Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

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On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy VII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Developer Squaresoft had earned a following with their Final Fantasy series of role-playing games for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems, but it took their defection to Nintendo rival Sony to take them into the stratosphere. The company’s first Playstation effort, Final Fantasy VII, was like nothing gamers had ever seen: movie-style FMV cutscenes, pre-rendered backgrounds, and fully 3D character models and battles. The game’s plot, an epic spread over three CDs and stuffed with endearingly goofy characters alongside dark and mature themes, earned it an instant following. Virtually every plot-driven RPG to follow owes something to the title, and it was a massive sales success both in Japan and abroad, fondly remembered today even as its presentation and aesthetic seem increasingly quaint. As later entries in the series became increasingly cinematic and driven by the need for spectacle over character, Final Fantasy VII is arguable the pinnacle of what the late developer had to offer.

Even as several key members of the Final Fantasy team swapped out for the project–Tetsuya Nomura’s leather and belt-crazy character designs supplanting Yoshitaka Amano’s wispy ukiyo-e ones, for instance–director Yoshinori Kitase and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi brought composer Nobuo Uematsu back to the franchise. The self-taught musician Uematsu had been with Squaresoft since 1985, and had written the scores for every one of the previous six Final Fantasies as well as contributing to side projects like Chrono Trigger. His previous score for the series, Final Fantasy VI, had been extremely well received for its integration of elements as diverse as classical opera, Wagnerian leitmotif, and progressive rock, and Uematsu was to build on this sequel score using many of the same pieces. Indeed, Uematsu’s approach is very similar in terms of construction, with the score built around a main theme with individual themes and variations for each major playable character (aside from, oddly, the main one) and prominent villains. He built on the operatic elements of the previous title by utilizing live voices for the first time in the series in one pivotal sequence, though overall the Wagnerian rock-opera sound that distinguished Final Fantasy VI is toned down in favor of a more eclectic approach.

Uematsu’s main theme, not associated with any one character, appears in the eponymous track as the world map music, and is surprisingly lengthy and ambitious: unlike his map themes past and present, with a loop of 1-2 minutes, a single loop of Uematsu’s main theme takes six and a half minutes (!). Its opening phrase, especially the first five notes, are reused and referenced across many other tracks, while the extensive variations in the map theme itself run the gamut from pastoral to triumphant to darkly troubled. It’s a very symphonic and ambitious piece, something Uematsu would not attempt again for future main or map themes. He adapts his “Main Theme” into a number of other tracks befitting its place: the beautiful “Holding My Thoughts into my Heart” gives the melody to an oboe set against scintillating harps and mallet percussion, while the game’s airship theme “Highwind Takes to the Skies” gives the theme a resounding, triumphant, yet bittersweet outing. It’s a sign of the theme’s strength that nearly all its adaptations are album highlights.

For the game’s characters, Uematsu returns to the leitmotif structure that he first used in Final Fantasy VI, giving the major characters and major villains each a theme and variations thereof (aside from the main character, who might be more associated with the “Main Theme”). The busty heroine and possible love interest Tifa is given a surprisingly sensitive theme that belies her status as a bruiser, a tune based on one of Uematsu’s lovliest early compositions, “Town of Alm” from Final Fantasy III. Oddly, the theme isn’t adapted until it forms a resounding part of the final cutscene track, “World Crisis.” Barret, the hotheaded Mr. T wannabe rebel leader with a robotic gun-arm, gets a delightfully pompous but optimistic military march in “Barret’s Theme,” one that is interpreted in a far more morose vein for “Mining Town” and “Mark of the Traitor” for scenes detailing the character’s tragic backstory. The Final Fantasy VII incarnation of Cid gets a soaring march of his own in “Cid’s Theme,” with elements thereof appearing in “Highwind Takes to the Skies” and “Stealing the Tiny Bronco” with a full-on morose adaptation for the character’s dashed dreams of spaceflight in “Launching a Dream into Space.” The bizarre and mysterious Red XII’s theme is an arrangement of “Cosmo Canyon” set against quizzical synths; both tracks have a very energetic tribal feel to them, reflecting the location’s status as close to nature and a nexus for hippies. The optional character Yuffie gets a surprisingly sunny theme that’s twisted into the mischievous “Stolen Materia” and subtly into the pan-Asian “Wutai.” The other optional character, Vincent, gets a baroque nightmare of a theme in the aptly-named “The Nightmare Begins” while the bizarre Cait Sith is given an upbeat leitmotif full of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, Hammond organ fun; neither theme gets any variations at all. And, of course, much ink has been spilled over the character Aeris’s theme, both in its original warm and uplifting form in “Flowers Blooming in the Church” and in its tragic, heartbreaking outing as “Aeris’s Theme.”

