Final Fantasy XIII Original Soundtrack :: Review by Don
As many fans of the Final Fantasy series are aware, much of the music of the main series that most people have fallen in love with has been composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Since his departure, a couple of composers have tried to fill the void left in his wake. Final Fantasy XII, the creation of Matsuno, was composed by Matsuno's go-to composer for his games, Hitoshi Sakimoto. With the help of Hayato Matsuo and Masaharu Iwata, Sakimoto was successful in creating a soundtrack that went well with the various environs of the expanded world of Ivalice. Interestingly enough, it's also my favorite Sakimoto score. The next in the main series, Final Fantasy XIII, was helmed by lead composer Masashi Hamauzu, with some arrangement help by Junya Nakano, Mitsuto Suzuki, and Ryo Yamazaki. Hamauzu, also someone with whom I am not particularly enamored when it comes to game music, attempts to make the music of Final Fantasy his own. Does he succeed in winning me over, like Sakimoto before him? There's only one way to find out...
The album opens in a cinematic manner with "Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII". It slowly builds up in an ethereal yet militaristic manner, as the opening cinematic contrasts the beautiful colours of the world Pulse with the incoming flying machinery. Though initially subtle, the composition soon unveils a fantastical primary theme of the game at the 1:30, before returning to ambience. Hamauzu subsequently offers a more impacting theme with "Defiers of Fate", previously featured in the trailers for the game. A combination of electronic, rock, and orchestral elements, it's the product of a collaboration between Mitsuto Suzuki, Ryo Yamazaki, and, of course, Hamauzu. It actually opens and ends with electronic elements, yet the meat of the theme is orchestral in nature with some gritty bass backing. The orchestral theme carries the motif of the main theme, "The Promise," that is reprised throughout the soundtrack. Though a marvelous creation, I'm quite sad that the extended mix featured extensively in the game did not feature on the official soundtrack.
Although the main theme is featured as a motif in much of the cinematic and area theme music, there are four distinctive pieces in which it is featured. The first, "Final Fantasy XIII ~ The Promise," was featured on the website. It's a wandering piano, woodwind, and violin performance that shows the delicate and beautiful soundscapes that Hamauzu is able to create. "Final Fantasy XIII ~ Miracles" is a slightly more orchestrated and elaborated version of the theme, yet it is also filled with sadness and hope. "Fabula Nova Crystallis" is an even more densely orchestrated version of "Final Fantasy XIII ~ The Promise" that stunningly showcases the melody with a gorgeous web of instruments. The most impressive version, however, is found in "Ending Credits", providing the thematic culmination of the soundtrack. While Hamauzu doesn't offer many new elements to the melody itself during the direction of the soundtrack, each time the theme "restarts" it becomes more grandiose in nature. The effect is absolutely exquisite and truly realizes the full potential of the main theme of the game, both in and out of context.
Compared with other Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy XIII is quite cinematic overall. There are a number of striking orchestral cues, including some performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, as well a range of more subtle entries. "Ragnarok", for instance, is a chorale that is both haunting and angelic in nature. Despite being simplistic in construction, the harmonies between the various choral parts are expertly executed and beautifully synchronised in context. "Promised Eternity", meanwhile, provides my much-desired dose of piano and string interplay. These instruments often appeal to me and, thanks to the exquisite arrangement, their use is especially poignant here. I can't get enough of it really. Also of note, "Setting You Free" provides an ambient accompaniment to a key scene in the game. The bell tolls help give an ominous nature to the composition and combine well with the more industrial and electronic elements elsewhere. Like the opener, it's one that takes time to build and can be a bit off putting at first, but as it progresses, it definitely redeems itself.
As already indicated, Final Fantasy XIII has a very colourful and warm soundtrack, and this is particularly reflected by the themes for the locales. While there aren't any towns in this game, amazingly enough, there are quite a few area themes. "The Vestige" showcases Hamauzu's strengths at composing exquisite area themes and is immediately reminiscent of "Besaid Island" from Final Fantasy X. The combination of ethereal vocals, beautiful piano wanderings, and tranquil electronic accompaniment ensures a simply magical soundscape. I thought "Besaid Island" was good, but nothing great, yet this one really impressed me. "Lake Bresha" inspires imagery of a frozen lake, thanks to a combination of Masashi Hamauzu's icy soundscaping and Keiji Kawamori's expert synthesis, while "The Gapra Whitewood" creates an ethereal and exotic glow in the forest with its unusual blend of vocal, organic, and electronic elements. There is just something absolutely stunning about both of these compositions.
