Seiken Densetsu 4 Original Soundtrack -Sanctuary- :: Review by Chris
Square Enix's biggest score of 2007 accompanied their epic flop Dawn of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 4). It reunited the trio of Romancing Saga Minstrel Song's highly successful score Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, and synthesizer operator Hirosato Noda but the score wasn't to have that much in common with its second cousin. Ito, responsible for most of the stage themes, reflects a similar sort of musicianship with his 45 themes, mostly used in the introduction, conclusion, and as chapter background music. Sekito was principally given a composing role this time and focused mostly on creating cinematic themes to accompany the game's cutscenes and some unusual rock-based themes for the game's boss battles. The game's fourth disc mostly features arrangements of classic Seiken Densetsu themes from Masayoshi Soken (with Junya Nakano and Hirosato Noda making guest appearances) used to accompany the arena bouts. The score was praised by gamers for being a functional and often enjoyable accompaniment to the game, but how does it stand up on its own?
Oscar-winning motion picture composer and Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto is responsible for the soundtrack's main theme. Inspired by the imagery of the Mana tree shown in the otherwise static title screen, Sakamoto reflects the spirituality, colour, and life so inherent to the series and its music. It's surprisingly simple piece, though the subtle beauty of the composition and performance will stimulate the senses. Kenji Ito's scene-setter "Prologue ~Mana, the Earth, and the Spirits~" meanwhile attains some cinematic flair as it passes through a series of seemingly unrelated sections. Regrettably, this theme is sparingly orchestrated and entirely synthetic a significant drawback for emotional expression when Noda's samples lack realism or expressiveness. Everything offered here has been done by Ito before and often much more thoughtfully. Far superior is the opening credit's "Rising Sun", used by all Ito's scores for the series since its 1991 debut, and "Mana's Tale", where Ito moves out of autopilot to capture the spiritual tone of the game with crystalline percussion and rich strings.
The game is split into eight multi-part chapters, each with their own areas, cutscenes, and boss. Ito is largely responsible for their background music and usually creates music to accompany each of the four parts. For the first chapter, 'A Spirit and a Maiden', "Pastoral Melody" sets the scene perfectly but comes across as slight overkill due to its presentation in soundtrack form; it combines a variation of the "Rising Sun" melody, the spiritual features of "Mana's Tale", and a unique dynamic and whimsical quality. "A Silent Drop" for the second part slows the pace and employs further atmospheric percussion, while "Dark Shrine" for the third and fourth parts provides a variation of this theme in a surprisingly well-programmed rock-tinged fusion. With the second chapter's "Reminiscence", Ito introduces a compelling flamenco component to the score to reflect an unfamiliar forest setting. He subsequently provides an impressionistic piano and woodwind piece in "A Mysterious Forest" that is welcome for the sake of variety despite its melodies not being among Ito's best. Ito's fingerprints are all over these compositions, for better or worse, though they're still individualised enough to complement the settings.
Continuing the tour, the diversity of the other stage themes is impressive. The third stage features "The Lost One's Tremble", a bombastic orchestral march opened by power chords, and "Green Whirlpool", a 'new age' piece with floating synth and splendid choral decorations. They are joined by another flamenco-influenced work "Goblin's Beat" that, thanks to some very catchy motifs and a mischievous character, is easily one of the best on the soundtrack. Other infectious works in a similar style are "Rondo of Sand" and "The Fool's Dance"; the latter is the only stage theme to employ use of live instruments and has a strong enough rhythm, melody, and harmony to shine for it. In "Seeking the Light" and the trio of themes to accompany the penultimate stage, Ito employs orchestration he would normally reserve for battle themes to fair effect. "The Deep Blue" irritates with its sporadic novelty synth use, while the hideous saxophone synth of "The Peak of Twilight" worsens a track already condemned by its 'pump it up' string motif. The return of the dark scale runs from "Prologue..." creates some emotional impact in "No Turning Back", but the tenor voice is unconvincingly doubled by strings and the overblown percussion creates an anticlimax.
Tsuyoshi Sekito is responsible for the game's boss themes. "Burning Spirits" is reminiscent of battle themes on Minstrel Song except more synthy; a rock interpretation of an original Ito theme, Kenichiro Fukui's keyboard takes the lead here and, following a low-key orchestral second section, features prominently with Sekito's guitar in the solo section. While this piece should please anyone that likes The Black Mages, the other boss themes are original compositions from Sekito. They significantly contrast they are based on repetition and layering of riffs, focus on conveying danger and intensity, have few tangible melody or solos, and are often dissonant and thickly textured. The highlight of the boss themes is "Blood Feud" for the first battle with the main antagonist. Following a virtuosic guitar introduction, the aggressive bass guitar ensures the piece gathers astonishing pace and rhythm. For such a well-developed and enticing track, the melody leaves much to be desired; it consists of a one bar string phrase clumsily answered by badly synthesized choir, and the ugly descending arpeggio string resolution that just raises one's left eyebrow even higher. This villain's motif recurs in several event themes and "Dark King", affirming that Sekito knows how to arrange a melody but certainly not create one.
