VAGRANTSTORY Original Soundtrack
The odds against me reviewing this soundtrack were at first high. The game Vagrant Story isn't exactly my favourite Squaresoft RPG (mostly due to its stupid and over-complicated battle system). And the composer Hitoshi Sakimoto is not a favourite of mine. Yes, I did like Final Fantasy Tactics Original Soundtrack, but unlike some people, I don't consider it to be absolutely great. Simply an over-average OST, which deservs more than a few spins in the CD-player. But Sakimoto did that one together with Iwata, and I still don't think they play in the same high league as Uematsu, Kikuta, and Mitsuda. So why should I like Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack? I don't know, and I don't know why I got it in the first place. But now I'm happy I got it.... well, kind of.
It's hard to describe. On the net one phrase has come up repeatedly: "It's the perfect mix of Final Fantasy Tactics and Metal Gear Solid." With some reservation, one can hold this as true. But on some tracks I would prefer to use this similar phrase: "It's a good mix of Final Fantasy Tactics and Resident Evil." The tones of FF Tactics are evident. Not as pompous and grand as Sakimoto's earlier project, but you can still recognise the similar orchestral style, albeit in a darker, more toned-down garment. The MGS tones are also evident, in the same type of hide-and-seek-dungeon music. It's not bad, and I personally prefer it to the MGS music. I did not play far into the actual game Vagrant Story, but what I saw hinted to a plot and an atmosphere darker than most Squaresoft games. That's where the Resident Evil part comes in. Some tracks are spooky indeed, and I think these are the dungeon tracks. Many of these dark tracks remind me of not just RE, but also the great (and very underrated) music of Konami's Castlevania 64 in its gothic ambience. These dark tracks are probably the best ones, as the more "happy" ones aren't as well composed. Maybe Sakimoto will find his true calling here in future projects?
The main theme of the game is good, but nothing more, as is the title track "Opening Move". The two absolutely best tracks are "Grayland Jiken Climax" (disc 1 track 03), and "Minotauros" (disc 1 track 06). "Grayland Jiken Climax" is a great 12-minute epic audio journey. It starts out calmly, then builds step after step, and after about 7 minutes it's a great symphony accompanied by beating, thrashing drum sounds, which sounds truly awe-inspiring. Simply amazing! "Minotauros" is one of the greatest boss themes ever. It doesn't waste time, and it suits its scene perfectly (I played that far into the game). Many other boss battle themes are also very good, such as "Golem" and "Ifrit". There are two remixes at the end of disc 2. "Opening Move (Fight Mix)" is really boring and doesn't lift the mediocre title track one bit, but "Dungeon (Robot Mix)" is certainly another matter. This track is redone in a great Kraftwerk style! Anyone who likes electronic sounds will love this, and it's a nice contrast to the in-game tracks.
All in all, Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack is good. Actually more than good, but not much more. It tends to get boring if you listen to both discs straight through (two and a half hours), and somehow I sense that I would feel that even if I had played the game through and had the emotional attachment. The music suffers quite a bit from boring repetitiveness. By that I don't mean that the same piece of music comes many times (except for the main theme which pops up way too often in relation to its quality), but that the music in many parts sounds the same. And no, this effect doesn't go away after many listens. But, that aside, the soundtrack still is great, much better than I thought it would be. And it does sound more agreeable on audio CD than I thought it would when I played the game, which is a pleasant surprise. I would recommend the Final Fantasy Tactics and Dracula Apocalypse OSTs before Vagrant Story. But if you like this kind of music, then it is a solid investment, especially if you also like the game.
Hitoshi Sakimoto — one of the biggest names in VGM history — is chosen to write music for a very dark game, none other than Vagrant Story. Sakimoto is mostly recognised for his previous works on the Ogre Battle series (with Masaharu Iwata and Hayato Matsuo) and the breathtaking Final Fantasy Tactics (with Masaharu Iwata). However, Sakimoto chose to go solo in Vagrant Story and the results are equally breathtaking. Sakimoto is also reputed to be well-trained in a classical-orchestral style that probably even Koichi Sugiyama of Dragon Quest fame would envy him for. Furthermore, all of his works so far prove this reputation to be true. That's enough about the genius, now on to the music.
