Ninety-Nine Nights Original Soundtrack :: Review by Resk
When I listened to this album for the first time, there was a degree of... expectance with the score. For a game that in many ways adds a new chapter to a niche-genre dominated by the Soul Calibur and Dynasty Warriors franchises, one might expect some similarities in the music department. This niche demands an epic score, with haunting vocals and rich, full instrumentation rather than synthesizer motifs and drum loops. While the score has its obvious flaws, it also succeeds where it must, offering the player an engaging and sometimes rewarding companion to smiting legions of goblins with a single attack from a young witch in a blue hat. This review will focus on the tracks which provide this strength, but will also look at some of the more original, out-of-place themes which give much needed variation to the score.
The majority of this album features several different versions of one recurring theme written by Pinar Toprak. It's a great theme, with subtle feelings of longing and sadness. However, many of the tracks which feature this theme sound either incomplete, or empty. The opening of the album, titled "Theme from Ninety-Nine Nights" begins with synthesized strings and supportive choir, occasionally broken up by sharp, low percussion hits. When listening to this track in particular, these hits become very jarring, because they interrupt otherwise beautiful and flowing melodic sections. This is because these hits are designed to impact the scenes seen on the screen during the opening cinematic. Normally, I would have expected these hits to have been applied afterward as sound effects, rather than as part of the actual score.
But, aside from them, the rest of the track isn't all that bad. The strong melodic line of the main theme is given by a light and airy voice, and is similar in style to that of Lisbeth Scott, Lisa Gerrard, and Tanja Tzarovska from modern-day film scores. The orchestration then enters a march motif, with vocals soaring above, before seemingly speeding up with faster percussion. It is here, and later on in the track as well, where the track falls flat. The intricate percussion patterns that offer speed and energy to the track are too soft to become a focal point. You need to listen carefully to really get it, whereas a little more volume would have excelled this track in many ways. The ending of this track is also a little strange, as it enters a different melodic pattern than the rest of the track, with quicker choir vocals, and sharper percussion hits, which are more common in later versions of the theme.
In "The Defender of Truth," repetitive and fast percussion builds a base for strings and brass to play the flowing main theme. It creates a great contrast that is only pushed higher by the later addition of vocals an octave higher. At the halfway point of the track, we encounter the same melodic phrases seen at the end of the first track on the album, but this time they are extended into a full section. The choir during this part also is more powerful, and the percussion is clear to give the track its energy. Later, all of these elements come together, with vocals in the higher register, adding a ghostly rendition of the main vocal theme. Heading into the final section of the track, we are given sharp choir hits, while moving in and out of heavily harmonized melodic phrases. The end of this track is great to listen to, because everything comes to life with strong volumes from all elements of the track, before heading into a coda of strong, pronounced bass hits which give the track an added texture.
"Tokyo Remix" follows the same pattern of starting out with the main theme played in the brass and strings, with percussion underneath and vocals soaring above. The strange percussive hits return though, which breaks up the track at odd intervals. This piece was first heard as the accompanying music to the trailer for the game, which explains the hits, but like the first track, it fails to keep its strong melodic lines. Throughout the track, we hear similarities to "The Defender of Truth," particularly in the second half. However, "Tokyo Remix" is the weaker of the two. "From a Distant Forest" is a really pretty rendition of the main theme, choosing to focus on orchestration rather than percussion. However, the vocals in this track are a little loud for the rest of the piece. The middle sections of the track are quite nice, adding new melodic lines to the already established main theme, before moving into a duet harmonization. Here, the vocals come to the front of the track, where the established volume flows better with the rest of the orchestration.
"The Arrival" is one of my favorite renditions of the main theme. By now, you'd expect that it would be an annoyance to hear that vocal theme again, but we're treated to a much more balanced track than earlier on the album. In a change from the other versions, the main percussion heard is given by snare drum rolls and hits, which offer a strong beat to the track. The powerful double vocals heard in "From a Distant Forest" return, but this time, a full choir provides support along with stronger orchestral work. The only thing lacking, specifically in the middle of this track, is the absence of any percussion pattern. Given the build leading up to this section, you would expect to hear some form of strong percussion to really bring you into the track, but instead are left without. This causes the track to become very treble heavy, and gives the illusion that the track is dragging on longer than it should, which greatly detracts from its potential. The end of the track is also strange, as we're given the main melody again, but with strange percussion at odd intervals, whereas a soft, slow finish would have suited the track better.