Uematsu’s approach to the game’s villains is more subtle than the rock-opera theatrics of the previous game. The game’s primary villain, Sephiroth, is given a dirge-like motif in “Those Chosen by the Planet” full of moaning synth voices, roiling percussion, and tolling bells. It’s a menacing piece primarily played for atmosphere in some of the game’s most pivotal and disturbing moments, and Uematsu occasionally breaks the piece apart into solo drums and chimes in-game (though not on the soundtrack). For the secondary antagonist, the ineptly brutal megacorporation Shinra, Uematsu uses many of the same pieces–heavy percussion and synth choir–hinting at the deep connection between the two villains. “Shinra Company” has more layers and more synth, though, with its shuffling two-step and moaning voices deftly capturing both its evil and its ineptitude. The theme gets a Muzak interpolation in “Infiltrating Shinra” for their corporate headquarters and its own delightfully pompous and quirky military march in “Shinra’s Full-Scale Assault” with further references in the dire “Mako Reactor.”

The battle themes on display in Final Fantasy VII also have important differences from those in Final Fantasy VI. Uematsu’s normal battle theme, “Let the Battles Begin!,” abandons his usual battle ostinato with its characteristic ascending arpeggios for a much more modernistic sound driven by synth brass and strings with pounded tambourine and metal hits to provide rhythm and a whirling woodwind interlude. Notably, Uematsu also abandons all but the opening notes of his 6-game-old victory fanfare, replacing it with a driving percussive piece (though the full fanfare is heard during the game’s chocobo races elsewhere). The boss battle theme, “Fight On,” combines the electric guitar from the previous game with the same metallic percussion as “Let the Battles Begin!” with a healthy dose of Hammond organ (Uematsu’s first use of the instrument, which would come to dominate his battle themes for the game’s sequel) and only a modest synth orchestra presence. The music for the game’s special event battles is among its most notable innovations: the synthy and pulse-pounding “J-E-N-O-V-A” uses descending electronic pulses set against brass and off-kilter melodies to suggest science gone horribly awry, while the later “JENOVA Absolute” rearranges “Let the Battles Begin!” into an even more percussive and hard-edged form, with a desperate piano and brass interlude that’s not to be missed. Uematsu arranges the villain’s theme into the final two battles; for the penultimate “Birth of a God” he returns to his usual battle ostinato with Hammond organ and a powerful interlude consisting of “Those Chosen by the Planet” over a bed of synths. The game’s final battle takes that even further, rearranging “Those Chosen” into a slashing percussive aria set against Latin lyrics sung by a live choir of Squaresoft employees (including future Dirge of Cerberus composer Masashi Hamauzu) in both an echo and expansion of “Dancing Mad” from the previous game.

Aside from one or two dud tracks (“Trail of Blood,” “The North Cave”), the score’s overriding weakness in the face of all its melodic strength and instrumental creativity is its use of MIDI. The Playstation platform offered the opportunity for a greatly improved, even CD-quality sound or even a greatly enhanced synthesizer sound–as would be shown by Uematsu’s own later efforts. Other Square projects that came out the same year, like Sakimoto and Iwata’s Final Fantasy Tactics (which came out less than six months after Final Fantasy VII) showed the possibilities inherent in evolving synthesizer technology, making Uematsu’s decision to use MIDI seem even worse in retrospect. The MIDI sounds are competent for electronic effects and percussion, but wind up making Uematsu’s brass sound incredibly tinny–at times, the music’s sound quality is audibly inferior even to that of Final Fantasy VI‘s SPC hardware-based sound despite the quantum leap in technology between the two titles. This primitive MIDI sound will serve as an insurmountable barrier to many listeners, and it’s unfortunate that Uematsu’s brilliant melodies and groundbreaking fusion of disparate elements often winds up sounding so muffled and tinny. Some key tracks wound up being arranged and upgraded later, but sound quality remains the single greatest bugaboo for Final Fantasy VII.

