Final Fantasy Tactics Original Soundtrack :: Review by Ryan
Final Fantasy Tactics, a bit of greatness in the form of a game... perhaps substance to a road less travelled, but what a wonderful journey it is for those who are patient enough to "brave" it. (Pun intended). Inside this gem lies all the necessary components of a stellar experience treachery, malice, deceit, and revenge; love, sadness, renewal, and death all elements of an incredible adventure. And we are just talking about the storyline; the success of Final Fantasy Tactics would not have been complete without the tremendous musical score accompanying the storyline. My focus at this point will lie on describing the foundation of the soundtrack, which in my belief is one of the greats and how it contributes to what is perhaps one of the greatest games of all time.
Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata once again join creative forces in what is perhaps their best collaborative effort to date. These artists tend to have vastly contrasting musical styles which often embellish each others work exponentially. It would be best for me not to expose the entire soundtrack bit by bit analytically. I would prefer to leave certain judgments up to the listener, especially for those who have never been exposed to the soundtrack before. That being said, I shall do my best to contribute to the understanding of what truly makes this soundtrack so unbelievably awesome.
The first musical piece heard upon turning the game on is the intro theme ("Bland Logo - Title Black") and will expose you to a few of the dominant themes that will be featured in the game without overloading you on a musical level. It is very well-orchestrated and is rumored to have been recorded live with an orchestra. In truth, while much of the soundtrack has a quasi-orchestral synthetic sound in regards to the production it is always to excellent effect and works in perfect congruence with the graphical presentation while in ALL ways surpassing it. To be perfectly honest, the graphical presentation of Final Fantasy Tactics is a bit simple but is ultimately successful because the visual imagery is always perfectly represented by the music. Each piece is mixed EXTREMELY well and is due in no small part to the genius of sound programmer Hidenori Suzuki and synthesizer operator Katsutoshi Kashiwabara. The majority of the tracks remind me very much of an older school approach to video game music (emphasis on melodic development) with touches of traditional classical orchestration, which modernize the quality of the sound.
The beginning phase of the game truly sets the tone for what this soundtrack is going to be about. It all starts off innocently enough in the confines of a church where a young Olivia is kneeling in prayer. The music ("Pray") accompanying the visuals and storyline at this point is slow and thoughtful. The sound of a harp can be heard softly outlining the main chords while a set of strings shadows them quite eloquently, permeating a definite feeling of safety... It is not moments later when a knight bursts into the church, wounded because of an attack by enemy soldiers. The emotional quality of the music is violated very abruptly by the sound of some menacing lower octave strings and some very explosive timpani. An element of danger and death becomes quite apparent and serves in dire contrast to the main element of the preceding music. I will add that the musical correspondence shared between the emotions of sanctuary and stress are expertly represented throughout the course of Final Fantasy Tactics. This technique is effective in that it never gives the listener reason to become disengaged on a musical level. A few paces into the album ("Enemy Attack") will reveal a very strong catapulting of the strings and timpani into what becomes a statement of the main Final Fantasy Tactics theme. "BAM!" This adds a new dimension to the track and aids the scene by strengthening the bonds of the identity between soundtrack and story, both of which will become interchangeable during the unraveling of the story. Needless to say, the main Final Fantasy Tactics theme is always epically represented at key points in the storyline.
The next scene occurs outside of the church with a standoff taking place between the Church Knights and the would be assailants. The musical track representing this scene ("Trisection") aptly envisions the tension of the situation by imparting feelings of anxiety and anger in the form of rising strings utilized with some syncopation and some belligerent brass that angrily doubles the string section to give even more of an impact to the main melody, which is excellent. The blaring harmonizations, rhythmic motion, and pacing of the theme are also excellent and keep the listener on edge to the battles end and far beyond. At a certain point, these explanations of the musical analysis may become moot because it is quite possible you won't even be aware of the music while becoming engaged during the battle; that is to say, the music has a way of becoming the experience. It becomes seamless and natural to the point of being quite possibly perfect. This was never a problem for me because the music is just too damn musical not to fully appreciate but it might give one pause to respect the true enormity of achievement that a composer may reach when their music becomes second nature.
I won't burden you with any more subjective meanderings as to the full nature of the musical experience. It is now time for you to explore the soundtrack for yourself! Now then, enough about talking how the music fits in with the premises of the game. Speaking only of the musics ability to live up to the expectations of the scene work is a vast degradation of its true abilities. I now wish to discuss the musicality of each of the artists, respectively.
