Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Final Fantasy VIII was Squaresoft’s followup to its breakout hit Final Fantasy VII, which had been a tremendous success in its native Japan and and even bigger smash abroad, bringing countless new gamers to the RPG format. As a result, no expense was spared on the new game, which featured the most advanced CGI cutscenes of its day, impressive, fully-textured ingame graphics, and a massive marketing push. The game also took exactly the wrong lessons from its predecessor by amping up those same animated cutscenes without providing a coherent world for them to occupy or likable characters to inhabit it. As a result the game has aged badly, with the lack of effort put into streamlining the confusing battle system or fleshing out the paper-thin characters and plot painfully apparent as once-dazzling visuals now seem trite and faded. It’s a stark contrast to the simple graphics and endearing characters that had been hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series up to that point, and sadly the developer would make the same mistakes again in the future. For all Final Fantasy VIII‘s failures as a game and as a followup to Final Fantasy VII, though, the game was nonetheless successful though it fell far short of its predecessor’s widespread appeal.

There was never any real doubt that Nobuo Uematsu would return to the franchise; Final Fantasy VII had made him legions of new fans worldwide, and the new game’s higher budget meant that his efforts would be far more realistic, devoid of the tinny synth that dogged that game, at times making it sound worse than Final Fantasy VI a whole console generation earlier. Working directly with a Roland SC88 synthesizer and programmer Keiji Kawamori, Uematsu created a clear and high-quality synth sound for the game that stands up to other high-quality efforts like Legend of Mana or Vagrant Story released for the Sony PlayStation shortly thereafter.

At the same time, Uematsu would abandon the leitmotif-based structure that had been the cornerstone of his two previous Final Fantasy scores, instead opting for a smaller number of overarching themes and strong incidental scoring. Implicitly recognizing the banal shallowness of Final Fantasy VIII‘s cast, Uematsu swapped his John Williams approach of individual character themes and variations for a Jerry Goldsmith methodology of fewer themes to represent story concepts. He develops three major themes throughout the work: a snarling theme for the game’s villainous (if ludicrous) sorceress villains, a lush love theme for the juvenile romance between the two main characters (such as they are), and an upbeat friendship theme to represent the main cast as a whole (lazily identical backstories and all). In many ways–and again, much like Jerry Goldsmith–Uematsu’s score is forced to do much of the heavy emotional living where the game itself cannot.

Building on the success of his “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII, Uematsu often gives his prominent and powerful sorceress theme a resounding choral backing with Latin lyrics, based around the nonsense words “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” It opens the powerful “Liberi Fatali,” anchors the menacing “Succession of Witches,” and appears in full in the track “Fithos Lusec Vecos Vinosec.” This choral sensibility is one of the album’s great strength, and the live singers’ voices enliven the otherwise synthesized tracks they appear in. The sorceress theme is given plenty of airtime in instrumental tracks as well, snaking through some of the game’s most pulse-pounding battle sequences before being sent off with a solo piano in the contemplative and gorgeous “The Successor.”

Uematsu’s prominent love theme is based on the pop song “Eyes On Me” which he wrote with lyricist Kako Someya for Japanese pop sensation Faye Wong (with English lyrics in all its incarnations in game and on disc). One of the more unfortunate side effects of Final Fantasy’s explosion of popularity was the inclusion of pop songs, which first appeared in this installment of the series and have since been present in most major releases since. They have never really fit in, despite being penned by Uematsu, and the banal “Eyes On Me” interrupts the otherwise lovely (and fully orchestral) “Ending Theme” in addition to its solo outing. The love theme is far more effective when interpreted as an instrumental, and it serves as a main theme of sorts. The attractive solo piano “Julia” first introduces it, reflecting the conceit that the song was composed in-universe about one of the characters. Uematsu references it in music-box form in the soft “My Mind,” twists it into a triumphant fanfare in “Blue Sky,” and otherwise has a field day with the strong melody separate from the unnecessary pop song that is its raison d’etre.

Finally, the game’s band of hollow but attractively rendered characters is given a friendship theme to provide warm pathos where their antics cannot. The early “Balamb Garden” features the first outing of this theme, alternating with a melody specific to that track; its later appearance on a mournful guitar in “Where I Belong” is a direct reference. “Tell Me” puts the theme through a more melancholy but equally lovely variation, while the theme gets its longest and most complete outing in the beautiful “Ami” which begins as another piano piece on an album stuffed with them before adding additional layers of orchestral synths. While it is often the most low-key of Uematsu’t themes, the friendship theme is perhaps the most satisfying and sunny overall.

