Final Fantasy XII (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

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Final Fantasy XII‘s release came in the middle of a drought of sorts: aside from the online-only Final Fantasy XI and the stopgap Final Fantasy X-2 and a host of other inferior spin-offs, it was the only all-new iteration of the venerable Square-Enix role-playing series between 2001 and 2010. The game was created by much of the team behind the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and its mature and labyrinthine political plot was a welcome departure from the histrionics that occasionally marred the series. Despite a protracted development period and some controversy over its Tri-Ace-like battle system, Final Fantasy XII was a well-reviewed late-lifespan title for the Playstation 2.

Final Fantasy XII would also see a torch passing of sorts; it was the first all-new Final Fantasy title to have no major input from the series’ longtime composer Nobuo Uematsu, who wrote only the brief ending song “Kiss Me Good-Bye” which was not adapted into any other facet of the game’s score. His replacement: Hitoshi Sakimoto, best known for his work on Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy Tactics and head of the Basiscape music production studio. Sakimoto had been a staff composer at Square from 1997 to 2002, and his close association with the Final Fantasy Tactics team meant that no one else had been seriously considered for the job.

Final Fantasy XII was trapped in development hell for several years, leading to numerous delayed release dates–but it also gave Hitoshi Sakimoto ample time to work the bugs out of his score. Comparing the final tracks to their pre-release counterparts, given out as downloadable promotions, it’s clear that Sakimoto was refining his compositions continually throughout, and it shows in the final product. The synthesized instruments, while still slightly tinny in some places, are greatly improved over not only the demo tracks but most of the previous games as well. Only the use of a live orchestra for all tracks in Final Fantasy XIII could improve on the lush sound of its prequel, though a full orchestra was used for the opening and closing portions of Final Fantasy XII as well.

On the whole, Sakimoto’s score is bold, bright, and brassy; perhaps the most upbeat and optimistic music he’s ever penned and often lightyears away from the darkness of Vagrant Story while very much sharing its sound palette. He employs parts of Uematsu’s leitmotif structure, though, with his “Main Theme” incorporated subtly in many places, and a handful of character or faction themes like the grandiose “Theme of the Empire” or the dreamy, aggressive “Ashe’s Theme.” Sakimoto also unifies his music through consistent instrumentation and orchestration, giving it a distinct color and tone in his personal style.

Sakimoto’s music for towns and events is impressive; “Royal Capital Rabanastre” combines light brass with bright string work and rhythmic tambourine, while the delightful “Secret Practice” features whirling woodwinds, strings, mallet percussion accents, and militaristic percussion into a wonderfully quirky mix. “Little Villain” is in the same vein, with lighthearted strings giving way to a combination of tambourine, plucked strings, and woodwinds. There is also downbeat, more mystical music, like the slow, contemplative “The Princess’ Vision” and “Dark Night,” both of which feature drawn-out string playing set to harp and concert bells. While there are weaker tracks like the dull “Battle Drum” and “Jahara,” they are isolated islands in a generally engaging soundscape.

It’s in his battle and dungeon themes where Sakimoto has perhaps his greatest success: they”re some of the most rousing tracks he’s ever composed. “The Phon Coast” features stellar choral work that recalls the best moments of James Horner’s Krull set against large-scale percussion, while “The Dalmasca Eastersand” features driving brass that begins as a rhythm line but quickly soars to incredible melodic heights. “Esper Battle” is almost entirely brutal percussion and choir, an awesome if repetitive aural assault, as is the later variation in “Esper.” The combat material goes from strength to strength: “Giving Chase,” which adds growling brass and whirling strings to the mix, “Decisive Battle,” with its Holst-like brass spikes, and the final “Struggle for Freedom,” which sets the “Theme of the Empire” against soaring statements of the “Main Theme.” It’s breathless, exciting stuff, lightyears beyond the uninspired battle themes of the previous several Final Fantasy games, if admittedly not at all in line with Nobuo Uematsu’s progressive-rock style.

