When Battle SQ was announced, most old-school game music lovers became very excited. Most thought Square Enix would extend the concept of The Black Mages melodic rock arrangements of great battle themes to the company's wider catalog. But in the end, the company decided to adopt a very different focus: modern electronica, including dubstep. While different from initial expectations, how does the album hold up in its right? The album was released in two versions, a regular edition featuring 14 tracks and a limited edition featuring a bonus disc, the former of which is reviewed here.
The tracks that best define the sound of Battle SQ are dedicated to Live A Live. Each track prominently integrates the melodies of two fan favourites from the SNES RPG into high-powered, fast-paced digitised arrangements. While both tracks are filled with booming beats and treble frills, the character of the original tracks is not lost. Thrusting rock riffs and nostalgic chiptune samples are hybridised into Miss Modular's rendition of "Knock You Down!", while The LastTrack's tribute to the game's Ancient China chapter is filled with pentatonic tonalities and traditional, albeit electronically manipulated, flutes. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of these arrangements is their sheer scope each exceeding five minutes, the tracks incorporate plenty of buildups and shifts through their ever-exciting development. The days of generic techno remixes of game music are finally behind us. In their place, we get tracks that are cool, energetic, and polished, albeit not instantly accessible.
The majority of the other tracks on the release share an electronic focus, though they're a diverse bunch. Among the returnees from previous SQ albums, doujin outfit millstones synchronises two popular battle themes from SaGa Frontier II. Their piano-laced trance arrangement is among the more conventional additions to the soundtrack, but it's filled with a uplifting sound. AVTechNO! was given the challenging task of transforming Hitoshi Sakimoto's dense orchestral music from Final Fantasy Tactics into a hard techno mix. He uses the aggressive, pulsating string ostinato from "Battle on the Bridge" as the basis for the entire piece, while presents it in an entirely different context. Many will find the overall remix too deviant, though it's impressive from a musical standpoint. Seiken Densetsu 3's "nuclear fusion" and Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon's "Fight, Chocobo" explore further rough, driving sounds while staying relatively true to the concept of the originals.
In an audacious and divisive move, Square Enix even hired some dubstep artists for this production. The genre has become pretty popular in recent years thanks to artists such as Skrillex, though it has many detractors some that argue that it isn't music at all. The influence carries throughout the album, even on the Live A Live and Final Fantasy Tactics remixes, though the dubstep influence is strongest on Final Fantasy's "Victory Fanfare" and Rudra no Hihou's "The Spirit Chaser". dubscribe and Stealth Boys competently produced these tracks, integrating the familiar hooks of the originals with bass-heavy rhythmical structures of the dubstep scene. However, they're also horribly generic, featuring the same wobble bass and other modulations found in even the most basic examples of the genre. In the end, the former is more of a bizarre gimmick than a strong opener, while the latter will leave many fans crying out for that much-needed official rock band performance of the popular battle anthem.
All the rockers out there will be relieved to learn that there are still rock remixes scattered across the album. shibuyamicrofuture's medley of Final Fantasy IV's normal and final battle themes probably comes the closest to what most listeners expected from the album. It's a nice blend of the classic, melody-driven rock approaches of Final Fantasy and The Black Mages with a more mainstream rock band approach. Nothing too surprising, but quite nice. London-based metal band NOVOISKI do justice to Romancing SaGa 2's "Seven Heroes Battle". They retain a strong focus on the lyrical melodies of Kenji Ito's originals, while enpowering them with electric guitar leads and beefy rhythm riffs. It's Minstrel Song Mark II, albeit with a harder edge. The closing track is "You're Not Alone", one of the best Final Fantasy battle themes never covered by The Black Mages. This entirely guitar-focused, anthemic arrangement is the most cheesy and contrived of the bunch, unfortunately. However, it still has enough energy and melodic charisma to be potentially enjoyable.
Rounding off the album are some diverse additions. "Furious Battle" from Final Fantasy Adventure maintains the rock vibe, but is rendered mostly in 8-bit. It would perhaps be a better fit for the SQ Chips series, though it brings a nice dash of variety and novelty into Battle SQ regardless. YUKIYOSHI's "Decisive Battle with Magus" differs from the rest of the album with its orchestral focus, but lacks the timbral variety needed to appeal. The violin lead conveying the melody is hauntingly beautiful at first, but grows laboursome with repetition, while the accompaniment proves surprisingly thin and barren given the uniform focus. It doesn't provide the dramatic grand finale to the album that was intended. The crowning achievement of the disc is Lemm's "Hope Giving 'Dance of the Dog's Howl'", based on an already modern and electrified original from Sigma Harmonics. A wonderful blend of shimmering violin and piano leads, dreamy and stimulating electronic beats, and dashes of edgy militaristic orchestration, it expands greatly on the original while retaining all its Hamauzu-isms. Perfect.
Battle SQ is different from expected, but hardly definitively bad. The majority of the arrangements are creative, energetic, and well-produced, while the source material tends to be well-chosen. The album is let down by a handful of generic remixes, most of them focusing on dubstep and light rock stylings, though there's a surplus of good ones to make up for it. However, it's definitely essential to enjoy modern electronic stylings to fully appreciate this one. The regular edition reviewed here lacks the extra content of the limited edition, though it is the more focused and rounded release.