SaGa Frontier Original Sound Track
While most of Kenji Ito's time at Square was spent working on Japan-only games or handheld consoles, he did manage to work on one major title that received some overseas recognition: SaGa Frontier. The title alienated many expecting something like Final Fantasy VII, with its more humble presentation and non-linear gameplay, though it still satisfied most SaGa fans and enjoyed cult recognition. For the soundtrack, Kenji Ito maintained the series' distinctive sound, while offering some new directions and exploring the PlayStation's technological capacity. The resultant soundtrack was released across three discs and was later compiled into the series' box set, with some bonuses.
Much of the music on SaGa Frontier will have a familiar sound for followers of the SaGa franchise, despite a lack of conserved themes. For example, the opening overture is written in the spirit of Romancing SaGa's, with its bright march-like orchestration. However, it benefits from the greater weight offered by the PlayStation's MIDI synth here. Likewise the first battle theme is written in reminiscent of the Romancing SaGa trilogy with its bright keyboard lead and slapped bass accompaniment. The richly shaped melody is one of Ito's most inspired and the various dark shifts during the development keep gamers entertained. Meanwhile "Sunset Town" and "A Blue Town" provide a welcome moment of relief away from the excitement and drama. These tracks feature warm melodies and soft timbres, just like earlier SaGa town themes, but emphasise a somewhat more jazzy vibe. In addition, there are some lighter experiments like the soothing "Junk", technofied "Leonard Laboratory", and mischievious "Kylin's Theme" to keep the soundtrack accessible and enjoyable.
Relatively relieved of technological constraints, Kenji Ito was nevertheless able to offer a range of more artistic experiments here. One of the most impressive tracks on the album is "Doubt", an intricate two-part invention between harpsichord and organ inspired by Baroque greats. It's pleasing that Ito took the opportunity to evoke anxiety with such an artistic piece here, when mundane suspended strings could have served this role instead (as they have in many of his other soundtracks). "Castle of Needles" develops upon this gothic influence using mostly heterophonic textures, culminating in an expressive climax at the 0:54 mark. "ALONE", on the other hand, conveys a sense of being isolated in the forest with its minimalistic textures inspired by Mike Oldfield. The track manages to evoke a great sense of melancholy as it explores a succession of woodwind solos over its five minute playtime. Ito also offers one of his best instrumental ballads to date on the airship's "Theme of the Cygnus", topped off by its gorgeously synthesised flute.
Despite all its exceptional offerings, the soundtrack isn't consistently enjoyable on a stand-alone basis. While most tracks are functional, not all are memorable and a good proportion are uncreative. Indeed, when Ito is too exhausted to make a two-part invention or minimalistic masterpiece, he reverts to his old ways of offering thin functional orchestrations. For example, the series' drab strings and overaccentuated timpani make their return on "Shudder", "Resolution", and "Ancient Tomb of Sei", leaving most listeners cold. The latter, in particular, reflects the hit-and-miss nature of Ito's work given its partner "Ancient Tomb of Mu" is a delightful tribal anthem. Upbeat tracks such as "Nakajima Factory" and "HQ" are temporarily enjoyable with their technopop beats, but grow somewhat annoying with repetition. Perhaps with some revised synthesis, these highly lyrical tracks would have been as delightful as intended. That said, wile not as technologically commanded as its sequel, the synth used on SaGa Frontier is a major step-up from both Romancing SaGa 3 and Final Fantasy VII, which particularly shows in the acoustic tracks.
The most interesting aspect of the soundtrack is how it portrays the unique quests of the seven protagonists. A large proportion of the music is used in just one of the game's storylines and has been carefully tailored to match the character or scenario. In fact, there are unique character, dungeon, battle, and ending themes to represent each character. With the exception of the ornate two-tiered theme for Asellus, the character anthems themselves tend to be relatively straightforward anthems, just like in earlier soundtracks; for example, the alluring Emilia is portrayed with infectious Latin-influenced flute lines, whereas the quest of the mage Blue is represented with a serious mystical orchestration. The impressive feature is how the various other themes are carefully integrated into the non-linear storylines. However, one of the finest tracks in this respect — "Tears of Joy" for Asellus' conversation with White Rose — are actually exclusive to the box set of the soundtrack.
