Final Fantasy XII Original Soundtrack :: Review by Jared
Before I begin reviewing this album, I believe a formal warning must be issued; if you go in, expecting more of the same Uematsu, with heavy emphasis on thematic material, you will most likely not be pleased. The Final Fantasy XII Original Soundtrack brings a new feel to the series, and though far from the ordinary, it is still a musical masterpiece.
Sakimoto returns to write for the world of Ivalice, and though I have not played the game, the music seems to be fitted to the style of gameplay seen so far. What Sakimoto lacks in melodic material, he makes up for with extreme sophistication and orchestration. He is a master of the orchestra, and it is featured prominently in nearly all tracks on the album. He moulds the ensemble to his own will, producing pieces in all ranges of the emotional spectrum. From sad themes of loss to intense, riveting war music, Sakimoto delivers in wondrous finesse.
The start of the album is a very appropriate one. The first tracks introduce some Final Fantasy mainstays; "The Prelude" and the majestic "Final Fantasy" main theme. It all begins with "Loop Demo," a track featuring the "Prelude" and a hint at battle themes appearing later in the soundtrack. Following "Loop Demo" is the gorgeous "Final Fantasy," powerfully arranged for orchestra. The first two tracks provide a wonderful introduction and preview of the rest of the album. Next up is one of the better tracks of the entire soundtrack, "Opening Movie." While it may not be up to the standards of Uematsu's "Liberi Fatali" in terms of sheer power, it is a worthy opening piece. Sakimoto's strong orchestral focus becomes clear in this track, as each section utilizes the ensemble to maximum potential in able to bring out all the emotion.
Disc One brings many good pieces to the table, but also a number of lacklustre ones to go with it. There are some wonderful location themes, particularly "The Royal City of Rabanastre" and "Giza Plains." "Rabanastre" is light and cheerful, including a pizzicato string line under a playful flute melody. Occasionally the brass will make an entrance and add some dynamic to the piece, but it mostly hovers around a softer melodic core. "Giza," simply put, is a masterpiece. I don't believe I have ever heard such a beautifully epic location theme anywhere. It has many beautiful contrasting sections, and also is more melodic than most of the tracks Sakimoto presents. The use of rhythm is inspired and fresh, and all of these elements come together to form a grand theme.
However, the rest of the location themes don't quite live up to "Giza" and "Rabanastre," though show their own merits. "Clan Headquarters" is brimming with energy from start to finish, though is often a bit over the top for my personal tastes. "The Dalmasca Eastersand" is also energetic, though being more intense and dramatic than the other location tracks. However, like most of Sakimoto's work, the absence of a thematic core hurts the piece. "Rabanastre Downtown" has a lovely rhythmic feel to it, but it sorely lacks in anything else. It's nonsensical the entire way through, throwing random styles out including what could have been a gorgeous string melody if developed better. "Dalmasca Westersand," "Nalbina Fortress Town Ward," and "The Garamscythe Waterway" are decent, but lack the quality of the other location themes.
"Boss Battle" shows off Sakimoto's expertise writing tense, rhythmic orchestral battle themes. While not his best on the album, I can't really say anything negative about this theme; all of his battle music is very impressive and shows a high level of mastery. Despite the lack of a true melody (unlike Uematsu's battle themes), it is dangerous, suspenseful, and very intense. "Penelo's Theme" adds a nice touch of cheerfulness amidst many darker, intense tracks. Several other pieces within the first disc have a playful attitude, but most of them are underwhelming, and often annoying because of horrible use of high woodwinds.
The first disc also has a great number of very short tracks, which, while effective in game, are nigh pointless on the soundtrack. "Level Up," "Mission Start," "Mission Fail," "Separation with Penelo," "A Small Happiness," "A Small Bargain," and "The Dream to be a Sky Pirate," all suffer from this. Obviously, most of them would not be suited for much extension, but "Separation with Penelo" and "The Dream to be a Sky Pirate" both feature extensive development despite being around half a minute long. I feel that both of these pieces most definitely would have benefited from extension, but track-game synch may have prevented that.
A number of 'darker' pieces make an appearance as well. "Infiltration" shines above the others, because though it is dark in nature, it is still intense and has enough contrast to hold interest, unlike "An Omen". Indeed, Disc One presents us with a number of wonderful themes, but also several that are sub par and seem without any form of direction. The lovely "Penelo's Theme," the epic "Giza Plains," the diverse "Opening Movie," and the intense "Boss Battle" highlight the first disc and are all very worthy listens.
