Grandia III Original Soundtracks :: Review by Zeugma
Three years after the release of Grandia Xtreme, Noriyuki Iwadare once again composed the soundtrack to the latest game of the series: Grandia III. Considering the popularity of the other Grandia soundtracks, especially for the first two games, many fans had been looking forward to the release of this album. Let's see if Iwadare has lived up to their expectations...
The only knowledge of the Grandia universe I have being the best-of album, the arranged soundtracks, and the Grandia II soundtracks Deus and Povo, my initial opinion on Noriyuki Iwadare was a very good one. I thus started my first listen of Grandia III with high hopes, but it quickly came out that the contents weren't as brilliant as I expected...
After a few tracks, I looked again at the cover to be sure about what I was listening to. It sounds like the first twenty tracks have their mood indicator locked on "super happy", giving us an overabundance of pizzicato or piano-driven hide-and-seek sessions between winds and strings. Sure, they might be pleasant to listen to individually, but the tracklist is far from being balanced. We're provided with an annoyingly bouncy first disc with totally neutral tracks such as "A Trap Hidden in the Dark" or "Gambling House" as interludes. I highly advise you to take a pause in the middle of that disc unless you'll be too saturated to appreciate what comes next. The interludes, as I call them, are unfortunately the flesh of the soundtrack after its first quarter. Most ambient tracks sound half-baked, as if they existed to fill blanks in the game rather than to provide it a soundtrack. For instance, "Surmania" has a very catchy start, made enticing by its nice rhythm and surprising cast of instruments (techno beat, sitar, and wooden drums). Strings and sitar first begin in an interesting duet, getting together to set up some kind of futuristic precolombian atmopshere. However, after the 1:20 mark, the track has already reached its cruising speed and keeps alternating between the two main instruments until the end.
The same syndrome keeps happening everywhere in the soundtrack. Things that sound promising during the first minute totally cease to evolve and get stuck in a dull and lengthy improvization. I suppose that's how they have been composed: one minute of original material, left to be developed in the rest of the track. Even the parts that are supposed to be heroic clearly lack passion, as if their intensity had been diluted or censored (e.g. "The Pilot King" or "Sacred Beast Gryph", where there is obviously something left to be desired). The rhythm stays glued to the floor where it should be taking off, synthetic brass motifs are shamelessly looped instead of reaching a bridge... It all evokes one word to me "safe", just like these secured plastic tops they now put on household cleaning bottles. Grandia III sadly sounds like it has been composed to prevent sensitive players from having a heart attack during emotional FMVs. Knowing what Iwadare has been able to compose in the past, I'm personally very disappointed by the material featured in Grandia III.
On the technical point of view, this album suffers from an average sound engineering that painfully makes out the synthetic nature of the instruments. As some examples, note the volume envelope of the choir in "Sacred Soul," the way the string attack around the 1:00 mark in "Attack of a Flash (Orchestral Ver.)," or the dreadful arrival of the sampled brass at the 1:45 mark in "Great Assize." Even though there's been an obvious effort to evolve towards something more epic and realistic than the previous albums, the result isn't convincing. My guess is that what we got on this soundtrack is most probably a compromise; roughly 85% synthetic material aimed at sounding real and 15% live material protruding too much from the rest. The jump to these new samples must have suffered from time or money issues. That's why this album sounds like a wannabe-orchestral project popping in an era when game music can afford quality, and usually does. Having to keep such low standards for a game with such a caliber is just too bad in my opinion.
Now you must wonder if there's something worth being saved on Grandia III. Believe it or not, but there is noteworthy material left on the album truly inspired tracks, as well as reprises from well-known Grandia themes. For instance, "Tension 2" or "Zone Restoration" are great examples of what dark and urging themes should be. While reminding me a little of Final Fantasy Tactics, these tracks manipulate timpani, tremolo strings, and brass to quickly create a sensation of uneasiness and danger. I'm particularly fond of the pulse that can be heard in "Tension 2." It is passed between various instruments, each repetition making the atmosphere even more unbearable. Suddenly, that pulse vanishes at the 0:55 mark, and makes place for a disturbingly slow and sick piano solo. Hearing the familiar beat taking its place again after that plunge into darkness sounds almost cheering-up, as to illustrate the "lesser of two evils" phrase.
Tracks such as "Tension 1" and "GR-Turbo" change the landscape of action music in the right way. The latter, although being a classic synth and organ action track in the same lineage as "Dangerous Zone" from Grandia II ~Deus~, stands out very well as a guiltless synth track in the middle of this pseudo-orchestral album. Unlike the other major-keyed battle themes aimed at inspiring valour and confidence, "GR-Turbo" is much more oriented towards aggressivity and rousing danger, as if the sugar coating of the album had been forgotten to provide us directly with unsafe and intense emotions. On another register, "Forest of a Fantasy" is unique in its genre; while piano weaves a nonchalant rhythm, multiple layers of winds and strings play together, each of them repeating a small variation on the same motif. What came to my mind the first time I heard it was the image of a rainbow, a visual overflow of colors, some kind of reassuring hallucination, as if I had breathed too much oxygen.
The opening song of the second CD constitutes one of the main themes of the album that can be heard in a couple of other instrumental tracks such as "Feel the Eternal Love". The track starts with a passionate female a cappela performed by Kaori Kawasumi, who brings us the essence of this theme. Acoustic guitars, horns, and strings then enter the stage to perform the same melody. They are here to add stuff, as well as to make out the sorrow of this theme through the arrangement. Kaori comes back for the final part of the track, singing along with the instruments. "To the Moon" doesn't outclass any of my favourite game music vocal tracks but I think its mood, as well as the quality of the vocals, deserve everyone's attention. The "In The Sky" single sung by Miz does not feature on the album, perhaps because of copyright issues or the fact that Noriyuki Iwadare didn't direct compose it, which may be a letdown to those who enjoyed it in the game and wish not to have to pay for a single.
On the whole, most of the tracks that involve piano sound more natural, since it is one of the few instruments that have been recorded live. Thus, tracks such as "Morning of Departure -for Piano-," "The Gambler," or "Great Assize" naturally stand out from the rest of the album. For the last of this trio, piano plays along with the rest of the orchestra, blowing everything away in a spectacular track. Last but not least, those who've been following the Grandia series will probably notice familiar themes arranged in "All Right! We Made Another Breakthrough!," "Fun Mushroom Hunting", "Will the Airplane Crash to the Ground!?" and "Hey, That Wasn't Possibly Serious, Was It?". These are most welcome on behalf of nostalgia, as a remainder of the previous incarnations of the game.
The innocent soundtrack to Grandia III is not your average role-playing game soundtrack with its share of various thrilling atmospheres. The abundance of "nice" and shallow tracks is like a wrapping around a few gems that wouldn't shine so much taken alone out of their package. Iwadare has composed an album suitable for children's games or dating simulations, but that definitely doesn't satisfy my needs in terms of richness and intensity. You've got a reason to get it if you're in need of background music for your kids' birthdays, or if you have played the game and enjoyed its soundtrack. Apart from this, you'd better keep your money away from one of the greatest disappointments of year 2005.
Overall Score: 6/10