Final Fantasy XIII Original Soundtrack :: Review by Ram
It's been almost four years since Final Fantasy XIII was announced at E3 '06. And you know what? I still haven't played the game yet. The wait is painful. But fortunately, I'm at least able to enjoy the aspect of the game where I was most looking forward to: the original soundtrack, composed by ex-Square-Enix employee Masashi Hamauzu. I have always been a big fan of him since I discovered his work on Final Fantasy X and Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, but since the former was also composed by series' veteran Nobuo Uematsu and the latter was merely an unsuccesful spin-off, he has never really stood in the spotlight. Thankfully, Final Fantasy XIII is his well-deserved chance to do that after all.
The game's production values are extremely high and, in fact, are the highest of any Square-Enix game I can think of. And you know that's good for Hamauzu. Almost all orchestral tracks have some kind of live performance in them; sometimes they're solo, but there are even orchestral sections recorded. But there's more than that: vocals, jazz bands and, on top of that, Square Enix arranged recordings with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir for about nine tracks. How could it ever go wrong? Well, without proper composition. Fortunately, I can say that Hamauzu has delivered.
I'll just start from the beginning. The soundtrack's first two tracks already introduces us to the most important themes of the game: "Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII" and "FINAL FANTASY XIII - The Promise." The former starts with mysterious, impressionistic chords on the piano and a synth pad. It keeps repeating the same thing all over again, but around 0:40 snare drums, brass and strings are added from where it builds up to a climax. What follows is simply one of the greatest melodies Hamauzu has written. The live strings add extra emotion and beauty to the track, and I was absolutely blown away when I first heard it. It may not have the same impact as Uematsu's "Liberi Fatali" or Sakimoto's "Opening Movie", but it opens the soundtrack with a bang. The second opening theme, "Defiers of Fate" is a powerful mix of electronic and orchestral elements, arranged by Ryo Yamazaki and Mitsuto Suzuki. It is an arrangement of "Lightning's Theme", one of the most important themes in the game. Sadly, the extended mix by Mitsuto Suzuki isn't featured on this soundtrack.
As I said, "FINAL FANTASY XIII - The Promise" is also one of the recurring themes in the game and also one which most of you already know. After all, it has been playing on the official site since 2008. It features a beautiful, memorable melody by the piano, harp and strings. And as any Hamauzu fan knows, he likes to reuse his melodies quite a bit. So he does in Final Fantasy XIII. But unlike SaGa Frontier II, he actually does something with it. "In the Sky of that Night" is a playful arrangement with piccolo, glockenspiel and piano. While it's rather short, it's certainly enjoyable. At first, I was quite shocked by "The Sunleth Waterscape", a dance/J-Pop arrangement, since it features English vocals. However, I found it eventually a welcome inclusion to the diverse palette of the soundtrack. Given that Hamauzu doesn't have the greatest track record of writing vocal themes, I was pleasantly surprised that there are a lot of vocal tracks, aside from the regular theme songs (which I'll discuss later).
As you may have noticed, none of the introduction tracks feature the classic "Prelude". Neither does the soundtrack feature the victory fanfare or the Final Fantasy main theme. The reason behind this remains unknown for now, although I could understand that Hamauzu wanted to shine without being attached to Uematsu's legacy. But come one, he should have at least made sure he had proper replacements for these tracks! "Glory's Fanfare" is a rather uninspired five second violin jingle, but fortunately it's short, so I can live with it. "Battle Results", the track that immediately follows, is a nice piece with piano, Mitsuto Suzuki's electronica and vocals. However, "Game Over" is mere a collection of... well, ambient noise. There's very little "music" in there, and it's even arranged by Suzuki, so I don't get what Hamauzu's involvement in this track actually is. He could've used the classic "Prelude" instead, and I'm slightly disappointed he didn't.
Does that mean that Final Fantasy XIII doesn't feature any melodies of Nobuo Uematsu at all? Well, certainly not. Hamauzu delivered two Chocobo themes, and one of them, "Chocobos of Pulse", is probably my favourite in the series so far. It's a long jazzy arrangement, with lots of brass, piano, acoustic guitar,and a kick-ass drum solo. I'm especially impressed how he completely transformed everything while still maintaining that classic melody. "Chocobos of Cocoon" is a heavy techno arrangement with vocoder, and honestly, it's almost scary, just like Takeharu Ishimoto's work on The World Ends With You. However, it becomes catchier every time I listen to it...
