Final Fantasy Gaiden -Four Warriors of Light- Soundtrack :: Review by Jaime
Retro is one of the words of the day. Of course gaming as a whole has always being a form of entertainment that relies simultaneously on an endless movement forward as well as on the affectionate remembrance of the past, but we seem to be at this moment in a phase in which the past is revisited more than ever. Dozens of reviews all over the Net dissect every new appearance of an old game in Wii's Virtual Console, most of them by people who still remember playing the original cartridges, and one of the big RPG hits of the year been not a new generation game, but the original Final Fantasy VII, which sold like hot cakes the day it appeared for download in the PlayStation Network. Even the sounds of those old consoles are coming back. Several projects have used old chiptune-like sounds to arrange every kind of theme imaginable, either by themselves or mixed with other sounds (which is, if you don't mind the spoiler, what this soundtrack I'm about to review does).
In this environment, Square Enix has made a Final Fantasy Gaiden, or side story. That's not the first time they have done this, of course; Seiken Densetsu began as one before spawning its own series, and Final Fantasy IX started life as another, before being upgraded to the main numbered series. I have not seen any images of the game, but it's being promoted as the sort of affectionate look back to the classics that I was speaking of, and I find that attitude apparent throughout this soundtrack composed by Naoshi Mizuta, someone whose name is not the first to pop up in most people's minds when thinking about the music of Final Fantasy and its various spinoffs, but who's been for years the man behind the music of Final Fantasy XI's universe. What has he been able to do in this setting? Let's see!
The most salient characteristic at first listen is, as anyone will tell you, the mixture of both old and new sounds. But not only old and new types of sounds, but actual familiar sounds that we have heard so many times. Throughout the album, many times in the same track, things like buzzing arpeggios and echoey sustained synth melodies, synth percussions, strings, chimes, mandolins, harps, and woodwinds, all sounding very much like their counterparts from the old system sound processors. If I may use a simile, much of this soundtrack sounds like played by an ensemble of a NES, a SNES, a PSX, and a Game Boy. So in essence one could say that there are two levels of arrangement here: Not only the melodies are accompanied by parts which are assigned to different sounds, but for each sound there's also a choice of the quality of said sound. So depending on the piece, an arpeggio sound might be realized by a NES triangle wave, or a SNES or PSX harp; a string sound by a modern sounding synth or a PSX type string; a sustained melody by a SNES woodwind or a Gameboy or NES synth. It's quite sophisticated, really, once one starts to delve deep into it.
And there is no better introduction to that technique than the very first track, "The Four Warriors of Light Main Theme", which is essentially a souped up version of the later track "The Four Warriors of Light". After a majestic fanfare opening, there is a melody that begins recalling a little bit the Dragon Quest fanfare in its first three notes intro but is actually the main theme of the game all of which is played on high quality synth. There is subsequently a second melody played with a sound very reminiscent of a NES soundtrack, over an equally classic 8-bit sound: that of a triangle wave doing arpeggios. Meanwhile the realistic sounds still play in a subdued way underneath. The track repeats a couple of times, with variations in the orchestral parts, until it comes to a satisfying close, ending as epically as it began. The aforementioned later version is essentially the same, with the synth quality toned down a bit, and the main melody played on successive iterations both by old and modern sounds. The first run of it the one that later becomes the beginning of the loop reminds me in particular of Final Fantasy III and its cute approximations to snare drums.
There are many themes that have both "day" and "night" versions. From their names, I assume they are area themes, and I'd say that creating a diverse but unifying set of area themes is one of Mizuta's strong points, as any fan of the music of Final Fantasy XI would know. The first two tracks in the CD after the main theme which are the day and night versions of "Horn, the Home of the Wind" are a perfect example of those. The trick in this case is that the main melody of the "night" version is the same from the "day" version, even with most of the instrumentation intact, the main difference being the backing, specifically syncopated chords for the day version, quiet arpeggios for the night version. That's mostly true for all of them: the night versions usually employ a more sparse backing to create a difference, with arpeggios done with celesta, harp or lute sounds being Mizuta's preferred way. Each one has their character but vary greatly in quality.
Apart from the already mentioned "Horn", my favourite of these themes is "Magic Kingdom Gula" and its modal melodies which sound neither Celtic nor Mediterranean nor Slavic, but a mixture of them all. Also worthy of mention is "Liberte, the Capital of Art". Must be Impressionistic art, as just like in Final Fantasy VI the concept of an art-loving city was portrayed with European-sounding music (Baroque in that case), here it's portrayed with a French-like waltz. Finally, "Trading City Vulpes" sounds at times slightly medieval and slightly 19th century at others. There's one more of these "day/night" pieces that I'd like to highlight, and that is "Walking the Ground". Given both the title and its use of the main theme, I assume this to be an overworld theme or equivalent. I already mentioned how heroic the main theme sounds, but it's also quite suitable for the eerie treatment of the night version, while the day version couples it with a relaxed but very swinging rhythm (carried mainly by 8-bit bass and drums) that gives it a sense of adventure and fun exploration that I can't help but relate to the overworld themes of old gameplay-oriented classics like Final Fantasy I, III, or V.