The end of the soundtrack features the most almighty themes in many RPG soundtracks — the final dungeon, final battle, and ending themes — in sevenfold to represent each character. Despite the large number of tracks, Ito rarely drops his guard and offers some of his best compositions to date. Focusing on some specific highlights, "Battle #5" is an unforgettable homage to the old-school rock compositions of the Super Nintendo, while "Last Battle -Red-" is an impressive rock-orchestral fusion jam-packed with Ito's characteristic lyricism. Lovers of orchestral music will also find much to like in the last battle themes for Coon and Lute, which manage to sound moody and epic without relying on drab orchestration. However, perhaps the finest set of themes is used to represent the robot T260G. While "The Ultimate Weapon" and "Last Battle -T260G-" both channel the techno influence of the soundtrack once more, in a faster yet less irritating form, "A Memory of Childhood" is an eight minute instrumental ballad that will inspire plenty of nostalgia for those who played the game.
On SaGa Frontier, Kenji Ito made an arguably premature exit from the series that defined him. He nevertheless departed on a respectable note, staying faithful to the series' origins while offering a diverse, elaborate, and memorable score. Not all the tracks here are artistic or remarkable, but the soundtrack works excellently in the multi-scenario game and there are numerous highlights to be found across the three disc set. Note that the box set version of the soundtrack features a handful of previously unreleased tracks and, while most of these are throwaway additions, one of these is delightful. Either way, fans of traditional RPG music would be advised to purchase one edition of the soundtrack.
To me, Kenji Ito is known as 'the unloved composer'. After spending a few years within the online game music community, I've never seen anyone placing him on the list of their favourite composers. Although he has worked on a fair number of respectable game soundtracks (the SaGa series, the Seiken Densetsu series, and Shadow Hearts II), his listeners don't seem to hold him in high esteem. But, why? Reviewing his eighth work, the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack, is an opportunity for me to try and understand the Ito phenomenon. You may proceed to the next paragraph if you are ready to learn the truth.
After a first listen, I had a fairly established impression of what's going on with Ito, at least on this soundtrack. First of all, he seems to fall into the trap of simplicity. Ito tends to mainly focus on the melody, leaving the rest (structure, backing, intensity, and variation) as mere options to fill the void left behind the leading instruments and the tune they play. Consequently, several tracks sound quite poor, as every background element lazily follows the main instruments' melody and key ("Fight! Alkaiser" and "Shudder" to name the most obvious), or just keeps looping shamelessly ("Back Streets of Koorong" and "Shuzer" to name just two). This sounds satisfactory until you happen not to like a certain melody; this is precisely when you realize the overall weakness of the arrangements.
Another, tricky, but typical, aspect of Ito's works is his use of string ensemble samples. Even recently, on the Shadow Hearts II Original Soundtrack, his high-pitched string sections sound like they are handled like a synth or a trumpet; there's few volume variations — I'd almost say 'full volume no matter the circumstances' — and each note well separated from the other. By going against the flow (strings tend to be used the most realistic way possible), Ito probably aims at defining his own unique sound. I admire this integrity, yet I don't think it is wise to choose the improper use of an orchestral section as a watermark. To end instrumentation issues on a single detail, a certain cymbal sample can be heard regularly, roughly every four tracks, and in any possible context (at the 0:50 mark in "Shudder," for instance). The truth is that this is one of the most mind-aching samples ever.
As you may expect, the most enjoyable parts of the soundtrack are those that escape these flaws. First of all, tracks inspired from occidental genres. For instance, the trumpet that sounds utterly whacky in "Standard Yorkland Song" fits perfectly in "Theme of Emelia." Wooden drums, a marimba, and maracas lay out a cool background for the flute and trumpet to relay each other. The same applies for pseudo-disco "Baccarat," where its use along with a soft organ renders a great easy-going mood. The second character theme of the album, "Theme of Asellus" is a must-hear as well; for once, the backing is rather elaborated, and there is even a middle section that sounds like a bridge. The main tune is a duet between flute and harpsichord that evokes freedom and refinement. That same harpsichord appears again in the next track, "Trick," a typical baroque chamber music tune that does wonders, adding even more diversity in the beginning of the first disc. As a matter of fact, it's also one of these tracks where you do not hear that annoying cymbal sample that I mentioned earlier. To complete the early tour of this album's musical horizon, a dungeon theme is gracefully provided, and just as gracefully named "Dungeon 1." This one is nothing extraordinary, but like most dungeon themes on this album, it creates a mysterious mood backed by light and regular percussions representing the party's progressing into the unknown. In my opinion, the most worthy of these dungeon themes is "Ancient Tomb of Sei," with its obsessing processional percussions, and its three eerie xylophone notes materializing behind the orchestra like ancient ghosts. These themes are just the start of an enjoyable experience.