Interestingly, the main theme for the game is also reprised in several of the area themes. The theme for the major area of Pulse, "The Archylte Steppe," is one of the most lavishly constructed tracks from the soundtrack. Appropriately, it maintains the use of rich orchestrations and uplifting electronica featured elsewhere in te soundtrack. However, it differentiates itself with a focus on Celtic woodwinds that seem to capture the image of grasslands. In the end, this is one of those amazing themes that I was absolutely stunned upon first listen. "Sulyya Springs" creates a calming waterscape with its fluid combination of strings, piano, vocals, and electronics. While a compositional delight, it's perhaps an even more stunning achievement in streaming technology. But perhaps most shocking of all is "The Sunleth Waterscape," which complements more watery sounds with an awesome dance beat and some vocals. It's an extremely fun piece and one that I was in love with from the moment I first heard it.
There are also a number of character themes throughout the soundtrack. "Lightning's Theme" reflects the delicate inner feelings of the female protagonist, principally through harmonising piano and strings, and contrasts with her hardass exterior. As the theme progresses, it gets more peppy, as if to demonstrate a potential playful side of the character. Hamauzu returns back to basics on "Vanille's Theme" with a standard 'melody plus chordal accompaniment' piano solo. As anyone who has listened to his piano arrangements will know, however, Hamauzu is capable of capturing listeners even in his most simple works with his affecting chord changes and emotional performances. When it comes to "Snow's Theme", though, the only word that comes to mind is "Wow." To put it bluntly, I never expected Hamauzu to be capable of rock music, at least independently of Yamazaki. Though melodically sparse, the distorted features and grisly harmonies really give this one an edge. Hamauzu really blew me away with his foray into the rock genre. It's a shame it's the only particularly rock-focused track on the soundtrack.
"Fang's Theme" is easily my favorite character theme in the game thanks to its intricate orchestration. While there is definitely some militaristic influences in the piece, I find the piano to really steal the show. It adds this nice delicacy to the overall heroic aspect of the theme. In the end, I could listen to this one all day. "Hope's Theme" meanwhile is an acoustic guitar theme that demonstrates the sadness going on inside of Hope due to events near the beginning of the game. It's such a beautiful and touching theme with a very memorable melody. "Cavalry Theme" serves as the theme for Cid, one of the members of the Holy Government, and is appropriately written in the style of a march. Finally, the villainous "Primarch Dysley" is a very dark and atmospheric piece thanks to its dark soundscaping. Yet compared to past villain themes in the series, this one lacks in terms of memorability and individuality. It's not bad, just nothing special.
It's also interesting how the character themes take a central thematic role in the soundtrack. For instance, "Sustained by Hate" is a chamber arrangement of "Hope's Theme" that really accentuates her inner turmoil, while "Memories of Happier Days" offers a nostalgic and bittersweet interpretation of the once-bouncy "Vanille's Theme". A further surprise is the transformation of "Snow's Theme" into the resistance theme "The Warpath Home". Even more interestingly, "The Promise" is reprised in "Serah's Theme" as a vocal arrangement. Though brief, Frances Maya's vocals bring so much to the theme and the instrumentals at 0:31 and 1:06 offer defining moments in the entire soundtrack. Perhaps the most substantial reprises, however, are of "Lightning's Theme" in "Blinded by Light". Arranged by Ryo Yamazaki, this track actually serves as the normal battle theme of the game and is far-from-delicate. It's a powerful and energetic theme dominated by thrashing guitars and dense percussion work. However, Hijiri Kuwano's solo violin performance still ensures an underlying beauty still radiates through the action. It's a shame it's so short before the loop, but considering how quick the battles can be, I can see why the decision to keep the final version rather short.
The other battle themes are also major highlights here. The normal boss music "Saber's Edge" is classic Hamauzu through-and-through. It has a very heroic nature to it thanks to the bright nationalistic orchestration. However, the dissonant descending piano clusters and edgy militaristic percussion rhythms continue to give the theme a sense of underlying danger. The ominous section prior to the loop is also expertly implemented. "Eidolons" meanwhile is the battle theme playing during the encounters with summons. The percussion in the theme is extremely powerful and, when combined with the electrorock elements of the bass line, serves to accentuate the urgency of the battle; this is especially effective in context, given there is a time limit and not a particularly forgiving one in these battles. Although it's not melodically focused, this theme really manages to capture the dire situation the characters are faced with. Among the other noteworthy action themes include "Feast of Betrayal", with its perplexing contrasts of playful, heroic, and tense elements, as well as "Test of the L'Cie" with its impressive layering, subtle vocal samples, and various electronic elements.