Battle themes have always been the strength of the Final Fantasy series and XIII is no exception. "Blinded by Light" is for me, to put it simple, the greatest normal battle theme in the series so far, and even one of the finest normal battle themes ever created. The theme has been playing in trailers since the game was announced, but I'm still not tired of it. The catchy string motif, the guitar riffs, the French horns, and especially the (almost legendaric) violin solo is just to die for. The boss theme, "Saber's Edge" is equally brilliant. It's very militaristic in nature, but the piece develops greatly and there's even place for some semi-virtuoso piano work.
Another boss theme is featured in "Eidolons". It's a little repetitive, but the combination of orchestra, drums and electric guitar works well here. "Test of the l'Cie" meanwhile is a great techno battle theme. It doesn't really have any melody, but it's certainly adrenaline-pumping. "No Way to Live" is also rather interesting. It features a heavy guitar-riff, a melody on the French horns (which is actually "Snow's Theme") and accompanying brass and strings. Certainly something that Hamauzu hasn't done before, although I'm a bit disappointed that it doesn't develop more. In a way, it reminds me of Keiki Kobayashi's work on the Ace Combat series.
Area themes are also a big part of Final Fantasy XIII's soundtrack. "The Vestige" and "The Gapra Whitewood" are both very ambiental, but have a delicate soundscape. I could listen to ithem all day. "The Hanged Edge", one of the earlier tracks that was revealed to the public, features piano chords, electronica, and a great string melody. A highlight of the track, there's even an awesome violin solo by Hijiri Kuwano. We also have another great arrangement of the "The Promise", "The Archylte Steppe". Hamauzu completely changes the melody, played by a flute, and the combination with strings and electronica works wonderfully. There are also some more unusual area themes. "The Yaschas Massif" was a big surprise; it has a bit of a bossa-nova feel, and it reminded me of Sims music for some reason. "Sulyya Springs" meanwhile is a beautiful ambient track with vocals, and beautiful cello and flute accompaniments. ,/p>
As you may have noticed, none of the themes I mentioned are town themes. That's right, the game actually doesn't have any towns. Well, one, kind of. "Nautilus" has the honour of being the only town-like theme in the game, and it's absolutely stunning. Fully performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, the track has a great melody and many characterics, from the majestic and grand introduction to the impressionistic piano and strings part at the end. Overall, I can say I'm very impressed with the area themes. Very well done, Hamauzu! My favourite area theme has to be "Dust to Dust", though. It's a vocal theme, sung by his wife, Matsue Hamauzu. Her operatic voice is absolutely beautiful, and when combined with Mitsuto Suzuki's electronica, the result is divine. It certainly has the same power and emotion that "Someday the dream will end" from Final Fantasy X has.
Character themes have always been an integral part of the Final Fantasy series, and XIII has some of the best. "Lightning's Theme" is right up there with "The Promise" as most important theme in the game. While it's featured in the battle theme, opening movie, and many more cinematics, the original theme is a wonderful calm piece with piano and strings, reminiscent of Hamauzu's solo album "Vielen Dank". "Snow's theme" is the complete opposite: it's Hamauzu debut as a rock composer, but the result is fantastic. It took me a while to appreciate the track, but now I really like it. The theme is also featured in many more tracks, such as the militaristic "The Warpath Home" and the emotional "Atonement". "Vanille's theme" is a rather simple piano theme with a melody in the right hand and repeating chords in the left hand. It's nice, but there's a much better arrangement on disc four, "Memories of Happier Days". This nostalgic arrangement starts the same, but strings and acoustic guitar are added to create a truly beautiful piece. "Hope's Theme" is a nice acoustic guitar piece with a memorable melody, just like "Theme for Vent" from Unlimited: SaGa.
Just like "Snow's Theme", the three character themes I've left were big surprises for me. The character Serah doesn't actually get her own theme, since it's actually an arrangement of "The Promise". In fact, it's just exactly the same, except that the melody is sung by Frances Maya, and it has English text. It sounds just as beautiful as the original, but I'm still wondering why Hamauzu did this. Clearly, she must be an important character. "Sazh's Theme" is awesome. It's a jazzy track with a great melody and great instrumentation and performance. A track in the same vein as "Sazh's Theme", while not being a character theme, is "Can't Catch a Break". It doesn't have as much melody, but instead it focuses on a motif that develops greatly troughout the piece (which has a duration of more than five minutes). It's certainly catchy too, and also one of these new things that Hamauzu tried out with this soundtrack.