Squaresoft, through its ill-fated DigiCube subsidiary, gave Final Fantasy VII a full 4-disc soundtrack release a month after the game bowed in 1997. While the physical version was a Japanese exclusive, its ubiquity makes it relatively affordable for Western fans; a later iTunes release made it digitally accessible to American audiences for a first time (albeit at a premium price). While several tracks from Final Fantasy VII would be arranged by Uematsu and others for future projects, the composer had no hand in the game’s sequel titles, which received better-synthesized but extremely disappointing scores from Masashi Hamauzu and Takeharu Ishimoto. Uematsu’s own follow-up, the animated Advent Children, was also a disappointment, squandering its resources on a lazy combination of reused music from other albums and limp new music with very few of the original’s themes adapted or expanded in a satisfying way. The lack of a proper full arrangement, recreating Uematsu’s innovating combination of orchestra, electronic, and progressive rock elements in crystal-clear and (where appropriate) acoustic elements still galls even after almost two decades. Still, the music’s creative and melodic strength and its undeniable influence on later composers and compositions make it an essential listen for fans of the medium and a key part of the game’s astonishing success.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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

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 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

Final Fantasy XI (Nobuo Uematsu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Kumi Tanioka)

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Final Fantasy XI was Square-Enix’s first large-scale venture into the massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) market, though inexplicably the developer chose to make the game an actual, numbered Final Fantasy as opposed to a side title or gaiden. The resulting game completely gutted the famous narrative drive of the series in favor of a repetitive online quest structure with an odd, if innovative, auto-translation feature to allow Japanese and foreign audiences to play on the same servers. Released in 2002-2003 and thereby beating rival World of Warcraft to the market by over a year, the game required extensive additional hardware for the PS2, an internet connection, and a monthly subscription to play; its concurrent release on Microsoft platforms made it one of Square-Enix’s first multiplatform releases as well. Despite its total abandonment of all but the most superficial aspects of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XI performed fairly well in the marketplace and remains online and available; many longtime series fans were disappointed by the new format, though, and Square-Enix wouldn’t produce an all-new single-player Final Fantasy for five years.

One benefit of making Final Fantasy XI a part of the main series was that it gave series composer Nobuo Uematsu the opportunity to write music for the game. Uematsu was in the midst of winding down his involvement with Square-Enix at the time, and alongside Hanjuku Hero 3D Final Fantasy XI would represent his last large-scale work with the company before leaving it to become a freelancer. As such, like Final Fantasy X before it, Uematsu chose to collaborate with other Square-Enix staff composers Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka for the score. Mizuta was perhaps best known for stepping into Yoko Shimomura’s shoes with mixed success on Parasite Eve II, but had worked for Capcom for years beforehand; with the departure of many of Square-Enix’s superstar 80s and 90s composers in the 2000s, he would become one of the company’s most prominent staff musicians. Tanioka had done some work for Square’s Chocobo’s Dungeon spinoff series, but she would be best known for her subsequent work on the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series for Nintendo platforms.

Uematsu’s contribution was far, far more limited than in Final Fantasy X: he wrote only ten tracks of music, and only nine original pieces if one discounts his adaptation of the preexisting “Prelude.” Tanioka wrote a comparable twelve tracks, leaving the remaining twenty-eight to Mizuta, who would go on to write the music for all subsequent Final Fantasy XI expansions, leaving him the dominant musical voice in the game.

This is a pity, as Mizuta is simply unable to create music as interesting or varied as his co-composers. There are some highlights, notably the heroic march he provides for “Hume Male” and the Mitsuda-esque “Voyager,” performed on an acoustic guitar. But most of the remaining tracks are forgettable, and tend to fall into predictable patterns–acoustic guitar backing with woodwind melodies. Mizuta’s battle themes are slightly more effective but still very perfunctory, with the requisite brass and percussion but little in the way of melodic development or character, which is especially appalling considering the series’ strong record in that area. The nadir of Mizuta’s work is the unbearable “Castle Zvahl,” a ponderous nine minute gothic piece that utterly fails to justify its running time. Mizuta also fails to adapt Uematsu’s main theme–or any of the veteran composer’s themes, for that matter–preferring instead to mix “The Prelude” into some of his tracks.