As for the standalone tracks, there is a group of pieces which sound like mysterious area themes, like "Cave of Wraiths", "The Witch's Mansion", "Elva, the Forbidden Land", "Cursed Town", or "Closed-Off Invidia". Most of those employ sparse textures and what sounds like modal melodies over minor tones to convey that impression. Of those, overall "The Witch's Mansion" might be the most interesting at first listen, although the frankly repetitive and unoriginal main part of "Closed-Off Invidia" gradually gives way to a truly gorgeous theme which grows on you after a couple of listens. Also of note is, "Another Space", used right before the final gauntlet of fighting music. Although nothing to write home about, manages to evoke the ambience of Final Fantasy IV's moon themes. After a good portion of the disc (roughly from "The Legendary Whale" on) had been spent on a near lethargic mood, it's a welcome change of pace when more dynamic pieces appear near the end. They start with "The Demon King's Servants" and "Approaching Dread", neither of which are anything groundbreaking but are nice while they're on (unlike "Crisis by a Hair", which sounds like one of those dreaded Final Fantasy hurry themes). I guess "The Demon King's Heartbeat" is for a final dungeon type area, but I don't think it goes much beyond a general "hero against dread" feeling.
Of course this would not be an RPG soundtrack if it didn't have its share of battle music. We have a generic battle theme in "Battle with Demons" that perfectly mixes sounds and techniques we have heard throughout the story of gaming, and which in its construction makes me recall the battle themes of the Final Fantasy IX / Chrono Cross era. Conversely, although spiced up with modern synth drums and background intruments, "Strong Enemy" is very old-school in its execution, almost like a classic NES Konami or Capcom tune. "A Desperate Situation", which follows it, is so similar that it feels like an extension to it, or maybe a second part of a larger composition. That combination of old and new is also an integral part of "The Final Battle" and "Chaos, the Demon King", both of which put the 8-bit sounds and old-school inspirations at the forefront of what are actually quite sophisticated arrangements. For example in "The Final Battle" the entrance of the main rhythmic motif on NES-type sounds is made all the more sudden by being preceded by a synthesized orchestral intro, while "Chaos the Demon King", although cleverly arranged, is maybe the most old school oriented theme of them all.
As compositions, the majority of the pieces are very solid and interesting, the harmonic treatment neither too simplistic nor too complex. Check for example a piece like "Royal Palace Melody", which is very simple rhythmically and derives all its melodic contour from the harmonic progression; it's the nice harmonic movement which makes it work. I only have two complaints, one being that Mizuta relies too much on waltz time throughout, the other being that, as is usual with many soundtracks, the majority of the best themes are grouped near the beginning and the end, my interest declining a bit around the third quarter of the tracklist.
One thing that I liked was the subtle allusions to the musical story of the Final Fantasy series. "Victory", for example, although having a completely different melody, reflects part by part the structure of the classic Final Fantasy victory fanfare. "Cave of Wraiths" sounds like it drew much inspiration by "Curse of Jinn" from Final Fantasy III with a liberal dose of Final Fantasy IX dungeon music sprinkled on top. The intro to "The Witch's Mansion", which is a string tension piece, does somehow sound like a cross between the intro from VIII's "Premonition" and the string part of VII's "Trail of Blood". Nobody can deny the link between "Business is Fun" and III's "Une's Morning Exercise", right down to the sound of the backing part. That, not counting the tunes whose form and function you can guess right from the title, like "Guidance of the Crystal", "Defeat" and "Good Night Now". And as usual there's a couple of ending themes to round off the experience. "End of the Journey" is a tender, reflective, moody piece, with a nice but not absolutely trivial melody, while "The Adventure Doesn't End" serves as a triumphant conclusion, quoting the initial fanfare of the opening theme as well as martial renditions of several of the themes from the whole soundtrack, including the Main theme and some of the area themes.
So how can I sum this up? This is, of course, a soundtrack that doesn't really try to break any new ground, as that doesn't appear to be the game's scope or purpose. However, what it does, it does well. It certainly recalls the series it comes from while having a voice of its own, it's simple without being banal. Its use of the several types of synths and sounds is done well enough, and they're integrated well enough that its use amounts to a technique in its own right, rather than a gimmick that would overstay its welcome. Of course you have to come to this with the right attitude and not expect anything too elaborate or profound, even if the music has its share of clever touches here and there. But if you like the old Final Fantasy vibe, here there's a fair share of it, just don't expect it to sound like Nobuo Uematsu's masterpieces.
A final thing: although I've been reminded of most of the classic Final Fantasy instalments in more than one occasion, one game in particular kept appearing in my thoughts: Final Fantasy III. It might not be a coincidence, being that the game is apparently about "four warriors of light" and the tracklist seems to suggest the adventure begins in a wind-themed town, but if it is, it is an interesting one. If you like light-hearted yet well constructed music, you might like this one a lot. And Final Fantasy completists will get it anyway, but I think they might end up having it some more time than expected in the CD player.
Overall Score: 8/10