Disc Two opens with the suspenseful "The Princess' Vision," which is unspectacular at best. It consists of a lot of chords and annoying high string motifs. There is no center theme, just a number of slight string and flute melodies laid over tremolo strings. The piece sets an atmosphere, but its lack of any melodic coherence ruins what could have been an enjoyable track. A number of other suspenseful and dark tracks make an appearance on Disc Two. "The Secret of Nethicite" is intense and dangerous, utilizing more rhythmic passages and instrumental diversity. Though again, there is little in terms of melody, but the piece manages to remain interesting without it. "Barbarians," however, isn't so successful. Sakimoto relies very heavily on bass in this piece, with low strings, low brass blasts, and the occasional horn dissonance. Overall, the piece suffers from a severe lack of variation on all fronts.
"Clash of Swords" is a top-notch example of Sakimoto's mastery of the orchestral battle theme. Throughout the entire piece, the ensemble is always used to maximum potential in terms of providing an intense and dangerous atmosphere. "Clash" makes wondrous use of horns and percussion; cymbals are constantly used to great effect, and horns provide soaring melodies and tension with fast runs and dissonance. The use of percussion and brass is phenomenal. "Battle Drum" is what one might call an "experimental" piece. It consists primarily of various percussion instruments and low brass. The rhythm in this piece is simply unrivalled, and the brass provides this piece with one of the most dangerous atmospheres heard in the soundtrack. Where "Battle Drum" excelled in danger, "Speechless Fight" excels in pure intensity. The pulse of this piece never lets up; throughout, it is immensely chaotic and borderline atonal, lacking much of any true center. "Abyss" is a hit or miss; if you like atonality, this is a near masterpiece. If you don't, you most likely with loathe this piece with your entire person. It is full of action and apparent randomness, with dissonant brass and piano followed by a sweet and mysterious flute solo. Its genius in its nonsense, and portrays its title about as perfectly as any track could.
Location themes on this disc are good, but they lack the character of those present on the first disc. "Barheim Passage" is a wonderful mixture of timbre. Combined with the sweet piccolo is a very heavy low string pulse, eventually transgressing to a peaceful harp with gentle string backing. A good theme, however it is too repetitive and boring to be considered a highlight. "Nalbina Fortress Underground Prison" and "The Dreadnought Leviathan Bridge" continue with the dark, suspenseful nature of the themes on this disc. Unlike "Barheim Passage," however, both themes remain interesting thanks to Sakimoto's intuitive sense of rhythm. He uses it to great effect in both pieces, providing interesting changes throughout the length instead of using the same dull chords to usher in a sense of danger. Also, the variety in instrumentation is very welcome; instead of relying heavily on strings, he uses members of all orchestral families.
Here to break the suspense, "The Skycity of Bhujerba" is a drastic change in style from the majority of tracks on this disc. It has a playful, upbeat feel to it, and uses cheerful backing from a variety of instruments and rhythms to support the relaxed melodies. "A Promise with Balfear," "Game Over," and "Basch's Reminiscence" suffer from lack of development, each clocking in at less than one minute apiece. "Basch's Reminiscence" is the worst of the three, made up only of held choral chords. "A Promise with Balfear" develops very well in its very short length, combining power with suspense. "Game Over" isn't much of a piece, having only a bittersweet harp melody that wanders around and becomes more pointless than sad. "Theme of the Empire" is perhaps a culmination of the styles present on this disc. It combines the intensity of "Speechless Battle," the danger of "Abyss," the playfulness of "Skycity of Bhujerba," and the rhythmic prowess of "Battle Drum." How all this fits into one track is amazing; a number of sections appear throughout the length, and helps keep the listener in tune throughout its entire 7:49 of music.
The famous "Chocobo" makes an appearance on this disc as an unreleased track. It is a decent track, but a perfect example of how Sakimoto's sophistication can also be harmful to a piece. The playful theme loses much of its humour because of its orchestration. Though not grand, it still comes off as being too serious and metrical. Disc Two is filled to the brim with suspense and darkness. The sheer number of tracks based around this atmosphere is daunting; this disc becomes very hard to listen to more than once. "Challenging the Empire," "Upheaval," and "State of Emergency" all sound much too alike to be appreciated, and their consecutive positions on the soundtrack only hurt them more. However, the battle themes are completely worth this disc; "Clash of Swords" is pure orchestral mastery. "Speechless Fight" and "Battle Drum" both retain a sense of danger and intensity unrivalled by most battle themes. "Theme of the Empire" is a mixture of many styles, and effectively works as a summation of this disc in its entirety. "Clash of Swords," "Theme of the Empire," "Speechless Fight," and "Battle Drum" highlight this suspense-filled disc.