Kumi Tanioka comes off much stronger, particularly in the suite of town music she writes. “The Republic of Bastok” is an album highlight, mixing claves and percussion with a lively woodwind theme to create a bustling and industrious atmosphere. “Metalworks” is a more subdued take on the same idea, and is similarly strong. Tanioka also adapts Uematsu’s main theme in “Fury,” a strong arrangement that emphasizes brass and percussion and adds an electronic beat. She pens her share of dull tracks too, such as the plodding “Gustaberg,” and several of her pieces seem inappropriate–note the heavy electronic backbeat in “Elvaan Female.” Though not without significant weaknesses, Tanioka distinguished herself well; fans will note strong stylistic similarities between her work on Final Fantasy XI and her strong later scores for the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series.

Uematsu’s musical contribution is by far the strongest, which is unsurprising given his greater experience. His main theme, which is fully orchestrated with a live choir and Esperanto lyrics, is far and away the album’s best piece, opening it in such a spectacular style that everything that comes after is something of a letdown. The theme is so strong that Mizuta’s refusal to adapt is it perplexing, though Uematsu contributes several strong variations of his own in “Recollection” and “Repression.” “Ronfaure,” familiar to many people because of its inclusion in the Dear Friends concert series, is also noteworthy, especially the melancholy second half. And “Airship,” an emotional and wistful piece for acoustic guitar and electronics is sublime, among the composer’s best tracks–appropriate, since was virtually the final airship song Uematsu ever wrote. Uematsu would return to Final Fantasy and MMORPGs with his score to the dire Final Fantasy XIV, though that product’s horrible reception and eventual reboot meant that most of his contribution was minimized and no comprehensive soundtrack album was ever released.

Final Fantasy XI is therefore decidedly mixed; Naoshi Mizuta’s work is generally dreadful, while Kumi Tanioka provides some excellent tracks and Uematsu gives a solid effort with several songs that can stand proudly alongside his finest. As with all Final Fantasy albums, Final Fantasy XI is most easily available through an importer on an online download, and acquiring a new or legitimate copy can be an expensive proposition–whether it is worth the cost or not will have to be left up to individual buyers. Its a few excellent tracks may be enough to make you overlook the dullest and most forgettable Final Fantasy score yet.

Mizuta: starstar

Tanioka: starstarstar

Uematsu: 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.

* * *

Final Fantasy X-2 (Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi)

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The ending of Final Fantasy X was perhaps the most downbeat and open in the series so far, with the fate of the major protagonist left essentially unknown. It was therefore less surprising than it might otherwise have been when Final Fantasy X-2, the first-ever sequel to a Final Fantasy game (if one discounts the bizarre, awful anime OVA Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals) debuted two years later in 2003. The game divided fans, offering an incredibly light and jokey fanservice tone that seemed inspired by Charlie’s Angels and copious reuse of existing assets from Final Fantasy X alongside a return of the Active Time Battle system and Job System (after a fashion) from earlier games.

By 2003, Nobuo Uematsu had left Square and was freelancing, producing music for a wide variety of media at a languid pace (perhaps to make up for his massive output during the previous years); it’s therefore little surprise that he didn’t return for Final Fantasy X-2, or indeed any Final Fantasy, for nearly a decade. More surprising was the absence of Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, who were still with Square at the time and had no active projects; perhaps the jarring tonal shift between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 precluded their involvement. In their place, the duo of Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi were brought in. Both had been with Square since the 1990s; Matseuda had done well-received work on Bahamut Lagoon and some prominent additional music for Chrono Trigger, while Eguchi had been primarily active as an arranger. The official album credits don’t specify which tracks were the work of Matseuda and which were from Eguchi; it’s therefore not clear to what extent they worked together on all of the music.

