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Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep & 358/2 Days Original Soundtrack :: Review by Marc

Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep & 358/2 Days Original Soundtrack Album Title: Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep & 358/2 Days Original Soundtrack
Record Label: Square Enix
Catalog No.: SQEX-10213/5
Release Date: February 2, 2011
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


One by one, new entries in the Kingdom Hearts franchise were released for the PSP and DS, and each featured a substantial number of original tracks to complement the old. Finally, almost two years after the first DS title was released, the Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep & 358/2 Days Original Soundtrack came out, a collection of original tracks from four portable Kingdom Hearts titles: 358/2 Days and Re:Coded for the DS, Birth by Sleep and its Final Mix version for the PSP. Fortunately, unlike the highly repetitive Kingdom Hearts Original Soundtrack Complete Box, all of the tracks on this album are entirely original, with the main exception of three new arrangements of "Dearly Beloved." Given her recent rather exceptional track record, how does Yoko Shimomura's latest album compare?


The soundtrack's first two discs are dedicated to the PSP's Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. The collection opens with the album's first version of "Dearly Beloved," arranged for orchestra by Kaoru Wada, whose wonderful orchestration allows a breath of new life in this piece. The track loops, but the transition is so seamless and the strings so breathtaking that the average listener won't realize or care. Moving on, the first thing a listener might realize when listening to "The Promised Beginning" is that the quality of synth used in this release dwarfs any previous Kingdom Hearts album; that is, if they are not distracted too much by the track's delicate and endearing ability to balance playfulness and tension without feeling forced on either end. "Tears of the Light" is the first of many tracks on the album to showcase a particular live instrument, in this case a violin, amidst the high quality synth. Though the track is enjoyable, it also seems somewhat forced emotionally, as if the piece's only purpose is to highlight the violin.

After this introductory material, we arrive at the meat of the album: its area and battle themes. "The Secret Whispers" is the first area theme, and, in typical Shimomura fashion, she weaves a playful and whimsical, yet eerily dark tune to fit the Disney-inspired world. "The Silent Forest," meanwhile, forgoes the playful style of the preceding, and is instead a relatively mournful, slow tune that quite hooks the listener as it evolves and develops. The playfulness returns in full force for "Hau'oli, Hau'oli," a piece that effectively uses synth and guitar to paint a fascinating picture of space. "Daydream of Neverland" harkens back to the Super Mario RPG soundtrack with its xylophone usage, yet the piece develops into something much more orchestral and reminiscent of the composer's recent works, blending her two styles effortlessly.

The battle themes are easily one of the strongest aspects of the album. "Risky Romp" is vivacious and lively, though it can't compare to "The Rustling Forest" melodically. The latter is the type of piece that can be played on loop endlessly without tiring the listener, thanks in part to its intelligently balancing heavy and light sections so there's never too much going on at once for too long. "Castle Escapade" is rather short, which is a shame, considering how well the piece evolves over its length. "Extreme Encounters" is, unfortunately, frustratingly repetitive. It's dark and cinematic, yet fails to develop to any reasonable degree over its playtime. The inclusion of violin to the otherwise techno "The Tumbling" results in a captivating fusion that few composers can handle as well as Shimomura. "Up Down Adventure" is marchlike and relatively heavy, with light moments on the xylophone scattered throughout, while "Makaukau" melds the space theme with techno, creating an endearing, dark mix. "Neverland's Scherzo" is rather light and airy, yet has moments of dark brilliance as well.

The character themes are rather hit and miss. "Terra" is unfortunately short to be as iconic as the main games' character themes and it's followed by the overly moody "Xehanort". "Ventus" thankfully is enchantingly poignant, utilizing a live piano, violin, and oboe to great effect. Another interesting character portrayal is "Aqua", which is a studio-recorded piano trio with a soft and dark aura. The interplay between instruments isn't utilized incredibly well, but the piece stands well enough on its own. Event themes are hit and miss, as well. "The Key of Light" is a rather hopeful piece featuring a church organ, whereas "The Key" relegates said instrument to accompaniment and is merely a serviceable in-game composition. "The Key of Darkness" meanwhile has moments of brilliance, though unfortunately these sparing moments segue back into a rather dull, moody piece. "Drops of Poison" works well from an atmospheric perspective as well, though it's too simple and slightly irritating on the album itself.

Marking the first time Yoko Shimomura hasn't composed a Kingdom Hearts soundtrack alone, Takeharu Ishimoto and Tsuyoshi Sekito each contributed several pieces to Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep too. "Enter the Darkness" and "Unbreakable Chains," both composed by Ishimoto, are rather similar sounding themes. Both are battle themes that benefit greatly from their length and develop quite well over their time. They also incorporate "Missing You", a classic Kingdom Hearts theme rather well, though their nonstop pulsating nature may be offputting to some. Sekito's contributions are lighter in style, and mirror Shimomura's rather well. The mix of percussion and choir in "Black Powder" might remind some of his work on Brave Fencer Musashi, whereas the bombastic synth used in "Hero or Heel" brings Hanjuku Hero 4 to mind. Sekito also cleverly arranges Ishimoto's "A Day of Fate," originally composed for Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII. The lighthearted arrangement is fun, but ultimately falls a little flat.