Thankfully, Disc Three is considerably more diverse than the second. It starts with "The Sandsea," which is similar in style to several tracks on the last disc. "Sandsea" manages to be more interesting overall, as it quotes melodies from "Opening Movie" and utilizes active background parts, keeping the piece moving at a comfortable pace. "An Imminent Threat," unfortunately, is more of the same suspenseful strings, horn dissonance, and ominous bass. Probably effective in the game, but listening to the soundtrack, the formula gets old very quickly.
Disc Three treats us with some awesome battle themes. "Esper Battle" is the very essence of power. A strong martial beat remains throughout the piece as a choir belts out a powerful chord progression, echoed later by the blaring brass. The sheer strength of this piece is amazing to behold. It is repetitive, but to be honest, that doesn't matter one bit as the muscle of this piece more than makes up for it. "Desperate Fight" is a bit different than the other battle themes, as it is more based around melodic figures than effects and ambience. Sakimoto uses purely gorgeous, soaring horn melodies over tense strings and percussion. Mallet percussion also gets a role, keeping rhythm during slower sections. "Clash on the Big Bridge" rounds out the battle themes on this disc, and just like previous themes, is completely awesome. This track is a remix of the popular "Battle with Gilgamesh" from Final Fantasy V, and as such is likely to be a hit-or-miss track. Personally, I think Sakimoto did wonders with the theme, adding in dissonance, a much more sophisticated and full orchestration, and (of course!) lovely horn countermelodies. A snare drum keeps a steady rhythm throughout, as cymbals and bass drum provide accents at the perfect moments. Also, this battle theme is entirely melodic, as it is built around Uematsu's famous tune. The combination is, in my book, a massive success.
The location themes have a nice variety of styles, though several are sub-par. "Ozmone Plains" is one of the better location themes of the soundtrack, being based around a lovely melody. It is upbeat, utilizes a unique instrumentation, and makes great use of various percussive instruments. The energy flows throughout, but never gets irritating. "The Salikawood," however, is very underwhelming. It has a very strange style, and partway through begins to even sound like elevator music with an aimless piano solo. Eventually, through the ambience comes a climax, with very little leading up to it. Another theme, "The Golmore Jungle," suffers from similar problems of randomness. A bunch of pointless ambience and orchestral noise clutters this piece, and covers what slight interest there is. Partway through, an intense brass section comes out of nowhere, and while the section itself is actually quite good, it doesn't fit in with the rest of the piece. "The Mosphoran Highwaste" utilizes melodies from "Opening Movie," and to great effect. It is energetic, rhythmic, atmospheric, and melodic. Combining all of those into one track is strange for Sakimoto, but it is a very welcome change from the same old formula. It has a grand orchestration and a beautifully chaotic arrangement.
"Time for a Rest," "A Moment's Rest," and "Near the Water," are all good pieces in a brighter style, which is a wonderful contrast from disk two. Featuring simple accompaniment and themes, they are pleasing to the ears. "Near the Water" is especially inspiring; it features gorgeous melodies, lovely chord progressions, and beautiful support parts. Hearing this amidst the darker tracks prominently featured on this soundtrack is a great thing; it comes out of nowhere, but its beauty is astounding and easy to appreciate. "White Room," though mostly chord progressions played in the strings, is a touching piece. The chords seem to float in your heart with sorrow intertwined within the bittersweet strings. This is "The Princess' Vision" done right. In game, this track is probably very effective; just listening to it is aural bliss for someone who enjoys pieces that tug at the heart. "Seeking Power" and "Abandoning Power" are both presented in a peculiar style. I can't adequately describe it; the best I can say is Sakimoto mixes ominous and creepy backgrounds with sombre melodies, and it works. "Seeking Power" is especially eerie in its usage of the piano and strings to offset the sombre horn.
Two happy, playful themes are presented. "You're Really a Child" is a mere thirteen seconds long, but just begs for development. It starts off as if it will have a great melody, then dies out as quickly as it started with no hint of an ending whatsoever. "Chocobo" is the other theme, this being its second appearance on the soundtrack. Similar to the last arrangement, it lacks the humour and style of Uematsu's chocobo theme and is much too sophisticated to be fitting.
The third disc is perhaps the most diverse. From "Esper Battle" to "White Room," several emotions and feelings are shown in the music. This disc also features wonderful battle themes, focusing on the sheer power of the orchestra. "White Room" and "Near the Water" are both beautiful pieces and a wonderful contrast to the commonplace intensity and brooding presented throughout this soundtrack. "Esper Battle," "White Room," "Near the Water," "Clash on the Big Bridge," "Ozmone Plains," and "The Mosphoran Highwaste" highlight this disc, a variety of superb compositions.