The last character track, "Fang's Theme", is probably the best of them all. It's the only character theme that is played by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. While being quite militaristic, it's still quite playful. I was impressed by the piano work and the heroic melody of the French horns. I have my doubts whether this fits with the actual character, but it's one heck of an awesome theme, that's for sure. A slower, synthesized version can be found on the end of disc 2, "The Pulse l'Cie". But that isn't all. There's still one left: the theme for Primarch Dysley, the main villain of the game. It's very much like other villain themes in the series: a brooding, mysterious and memorable melody, but it can be slightly boring out of context. The orchestration and variety of the track is nice though.
Of course, I can't mention all tracks of a four-disc album, but I'd still like to mention some pieces that I can't place in a certain catagory. "A Brief Respite" and "March of the Dreadnoughts" are again favorites of mine. They're both very playful, a style that Hamauzu is good at; especially "March of the Dreadnoughts", which just makes me happy everytime I listen to it. "Feast of Betrayal" sounds like it's a hurry theme. As many of you know, Nobuo Uematsu's hurry themes of previous installments were often mediocre. Fortunately, Hamauzu nailed it. While it sounds dangerous for the most part, there are even some humoristic parts with the snare drum, piccolo, and trombone glissandi. Finally, "Daddy's Got the Blues" is truly an unique track for Hamauzu, it's his first blues composition! I very much enjoyed it and the harmonica and guitar player did a great job.
There are a lot of cinematic tracks on this soundtrack, since the game is quite story-heavy. "Forever Fugitives", "To Hunt l'Cie", and "The Pompa Sancta" all reminded me of the E3 '08 trailer, since the music in that trailer is mainly borrowed from these tracks. All are very colourful and memorable tracks, surprisingly enough. "Escape" and "Crash Landing" are quite something different, although not necessarily worse at all. Both were recorded in Warsaw, and for some reason, Hamauzu does so much more with the orchestra than with the domestic recordings. The harmonies are also much more interesting, and overall, these tracks really give a Star Wars-vibe. It definitely makes me interested in Hamauzu's future carreer, now that he has left Square-Enix. Maybe he will look into film scores as well? Another track that I'd like to give some special attention is "Ragnarok", which only features choir and pipe organ. This is in my opinion one of the greatest choral pieces in a videogame ever. It starts with a simple melody (actually the same as "Fighting Fate"), but becomes a fascinating composition in the middle with brilliant harmonies, reminiscent of choral work from the 20th century. It's almost tear-jerking.
Moving towards the end of the game, "Will to Fight" is awesome. It's a brilliant mix of electronica, solo violin, solo cello and vocals. "Eden Under Siege" is probably the first time that Hamauzu writes music that sounds like in-your-face Hollywood music. While I'm usually not a big fan of that style, this time it just works. With its heavy pounding, big brass and strings, it's one of the best tracks on the album, and also one of the biggest surprises. It's only pity that it's a little short. A track that I also have to mention is "Desperate Struggle". It's actually arranged by Junya Nakano, and it sounds a lot like "Enemy Attack" and "Summoned Beast Battle" from Final Fantasy X. Like most of his music, it focuses a lot on rythm and harmonies, even while it's composed by Hamauzu. Nakano's contribution only adds to the diversity of this soundtrack.
The final dungeon theme is really bizarre. It opens with weird echoing sound effects before it becomes an interesting fusion of sustained strings, electronic kicks and a haunting vocal arpeggio. At the end, there's a weird and creepy organ solo, with great harmonies. It's a very effective track overall. The three final battle themes, all performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir, are brilliant. "Fighting Fate", while a little short, is impressive. The combination of a large orchestra and choir works truly magnificent. If "Fighting Fate" wasn't already epic enough, prepare to be blown away by "Born Anew", which incorporates the theme of the game's main villain, Galenth Dysley. It's in the same vein as "Fighting Fate", but more ethereal. The orchestra and the latin choir just scream "epic" all the way, and the operatic tenor solo at the end was very well placed. I'm only slightly disappointed that it doesn't develop more.
Moving on the climax of the game, "Fabula Novis Crystallis" is yet another tear-jerking piece. In fact, it's another arrangement of "The Promise", this time mainly with con sordino strings and piano. It gets even better "FINAL FANTASY XIII – Miracles". The main theme, previously featured in "Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII", is reprised and it's even better than the aforementioned piece. The second half of the piece is a heroic passage with lush trings, snare drums, and yet again, a nostalgic reprise of "The Promise". It's serves great as build-up for the final battle that comes after that. The true final battle theme, "Nascent Requiem", is probably the best of them all. It doesn't have any choir, which is quite surprising, but rather focuses on piano. It doesn't get as awesome as "Decisive Battle" from Final Fantasy X, but it sounds a lot like "Chaotic End" from Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, and that's a good thing.. There's an excellent balance between tonality and atonality, and I especially enjoyed the Ravellian piano work and the calm interlude at the end. It's on the same level as other final battle themes from the series, and that says something!