Among darker setting themes on the soundtrack, Tsuyoshi Sekito arranges the best version of "Radiant Garden" yet, with his trademark choir balancing out the track and lending it a bit more of a regal air. The battle variation "Black Garden," also arranged by Sekito, features a more constant choral presence than the original and is just as intelligent an arrangement. On the other hand, "Keyblade Graveyard Horizon" is rather bland and uninteresting, relying more on unsettling atmosphere than captivating melody. It's certainly a dark theme for the game's final area, but it feels weak on a stand-alone level. For the game's final battles, "Rage Awakened -The Origin-" is entirely dark and cinematic, featuring a church organ playing light accompaniment. "Dismiss" meanwhile is an epic but slightly underwhelming battle arrangement of "Destati," found in essentially all other Kingdom Hearts releases. Thankfully, Takeharu Ishimoto's "Enter the Void" is the best of three, thanks to its heroic melody. It's perfectly suited for an end-game fight.

Three classic Disney songs are also found on the album, namely "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo," "Mickey Mouse March," and "It's a Small World". However, all are so sugary sweet that it's hard to derive any real enjoyment from them, unless the listener is already fond of the originals. It's perhaps refreshing that the Disney reprises are otherwise few, since the Kingdom Hearts series sometimes overlied on them at the expense of original themes. Finally, Kaoru Wada arranges the game's fantastic ending theme, "Birth by Sleep -A Link to the Future-." Running through a full gamut of emotions and themes over its extended playtime, this fully orchestrated piece is the perfect conclusion to Birth by Sleep's compositions.

The album's third disc is devoted to the DS releases in the franchise, as well as the several new pieces for the Final Mix release of Kingdom hearts: Birth by Sleep. The first work to be featured is that of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, which begins, quite appropriately, with yet another arrangement of "Dearly Beloved." Despite being a rather barebones approach, the listener will also notice that the synth quality is quite high for the DS. Of course, this quality was not maintained in transition to the console proper, but it's nice that the album, at least, contains higher quality synth, if only for the purposes of integrating better with that used in its first two thirds. The score for Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days featured many other classic reprises too, usually given resynthings rather than proper arrangements. Thankfully, this soundtrack release omits these and listeners can experience them on the Kingdom Hearts Original Soundtrack Complete Box instead.

On to the original tracks for Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, there are very few, especially compared to its PSP counterpart. Nevertheless, most pieces featured are rather strong compositionally. For example, the despondent "Mystic Moon" and its lighter variation "Sacred Moon" capture just the right mood in the game, supplemented with beautiful chorus use. "Critical Drive" is a battle theme with an infectious little church organ motif and keyboard work, also written in the series' characteristic style. "Secret of Neverland" is a melodically profound yet disappointingly short arrangement, while the battle counterpart "Crossing to Neverland" could have been better too but is hardly a weak track. "Fight and Away," is a somewhat weak battle theme, giving its blaring brass in lieu of a strong melody. "At Dusk I will Think of You..." compensates with a melancholic, delicate event theme that melodically throughout its length into something quite enjoyable.

"Musique pour la tristesse de Xion" is undoubtedly one of Shimoura's greatest character themes. Soothing and sad, this piece perfectly describes the game's character and is intrinsically emotionally powerful too. The selection of pieces from Days closes with two battle themes. "Vector to the Heavens" is an absolutely stunning arrangement of the aforementioned. The strings and piano interplay to create one of the composer's most emotionally impacting themes. "Another Side -Battle Ver.-" is, quite appropriately, the battle version of "Another Side," first heard in the Final Mix version of the original Kingdom Hearts. Taking the original into account, the arrangement is rather simple, being just a slightly more active version of the original, featuring all of its still enjoyable melodic complexity. Certainly a track that will send shivers down the spine of any Kingdom Hearts fan.

The section of the album devoted to Re:Coded, a DS remake of a mobile phone spinoff, also starts with an arrangement of "Dearly Beloved". This one is more of a minimalist variation, lacking the dramatic orchestration of the other two. Re:Coded has very few original themes, though each shines in a different way. "Wonder of Electron" is a synth-heavy area theme with a happy tone and dark undertones. "No More Bugs!!" might be one of the best regular battle themes to appear in the series, thanks to its brilliant percussion and melody. This track, too, is synth heavy, giving it a bit of a nostalgic feel. Two remixes of the preceding two tracks, arranged by Hirosato Noda, follow them. Anyone familiar with the arranger's work on Dawn of Mana will instantly recognize his particular technopop style, which injects a newfound life into these already enjoyable tracks. "Pretty Pretty Abilities," which concludes this section of the soundtrack, harkens back to Shimomura's playful side.

The last few tracks on the third disc are from the Final Mix version of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. The slightly superior synth and occasional live instrument of the PSP title are back, starting with "Dark Impetus," containing a live violin which only enhances the brilliant battle theme. Keiji Kawamori's arrangement of Shimomura's "Monstrous Monstro," from the original Kingdom Hearts, follows; unfortunately, this arrangement feels needlessly cluttered, due to its suffocating percussion and at times confusing string work. Also disappointing is "Night of the Dark Dream", a rather boring atmospheric piece, whereas the cinematic and moody "Night of Tragedy" and "Hunter of the Dark" somehow still manage to thrill the listener. "Master, Tell Me the Truth" is a dramatic battle theme, and, though it melody flits rather unpredictably, it still manages to be rather enjoyable. The album concludes with "Forze dell'Oscurita," yet another dramatic battle theme, which weaves together some themes from the series as well. This misplaced piece is a bit boisterous for the last track of the album, though that doesn't diminish the intrinsic quality of the composition.


The Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep & 358/2 Days Original Soundtrack is, without a doubt, the best soundtrack in the series, helped into that status in no small part by the omission of many of the series' most tired themes and the improvements in synth quality. The Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is especially impressive. Not all of the themes are winners, but the tracks that are great are undeniably so, and there is no shortage of them. The third disc is a very welcome supplement despite its somewhat inconsistent quality. Fans of the series' previous musical outings will find lots to love, and those unfamiliar with the series' music would be wise to start here.

Overall Score: 9/10