Released in 2001, Final Fantasy X was the series’ first game on the new Playstation 2 console, and was in many ways a radical departure from what had come before. The Active Time Battle system which had been used in the previous six installments was abandoned, as were the concepts of a world map and a steerable airship. It was also the first Final Fantasy to feature voice acting, and the first for which the now-obligatory pop song was not translated into English. The game was favorably received, by and large, and later became the first Final Fantasy to get a sequel (though Final Fantasy X-2 was a complete tonal shift from the dark and downbeat original).
Final Fantasy X also saw the beginning of the end of composer Nobuo Uematsu’s tenure: Uematsu would reduce his role in each subsequent game until Final Fantasy XII was essentially composed without him altogether (though he would be lured back, in part, for the disastrous Final Fantasy XIV). It may be that his work on Final Fantasy IX, which remains his longest and most complex project to date (over three hundred minutes of music spread over five discs) left him drained, or it may have been his departure from Square-Enix to become a freelance musician. In any case, Uematsu recruited fellow composers Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano to aid him, the first time that anyone but Uematsu had written music for the series.
Hamauzu had been with Square for years, but had really burst onto the scene with his avant-garde piano-centric score for SaGa Frontier 2 several years earlier. He would later write extensively in the Final Fantasy series, perhaps due to his status as one of the very last composers to leave the company to become a freelancer, penning scores for Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus and Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and XIII: Lightning Returns. Junya Nakano was, at the time, most recently a veteran of Threads of Fate and had been with Square in one capacity or other since the mid-nineties; his subsequent work would be much more low-key and eclectic than Hamauzu’s, with many arrangement and programming credits in addition to composing. Uematsu, Hamauzu, and Nakano (along with Yasunori Mitsuda) had previously worked together once before, on 1996’s Front Mission: Gun Hazard for the SNES.
Final Fantasy X is far more modernistic than its predecessors, with a far heavier reliance on ambient atmospheric tracks, contemporary keyboarding, and electronica. This may be due to the fact that Nakano and Hamauzu were more comfortable with this style, or perhaps it’s Uematsu’s reaction to the game’s harsher technological milieu. In either case, the sweeping, quasi-renaissance sound of Final Fantasy IX is nowhere to be found. Uematsu does retain his leitmotif structure, but it’s a pale shadow of its former self–most of the character themes are one-offs, with few later variations (with one exception: “Seymour’s Theme” has, if anything, far too many variations). Still, some of the themes, like “Auron’s Theme,” with its jagged piano and electronic beats, and “Yuna’s Theme,” which combines light electric guitar and concert bells, are among Uematsu’s best cues.
To his credit, Uematsu does give the game a remarkable main theme. First heard as a melancholy piano solo in “To Zanarkand,” the theme is far sadder than Uematsu’s usual fare, even when the melody appears in the buoyant “Sprouting.” The theme is also memorably present in the “Ending Theme,” but despite the melody’s strength, neither Hamauzu nor Nakano attempts to adapt it into their underscore. The theme for the mysterious “fayth” spirits of the story is far less effective–a weak Gregorian-style choral chant, the theme is repeated eleven (!) times with minimal variation, badly breaking up the musical flow on album.
Junya Nakano composed seventeen of the ninety-one total tracks, and collaborated with Uematsu on two more. His tracks have a strong contemporary feel, which is used to good effect in the minimalistic but busy “Luca” and “Illusion” but fares less well elsewhere, especially in the limp “Underground Activities” and “Underwater Temple.” Nakano is more successful with battle themes, contributing the impressive “Enemy Attack” and “Summoned Beast Battle,” the latter of which is the only effective interpretation of the “fayth” theme, turning it into an aggressive full (synth) orchestra workout. Nakano also provides one other arrangement of Uematsu’s themes in “This is Your Story,” an airy and electronic rendition of “Auron’s Theme.”
Masashi Hamauzu’s contributions are very much in his distinct style, with a modern slant that doesn’t gel with Uemastu’s material but matches Nakano’s relatively well. Hamauzu’s skills as a piano arranger are well-known, and he puts them to good use in the whimsical “Thunder Plains,” the highlight of his contribution, and the aggressive, tuneful “Attack.” There are some misfires, though; Hamauzu’s “Decisive Battle” is a laughable piano rhapsody that is completely out of place as a battle theme (especially given how comically easy the battle is). His “Challenge” battle theme is similarly weak–essentially a collection of random, distorted noise and repetitive techno loops. The composer is able to write some effective minimalistic music, though: the calm “Besaid Island” and New Agey “Wandering Flame” are both highly effective.
The album also includes several songs, the what-were-they-thinking “Otherworld,” a completely out of place death metal tune that serves as one of the final boss themes (!), and “Sudeki Da Ne,” the most banal pop song to be attached to any Final Fantasy album thus far. But the album’s real problem is its lack of stylistic consistency–the multiple composers led to a wandering focus and many watered-down and dull (or even inappropriate) tracks. Even the Final Fantasy series’ overarching themes are mixed: Uematsu’s contibutes a satisfying big-band interpretation of his Chocobo theme, but the “Prelude” is reduced to conterpoint in a a bouncy electronic piece, and the “Final Fantasy” theme is completely absent for only the second time in the series. Without a single strong style to hold the disparate music together, and minimal use of Uematsu’s themes by his co-composers, Final Fantasy X is just a collection of vaguely-related songs, some of which are strong but few of which contribute to any cohesion.
As a result, Final Fantasy X was at the time of its release the weakest Final Fantasy album, though it has since been eclipsed. Though there is a good deal of quality material, the album’s incoherence should make listeners think twice before ordering an expensive import copy. If some stellar tracks are enough for you to overlook the stylistic inconsistency in the first Final Fantasy score not wholly composed by Nobuo Uematsu, pick it up–just be prepared to assemble your own album cut or to cherry-pick the best songs from the iTunes release.