SaGa Frontier II Original Soundtrack :: Review by Nathan Black
As Masashi Hamauzu's first major work, SaGa Frontier 2 was his chance to showcase his own special style to the world. Indeed, it was time for him to make it clear that he could stand on his own to feet and 'shake the heavens', as it were. SaGa Frontier 2 is the sequel to SaGa Frontier, a game which was met with either love or hate by its players. Kenji Ito had been the preeminent composer for SaGa games, but for one reason or another, the mantle of composer was placed upon Hamauzu's shoulders.
Whatever the worries may have been with putting a relatively unknown composer on the project, Hamauzu undoubtedly and categorically dispelled them with his work on this album. Here we see him taking the freedom of his impressionistic style across many borders and boundaries, seeking to relate various and far-reaching feelings and ideas through music, and to no small amount of success.
Having personally played the game, my own experience with the soundtrack was through the eyes and ears of a cautious player. The talk on the boards, magazines, and websites were not in favor of this game. Misdirected, unfocused, and utterly confusing are just a few of the words I can remember that were used to describe the gaming experience as a whole. Always one to take a chance, and having never played the prequel, I decided to find out for myself.
Let us see how things went, shall we?
Sitting back after plopping the game CD into my trusty PlayStation, I sat with high hopes for another engrossing Squaresoft title. What I first saw was a sword, thrust halfway into the ground and left there, no doubt as a memorial to someone, or something. At that point, the music began.
A few lilting notes, a smooth string, and then a sudden assault of perky and quick piano notes which was soon joined by a flute. For some reason, I could not bring myself to press the start button and begin my journey, nay, continue my journey, for it had already begun. I was never in the habit of listening to the opening scene music in any game (or watching the demos that are usually seen therein, for that matter), but something stopped me here. It felt important to me; as if it was something I should not miss. When the theme, aptly named "Overture," came to an end, I soldiered on only to be assaulted by "Prelude," an equally enchanting, yet much more powerful experience with piano and strings that promised me that, regardless of the game's content, the music certainly had a story to tell. Now, then, that is enough of my personal ranting. I believe the music shall speak for itself.
The excellence to be found in this game's music comes in many forms. One of the facets of the SaGa Frontier 2 soundtrack that was most enjoyable was the fashion in which Hamauzu took the same old theme and turned, twisted, and cajoled it into something completely new and enjoyable in spite of the fact that you had, in effect, heard it all before. The first encounter with the main theme of the game actually takes place in "Prelude," although the casual listener will probably miss it the first few times one hears it. Indeed, it becomes much harder to ignore when it the motif reappears in "Theme," most of the battle themes, and other powerful tracks such as "Leader of Battle." You simply cannot escape this game's theme, and why would you want to? Hamauzu holds nothing back as he retells every aspect of the story with the motif, capturing sadness, anger, joy, power, and weakness, all with immense success.
Another dimension of Hamauzu's talent on the soundtrack is in the way that the soundtrack is actually split between the game's two main characters, Gustave Finney XIII and Wil Knights. Gustave's tale is inexorably wound about the many aspects of war, power, and the search for belonging. The story of Wil revolves much more around his personal war with the artifact known as The Egg. Hamauzu keeps this division clear, with music that is encountered in one man's scenarios being strikingly different in core feeling from the ones seen in the other's.
The music of Gustave's scenarios is usually very majestic and powerful, whether in the relating of his grave misfortune, or his inordinate successes. Themes such as "Majesty" and "Homeless" serve as proper examples of the duality of the man's existence; being all at once a noble of the highest stature and a worthless heir that is no greater than a common fool. "Loneliness," one of my favorite tracks on the album, exposes what appears to be an iron-hearted brat for the misunderstood and passionate individual he is. We visit the theme once again in "Victory," a touching rendition that leaves the player feeling truly accomplished after a long and difficult road, but also a bit remorseful for the cruel things that were necessary to achieve such victory.
Wil's music also spans a wide spectrum, at times quite whimsical, and other times dramatic and mystical. No matter what the emotion behind the music, it is an explorer's soundtrack, touching on the many cultures within the game's world with varying instrumentation and rhythm, like in "Open Air Music" or "Universe." While the former is very bright and driving, the latter is plain creepy. The melody remains simple throughout, but the theme, much like the situation it is encountered in, gives the feeling that something is amiss. You know the whole story is not being told, and Hamauzu encapsulates that curiosity excellently with "Universe." Wil sees the majority of the dungeon crawling in the game, and Hamauzu fails to disappoint once again with equally memorable and fantastical themesto accompany the player as he delves into the depths of SaGa Frontier 2's world.