Uematsu’s contributions to the album are extremely limited, Sakimoto adapts some of the composer’s older work, which gives the music a strong Final Fantasy connection while remaining true to the instrumentation and feel of the album–a smart approach keenly missed in the later Final Fantasy XIII. Uematsu’s “Final Fantasy” theme returns for the first time since Final Fantasy IX, as does the unaltered “Victory Fanfare.” The “Chocobo Theme” gets no less than two renditions, once bouncy and driving, the other more subdued and elegant, and “Battle With Gilgamesh” from Final Fantasy V is dusted off and given a rousing makeover. The only curious omission is the “Moogle Theme,” which is absent despite the clear presence of moogles throughout the game.

In keeping with his role as lead composer and producer at Basiscape, Sakimoto was not the only composer to write music for Final Fantasy XII: his fellow Square-Enix veterans Hayato Matsuo and Masaharu Iwata join him for a handful of tracks. Matsuo, best known for previous collaborations with Sakimoto like Ogre Battle and contributions to various Front Mission titles, takes on some of the darker and more atmospheric tracks, generally with disappointing results. His music is quite bland, with comparatively poor synth, but worst of all, it is completely out of sync with Sakimoto’s. Since Final Fantasy XII often relies on Sakimoto’s style to hold it together, and Matsuo’s tracks are unable to fit in, it represents a key weakness of the score; luckily, Matsuo’s contribution is limited to just seven tracks out of one hundred. Masaharu Iwata, another old collaborator of Sakimoto’s, wrote two deliciously dark tracks that do a far better job of blending in with Sakimoto’s material, much as in their old collaboration on Final Fantasy Tactics. Classical composer Taro Hakase, along with Yuji Toriyama, contribute a single closing track which, although “inspired by” Sakimoto’s main theme, also clashes with the majority of the album and robs the main composer of the opportunity to write an end credits track. These non-Sakimoto tracks represent the album’s biggest weakness, and the reason for bringing in additional composers remains truly mystifying.

It’s also worth noting that, although he does adapt Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy themes, Hitoshi Sakimoto makes no attempt to sound like the older composer. The style and instrumental color of the work is strictly within Sakimoto’s established sound; it overflows with his trademark harp arpeggios, pizzicato strings, and rising brass notes. Like Masashi Hamauzu on Final Fantasy XIII, Sakimoto does not compromise his style at all to attempt to fit in with earlier Final Fantasy titles. As such, if listeners do not like Sakimoto’s style as heard in previous efforts like Final Fantasy Tactics or Vagrant Story, there is little to recommend Final Fantasy XII. Similarly, if listeners insist on Uematsu’s unique fusion sound for the series, they are bound to be disappointed: Sakimoto’s work has virtually no modern trappings, no electric guitars, no progressive rock (or any rock) influence, and no overt electronics (beyond the synthetic nature of the game’s faux-orchestral instruments).

Nevertheless, Final Fantasy XII is an easy recommendation for anyone looking for thematic consistency in their Final Fantasy scores and who would appreciate some of the series’ most rousing, optimistic, and hugely orchestral music (despite the near-total absence of Nobuo Uematsu). Fans of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s style in particular will be delighted with the work; even if Sakimoto’s work is somewhat diminished by the presence of other composers in minor roles, his work is an excellent contribution to the Final Fantasy discography as a whole. A CD with a few highlights was released in the US by Tofu Records in 2006, but to get the full flavor one must either import the full 4-CD set from Japan or purchase the iTunes version. And, despite his stellar work on Final Fantasy XII, Hitoshi Sakimoto would have relatively few assignments from Square-Enix in the future, with only the few original tracks in Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and Final Fantasy Tactics A2 to his name.

Sakimoto: starstarstarstarstar
Matsuo: starstarstar
Iwata: starstarstarstar
Hakase/Toriyama: starstarstar
Overall: starstarstarstarstar

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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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