I've been told the SaGa series music is known for its battle themes. Indeed, Ito's particular strings samples, stressful use of snare drums, and emphasis on brass contribute in creating something special, and I don't doubt it stimulates the player plunged into action. However, most of them would sound like circus parade music if they were slowed down and played in major key; they rely way too much on these annoying and loud percussion. There are a few exceptions such as "Last Battle - Emelia" where Ito's organ and guitar sound way more natural; once again, an occidentalism that brings the best out of him. Another exception is "Last Battle - Lute," the most pessimistic and awe-inspiring of all, which sounds strangely better than the others.
The second, darker half of the album is my favourite. Take a listen to "Wakatu," for instance. Its deep percussion and its despaired flute melody convey a most tragic feel. From the 1:12 mark to the 1:36 mark, the mood changes gradually from despair to hope, and falls back into despair at 1:36 when the track reaches its loop point. I find that way of using looping to express the idea of fate very clever. During my first listen, "Castle of Needles" was one of the tracks that quickly caught my attention; the sad melody of an harpsichord accompanied by bells, strings and a harp. On the whole, it successfully forms a sinister and appealing baroque tune in the same lineage as the famous "Woodcarving Palteeta" from Castlevania Symphony of the Night. You should also pay particular attention to "Melody of Time," as it really stands out amongst the other tracks. It starts with ticking clocks, soon joined by some slow percussion, descending harp notes, and strings. After a short appearance of the legendary cymbal samples, the leading oboe appears to play a bewitching melody. The tone is nostalgic, reassuring, but definitely hides something evil; the rhythm is too slow, and the repeated ticking has an hypnotizing effect. This tune is very much like a carnivorous flower: you don't realize what you're exploring until it's too late, when you're trapped into it. It's strange, yet I sense that the most successful tracks of this album are those that convey negative feelings. Perhaps Ito was having personal problems at the time when he composed the music? Even so, his darker themes are most certainly my favourite addition to the soundtrack, which just blossoms at every turn.
Well, we're nearly in the end of this review, but what about love and courage? Where are these epic tracks that bring tears to our eyes? Apparently, this album isn't oriented towards that kind of music. There are only a couple of tracks with a real epic calibre. "Opening Title" and "Never..." are amongst them. Their backing is simplistic yet efficient, with snares, occasional horns and a brass section being the main instruments, and the leading melodies does their job very well. Even the ending themes are decent, but do not impress me much. If I had to pick one, it would be "A Memory of Childhood" and its gentle ocarina and harp duet growing into an orchestral ensemble. Ito has kept us waiting for the most moving track of the soundtrack until its conclusion, which is also a way of hiding the unfortunate fact that there are very few of them.
Overall, the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack has all the required elements to be a nice RPG soundtrack, as it is solid, features several memorable tracks, and ultimately, various atmospheres. However, Ito's way of handling this album is most of the time disappointing, especially knowing that he had already spent seven years composing for Square when he made it. His backing material remains purely functional, leaving the melody virtually alone to please the listener. In my opinion, the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack would have sounded much better if it had been composed by someone with a better mastery of instrumentation and arranging techniques. My advice would be to keep your money to get another, more inspired SaGa soundtrack, e.g. the Romancing Saga Minstrel Song Original Soundtrack. You'll probably discover Kenji Ito in a more favourable light. Who knows, maybe one day, you may become his first dedicated fan.