The incidental scoring independent of the album’s main themes is quite strong, and Uematsu’s style is prominent enough to tie the pieces together without explicit thematic references. He goes about his task with aplomb, creating tracks as diverse as the gentle, melodic “Fisherman’s Horizon,” the acrostic “Breezy,” and the delightful, string-based “The Mission.” Even though the game lacks a proper airship, Uematsu even turns in a rousing airship theme in the form of “Ride On.”

Final Fantasy VIII’s battle and action themes are particularly noteworthy, especially the standard battle theme, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Normal battle themes have long been Uematsu’s weakest tracks, often much more bland and modernistic than the surrounding music, but “Afraid” takes an effective classical approach, underscoring the brass with racing staccato strings and strong percussion. The boss battle theme “Force Your Way” is more modernand innovative, setting a Hammond organ, synths, and electric guitars against an orchestral backing to great effect. The larger-scale battles are album highlights, particularly “Premonition” and the climactic “The Extreme,” both of which interpolate the sorceress theme and build from soft beginnings to explosive action statements. The final sequence of the game, an unbroken series of “Premonition,” “The Legendary Beast,” “Maybe I’m A Lion,” and “The Extreme,” rivals “Dancing Mad as Uematsu’s finest moment in action scoring, giving the nonsensical battles the music accompanies a strong set of gravitas.

For anyone looking for a variety of strongly thematic and innovative music in Nobuo Uematsu’s distinctive style, and doesn’t mind the composer’s total abandonment of the leitmotif structure he used in the two previous Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII is a must-have irrespective of the weak game it accompanies. It is Uematsu at his best, refusing to rest on his laurels and crafting engaging new music that in many ways takes his previous achievements to the next level–it is, in many ways, the composer’s finest all-around Final Fantasy score. The superior synth is a great boon to sensitive listeners as well, making the music much more palatable and accessible and a good choice for series novices looking to sample it. Though Uematsu would contribute to further games in the series in whole or in part, he was never quite able to equal or top his musical efforts in this game or its two predecessors.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy IX (Nobuo Uematsu)

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The last of three Final Fantasy titles released for the PlayStation 1, Final Fantasy IX was a game that harkened back to the series’ roots, with characters and a story filled with references to earlier games. With a lighter tone (albeit with plenty of darkness) and more character-based humor–and stronger characters–the game was a reaction to the excesses of Final Fantasy VIII and the last time that anything like the steampunk setting that had defined the first six installments of the series would appear in a single-player game. The title was a success, though somewhat less so than its immediate predecessors, confirming that the move toward more realistic character models and extensive cinematic action that had begun with Final Fantasy VIII would continue through Final Fantasy XV and the series’ foreseeable future.

Returning for his ninth consecutive Final Fantasy was Nobuo Uematsu, sole composer of all eight previous games int he series, whose participation had never really been in doubt. Despite generous development time of nearly a year, Final Fantasy IX proved a challenging project for the composer, who single-handedly penned an astonishing 160 tracks of music, clocking in at over five hours once looped and pressed to disc. Uematsu had never written anything so massive before, and in fact the score remained his longest project until the only partially released Final Fantasy XIV over a decade later. The game also proved to be his swan song as sole composer for the series; Uematsu’s participation in future Final Fantasy titles dwindled to nothing leading up to his departure from Square-Enix for freelance work; some sources have attributed this move to exhaustion after such a daunting project.

Final Fantasy IX saw Uematsu returning to the leitmotif style he had abandoned in the previous game, and each member of the game’s primary cast receives a signature theme, almost all of which are further developed with variations. The low-key, pizzicato “Vivi’s Theme,” for instance is interpolated into the vibrant and wacky “Black Mage Village.” The rousing “Quina’s Theme,” replete with pounding tympani and woodblocks, is the basis for the far more subdued “Qu’s Marsh,” while the tragic Renaissance “Freya’s Theme” is adapted into a whole series of increasingly heartbreaking modes. Oddly, the game’s main character is provided with an upbeat leitmotif in “Zidane’s Theme,” but Uematsu never offers a strong reprise of that buoyant melody. The villainous Kuja is particularly well-served with the omninous piano-based “Kuja’s Theme” and the pounding, menacing “Immoral Melody” being excellent counterparts to the well-developed sorceress theme from the previous game.

Uematsu provides further melodic material with the game’s main theme, which weaves in and out of many tracks (such as “Over Those Hills,” the final world map theme in the entire series) but which curiously never receives a full concert performance on the official album, and the haunting Terra motif, a harp arpeggio distantly related to the Final Fantasy “Prelude” that appears in “Terra” and “Bran Bal, the Soulless Village.” The composer also makes explicit references to earlier games in the series, bringing back his chocobo and moogle themes and the complete unaltered “Victory Fanfare” in addition to rearrangements like “Gulug Volcano” (a piece 8-bit enthusiasts will recall from Final Fantasy I).