Disc One starts with "Opening Movie." Even at the very start, a wide assortment of instruments are used, such as a violins, 'cellos, trumpets, bells, and some well placed percussion instruments. "Climax of the Graylands Incident" is the very epic track played in the opening scene. It starts off slowly, but then builds up into an orchestral masterpiece. This was the track that got me hooked on the Original Soundtrack. One of the early eerie tracks is "Closed Leá Monde." It starts off with some eerie chorus-like chants, then the drums and trumpets make their way, accompanied by a violin and harp. Later on, the drums fall quiet and let the trumpets and harp take the lead role, till the violin and voices suddenly clash at the end.
"Minotaur," being the first boss track, starts off with violins and trumpets backed up by 'cellos and percussion. After a while, the 'cellos fall quietly while the trumpets and drums take the lead and the percussion ensues, till the track cycles for another round. "Reminiscence" is one of the tracks that isn't dark, but rather light, happy, and beautiful. "Catacombs" is one of the better ambient tracks — it's gripping and very eerie. With it's slow rhythm, it sounds more like something you'd hear in a Resident Evil game. "Dullahan" is the second boss theme in the set, but, unlike "Minotaur," it relies mainly on percussion and the harp to bring in the sense of danger, which is fitting while fighting the headless knight.
"A False Memory" starts off with weird chants, then we get an eerie melody backed up by bells. Later on, a beautiful melodic interlude takes place, which sounds a lot quieter compared to the very fearful melody before it. Gradually, however, drums and percussion make their way back into the theme, clashing every now and then, and the harp reintroduces itself, followed by those eerie chants. Very scary. "Sanctum" is a brillant choral piece and it hints mystery and uncertainty all the way through. "Golem" stands out from the other boss themes, as it sounds out of place due to it electronic sounds. However, soon the percussion take its place and it becomes yet another winner boss track. "Abandoned Mines Level 1" definitely sounds foreboding thanks to the 'Ahhs' heard from the voices. The drums and percussion soon take a more prominent role, which creates an even more foreboding atmosphere before the voices come in again.
"Crimson Blades" starts off with a violin, then the trumpets and horns lead the way, until the percussion and strings continue to the end of the track. It all sounds quite sinister. "Wyvern" is one of the more slower boss tracks, all done with trumpets and horns, which represent the massive Grand Dragon all too well. "Snowfly Forest" sounds quite light-hearted yet somewhat mysterious with it's violin and harp use. It's also one of the more beautiful tracks on the Original Soundtrack. "Brainwashing" sounds like something out of a movie score. I can imagine Sydney taking his poor victims and filling them with dark thoughts as this music plays. Very good. "Rosencrantz" sounds very eerie, as it starts off slowly, then builds up with the percussions and trumpets. Halfway through, we hear something like a haunting wind that flows by. It's very well-executed. That's pretty much it for Disc One.
In my opinion, Disc Two had some filler tracks, so I'll only comment about the ones I enjoyed, starting with "Abandoned Mines Level 2." This track sounds very good, as it starts off with a chorus, followed by percussion and harp, and then chants are added. "Iron Crab" starts off with a slow rhythm, then the percussions, drums and trumpets all join in to add an element of danger to the music. I especially like the part in which a drumbeat is rapidly played by the end of the loop; very interesting.
"Dark Element" is yet another boss theme. Some evil chants are introduced as they get louder and louder, then a bit of drum and percussions are introduced, followed by more eerie chants. "Ogre" starts off with a violin and percussions, then the drumbeat creeps in as the violin still gives off the sinister feel to the music, and a bit of trumpet is present before the track repeats. "Grand Cathedral" starts off with a lot of percussions and keeps the infectious beat till the end, not more comes to mind with this track, but I like it.
"Ifreet" is big badass of the boss tracks, it's simply packed with power, the violin and drums blend in so perfectly as it progresses then the trumpets and violins take the center role. It's very epic, it's the very best out of Sakimoto. (IMHO) "Fanfare" is equally awesome, the loud trumpets give in to the lovely harp solo at the end. "Truth" is simply mysterious but has a small hint of evil into it, I cannot describe it more than that, but it is very beautiful.
