ, the two-tiered "Wicked Melody" is simply spectacular at the climax and Ito's only battle theme "Written Invitation to Death" is wonderful too. However, it's left to Tsuyoshi Sekito to portray the final encounters in "Awakening Memories" and "Decisive Battle! Saruin". He left the best to last as these themes combine the melodic and rhythmical pull of earlier arrangements with solos and development passages even more elaborate than his contributions to The Black Mages.
The fourth disc of the soundtrack compiles the miscellaneous themes created for the purpose of accompanying specific scenarios in the game rather than being especially noteworthy stand-alone listening. It opens with the twelve-part series of 'From A Window' tracks in which Ito and Sekito arrange the same melody to fit various locations in the game. The melody itself is memorable, calming, and flexible, while the arrangements themselves have some sort of interesting draw, e.g. the Frontier's extended violin solo, Walon Isle's steel drums, Valhalland's hypnotic minimalism, and Kjaraht's sitar infusions. Unfortunately, it's difficult to listen to the same melody for 30 minutes in a row and, while it was the best choice to cluster the themes here, it guarantees at least half of the fourth disc is skippable. Unfortunately, the rest isn't up to much in the composition department, cluttered with clichéd interpretations of unpleasant emotions and events. Take "Shock", a incoherent mixture of dissonant crashes and timpani rolls, or "Profound", 1:18 of suspended strings and ambient sound effects. Most of the other themes are better than these, but still mediocre filler. The fourth disc nevertheless has some notable entries. Sekito creates some great rhythms in the techno tracks "Pressure" and "Dash", while Ito creates one of the catchiest jingles I've heard in "Suddenly, It's Charleston!?" and also offers the Spanish guitar-based "Invitation to Flamenco". A piano rendition of "Eternal Emotion" in Ito's trademark simple but emotional style provides a warm resolution to the soundtrack.
The Romancing SaGa Minstrel Song Original Soundtrack is full of surprises. The sometimes infamous Kenji Ito has undoubtedly produced his finest work to date here, showing acumen as a melodist, orchestrator, and explorer. His collaborator Tsuyoshi Sekito brings numerous amazing moments to the score and seems even more adept at bringing the passion and rock out of Kenji Ito's compositions than he is arranging for The Black Mages. Although Hirosato Noda's synthesizer operation is average for the PlayStation 2, the soundtrack benefits from very high production values and numerous instrumental performances. The album is let down slightly by sometimes clichéd compositions by Kenji Ito and a fourth disc featuring mostly filler tracks. However, the wealth of diverse highlights makes this practically negligible. This album will be an amazing experience for fans of Square Enix's fantasy RPG soundtracks or their rock productions. A must have for most video game music fans and a soundtrack to cherish with each repeated listen.
Overall Score: 9/10