The rest of Sekito's battle themes are a select taste. For "Shadow of Vine", "Red Wyvern", and "Death Sally Battle", Sekito uses his electric guitar performance to create a compelling rhythm with drum kit support and structures the tracks from here. Largely acoustic synth that take the lead brass, strings, and choir being Sekito's favoured forces and combine to create a hard and persuasive sound. The guitar techniques employed often demonstrate ingenuity and virtuosity, but sometimes Sekito doesn't know when enough is enough. "Desperate Fight" is essentially ruined by an emphasis on a grisly guitar riff, consisting of seven utterings of a low-pitched note followed by a higher note that is bent using the tremolo arm. Hearing this once quirky motif prominently repeated in almost every bar detracts from the effect of the meaty brass. Also cluttering the first three discs of the soundtrack are three recurring melodies treated by Sekito used in various cutscenes, "Pack of Ice Wolves", "Stroud", and "Echo of Darkness", which are darker and thicker with each variation. There are about 20 other event themes across the soundtrack, which have great emotional impact within the game, but are usually too brief and generic to be of stand-alone interest.
The climax of the soundtrack sees a curious reversal in the Ito / Sekito assignment. The first four parts of the final chapter are accompanied by Sekito's "Dark Palace", a slow-developing ostinato-focused piece reminiscent of "Castle Zvahl", while the most urgent "Den of Thieves" is similar in makeup to Sekito's battle themes despite the absence of the electric guitar. For Ito's final stage theme "Illusions", a misleadingly gentle timbre is created by a collection of tuned percussion, but the obsessive treatment of the "A Silent Drop" theme provides a dark Elfman-like twist. The exuberance of a full orchestra is offered with "The Final Decisive Battle", which doesn't disappoint. It's a highly lyrical theme that features the classic Ito combo of gliding brass and strings reinforced by brisk percussion and occasional choral chants. The two-tiered "Eternal Parting" reflects on the bittersweet conclusion of the character's journey first with an emotional piano and flute section before providing reprise of the "Rising Sun" melody. The combination of piano, chamber orchestra, and voice solo provide touching spiritual renditions of "Mana's Tale" in both "Birth of the Goddess" and "The Endless Dream". "A Legend Forever", "Epilogue ~The Continuing Future~", and "Traces" are short contrasting pieces that provide a gentle conclusion to the game.
The fourth disc features mostly arrangements of classic Seiken Densetsu series themes courtesy of Masayoshi Soken. Pieces from all previous soundtracks in the series are referenced here in standard and 'hurry up' versions. Soken seems to have a flair for capturing the spirit of Hiroki Kikuta's more whimsical compositions, demonstrated by the delightful percussion and woodwind use of the standard versions of "Child of the Fairies" and "Don't Hunt the Fairy". He also offers desirable rock remixes of "Meridian Child" and "Irwin on Reflection", each time retaining their rhythmical eccentricities while presenting their melody himself on electric guitar. The rock aspect of the soundtrack continues with the 'hurry up' remixes, which are brief fast tempo renditions of all the other tracks previously arranged, though "Don't Hunt the Fairy", "Meridian Worship", and "The Darkness Nova" prove too bombastic and imbalanced to be appealing. Junya Nakano also makes a guest appearance, offering exotic percussion components in "Splash Hop" and "Weird Counterpoint", as well as some rich orchestrations of "Endless Battlefield" and "Eternal Plains". Finally, synthesizer operator Hirosato Noda makes two cutesy but irritating renditions of Ito's "Dwarves' Theme". There are also some brief additional compositions from Ito and Soken at the end of the disc.
The Dawn of Mana soundtrack is a fine accompaniment to its game and was almost unequivocally praised by otherwise dissatisfied gamers. The diversity and expressiveness of the stage themes complements their visual colour, the battle themes energise and intensify boss encounters, the cutscene music provides a glorious spectrum of emotion, the arena music gleams with fun and nostalgia, and the contribution from Ryuichi Sakamoto beautifully reflects musical expression through visual inspiration. The synthesizer operating leaves much to be desired, particularly with respect to choir and string samples, though Noda still competently implements a wide range of forces so that the soundtrack remains quite colourful; certainly, the average graphical specifications didn't prevent the game being a vivid experience and similar is true here. But as a stand-alone experience, it isn't always enjoyable due to Ito's sometimes dull musicianship and Sekito's long-winded compositions. This soundtrack is highly recommended by those who have played the game and enjoyed the music featured in it. However, the wonderful chapter themes are surrounded by six minute oppressive battle themes and atmospherically focused story and cutscene themes, so it won't be a smooth journey.
Overall Score: 6/10