"Deformed Person" is the final boss theme, it's quite invigorating for a finall boss theme, but still, it's not quite up to par to "Ultima The Nice Body" and "Ultema The Perfect Body!" from Final Fantasy Tactics, yet, it still finds a place among the other winner Final Boss Tracks of its time. "Staff Roll" is the lovely ending theme, and if you enjoyed FFT Ending, you'll go nuts about this one; a lovely 7 minute orchestral piece of beauty and originality.
Well, that's pretty much it. Now comes the question "Should you buy it?" Well... If you're a fan of the game and love Sakimoto's works, the answer is yes. If not, you might not enjoy the more ambient dungeon tracks of the set. This soundtrack is regarded as a masterpiece by many and is certainly one of Sakimoto's most progressive works.
Square has made some truly memorable games in its long history. Some were unbelievably well received by the public and critics (classics include Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and more). Some were surprising gems (including the beautifully created Rudra no Hihou). But no games have been as deep and passionate as the ones created by Yasumi Matsuno and his team of talented developers. Those who know him will recognize his work on the Ogre games, Final Fantasy Tactics, and even the recently released Final Fantasy XII, his biggest project yet (with SaGa series executive producer, Akitoshi Kawazu). However, it has often been said that his work of the year 2000 was his best to date. Vagrant Story is one very unique game. Combining the traditional elements of Matsuno's games with a smart new battle system and gripping story, it was rated a perfect 40/40 in an edition of the gaming magazine, Famitsu.
Like all of his games, Matsuno loves to use symphonic/electronica maestro Hitoshi Sakimoto. This has been a tradition since Sakimoto's work on Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen back in 1993 (with partners Masaharu Iwata and Hayato Matsuo), even 13 years later with Final Fantasy XII. In Vagrant Story, Matsuno specifically directed Sakimoto to use a style and motif in the complete opposition of Final Fantasy Tactics. It is with a listen of this soundtrack that we discover the dark side of Hitoshi Sakimoto. The timbre of instruments largely resembles that of Final Fantasy Tactics but, like mentioned above, the mood is significantly darker. But, before I start this review, I'll let you in on a secret. The original sound production aspects of the Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack were mediocre and, at times, out-of-date from the standards of Square at that time. This was largely at fault of the original mastering and the synthesizer programming. However, Square Enix did a more professional remastering of the original soundtrack in this new reprint, by Kenzi Nagashima, and now, the music sounds much clearer and the volume has been turned up, making this one of the many good reasons to buy this album.
We begin the adventure of Vagrant Story with "Opening Movie", a nicely developed track specially programmed by Hidenori Iwasaki. The track has especially tasty brassy textures which lead up to a soft and presentable soft section and fitting conclusion. After the next track, we come to Sakimoto's largest video game music track ever created, the famed "Climax of the Graylands Incident". One thing that bugged me particularly was the poor synthesizer manipulation. The strings sound choppy and outdated, but this is no surprise with synthesizer operator Takeharu Ishimoto, who has since worked on Kingdom Hearts II. But never fear, this is no track that one should take lightly. Granted, it's repetitive at times (as, in the game, it was used for the introductory movie) but the track is magically creative.
A good example of what many of the darker tracks progress like is found in "Catacombs". Slow and eerie strings play an ambient melody line while horns come and compliment the strings. This is not to say that the whole soundtrack is ambient, but by the nature of the game, a good number of tracks have not got a whole lot of action in them. "Rosencrantz" is yet another of these tracks, but there is a lot more structure to it compared to the previously explained track. Low cello notes and awkward percussion dominates this track, with strings which enter at times to play melodic interludes. "The Great Cathedral" is specially programmed by synthesizer operator Hirosato Noda and you feel he had some influence on the track. An electronica beat starts out the track, then dark, ominous cellos confront the beat in addition with some strings.
There are, however, some tracks which are similar to the Final Fantasy Tactics' light but mature attitude. "Reminiscence" is emotional and mature, probably more akin to Sakimoto's Ogre Battle tracks if anything, but the simple piano melody is perfectly associated with the flute and use of strings. "Joshua 2" has an amazing usage of orchestral strings and piano. Rather than having something on the lines of the slow melody, Sakimoto takes advantage of an upbeat melody. "Joshua" is slower but more complex with the way the melody is arranged, with the addition of more standard orchestral instruments. But really, all the lighter and mature tracks are highlights within their own right.
