Final Fantasy X (Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Junya Nakano)

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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.

Uematsu:  * * * *
Nakano: * * *
Hamauzu: * * *
Overall: * * *

Dawn of Mana (Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Masayoshi Soken, and Ryuichi Sakamoto)

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Dawn of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 4, was been a long time coming; despite a variety of other games in Square-Enix’s long-running series (known as the Mana series stateside), none have come close to the popular and critical acclaim that Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) or Legend of Mana received in the 1990’s. While reactions to the game were decidedly mixed, there was been considerable interest in the new game’s score among video game music enthusiasts. After all, the list of composers attached to the project in one way or another is extremely impressive. The album clocks in at an impressive four discs, longer than any of the previous series sets, with Disc 4 given entirely over to new remixes of thematic material from previous games in the series, including music by fan favorites Hiroki Kikuta from Secret of Mana and Yoko Shimomura from Legend of Mana.

Chief among the exciting factors in Dawn of Mana was the involvement of noted concert and film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, an Oscar winner for The Last Emperor, though his work turned out to be limited to the game’s introductory theme. Sakamoto’s four-minute title track is fairly subdued, piano-driven, and mostly effective. It introduces a few melodic fragments that are taken up later by the game’s main composers, but does stick out a bit, as it’s the only piano track on the album and one performed in a far more classical style than the rest, to say nothing of being acoustic rather than synthesized.

Kenji Ito, who has been the most prolific composer in the Mana series, with scores to the original Seiken Densetsu, its remake, and side games like Children of Mana under his belt, returns for Seiken Densetsu 4. Ito’s work has never resonated with the VGM community the way Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura’s series contributions have, but Ito’s music has been consistently pleasant and professional. Ito obligingly dusts off his old theme from the original Seiken Densetsu, and offers performances of it in “Rising Sun” and again near the end of the album. Ito’s tracks are generally soft and pleasant, but many are unremarkable as well, with few strong melodies and even fewer consistent melodic ideas shared between tracks. It’s also very curious that the older Ito material on Disc 4 isn’t arranged by Ito himself, since he clearly was involved with the project and rearranging his existing themes to an extent.

In many ways, Tsuyoshi Sekito was the most exciting name attached to Dawn of Mana. Sekito’s previous arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s work for various Final Fantasy remakes has met with fan approval, and a high-profile series entry seemed the next logical step in his career. It’s unfortunate, then, that Sekito’s work is the weakest on the album, and generally subpar in every way. The composer leaned heavily on a sound that’s dominated by synthesized beats and ambiance. While this produces a few good tracks like “Emerald Shine” and “The Beast God’s Labyrinth,” they are by and large dull and meandering, and don’t share any themes or instrumentation with Ito’s portion. The rock tracks that Sekito brings to the table again produce a few positive results (such as “Burning Spirits”) but are most often extremely limp and uninteresting, especially when compared with the rock arrangements on Disc 4. It’s telling that Sekito’s best tracks are actually rearrangements of Hiroki Kikuta’s work (“Guardian Holy Beast Flammie”).

While early indications were that Junya Nakano, Masayoshi Soken, and Hirosato Noda would be functioning as co-composers in their own right, they are essentially arrangers in the album as presented. Nakano and Noda don’t have any original compositions, while Soken has a handful of generally pleasant original tunes at the tail end of the set. Their real work, though, was to arrange work from earlier in the Seiken Densetsu series. The rearrangements are generally strong and very involving, especially the music by Kikuta. “Don’t Hunt the Fairy,” “Weird Counterpoint,” and “Splash Hop” from Seiken Densetsu 3 (a game unreleased in the US and therefore without a Western title) and “Meridian Child” and “Child of the Sprite Tribe” from Secret of Mana get not one but two arrangements apiece. One is close in instrumentation to the original, serving as a sort of upgrade to the 16-bit Super Nintendo sound of the original, and the other is a sped-up rock version that takes severe liberties with the original.

Kikuta’s music is far more involving and interesting than the majority of Ito’s and Sekito’s, and the rock arrangements of Kikuta’s themes easily outshine the original rock pieces on the preceding discs. Shimomura’s original music from Legend of Mana isn’t as well represented, with only two arranged tracks, but Ito’s music for Seiken Densetsu gets a splendid treatment. Comparing Ito’s rearranged tracks, given delightful new life by Square Enix’s resident chiptune expert Hirosato Noda in particular, to his original Seiken Densetsu 4 compositions is almost an embarrassment.

One wonders why Kikuta or Shimomura weren’t hired outright, since their music so easily dominates the new material; from the limited material available, it seems as if Nakano or Soken could also have provided superior musical accompaniment to Ito and Sekito. As a result, Dawn of Mana is, despite the big names and bloated length, a disappointment, with largely mundane new material alongside fine rearrangements of older songs. Worst of all, the multi-composer approach destroys the album’s coherence, with wild variations in style and tone the norm. Though the album is to be commended for respecting the series’ musical roots in the rearrangements, none of the new material comes close in tone, instrumentation, melody, or memorability to Kikuta and Shimomura’s earlier, seminal work in the series. You are better off buying Kikuta’s Secret of Mana, its Genesis remix, and Shimomura’s Legend of Mana directly.

Ito: * *
Sekito: *
Others: * * *
Overall: * *