When one makes their first major soundtrack purchase (or their first outside of Chudah's marketplace), one would think their selection would be from a game whose score has received massive critical acclaim. Reflecting back on the vast plethora of soundtracks that have graced games (particularly RPGs) over the years as I browsed through the multitude of choices, I came realize it's often the overshadowed works that really remind us of all those glorious hours spent in front of the television leveling up and learning techniques, etc.
In the mind of this reviewer, such a soundtrack would belong to Square's Kenji Ito and SaGa Frontier. The game, released in late 1997 (early 1998 in the US) would ultimately become a cellar-dweller among the rest of Square's star-studded line-up in the eyes of most at the time who were looking for the next big thing from the RPG kingpin. Despite the hard fate had dealt the game (at least here in America) it did manage to build a small cult-like legion of fans, myself included.
As far as the game's score is concerned, the majority of Ito arrangements are somewhat simpler than one might expect from someone hailing from Square's cabinet of musical talent. For the most part SaGa's music doesn't really push the envelope forward — other composers have done similar things on a better and larger scale (the same thing could really be said for every other aspect of the game as well). Still, putting the lack of any real innovation aside there aren't any glaring mistakes or unforgivable horrors to be found here.
SaGa's music pretty much follows in the vain of Final Fantasy VII in the sense the synth isn't as nearly refined as later PlayStation titles and soundtracks although it is a small step above previous scores. Ito also tends to work from a much more playful and colorful palette than the majority of his contemporaries would in any given score. There are some darker numbers to be found, especially were Blue and Asellus' scenarios are concerned, but the game doesn't contain as many dark elements and moments as other RPGs do (well, that's really a matter of opinion). While this may initially turn some people off, it's really one of the soundtrack's main strengths, giving a majority of the score a lighthearted and easy listening quality that is easy to digest.
The set opens with the track "The Opening of a Journey," which ultimately sets the tone with its slow, angelic melody. Unfortunately, any kind of beginning continuity is totally shattered by the next track "Opening Title," which is every bit as annoying as it was back in 1998. I can remember frantically hitting the start button during the opening sequence in a desperate attempt to spare my ears. Things quickly quiet down with the bittersweet "Margmel in Ruin," were Ito undoubtedly conveys the since of desperation within Rikki's homeland as it teeters on the edge of oblivion. The fact you don't even need know were and how that track is used to come to this conclusion speaks volumes (the track is also somewhat reminiscent of FFV's town themes). From one emotional extreme to the other, "Junk" is a simple laidback town theme that paints a vivid mental image a lazy summer day spent outside (opposite of those playing games all day) as a child when nothing seemed impossible.
As far as heroic numbers are concerned, one will definitely want to check out "Fight! Alkaizer." Even with the generous use of instrumentation in this piece, this superhero theme never reaches epic proportions, though I doubt it was really ever meant to. As it is, the track's adventurous style makes it fun to listen to, serving its purpose well. "Zap! Caballero Family" falls into a similar category with what seems to be a rather generic Wild West sound, although it alone made one of game's most antagonizing parts somewhat more tolerable. Fans of more techno-electronic influenced themes will find upbeat tracks such "Leonard's Laboratory" and "Nakajima Manufacturer" to their liking. Tracks such as these ultimately act as a prelude to some Ito's strongest arrangements on the later discs containing a similar sound and feel.
Disc One finishes with a few more key tracks that capture the element of the moment. In "Fighting Machine Arena", the listener is presented with what seems a rather standard lounge theme, but it's in its simplicity where it really shines. I can literally imagine this playing within in the confines of a smoke filled pup with people rampantly trying to place bets on the upcoming fight. "Theme of the Cygnus" reiterates on the emotional aspect of "Margmel in Ruin" but depicts a love (between Red and certain NPC character) that has yet to blossom with it solemn melody. With "Koorong" (the town fans know as the central hub of the SaGa world) Ito paints the image of a seedy, underground activity-filled metropolis with the use of an easy going, simple beat befitting of a city that never sleeps. "Battle #3" takes its cue from "Fight! Alkazier" with trumpets and horns coming out in full force. While this track is a little more befitting of the word epic, unlike "Fight! Alkaiser," it still falls short of such a plateau. Still, listening to it I can imagine fighting Black X's cronies atop of Koorong skyscraper.