The ending tracks are often remarked as Sakimoto's finest achievements. "Dawn of Lea Monde ~ The Story of a Wandering Person" is yet another track with ideal orchestration. The whole climatic feeling of the track is wonderful, as it is epic and moving. But it does not compare with "Staff Roll", Sakimoto's very first video game track that has live instruments in it (the orchestral strings are played by famous violinist Masatsugu Shinozaki and his string group). This credits theme has unbelievable development, reiterating the main theme of the game several times, but with much variation. The arranging, like usual, is phenomenal. I could not be happier with this piece!
The 'remix' tracks at the end of the soundtrack are interesting. The synthesizer operator, Ishimoto, has a go at arranging the original "Opening Movie" track earlier on in the soundtrack, and while this is an arrangement that may not be very accessible to people, the electronica addition to the track and the repetition makes this track enjoyable. Ishimoto has done a solid job. The next track, and the last on the album, is something I enjoy much less. Noda delivers something amicable, but to me, it's not an electronica based track which I can listen to over and over again. Even more so, I cannot tell which original tracks Noda arranged.
Vagrant Story is not the Hitoshi Sakimoto work that is accessible to everyone. Like the game, it's a unique soundtrack, with delicious ambient-natured orchestrations, with very often a breathtaking emotional track that will win your heart. If you already own the Final Fantasy Tactics Original Soundtrack, this is the perfect soundtrack to accommodate it as it contains the other side of the famed composer. For those who are unfamiliar with Sakimoto's style, but love great orchestral music, I'd recommend this album in a heart beat, as it is one of the very few soundtracks that contain consistently high standard music throughout the listening experience. Hitoshi Sakimoto calls Vagrant Story one of his greatest achievements in game music, and it's not hard to see why he has done so. It is a masterpiece worth the time of any game music fan.
Without a doubt, reviewing the Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack has been the toughest job I have faced while writing reviews on a regular basis. The pieces are so similar, and they're all pretty ambient, making a track-by-track review difficult. At the same time, all the good things about the soundtrack are so subtle that I find that I don't have much to say except the soundtrack is one of the best collections of game music ever to grace my ears.
But of course, dear reader, you require more than just a thumbs-up in order to justify investing your money in this album. I'll do my best to describe Hitoshi Sakimoto's unique style to you. While describing it as "ambient" would be mostly correct, it doesn't tell the whole story. My favorite tracks on the album, "Climax of the Graylands Incident" and "Staff Roll" are far from your traditional ambient music. These tracks, and others, would be best described as symphonic, nearly Classical in nature. At the same time, there is a strong Industrial and Tribal influences; you've got to love those percussion instruments and synthesized chants.
You'll notice as you listen to the soundtrack that there are quite a few recurring themes. Some are more dominant than others, and I consider there to be three major ones that are the "driving force" behind the symphonic elements of the music. The first track on Disc One opens with one of these themes, and the second track with another. The third theme is found at the beginning of "Climax of the Graylands Incident" (which is, appropriately, track 3). This piece is, actually, a great cross-section of the entire soundtrack. You can find examples of each musical style Sakimoto uses, which is the reason this twelve-minute monster is one of my favorite tracks. Funny how a work like the Vagrant Story Original Soundtrack can be so ambient and so thematic at the same time. It reminds me in some ways of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," a piece so dissonant and bizarre that even modern listeners today often have a hard time seeing its inner beauty.