"Esper" is a track that tries, but unfortunately fails. It is intense, but it is so over the top with noise it is hard to take it seriously. A choir sings the melody from "Esper Battle," but it sounds completely out of place. The noise definitely hurts the piece substantially, as it is also extremely repetitive and loops early. "The Beginning of the End" succeeds, however. Sakimoto once again shows off his rhythmic and orchestral mastery. It is powerful, yet melodic and interesting. The accented strings provide an effective support to the piece, adding more color and drive. "The Beginning of the End," as the title suggests, is a great preview of the ending tracks and the great stuff that awaits.
"Ashe's Theme" is very unique for a character theme, especially for a female. It beings very mysteriously, then soon becomes very proud and noble thanks to a floating melody and strong accompaniment. The noble section dies out to an intense martial beat, adding in near atonal bass. Percussion adds flavour of all sorts, backing the horn melody and pounding bass with mechanical sounds. Throughout, it is very thematic, and, at times, beautiful. "To the Peak," "The Sky Fortress Bahamut," and "Shaking Bahamut" all effectively lead up to the final conflict. They do so by means of strong melodies and riveting backgrounds, often chaotic. Sakimoto utilizes percussive rhythm to maximum capacity and instils a greater sense of "this is it" than anything before in the soundtrack.
Here it is; "The Battle for Freedom," the climax of the entire soundtrack. Sakimoto's mastery of orchestral battle themes shines through here more than ever before. He combines styles in a wonderful way, starting with a sombre chord progression, into ominous ambience. As strings begin to gradually speed up and build intensity, harsh brass is added until the piece finally blows up with massive power. Brass takes center stage here, as ominous melodies are blared through with unrivalled power. A constant tremolo string background provides the perfect support for such power. Eventually, all of this builds into a chaotic battle theme with noble melodies. Powerful brass, colourful strings and mallet percussion, rhythmic percussion, and atmospheric strings combine to form a powerful and intense epic.
"Ending Movie" follows, summing up the soundtrack as a whole. Sakimoto uses constant melodic material, much of it from previous pieces on the soundtrack. All of this forms a great sense of nostalgia hearing the quoted themes in various styles, from proud to sombre, intense to playful. As always, the orchestration is sophisticated, and it couldn't be more appropriately done in this piece. It reaches a power rivalling that of "The Battle for Freedom," a sad beauty superior to "White Room." It is a perfect representation of this soundtrack and the capabilities of Sakimoto. "Kiss Me Goodbye" presents a beautiful vocal theme, sung by Angela Aki. It takes a simpler approach than past Final Fantasy vocal themes. Orchestration is not very heavy, consisting almost entirely of piano and string accompaniment. Aki sings the theme beautifully, and the background suits her voice very well. The ending of the piece is very effective, and as such brings an effective end to the soundtrack.
"Symphonic Poem 'Hope'" makes an appearance in a shortened form, and is an appropriate addition to the end. Though the poem doesn't make an appearance, it plays during the credits and features some inspired violin writing and an expressive performance of the piece. Disc Four has several great pieces, and is possibly the best disc in the album. Everything is covered, from the beauty of "Ashe's theme" to the power of "The Battle for Freedom," from the sadness of "Ending Theme" to the emotion of "Kiss Me Goodbye." Overall, disc four is a very well rounded disc, filled to the brim with wonderful music of different styles.
Sakimoto presents a different soundtrack; instead of the melodic focus of Uematsu's past works, Sakimoto utilizes ambience, power, intensity, and beauty. He is a master of the orchestra, a master of rhythm, and a master of harmony. From his gorgeous, soaring horn melodies to the tense, ominous strings, his skills in orchestral writing shine through. The lack of melody hurts this soundtrack; you won't walk away from listening humming a tune, because there are few to hum. Most of the music seems without direction; if you can look past that, however, you can see the genius behind the writing. Occasionally, seeing any genius is impossible, as some tracks are just blatantly bare of inspiration.
Sakimoto makes up for the lack of melody with his battle themes. "Clash of Swords," "Speechless Fight," "Battle Drum," "Esper Battle," "Boss Battle," "The Battle for Freedom," "Desperate Fight," and "Clash on the Big Bridge" all have their merits, and all make for a great listen. They are beautifully intense, and the power is often amazing. Overall, if you go in hoping for more Uematsu, you will be sorely disappointed. Go in with an open mind, and you may just leave with a new entry into your personal top five.
Overall Score: 9/10