This album also features several 'borrowed' themes from the classical library. Yasuo Kijima incorporates these themes into the overall sound of the album, but I can't begin to actually understand their purpose within the game. When viewed in the context of the album as a whole, they appear to be well arranged, but something about them still seems strange to me. As far as the classical pieces are concerned, I will forego critiquing them, and will instead look at how Kijima has tackled them. "From the New World (Eternal Mix)" is an arrangement of Dvorak's Symphony Number 9, the 'Scherzo (Molto vivace)' movement, and in many ways is similar to the type of piece we hear from Junichi Nakatsuru on the Soul Calibur arrangements. When compared to other arrangements of this piece (both by classical and contemporary artists, including its use in Final Fantasy XII), this arrangement is a mess. It's far too loud, far too strong, and far too 'in your face.' None of the original beauty of the track is retained when it is transmogrified to fit the style of the album.
The other 'borrowed' theme that is arranged is Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons.' "The Four Seasons (Eternal Mix)" especially bothers me. Focusing on the Summer III movement, this arrangement does an OK job at interpreting the piece for this album. However, that being said, I've heard almost this exact same type of arrangement done by Vanessa Mae, a contemporary violinist with her own personal flare for style. When the two versions are heard side by side, they're identical in what parts of the piece are highlighted, as well as how they're orchestrally arranged. I much prefer Vanessa's version. We're also given an arrangement of the Winter III movement in "The Four Seasons 'Winter' Allegro." This time, we're given a much more traditional and classical arrangement of the piece, however the instrumental choices detract from the otherwise serene beauty of the actual piece. For most of the track, the volume is far too loud, with almost no variation in velocity. Add to that an absolutely atrocious violin and orchestral sounds (which could be synthesized), and the piece because very aggressive where it should be peaceful, as winter should be, and as I believe it was originally intended.
Moving into the original compositions for the game by Shingo Yasumoto and Takayuki Nakamura, we're given a set of pieces eight pieces that create a better representation of what should be seen from this album. I'll be looking at three of the tracks that I believe have more to offer. Yasumoto's "Hammerfall" is a track which features a heavy percussion line, with short string chords. The phrasing of this piece is quite simple and repetitive, but it still has a sense of energy about it. About a quarter ways through the track, we're given a counter melody that becomes the main theme of the piece. While the orchestration isn't necessarily as diverse as what appears in the main theme tracks, guitars, bass, and heavy drums support an otherwise sharp string section. The repetitive percussion is definitely the strongest point of this track, as it suits well the scene of fighting thousands of enemies on the battlefield short, catchy, to the point, and not horribly annoying.
"Spiral Maze!" is probably one of my favorite tracks on the album. The piece is very quick, with rhythmic cymbal and short string bursts giving the track immediate and continuous energy. The middle of the track offers something completely different, choosing to go with an atmospheric and epic sounding mass before moving back into the established pattern. We then get a bit of a melody in the upper register, while the steady beat keeps the track moving. This track in particular really brings in an element of where the track was written, taking on many motifs and chord progressions which are popular in ancient Asian civilization-type scores. Finally, Nakamura's "Before the War" tries to give us an impression of the lives of the characters before the war against the goblins broke out. The track features heavy march-like percussion, opting for a very modern military-esque style rather than the rolled snare rhythms of old. A rather unimpressive melody accompanies this, which pretty much fades into the background of the whole track. But the atmosphere that the track creates is very interesting and suggestive.
In all truth, there is a lot of missed potential with this album. The classical pieces are substituted for original melodies and themes, but they seem out of place on an album such as this. The orchestration of the tracks is minimal in its sound, often giving the impression of synthesized instruments where real performances would have excelled any particular track. The repetition of the main theme to simply fill out the album was a gamble that didn't pay off, because too many of the arrangements sound the same. When you compare this album to others of its genre, it simply falls short in all areas that make this kind of score work within the context of the game. While the main theme itself is a beautiful creation, that isn't enough to really pull the score together in a cohesive manner.
Overall Score: 5/10