Hamauzu's work with the dungeon tunes in SaGa Frontier 2 is just as varied as the rest of the album. Some dungeons feature very ambient music, "Siren" and "Depth" being two of the most notable. What was most significant about the ambient tracks is that they still had a very defined melody, never relying on disorganized chording or crowded sound textures to make up for what is simply not present in the piece. No matter how airy or floaty the tune may seem, whistling along is always possible (very important to this dungeon crawler), and a lead instrument is never difficult to point out. On the other hand, Hamauzu by no means shied away from throwing down an attention drawing track, like "Obsession" and "Relevation." Straying far from the norm of the game, "Obsession" is a very dancy track full of synths and ludicrously fast piano arpeggios that tempted this player to get up and groove a step or two. "Revelation" is a very in-your-face track driven by strong string chords, bells, and an almost rhythm & blues drumline. Hamauzu undoubtedly had lots of fun with these tracks, and even though they are quite different than most of what is on the album, they hardly detract. Indeed, they warrant a tip of the hat for such inventiveness.
The battle music of SaGa Frontier 2 is in a league of its own. There are four distinct variations on the game's main theme that function as battle themes for the game, and every single one is nigh perfect for the situation it is encountered in. Always high-energy, and with a mood to fit either the characters or enemies present, none of them dissappoint. "Field Battle II" features a bell vs. synth arrangement with very sizzling high-hats and a powerful snare that keeps a listener's rapt attention. "Field Battle III" is a cross between breakbeat percussion and some very cleverly organized piano arpeggios. Even "Field Battle IV" with it's off-the-wall accordion and wild percussion (congos, toms, you name it) gets the foot tapping and the head nodding in appreciation. When someone can make an accordion solo work for a blood-pumping battle theme, you know they are accomplished composers. There is a victory theme that accompanies every battle theme, and while they each are almost identical in melody and arrangement, every one mimics the instrumentation that is found in its relative battle theme, which I found satisfying way of keeping the mood consistent.
One battle theme in particular deserves lots of attention. "Erlkönig" is an amazing piece of work. It starts off straight away with pounding drums and a consistent, driving bassline that makes no bones about being high octane. It plays during the mass battles in Gustave's scenarios, and it does a splendid job of keeping the energy up throughout the entire piece. The smooth snare rolls and the brass stabs keep you in the mood for war as you oft times get your own behind handed to you by the startlingly difficult scenarios. This was one theme I had no complaints about listening to one hundred times over as I attempted to finish the final mass battle. Hamauzu was in top form as he displayed just how serious he could be. SaGa Frontier 2's soundtrack on the whole is very bright, but "Erlkönig" is full of heart, a no-holds-barred marching band slugfest of blood boiling proportions. When a friend listened to the theme without having ever heard of the composer, the game, or VGM in general, he remarked that it made him feel as if he 'could run for miles'. Without a doubt, that is what "Erlkönig" is all about: tireless war.
In fact, the battle themes are a very strong point on the soundtrack. The two final battle themes, "Angel of Death" and "Deformed Figure," are resounding successes. Ito is known for his skill in composing good battle music, and Hamauzu gained much recognition for his work in Unlimited SaGa, but SaGa Frontier 2 is where he truly stepped onto the stage. Both sample from the game's main theme, and serve as captivating and evocative examples of how one should present the final conflicts of an adventure. "Angel of Death" begins with piano arpeggios and a flowing string accompaniment, quickly painting the dark picture of the difficult and long awaited battle to come. Drums soon enter the equation and set the epic mood. The piano actually takes a back seat at this point, allowing some skillfull brass to come in and lay down the main melody. The loop is done flawlessly as the theme winds down with the same arpeggios that started the tune lead you into the powerful intro once again.
It would not be unfair to say that Hamauzu used SaGa Frontier 2 to show just what a piano or two can do to make a memorable theme. It is without exaggeration that I say that "Variation" is one of the most well-known piece on the entire album. The light-hearted dance of the fingers upon the keys is contagious, stiring up this annoying happiness you cannot help but enjoy. My favorite piano track on the album is actually "Magic Power," an extremely upbeat and jazzy tune that also takes hints of the theme into itself. Hamauzu's grasp of rhythm is what makes this song truly special in my mind. The syncopation catches your ear straight away, and he simply builds from there, and he utilizes those wonderful hi-hats once again to keep your head bobbing in appreciation. "Coincidence" and "Outside World" are also tracks with piano worth taking note of.
SaGa Frontier 2 was a lot of things for Masashi Hamauzu. It was a chance to be seen, a chance to be heard, and a chance to ... well, take chances. There is nothing predictable about this soundtrack, and certainly nothing boring. Even tracks that may not necessarily appeal to a listener are never bland. Hamauzu stepped up to the plate and amazed a lot of people with this work, including yours truly. A solid impressionist and a powerful manipulator of themes, Hamauzu made SaGa Frontier 2 even more of a work of art than it already was.
Take a chance! Play the game, buy the album. The music means a lot more after you allow it to immerse you into the special world of SaGa Frontier 2, but it also is capable of standing alone as very well-arranged and powerful music that sends its message without making any excuses. Jazz, polka, dance, take your pick. If I did not make myself clear already, Masashi Hamauzu knew what he was doing when he picked up the reigns for the SaGa Frontier 2 Original Soundtrack.
Overall Score: 9/10