Final Fantasy X-2 (Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi)

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The ending of Final Fantasy X was perhaps the most downbeat and open in the series so far, with the fate of the major protagonist left essentially unknown. It was therefore less surprising than it might otherwise have been when Final Fantasy X-2, the first-ever sequel to a Final Fantasy game (if one discounts the bizarre, awful anime OVA Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals) debuted two years later in 2003. The game divided fans, offering an incredibly light and jokey fanservice tone that seemed inspired by Charlie’s Angels and copious reuse of existing assets from Final Fantasy X alongside a return of the Active Time Battle system and Job System (after a fashion) from earlier games.

By 2003, Nobuo Uematsu had left Square and was freelancing, producing music for a wide variety of media at a languid pace (perhaps to make up for his massive output during the previous years); it’s therefore little surprise that he didn’t return for Final Fantasy X-2, or indeed any Final Fantasy, for nearly a decade. More surprising was the absence of Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, who were still with Square at the time and had no active projects; perhaps the jarring tonal shift between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 precluded their involvement. In their place, the duo of Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi were brought in. Both had been with Square since the 1990s; Matseuda had done well-received work on Bahamut Lagoon and some prominent additional music for Chrono Trigger, while Eguchi had been primarily active as an arranger. The official album credits don’t specify which tracks were the work of Matseuda and which were from Eguchi; it’s therefore not clear to what extent they worked together on all of the music.

The elephant in the room relates to thematic material: absolutely none of the themes from Final Fantasy X or the Final Fantasy series at large is reprised in whole or in part by Matseuda and Eguchi. The one exception is a few bars of Uematsu’s Chocobo theme in “Chocobo,” but they are buried and mutilated almost beyond recognition. Essentially, the music reflects the tonal shift of the game: the often dark, weighty, and ambient music of Final Fantasy X is cast aside in favor of bouncy, upbeat tunes clearly influenced by 1970s caper movies (and, yes, Charlie’s Angels). This break is understandable, if disappointing: Matseuda and Eguchi scored the game they were given, one that often barely resembled the original despite using many of the same locations, enemies, and character models.

“Yuna’s Theme” typifies the new approach for the game. With electric keyboards, wah-wah guitars, Hammond organs, and a drum set, it’s a bouncy slice of 1970s funk melody, lightly contemporized. Its urban sound couldn’t be further from Uematsu’s sweet and innocent “Yuna’s Theme.” “Rikku’s Theme” is much the same, very pop-ish and light even in comparison to Uematsu’s lazy-Sunday original. Much of the music follows this same basic template: melodic, light, and full of 1970s funk accoutrements.

Some pieces dial back the funk elements in favor of melody (“Mi’hen Highroad”), and occasional acoustic elements will be more prominent than keyboards in the mix (“Mushroom Rock Road”). There are plenty of cases where the electronic and funk prove irritating, like the grating synth stew of “Thunder Plains,” the cheesy Japanese classical influences layered atop “Anything Goes For Leblanc,” and the thick layers of disco cheese slathered over “”We’re the Gullwings.” And the less said about the obligatory pop songs “1000 Words” or “Real Emotion,” the better–they are in the same dire league as “Otherworld” and “Suteki Na De” from the original (though they are at least available in English). Don’t expect much recurring thematic material, either; Matseuda and Eguchi are content to let tone and instrumentation provide cohesion rather than recurring themes.

Eventually, the story of Final Fantasy X-2 takes a slightly darker turn (though never even approaching that of its predecessor), with Matseuda and Eguchi providing “straight” music for some scenes. Much of this music is built from the same basic building blocks as the remainder of the score, but with the electronic elements dialed down and the brass moving from funk fanfares to action blasts. The “straight” music provides some of the best and some of the weakest material, with pieces like the intriguing organ-led “Vegnagun Awakes” co-existing with anonymous ambient muck like “Disquiet.” The game’s rather confusing villain, Shuyin, is given a menacing theme for wailing electric guitars and orchestra; a bit underwhelming on its own, it is nevertheless the thematic basis for many of the darker tracks in the game.

Action music is a similarly mixed bag. The game’s three main battle themes run the gamut from the same sort of bouncy funk (“YuRiPa Fight No. 1) to completely anonymous noise (“YuRiPa Fight No. 3, the game’s standard fight music). For the final sequence of the game, Matseuda and Eguchi adapt a straight posture for the twin “Ruin” and “Their Resting Place,” both generally relying on frantic brass hits and string runs to try and build an apocalyptic tone. “Their Resting Place” is perhaps the pick of the battle music, combining Shuyin’s theme with mild electronics and a strong melody alongside the brass hits. It’s surprisingly dark and effective, and a much better final boss theme than either “Overworld” or “Decisive Battle” provided for Final Fantasy X.

In the end, how much you get out of Matseuda and Eguchi’s work for Final Fantasy X-2 will be directly proportional to how much you are able to embrace the game’s tonal shift and the music’s complete break from Final Fantasy past and present. There is certainly plenty of attractive bouncy caper music, and even some moments of darkness here and there, but ultimately it’s hard to shake the feeling that the music could have been something more than the sum of its parts, and that Matseuda and Eguchi didn’t fully take advantage of their opportunity here. Perhaps the brass as Square-Enix felt the same way; despite doing yeoman’s work for X-2, Matseuda and Eguchi have not had a major assignment since. And while future Final Fantasy sequels would generally have a lighter tone than the originals, none would depart so far from the tone and tenor of the original (or its music) as X-2.

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