Overall, Hitoshi Sakimoto's writing style is fluid and melodic, with a large emphasis placed upon exquisite harmonic presentation. His writing style is gorgeous and through many of his works becomes identifiable fairly quickly because of its unique nature. Sakimoto reminds me very much of the Impressionistic musicians, particularly Maurice Ravel, a comparison not only imparted because of the expressiveness for which they compose, but by the beautiful pictures they can paint utilizing notes. That being said and while I am not one for typecasting, Sakimoto's choice of orchestral colouring along with note choice are sometimes essentially, without peer. That is to say, Sakimoto's musicality is absolute. This can be evidenced further in works such as "Antidote" whose beauty cannot be described in mere words. The music takes you to a place so endearing that it makes you sad to ever have to leave it. Sakimoto knows how to play the emotions via musical meanderings very well and perhaps that is his greatest skill not only as an effective composer, but as an artist. If I could even begin to describe the relationship that Hitoshi Sakimoto appears to hold with each of his compositions, it is one bourne of love and trust. The apparent level of care that goes into each of his compositions is both astounding and worthy of remembrance and praise. His thematic development could've perhaps been a bit more defined this time around but its still pretty much pinnacle for the video game music world as is. His battle themes are beyond amazing and his character portraiture is PERFECT. Ovelia's and Thunder God Cid's themes, in all of their original incarnations and reincarnations provide fodder for what is perhaps some of the most epic, moving and personable character theme's ever written with only the Final Fantasy VI character themes holding greater dominion over such achievement. While much of Sakimoto's writing style is consonant and pleasing to the ear, that doesn't mean he can't batter the heart with the notes as well. "Bloody Excrement" is a perfect example of Sakimoto's ability to pull a complete 180 and do something completely different which is a testament to his versatility. The piece is incredibly sinister and is a complete reversal of the musical values instilled by previous Sakimoto pieces.
Speaking of sinister music, I will admit it took me a bit of time to warm up to Masaharu Iwata, at least in comparison with the rapidness for which I just ate up Sakimoto's work. Iwata writes in a style that is a bit darker and a bit less melodic with more emphasis on ambience and percussion. Still, he is very consistent with his musical ideas and the more I expose myself to his music, the greater appreciation I have for his musicianship. His crowning achievement in the Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack is "Ultema The Perfect Body!", which is perhaps one of the most terrifying pieces of music I have ever had the PLEASURE of hearing. To me it exemplifies Iwata at his core; dark, evil sounding, grating and very unpleasant to listen to, hence very effective! A low string section begins by introducing the main melody and is quickly accompanied by some discordant brass to create a very creepy effect. All the while there is a higher string section outlining the main chords... all of this continually builds up to a point of AWESOME tension! The first half of the theme basically sets up for the explosion of terror that erupts from the brass and strings in the second half. Don't be put off by this piece at first glance. It is as if the footsteps of black death are on your heels and it is truly chilling. Not too bad considering this is the theme present during the final confrontation with the greatest human evil. The musical materials may not be for everyone, but the way it matches the scene is incredible! A few other works that deserve notice, notably "Unavoidable Battle", "The Pervert", and "Backfire". Iwata is a very fine musician and I respect and admire him very much for his work on the soundtrack.
As I've said before, both Iwata and Sakimoto feed off of each other's musical deliberations very efficiently without ever sacrificing the intent of each's unique musical vision. Each brings a presence to the soundtrack that is both spirited and highly creative in its own right. In a game that is often ruled by sinister moods, uplifting spirits, moments of celebration, and the pangs of tragedy, each emotion is represented in an epic way utilizing harmonic and melodic materials of the highest nature. I lament to concede that modern soundtracks fall utterly short of the musicality and brilliance that makes this soundtrack one of the greatest musical achievements in modern times... or arguably, ever.
The Final Fantasy Tactics soundtrack is like a fine wine; it gets better with age. The more I listen to the soundtrack, the better it gets (and I don't even have to worry about a hangover in the morning). If you weren't fortunate enough to catch Final Fantasy Tactics the first time around, do yourself a favor and pick it up. Simply put, its one of the greatest soundtracks ever made and a true work of inspiration.
Overall Score: 9/10