The elephant in the room relates to thematic material: absolutely none of the themes from Final Fantasy X or the Final Fantasy series at large is reprised in whole or in part by Matseuda and Eguchi. The one exception is a few bars of Uematsu’s Chocobo theme in “Chocobo,” but they are buried and mutilated almost beyond recognition. Essentially, the music reflects the tonal shift of the game: the often dark, weighty, and ambient music of Final Fantasy X is cast aside in favor of bouncy, upbeat tunes clearly influenced by 1970s caper movies (and, yes, Charlie’s Angels). This break is understandable, if disappointing: Matseuda and Eguchi scored the game they were given, one that often barely resembled the original despite using many of the same locations, enemies, and character models.

“Yuna’s Theme” typifies the new approach for the game. With electric keyboards, wah-wah guitars, Hammond organs, and a drum set, it’s a bouncy slice of 1970s funk melody, lightly contemporized. Its urban sound couldn’t be further from Uematsu’s sweet and innocent “Yuna’s Theme.” “Rikku’s Theme” is much the same, very pop-ish and light even in comparison to Uematsu’s lazy-Sunday original. Much of the music follows this same basic template: melodic, light, and full of 1970s funk accoutrements.

Some pieces dial back the funk elements in favor of melody (“Mi’hen Highroad”), and occasional acoustic elements will be more prominent than keyboards in the mix (“Mushroom Rock Road”). There are plenty of cases where the electronic and funk prove irritating, like the grating synth stew of “Thunder Plains,” the cheesy Japanese classical influences layered atop “Anything Goes For Leblanc,” and the thick layers of disco cheese slathered over “”We’re the Gullwings.” And the less said about the obligatory pop songs “1000 Words” or “Real Emotion,” the better–they are in the same dire league as “Otherworld” and “Suteki Na De” from the original (though they are at least available in English). Don’t expect much recurring thematic material, either; Matseuda and Eguchi are content to let tone and instrumentation provide cohesion rather than recurring themes.

Eventually, the story of Final Fantasy X-2 takes a slightly darker turn (though never even approaching that of its predecessor), with Matseuda and Eguchi providing “straight” music for some scenes. Much of this music is built from the same basic building blocks as the remainder of the score, but with the electronic elements dialed down and the brass moving from funk fanfares to action blasts. The “straight” music provides some of the best and some of the weakest material, with pieces like the intriguing organ-led “Vegnagun Awakes” co-existing with anonymous ambient muck like “Disquiet.” The game’s rather confusing villain, Shuyin, is given a menacing theme for wailing electric guitars and orchestra; a bit underwhelming on its own, it is nevertheless the thematic basis for many of the darker tracks in the game.

Action music is a similarly mixed bag. The game’s three main battle themes run the gamut from the same sort of bouncy funk (“YuRiPa Fight No. 1) to completely anonymous noise (“YuRiPa Fight No. 3, the game’s standard fight music). For the final sequence of the game, Matseuda and Eguchi adapt a straight posture for the twin “Ruin” and “Their Resting Place,” both generally relying on frantic brass hits and string runs to try and build an apocalyptic tone. “Their Resting Place” is perhaps the pick of the battle music, combining Shuyin’s theme with mild electronics and a strong melody alongside the brass hits. It’s surprisingly dark and effective, and a much better final boss theme than either “Overworld” or “Decisive Battle” provided for Final Fantasy X.

In the end, how much you get out of Matseuda and Eguchi’s work for Final Fantasy X-2 will be directly proportional to how much you are able to embrace the game’s tonal shift and the music’s complete break from Final Fantasy past and present. There is certainly plenty of attractive bouncy caper music, and even some moments of darkness here and there, but ultimately it’s hard to shake the feeling that the music could have been something more than the sum of its parts, and that Matseuda and Eguchi didn’t fully take advantage of their opportunity here. Perhaps the brass as Square-Enix felt the same way; despite doing yeoman’s work for X-2, Matseuda and Eguchi have not had a major assignment since. And while future Final Fantasy sequels would generally have a lighter tone than the originals, none would depart so far from the tone and tenor of the original (or its music) as X-2.

* * *

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: * * *

Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (Nobuo Uematsu)

Cover

Nobuo Uematsu’s work on the Final Fantasy series was the catalyst that interested many people in video game music to begin with, and few of his works are more acclaimed than Final Fantasy VII. When Advent Children, a direct-to-DVD sequel to the Playstation game Final Fantasy VII was announced, fans disappointed by Uematsu’s absence from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within were overjoyed to see his name on the marquee. And just as Advent Children is the total tonal opposite of The Spirits Within, catering to series diehards to the exclusion of all others, Uematsu’s score couldn’t be further from Elliot Goldenthal’s. Somewhat surprisingly, it is also a long way from Uematsu’s outstanding Final Fantasy scores of old.