Anyway, let's take a closer look at "Climax," shall we? As I mentioned before, it opens with major theme number 3, the most heroic-sounding of the themes, in my opinion, and also my favorite. After some brief interluding, one of the other major themes breaks through in a grand symphonic style, and the percussion starts to take off. The orchestra then fades away, and the clicking percussion instruments lull you into a sort of tranquil mood. At about 3 minutes into the piece, though, the drums get much fiercer, and the rhythms more elaborate. Then things start to slow down, and the strings sort of play around with the percussion for awhile. At just under 5 minutes, these creepy sounds (I can only describe them as "jittery voices") start punctuating the slow stretched string passages. Eventually, the percussion starts to form a more regular rhythm, and turns into a battle-like symphonic segment. At this point, we're about 8 minutes into the track. As this part begins to flesh out, we realize it's none other than the second major theme. The last minute of the piece slows down considerably, and plays a wonderful harmonious version of the first theme. Seriously, what more could you ask for in a piece? This one has it all: great composition, gorgeous instrumentation, and many different levels to appreciate it on. I'd say it's a pretty fair representative of the soundtrack as a whole.
I guess I should take a bit of time and explain the two bonus tracks at the end of the soundtrack. The first is a self-proclaimed "Fight Mix" of the opening movie, which is sort of a repetitive funk track with lots of weird effects thrown in. It's fairly cool while the first major theme is playing, but all the mixing in between the melodic passages sounds static to me. It closes with a little jazz ditty that sounds like it's being played on an old turntable. Bonus track 2 is called "Dungeon Robot Mix", and it's an odd little piece of Electronica. I can't figure out what original track it's supposed to be a remix of, however. Much like the other bonus track, it's rather repetitive, though this one has more compositional quality thrown into it. I really hate to spend time talking about these mediocre tracks while neglecting the vast majority of all the good pieces on the soundtrack, but these were easy to single out. Trust me when I say that the other tracks on the soundtrack are much better.
What you end up with is a fusion — no, more than that, a unification — of several existing musical styles into something brand new. Parasite Eve is the only other soundtrack I've heard that comes close to the level of perfect integration that Sakimoto achieves with Vagrant Story. It's great for just about any type of listening, serious or casual, whether you listen to the whole thing from start to finish in one sitting, or just take little samples here and there. If you usually tend to listen to happy music like what you'd find in the Super Mario RPG soundtrack, Vagrant Story might not be for you. If you're a fan of the darker side of game music, though, such as the Xenosaga Original Soundtrack, I can pretty much guarantee many hours of listening pleasure. If you don't really side with either camp, I still think many of you will love this one.
Sound Programmer: Minoru Akao
Synthesizer Programmer: Takeharu Ishimoto, Hirosato Noda (Disc2, Track18)
Additional Synthesizer Programmer: Motoko Watanabe
Mastering Engineer: Yuka Koizumi
Mastering Studio: Orange
Loops courtesy of Spectrasonics' Liquid Grooves (Disc1, Track22)
Art Direction: Tadashi Shimada (Banana Studio Inc.)
Design: Tadashi Shimada & Noriko Kadokura (Banana Studio Inc.)
Photography: Hiroshi Shibaizumi (Hand Made Photography Inc.)
Model: Kinder Miwako
A & R Direction: Kishio Ozawa & Tsuyoshi Takemura (DigiCube Co. Ltd.)
Sales Promotion: Saiko Fukui (DigiCube Co. ltd.)
Production Coordinator: Michio Okamiya (Square Co., Ltd.)
Production Assistant: Emiko Funahashi
Production Manager: Keiji Hamada
Supervisor: Susumu Arai, Hirofumi Yokota (DigiCube Co. Ltd.)
Co-Executive Producer: Kensuke Matsushita
Executive Producer: Nobuo Uematsu
Presented by SQUARE SOUNDS CO., LTD.
Synthesizer Programmer: Hidenori Iwasaki
Recording & Mixing Engineer: Kenzi Nagashima
Conductor: Koji Haijima
Strings: Shinozaki Group
Recording & Mixing Engineer: Kenzi Nagashima
Recorded at Avaco Creative Sudios
Recording Coordination: Naoto Echizen, Miyuki Yamazaki (Legato Music)
Character Design: Akihiko Yoshida / Leá Monde Image: Yoshinari Hirata
VKP Headquarters ~ Inside Duke Bardorba's Manor
Graylands Incident Climax
Preface ~ Graylands Incident Investigation Report
Closed Leá Monde
A False Memory
Snares Laid by the Hart
Abandoned Mines Level 1
Knights of the Cross
Town Center of Leá Monde
Inside the City Walls