Since Final Fantasy IX is lighter in tone than its predecessors, Uematsu imbues the album with some of his quirkiest and most off-the-wall tracks, like the aforementioned “Black Mage Village” and the delightfully kooky “The Frog and the Scoundrel.” Unfortunately, this light tone also means that the game’s battle themes leave something to be desired: while temporary, event-based themes like “Hunter’s Chance” and “Feel My Blade” are delightful, the meat-and-potatoes tracks suffer. The final battle themes are among the weakest in the series (though they are easily eclipsed by those in the later Final Fantasy X), while the normal battle theme is limp. The dark, aggressive “Boss Battle” makes up for this somewhat, but winds up being overused; unlike the other games in the series, there are no themes for more pivotal battles, and there’s nothing to compare with the potent battle music of the previous game.

Uematsu’s original idea for Final Fantasy IX was a mix of authentic Renaissance instruments without any of his usual instrumental creativity. This style was so far out of his wheelhouse that he found it impossible to continue, but the tracks that he did write in that style make up a good deal of the album’s filler. His quasi-medieval tracks like “A Place to Return to Someday,” “Oeilvert,” or “Esto Gaza” run toward dull ambiance. The “Oeilvert” theme in particular is overused despite its weakness, leading one to see why Uematsu abandoned that sound in mid-production for something much more vibrant. And while some of Uematsu’s music in the medieval vein is beautiful and liting (“Evil Forest,” “Dali Village”), much is underplayed and frankly boring (“Treno,” “Daguerreo”). It’s worth noting, though, that even at its most dull, the synths are crystal-clear, easily rivaling Chrono Cross for the best synthesized sound that the PS1 could conjure.

On album, the score has a somewhat unusual history; four discs of score were released as the Original Soundtrack just before the game’s launch in 2000, featuring 111 tracks and about 280 minutes of music. Most of the fully orchestrated music that played during the game’s cinematic sequences was left off, as were a few tracks from the game proper. These leftover tracks were gathered up and released four months later as a separate, fifth disc, called Final Fantasy IX Plus and featuring an additional 42 tracks with about 75 minutes of music. Even at five discs, much of the music is not looped, meaning that it plays only once before fading out instead of the industry standard twice–a further indication of just how massive and exhausting a work Uematsu turned out.

Still, if you’re a fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, Final Fantasy IX stands as his most massive solo work as a Square-Enix staffer, complete with high quality synth and thematic diversity. Despite the presence of many comparatively dull tracks and filler, Final Fantasy IX remains a strong album overall, and a worthy swan song to Uematsu’s involvement with the series.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Final Fantasy XIII (Masashi Hamauzu)

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Despite a prolonged development period lasting from 2004 to 2009, Final Fantasy XIII met with mediocre to hostile reviews upon its release. Despite a strong story, it was criticized for being linear (even by the series’ already linear standards), with an agonizingly long setup, irritating characters, no towns or sidequests to speak of, overly copious and melodramatic cutscenes, and a number of narrative jumps that seemed dictated more by existing assets to be stitched together than any overarching plot. In short, it was a return to the excesses of Final Fantasy VIII by much of the same team behind the latter game.

One area in which the team was different, though, was in the music department. Nobuo Uematsu had long since left Square-Enix to freelance, and his energies were occupied by a number of projects during the protracted development (including several Mistwalker titles and the ruinous Final Fantasy XIV), while Hitoshi Sakimoto had gotten the Final Fantasy XII gig based on his previous relationship with that team (and the games’ overlapping development periods ruled him out as well). To pen the music, Square-Enix turned to one of the few composers still working for them full-time, and one of the few who had scored more than one mainline Final Fantasy title: Masashi Hamauzu. With major portions of Final Fantasy X and all of Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, the experienced and innovative composer and arranger seemed tailor-made for the assignment.

Like Sakimoto for the concurrently-developed twelfth installment, Hamauzu brought his own distinct style to the table with little or no modification, and the listener’s affinity for that style will, by and large, color their perception of Final Fantasy XIII. Hamauzu makes even less of an effort to give Uematsu’s themes a token place in his score: except for the Chocobo theme, there are no Final Fantasy themes in the game in any form. At the same time, the budget allowed, for the first time, a full live orchestra and chorus to be employed for nearly every track: the full power of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Warsaw Philharmonic Choir were at Hamauzu’s disposal for the project.