Uematsu did not tackle the album as a solo endeavor; perhaps due to his self-admitted inexperience in scoring films, the composer employed a large number of assistants and co-composers. Squaresoft veterans Tsuyoshi Sekito, Keiji Kawamori, and Kyosuke Himuro arranged or co-arranged tracks and wrote some additional music. Uematsu’s regular orchestrator Shirou Hamaguchi was involved in much of the orchestral work, as was arranger Kazuhiko Toyama. Groups as diverse as the Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus were lined up to perform portions of the music, as well.

The two-disc original soundtrack set is a blend of orchestral tracks, synthesized music, and hard-rock songs–not entirely unlike the sound Uematsu conjured solo for the games, taking the limitations of video game synths at the time into account. The album debuts strongly, kicking off with a long-overdue, full-bodied orchestral version of the famous “Opening” track. Other orchestral highlights include the choral “Tenrai” tracks, and the finale, “Cloud Smiles” and the “End Credits.” “Cloud Smiles” in particular twists the familiar “Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII” into a charming piece that builds up to a stunning climax, easily the overall bright point of the album.

Advent Children‘s electronic pieces are closer to Uematsu’s original composition style for the Playstation game; the piano-based “For the Reunion” is particularly notable for its jagged but beautiful integration of synth effects. “Water” is an album highlight, combining a subtle variation on “Aerith’s Theme” from Final Fantasy VII with a new compositions. It is puzzling, though, that so many tracks are synthesized, since Uematsu clearly had an orchestra at his disposal as well (though the synths are lightyears beyond those from the original Final Fantasy VII).

The hard-rock tracks are among the weakest on the album, adding little but a sense of motion and chaos. Heavy metal interpretations of the once-menacing “Shinra Theme” and generic mayhem don’t fit in well with the orchestral or synth portions of the score, nor do they really gel with the sound established in the original game. More than anything else, they seem an extension of the style in Final Fantasy X‘s “Otherworld,” a track that is unpopular and divisive among many of Uematsu’s fans. Worse, most of the hard-rock material fails to quote any of Uematsu’s multitude of themes from the original game.

Perhaps the most difficult criticism that can be leveled at Advent Children is the number of direct rehashes from previous albums that were shoehorned into the film. The piano tracks are identical to songs from the FFVII Piano Collection; “JENOVA” is indistinguishable from the version that appeared on Uematsu’s Black Mages album. Parts of the “One-Winged Angel” track appear to have been lifted directly from the earlier Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks album, featuring extremely poor transitions between the new rock arrangements and the original orchestral music.

It’s difficult to understand why so many songs were essentially rehashed, especially given the brilliant way that other songs from the original game are reinterpreted (such as in “Water” or “Cloud Smiles”). Unlike the older games in the series, in which Uematsu juggled and mixed genres very deftly, the simultaneous existence of synth, orchestral, hard-rock, and solo piano lends the album a very inconsistent feel. An orchestral track may be followed by a hard-rock ballad with a piano melody hard on its heels, and they rarely feel as if they belong in the same sonic universe, much less the same film. The obligatory J-Pop tune at the end adds yet another genre without adding much to the mix, and is itself rather banal.

Final Fantasy: Advent Children, regardless of how it may or may not work in the film, is a frustrating listening experience on album. There is brilliant work by Uematsu arrayed side by side with near-unlistenable material and unaccountable laziness. Fans of any one of the genres of music on display in the album will wind up disappointed by the inconsistency on display, especially given Uematsu’s strong past record of cross-genre success with other Final Fantasy albums. Perhaps a more experienced orchestrator would have been able to lend the music a more cohesive feel, or perhaps Uematsu should have provided themes for others to flesh out. In any event, the album is a disappointment, recommended only to fans of Final Fantasy VII and Nobuo Uematsu who are willing to forgive the album’s stylistic inconsistency and outright laziness in order to hear occasional above-average reinterpretations of the composer’s prior Final Fantasy VII work.

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