Interestingly, Junya Nakano also returns as an arranger of two of the most tense tracks on the soundtrack. The first, "Tension in the Air," is an ambient theme that features a blend of industrial and tribal percussion elements. As the name implies the theme is quite tense in nature, mainly due to the sustained strings that are quite reminiscent of Final Fantasy X's "Ominous". However, what makes it so special compared to his formulaic tension themes is the slow evolution of the timbres. I find it a bit hard to listen to on a standalone basis, but I'm sure it is quite effective in-game. The second arrangement, "Desperate Struggle," is one of the boss battle themes in the game. It is again very reminiscent to Final Fantasy X in style, particularly "Enemy Attack". The furious strings work, combined with the ambient atmosphere that is created by brass and strings accents, gives it a very frenetic pace. The percussion elements in this battle theme are quite powerful as well, when they are featured, and just accentuates the dissonant chords above. The "Battle Results" and "Game Over" tracks are rather short compositions, as per Final Fantasy tradition. However, Mitsuto Suzuki still does them justice with his electro-acoustic soundscaping, contrasting heroism with tragedy.
Those growing up with Final Fantasy know that you can't have Final Fantasy without chocobos. Sadly, the Chocobo theme is the only Uematsu crafted Final Fantasy theme to make it into the game. That's right. There's no arrangement of the Prelude, original victory theme, or the Final Fantasy main theme is found on the soundtrack. It's a real shame, given Sakimoto arranged some of these themes for Final Fantasy XII, though at least enables Hamauzu to assert his identity. The first, "Chocobos of Cocoon ~ Chasing Dreams," is actually arranged by Ryo Yamazaki. Unfortunately, I'm not the biggest fan of this one; it fits very well with the technologically advanced Cocoon and does feature some interesting electronic elements, though the autotuned vocals added on the second loop provide a novel yet disruptive feature. The second theme, "Chocobos of Pulse," was handled by Masashi Hamauzu and it is much more to my liking in fact, it's the best version of the Chocobo theme to date, in my opinion. It's a jazz fusion piece that manages to both fit the organic nature of Pulse quite well yet be a bundle of fun too. I had the chance to show this to Nobuo Uematsu-san while I was in Chicago for Distant Worlds and he approved of the arrangement. Did I mention there is an awesome percussion solo near the end? Yeah, there is and it is excellent.
There are a few other welcome dashes of jazz elsewhere on the soundtrack. "Sazh's Theme" is another awesome jazz theme that one again brings a playful element to this soundtrack. It's probably representative of Sazh's character and, given he has a baby Chocobo in his hair, I see this fitting him even more, given the tie-in with "Pulse de Chocobo". This one no doubt also inspired the particularly funky "Can't Catch a Break". The percussion is top notch, the acoustic guitar gives some great personality, and the piano work is absolutely to die for. This is one of those themes that is great to listen to in order to get cheered up. I hear it's a bit mismatched for the scene in which it plays, but I can't confirm at this time. Another fantastic and surprising theme for me was "The Yaschas Massif." If I was given a blind listening test and was told to guess the composer, the first person in my mind would have been Norihiko Hibino given its bossa-nova rhythms and flute focus. It's an awesome theme with a bit of a bossa-nova flair to it. Fantastic job Hamauzu-san!
Despite the refreshing feel of the overall soundtrack, Final Fantasy XIII features a fair share of darker areas too. "The Pompa Sancta" reverts back to the orchestral focus of the soundtrack. It's also quite militaristic in nature and even gives a Star Wars vibe at times. However, it's a very menacing piece overall, given this serves as the dungeon theme leading up to a crucial battle. Another Hamauzu-Suzuki collaboration, "The Vile Peaks" sounds even more malevolent. The bass line is quite foreboding and there is some spoken word excerpts during the introduction. The strings work really helps create a fantastic mood for the entire piece and also combines well with the more electronic aspects of the theme and the woodwind sections. The use of ominous choir also adds to the overall atmosphere of the theme. Though not a major highlight, "Taejin's Tower" is rather interesting as well with its use of subtle vocal excerpts and springy sound effects. A little odd, but it still adds to the diversity of the soundtrack.