One would expect, given his rejection of most of Uematsu’s themes and his previous experience with Final Fantasy X, that Hamauzu would create his own themes for the project and adopt a similar style of brass and piano dominated action music. And, to an extent, the composer does: though never much of a thematic writer, usually preferring to use tone rather than theme to link his work together, Hamauzu conjures a very attractive main theme in “The Promise.” Initially on the piano, the theme is eventually put through a variety of paces and variations, from chipper (“In the Sky that Night”) to low-key (“The Archylte Steppe”) to pop vocals (“The Sunleth Waterscape;” see below). His themes for the main characters are a somewhat more mixed bag. The main character, Lightning, receives a string-led tune that is surprisingly classical and gentle, for instance, while the character of Sazh is saddled with a lame attempt at loungey jazz fusion. The militant Fang has a wonderful percussive and brassy fanfare, while the perpetually annoying Vanille is given a dour but attractive piano tune; the cocky Snow is saddled with the worst of the bunch, a limp attempt at a rock instrumental.

The game’s nebulous villains, the l’Cie, have a choral theme that is tied directly into some of the best music on the album. Introduced in the moving “Ragnarok,” the theme explodes into a truly satisfying battle theme in “Fighting Fate,” which offers the same lyrics sung in a frenzy against impressive apocalyptic brasses and thunderous percussion. It’s essentially Hamauzu’s take on the orchestral and choral fury that characterized Uematsu’s old final boss themes, and it succeeds beautifully. The game’s main battle theme, “Blinded by Light,” is similarly an adaptation of Lightning’s theme into a battle context, and despite some occasionally distracting shrillness from the violins, succeeds at being both engaging and pulse-pounding, without wearing out its welcome like many of the series’ other main battle themes often have.

A surprisingly large portion of the game’s music is action thanks to the fact that 2/3 of it is essentially an extended escape cutscene with random battles, and when he follows his old Final Fantasy X template, Hamauzu produces some impressive music. Songs like “Saber’s Edge” recall “Attack” from the latter with their engaging mix of subtle electronics and brass; “Forever Fugitives,” in particular, sounds as if it could have been ripped straight from the best portions of Hamauzu’s work from that game. Later tracks like “Eden Under Siege” or “Start Your Engines” work just as well, the latter being a fine attempt to combine unobtrusive electronics with orchestra and melody in a naturalistic, Uematsu-esque way.

But there are also a large number of strange misfires–“Defiers of Fate,” for instance, bookends excellent orchestral writing with brain-numbingly bad attempts at electronic rock music. “Hanging Edge” pits a rambling, shrill, almost avant-garde violin against a brass line rewritten to sound almost jocular despite the bizarre contrast it makes with the images onscreen, for instance. And “Eidolons” sounds all but identical to Hamauzu’s wretched “Challenge” from Final Fantasy X, using repetitive bass and squealing electronics to try, and fail, to generate a semblance of tension. These are among a number of places where Hamauzu seems unable to restrain his own natural tendencies toward the obnoxious avant-garde, despite the fact that they simply don’t suit the game as well as his other compositions. Perhaps the best example of this is “Nascent Requiem,” the final battle music, which pairs the obnoxiously upbeat piano part from the composer’s earlier “Decisive Battle” with bouncy mallet percussion and woodwinds into a themeless and counterintuitively jolly mush.

Worse: although every Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VIII has had an obligatory pop song attached, this game outdoes all others in misguided attempts to appeal to pop audiences. “The Sunleth Waterscape,” for instance, is a bouncy adaptation of Hamauzu’s excellent main theme ruined by the addition of a ludicrous disco beat and truly awful pop vocals. The addition of intrusive electronic beats and dreadful singing (either in the original Japanese or in the English versions available elsewhere) is a terrible one, spoiling tracks from “Will to Fight” to “Sulyya Springs.” Especially disappointing are the vocals over “Chocobos of Cocoon,” as the Chocobo theme is the only vestige of Uematsu’s themes to appear in-game. The song has the potential to be a Uematsu-esque confection on par with “Golden Saucer” but for the ruinous squawking that enters on the second loop. The other adaptation of Uematsu’s theme, “Chocobos of Pulse,” is thankfully an enjoyably straightforward big band adaptation along the lines of “Brass de Chocobo” from Final Fantasy X.

Masashi Hamauzu’s Final Fantasy XIII has to be viewed as a mixed proposition in the final equation. On the one hand, he was able to adapt his Final Fantasy X approach to create some resoundingly powerful and fully orchestral/choral music and several interesting themes, neither of which is his usual bailiwick outside of the latter game. On the other, by rejecting Uematsu’s themes in favor of stubbornly clinging to more avant-garde or bizarrely pop-oriented tendencies, too much of the music is too florid, too jarringly inappropriate, or slathered with awful singing to be appreciated by anyone but Hamauzu’s most diehard fans. Despite its mixed reception, Final Fantasy XIII would go on to receive two sequels; the fact that Hamauzu returned for only a small portion of each is perhaps the best assessment of how he succeeded with this major assignment.

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