Shortly into Disc Two one will encounter "The Ancient Ship," an easy going ambience-infused track that works extremely well, heightening the sense of mystery and discovery with its various sounds and suppressed electronic feel. Soon after, Ito presents the listener with yet another excellent technological theme in the form of "HQ," where one can dream of sneaking around a secret, high tech facility poking their noses where they don't belong. By this point, one can tell these kinds of tracks are one of Ito's strengths... and it only gets better. As for downright goofy tracks, one will want to check out "Theme of a Kylin." Listening to such a track, one can tell the composer must be in touch with their inner child to write such a piece, or at the very least have a good sense of humor. The same could be said for the developer who created the area in the game where this piece plays as well.
Once again switching gears, "ALONE" leaves the listener alone a million miles in every direction with its cold, yet mystical and solitary vibe. It's more than your typical forest dungeon theme and leaves the listener with a overwhelming feeling of sadness and regret. Next up is the polar opposite of "Theme of a Kylin" in the form of "Melody of Time." As if the pervious track "ALONE" didn't drive home the feelings of isolation and despair, "Melody of Time" undeniably imparts such feelings with its long-winding melody. The "tick-tock" of the clock throughout the track also deserves special attention as well as it starts in the left channel and eventually crosses over to the right (you probably wouldn't notice such an effect playing the game, especially on a mono television). Near the end of Disc Two one will find the battle theme that the game is most known for, "Battle #5." A personal favorite, this track is almost beyond words, a in-your-face, rock 'n' roll metal feast with an exceptional amount of meat on its bones ~ no fat to be found. The track itself falls along the lines of "The Darkness Nova" and "Pain the Universe" from Yoko Shimomura's Legend of Mana score. Even if you never hear any other track from this soundtrack, one owes it to themselves to at least hear "Battle #5."
Disc Three winds the set down in style, containing the final dungeon and battle themes, not to mention the various endings. "Wakatu" is interesting piece with its thundering drum and ambience backed up by a solitary flute, driving home what kind of place the region has become after its populace was slaughtered. "The Ultimate Weapon" (T260G's final dungeon theme) is another technological influenced track with a very likable clapping beat you'll find yourself listening to over and over again.
As for the final battle themes, all of which are very well constructed and worthy of attention, the one that really stands out from the crowd is "Last Battle -T260G-." The pinnacle of Ito's techo/electronica influenced tracks, I could honestly see this track being played in a club as it is definitely more techno-like than the previous tracks of its type. Even though there are similar compositions like this out there, this track is a great example of a composer perfectly matching the music to the events in the game (those who have played the game know awesome the end of T260G's scenario is). Along with "Battle 5," this is the track that ultimately deserves any VGM fan's attention. The ending themes follow suit with T260G's ending "A Memory of Childhood (Ending -T260G-)" coming out on top. Rikki's ending "Lamox Beast (Ending -Coon-)" also deserves mention being in the same vein as "Theme of a Kylin."
Despite what this score has going for it, there a few hitches that really hold it back. The fact many of the best tracks are scenario-specific (nearly half of them) means those who don't completely immerse themselves in the game and complete every scenario (especially those of Red, T260G and Rikki) will miss out, unlike most linear RPGs where one will most likely hear the majority of any given score in one play through. This isn't really a soundtrack problem considering most SaGa games are set up in this fashion, but it ultimately limits the score's overall marketability depending on the listener's experience with the game.
The other factor that hurts the SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack so much is the massive following for Masashi Hamauzu's SaGa Frontier II score. While this is like comparing apples and oranges, saying that SaGa Frontier II's score's success and fan base hasn't come at the expense of this score would be lying. While SF2's score is good in its own respect, the fact the SF1 soundtrack will probably be stuck in its shadow for the rest of time ultimately makes me only root for this score all the more. So, despite all my babbling, if you liked what you heard in the game, this is definitely a good purchase.
The Opening of a Journey
Margmel in Ruin
Traditional Tune - Yorkland Song
To the New Land
Confrontation! Caballero Family
Ancient Tomb of Sei
Ancient Tomb of Mu
Fighting Machine Arena
Theme of the Cygnus