The orchestral ending themes are simply breathtaking. "Determination", the track that follows right after the final battle, is a majestic piece with the grandest reprise of "The Promise" and "Lightning's Theme" in the entire game. The last track of this fantastic soundtrack is, you guessed it, "Ending Credits". While it's rather short for a Final Fantasy credits theme, only four and a half minutes, it may be the best of them all. You may be turned off by the fact that it's yet another rendition of "The Promise", but trust me, it's the definite arrangement. I've rarely heard so much emotion, power and beauty in a videogame track. The orchestration is breathtaking, and it simply ends the soundtrack perfectly. You just have to hear it for yourself.
There's still one part of the soundtrack left that I need to mention: The theme songs. Yes, that's right, for the first time ever, a Final Fantasy title has got multiple, in fact, two theme songs, and for once they're not composed by Nobuo Uematsu, but by Hamauzu himself. Following in the footsteps of Faye Wong, Emiko Shiratori, Rikki and Angela Aki, the songs are performed by 19 year old Sayuri Sugawara, a pretty unknown singer. The first one, "Eternal Love" is a typical J-Pop track. The Hamauzu composition and harmonies are clearly apparent, but it gets a bit wasted by the arrangement of producer Sin. I did enjoy the song, but the arrangement makes it sound a little generic.
"Kimi Ga Iru Kara" is the other song and one of the ending themes. Unlike "Eternal Love", this one is more like the previous Final Fantasy theme songs. The melody is very memorable, and the arrangement, while being a little simple with only strings, drums, and bass, sounds nice. However, I'm disappointed that the album doesn't include the orchestral version that was performed live at the Final Fantasy XIII Premiere Party in September 2009. At this point, the track doesn't have the emotional impact that, for example, the orchestral arrangement "Suteki Da Ne" from Final Fantasy X had. But, I'll admit that it's already miles ahead of Unlimited SaGa's "Soaring Wings" and especially the song that will replace it in the western release, "My Hands" by Leona Lewis. I found this replacement to be a plain unnecessary and stupid move from Square Enix.
You know, when you're greatly anticipating something for a long time, whatever it is, it usually turns out to be disappointing or just plain garbage because you've been hyping yourself too much. I'm pleased to say that, for me, this isn't the case with the Final Fantasy XIII Original Soundtrack. Everything, just everything that I had expected from this soundtrack and hoped for, turned out to be exactly like I wished. In fact, Hamauzu did even more than that. Hamauzu combines the best things of Unlimited SaGa, Musashi: Samurai Legend, Dirge of Cerberus, and Sigma Harmonics, and on top of that, does new things stunning choral tracks, surprising vocal tracks, and even some jazz and blues.
The fact that this soundtrack has the highest production of any Square-Enix game to date, makes the final product only better. Most of the orchestral tracks are actually orchestrated by professionals and performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra or a Japanese session orchestra. The electronic tracks sound great due to the collaboration with electronica expert Mitsuto Suzuki and there are also contributions from rhythm mastermind Junya Nakano and rock maestro Ryo Yamazaki. Finally, there's series' synthesizer operator Keiji Kawamori, who did a great job with the mixing. The only downside I can think of is that there are a very few ambient themes that just don't do a lot for me, but this is forgivable.
I've been a fan of Masashi Hamauzu for some time now, and I consider any of his work to be something special; whether it is the piano-heavy SaGa Frontier II, or his grand orchestral work on Dirge of Cerberus, every score does something for me. That he created his best work to date after being employed at Square Enix for fifteen years, and after having already composed some of my most favorite video game music ever, certainly says something. This soundtrack is awesome from the beginning to the end, and Hamauzu's magnum opus for sure. I highly recommend this soundtrack to anybody, even if you're not a fan of him. With the Final Fantasy XIII Original Soundtrack now being released, the timing for Hamauzu to leave Square Enix albeit forcibly was absolutely perfect. Now here's to wonder about his future career as a freelancer. I'm sure he'll get lots of requests after this masterpiece!
Overall Score: 10/10