Ni no Kuni -The Sorcerer of Darkness- Original Soundtrack :: Review by Joe
Ni No Kuni: The Sorcerer of Darkness is pretty much a dream video game for me from the sounds of things. Although it hasn't been released in the west yet, from what I've heard and seen about it I cannot wait to play it. It combines so many big names and gameplay styles and other aspects to create a whole that, on paper at least, should be satisfying in every possible way. Level-5, who developed the game, have had an incredible track record recently with the latest Dragon Quest games and the Professor Layton series among others, and then there's Studio Ghibli, the creators of some of my all time favourite films (Spirited Away being probably my favourite), lending their animation to the mix.
From what I understand of the story, it follows the tale of a young boy named Oliver whose mother suddenly dies. While mourning the death of his mother he unintentionally brings a doll named Shizuku to life, who tells him that he is "the boy with a pure heart" and is destined to travel to a parallel world and save it from the evil black mage Jabo, and in the process he may be able to bring his mother back to life. This sounds like pretty typical fantasy storytelling on paper, but with Studio Ghibli behind the project it's guaranteed to be lavishly told. From what I understand of the rest of the game, the gameplay is an RPG with a mix of elements from Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Professor Layton, but perhaps most interesting is the Magic Master book that comes with the game, which is required to solve some puzzles and looks up spells among other things. This sense of immersion reminds me of a similar puzzle from Startropics, and I think it will really draw people into the game. Anyway as you can tell I'm very excited, so please hurry up and localize the game ASAP Level-5!
Though if there is anything that excites me the most about this game, it's the music. I fell in love with the music of this game just by watching the trailers, and this was before I'd even heard that the guy who had written all the cinematic was none other than Joe Hisaishi, one of my favourite film composers. He has a raw talent for crafting such amazing memorable music, and I don't know how he does it sometimes. There's so much repetition in his music, and his melodies and harmonies are very simple, yet he manages to say more in a single one to four minute track than many huge symphonic works can in one hour plus; he is the absolute master of simple music composition. This is evident throughout this soundtrack.
What makes it even more extraordinary is the story behind how Joe Hisaishi got involved. The senior team for the game approached him about scoring the game, and he said he would do it if he were given the budget for a full live orchestra. Because of this, the size of the game has required the use of a special 4GB DS cartridge. In terms of artistic value, if this soundtrack and trailer footage are anything to go by, all this effort has paid off, and we potentially have one of the greatest video games ever made to look forward to. Interestingly some additional background music for the game was made by Rei Kondoh, though this is not included on this soundtrack release.
Before I talk about the actual music, I feel I should give very high praise to the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, who performed Hisaishi's compositions. They have done an incredible job in bringing these compositions to life; they've managed to be subtle, dramatic, epic, light-hearted and magical at all the right moments, and you can tell that they were really enjoying playing this music and giving the music so much passion. So bravo to all of the performers involved!
Now onto the music, straight away the Main Theme of the game is just incredible to listen to. It starts with a really engaging brass fanfare that gives way to a really sweet melody, with the main focus being on a traditional Japanese flute. We get to hear plenty of other instruments lend their voice to this tune, from the strings to the upper brass to the Western woodwinds. Meanwhile a guitar like instrument is a nice addition to the accompaniment too. This piece goes through so many emotions and moods, from fanfare-like to sentimental, and is an absolute joy to listen to. You know you're in for something special when this is the main theme of the game. Later on in the soundtrack, "The Decisive Battle" is an alternative arrangement of this main theme. It has more of a focus on the brass and percussion and feels very militaristic with its constant snare drum and high trumpets at the beginning. Towards the second half of the track, this decrescendo's to allow for some quieter music, with a focus on, oddly enough, an Indian Sitar in the melody, though I really like the different sound here. The melodies and musical ideas found in these tracks are quoted in other parts of the soundtrack, though they're only minor references, so there isn't too much reliance on the main theme.
The next track "Morning of Beginning" goes for a calmer, lighter approach. It opens with the harp and glockenspiel playing a simple chord based backing, with some flourishes provided by the flute, then a strings melody creeps in. This then repeats with more happening in the bass, before introducing it's B section in the form of a tune that reminds me of "Love Grows" from Final Fantasy VIII. This then repeats before ending on a nice major chord. "Hotroit" meanwhile is a fast paced, energetic and jolly piece that wouldn't be out of place in a race scene with it's fast staccato quaver accompaniment. By contrast, the melody 45 seconds in features long legato phrases in the melody. This contrast of characters is fantastic, and keeps the variety in check, ensuring that the soundtrack never get's repetitive.