Moving to the climax of the score, "Dust to Dust" is actually my favorite area theme. Between Hamauzu's conventional orchestration, Mitsuto Suzuki offers an exquisite mix of atmospheric Kajiuran-style vocals and ethnic percussion samples. While the timbres are beautiful, what makes this one particularly meaningful is the way it reprises "Fang's Theme". "Start Your Engines" gets the emotions rousing in preparation for the climactic battles. It seems to bring the action component of the soundtrack round full circle with it blend of epic orchestration and electro-rock accompaniment. A sense of urgency is created through the use of the frenetic strings, but there is a transient sense of heroism at times when the melody kicks in. The final dungeon theme, "The Cradle Will Fall", is quite experimental. It opens rather bizarrely with disjointed electronic sounds and no melody at all. As it progresses, some electronic melody fragments are introduced and a gothic element is created by the dabs of chorus use. Once it gets going, the melody is absolutely gorgeous and the creepy organ climax is also remarkable. This great theme certainly emphasises both the organic and technological aspects of the world of Final Fantasy XIII.
The final battle suite consists of three themes. The first theme, "Fighting Fate," first plays during a crucial battle earlier in the game and is dominated by choral work. The piece is quite epic, relying on strong percussion and brass to demonstrate a feeling of utter hopelessness. As expected given Hamauzu's expertise in the area, the chorus is very powerful and really accentuates the feeling of despair. The second theme, "Born Anew," continues the epic nature of the final battle suite and is even more impacting than "Fighting Fate." This time, powerful percussion and strings provide the focus instead of chorus, but the valiant orchestration and performance ensures this is in no way underwhelming. The theme even ends with a solo male operatic passage that just screams "despair." It's a shame the voice is not featured more in the theme, though.
That brings us to the final battle theme, "Nascent Requiem." When it comes to Final Fantasy and Hamauzu's final battle themes, I am usually torn. For example, I find "Decisive Battle" from Final Fantasy X to be quite an exquisite composition, but I really didn't find it fitting as a final battle theme. "Chaotic End," from Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, was a bit better, but I didn't find it fitting for the final battle theme either. So, Hamauzu's track record when it comes to final battle themes isn't exactly thrilling in my eyes despite the undeniable musical creativity lying behind the compositions. So, what is this final battle theme like? Well, for one, it's like an evolved "Decisive Battle." The various elements, such as the chaotic piano, fluttering woodwind passages, tstrong brass accents, gliding strings, and, of course, pounding percussion really combine well. The development is also comprehensive and, near the end of the theme, there is a very calming and beautiful interlude that serves to ease the tension a bit before it loops. My final verdict: I think he finally nailed it!
Moving to the conclusion of the soundtrack, listeners are given a succession of superb orchestral performances to wrap up the soundtrack. The aforementioned reprises of the main theme in "Fabula Nova Crystallis" and "Ending Credits" are definitive highlights. It's also wonderful how the fantastical theme exposed in "Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII" is recapitulated in the relieving fantasy-inspired orchestration "Final Fantasy - Miracles", alongside the main theme for the game. Although "Ending Credits" is more definitive overall, dare I suggest that "Miracles" is the finest orchestral performance on the entire soundtrack? Unfortunately, the pop vocal ballad "Kimi ga Irukara" is not particularly special. Sayuri Suguwara's vocals are quite mature for an unknown and the melody is also quite richly shaped; however, it's still not as memorable as the offerings of Nobuo Uematsu on previous Final Fantasy soundtrack. Furthermore, the arrangement the arrangement is clearly more the work of pop producer Sin than Masashi Hamauzu, even if there are a few highlight violin solos. A decent track, but the unlicensed vocal tracks used in the area themes are far better.
As I stated before, I wasn't the biggest fan of Hamauzu in general before listening to this soundtrack. By the end of this soundtrack, however, Hamauzu has managed to win me over and make me a major fan of at least one of his scores. There are plenty of extremely exquisite themes here, particularly among the area and character tracks, both electro-acoustic and orchestral. Hamauzu dabbles in styles that I was shocked to hear, such as rock, jazz, and dance music, while also relying on his existing strengths as a classical musician and choral singer. His collaborations with electronica star Mitsuto Suzuki and ambient soundscaper Junya Nakano just add to the diversity. Since Hamauzu left Square Enix, it's hard to say where he will turn up next, but if he can keep up this caliber, he may just convert me into a full-fledged fan. This is Hamauzu's magnum opus and will serve as a great portfolio for his future as a freelance composer. I highly recommend everyone purchases this soundtrack. It shouldn't disappoint!
Overall Score: 9/10