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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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: * * *