The next track, "Incident Occurence!" introduces some more intense music into the soundtrack, starting out with staccato accompaniment and an uneasy melody. This then builds to a low brass climax before starting again, this time with more elaborate orchestration, which ends on some music that leaves the listener feeling on edge. "Crisis" is an arrangement of the first half of this track with the instrumentation focusing on the strings and piano, while "Tension" is an arrangement of the second half with a focus on the woodwind and brass. These tracks surely make for some great tension building cinematic moments in the game, and I particularly like the horns at the beginning of the latter. "Mighty Magic" meanwhile is a track that speaks for itself in that it describes the music perfectly, opening with an epic fanfare from the brass and followed by music that really makes the listener say "wow" with all it's grandeur. The piece gets bigger as it progresses and carries on and then ends with a slower recapitulation of the fanfare.
"Arie ~Recollection~" then focuses on what Joe Hisaishi is best at better than any other soundtrack composer in my opinion piano writing. Here, after the harp intro, he offers an absolutely sublime melody on the piano supported by muted strings and supplemented by the glockenspiel. While not as developed as some of his other piano pieces such as those from Spirited Away, it still offers a highly memorable melody that gives me goosebumps every time. After a more dramatic piano line the track ends on some diminished 7th chords, signifying that something strange and unexpected has just happened. This piece is developed further in "Miracle ~Reunion~", beginning with some dramatic piano, before giving us the melody of the aforementioned in a much more elaborate arrangement and orchestration. This track even has a cheesy up a semitone key change towards the end of the piece to conclude on a very happy note.
There's plenty of quirky and stylistically different music in the soundtrack too. "Shizuku" is a brilliant and very memorable theme that feels appropriate for the intelligent yet slightly goofy character. The piece starts off very lighthearted and develops into a very heavy yet still appropriately characterful piece the bass end here almost feels like a mockery. Slightly less goofy is "Neko Kingdom's Castle Town", with its compound time, light percussion and guitar backing, fast moving melodies and regular character swings. It reminds me a lot of the market town themes from The Legend of Zelda series; even the Japanese flute sounds like an ocarina when it's playing the melody. "Desert Kingdom's Town" creates the feel of a less lively and more serious town; it features excellent use of the sitar, and world percussion instruments to create an Arabic feel, and I also really like the trumpets tune here.
There are also plenty of dark pieces in the soundtrack. "Imperial March" starts off very dark and moody and grows into a very intimidating militaristic march with its focus being on the brass. "Jabo, The Black Wizard" is also very intimidating but in a more atmospheric way, focusing on lower strings for most of the track this piece basically says "you don't want to mess with this guy". "Labyrinth" goes for a similar vibe but feels more mysterious and less dark. In fact, the melodies found at the beginning and the end of this track remind me of the first movement of Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. Of the battle themes, the main "Battle" theme is surprisingly lighthearted and not what you'd expect from a typical RPG battle theme, though I think it's held back nature means that it won't get boring with repeated listens in-game, and it's a great piece to listen to on a standalone basis. "Imagine Battle" is a playful and quirky one, which evokes a similar vibe to that found of perhaps a comedy sidekick with it's unpredictable harmony and melodies. By contrast, "Final Battle" uses the dark ideas found in Jabo's theme, but with a more militaristic and intense feel similar to the "Imperial March", and sounds like it will fit the final boss battle of this game perfectly.
And finally we have the main vocal theme of the game, "Fragments of Hearts", and I absolutely love it. It starts off with an intro from the Japanese flutes before the first verse begins with just vocal and piano, and from there the orchestration builds towards a climax after the second chorus, then we get a key change which carries the song towards a more gentle ending. I can't remember the last time I have been moved so much and gotten so many goosebumps by a song of this nature. The melody is simple, memorable and effective, the accompaniment and instrumentation absolutely beautiful, and Mei's lush vocals are perfect for the song. "Field" is an instrumental version of this song. After a hard hitting orchestral intro the piece decrescendos into the main tune, which compared to the vocal version is more richly orchestrated with a lot more going on from various sections. Fast flurries of notes in the strings and percussion keep the piece moving forward while the multiple instruments that play the melody keep it sounding fresh all the time, and each brings it's own unique voice to the table. This arrangement ends with very dark sounding low piano and brass, which suited one of the trailers for the game really well, and sounds like it will work really well as the overworld theme for the game.
Wow! That was incredible. After all that, I think I can honestly say that I have a new all-time favourite video game soundtrack, and this is it. Joe Hisaishi has excelled himself and, in my opinion, created his best score since Spirited Away. I cannot remember the last time that I have been moved so much by music on a standalone basis, making this soundtrack all the more extraordinary. The melodies are unforgettable, the Tokyo Philharmonic's performance sounds amazing, and the orchestrations and arrangements are outstanding. I could rave about this music for hours if I wanted to, but I'll spare you the boredom and leave you with a perfect score and an unconditional recommendation from me. The only downside to owning this soundtrack is that it's going to make the wait for the game to be released outside of Japan really really agonizing (please Level-5!). Until then I am waiting with eager anticipation for what looks set to be an absolutely phenomenal game.
Overall Score: 10/10