Review: Final Fantasy XIII-2 Soundtrack
Final Fantasy XIII packed a lot of quirky punches, one of the most prominent being the game’s soundtrack. The music, written by Masashi Hamauzu (co-composer for Final Fantasy X and main composer for Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII) was an eclectic mix of techno, insane violin riffs, and a rollercoaster of genres, from the pulse-pounding battle themes “Blinded by Light” and “Eidolons” to more tender melodies like “Lightning’s Theme.” But the one element that really stood out — and earned many a raised-eyebrow and clutched string of pearls from fans — was Hamauzu’s frequent use of lyrics in the soundtrack.
So when word got out that the Final Fantasy XIII-2 soundtrack, also headed by Hamauzu, was packed with lyric-laden tracks, and the infamous “Crazy Chocobo” hit the internet, the outcry of dismay and derision didn’t help the matter. The game is already being called the “most hated sequel to the most hated Final Fantasy game” by the upstart windbags in the ghettos of the internet, and the game hasn’t even been released in North America and Europe yet.
“Serah’s Theme“ was a piano, strings, and vocals. “Fighting Fate“ featured a full chorus, Latin chanting heralding Ragnarok and Pulse l’Cie, a la Final Fantasy VI‘s “Dancing Mad.” Environment themes like “The Vile Peaks,” “The Sunleth Waterscape,” and “Sulyya Springs” all dappled with human voices, lyrics weaving in and out of the composition in an attempt to thread themselves through the instruments and blend. Some tracks succeeded, like “Dust to Dust,” in which a bright, trembling female voice sings words of comfort to the wandering l’Cie in the village of Oerba, abandoned by time. Others, like the aforementioned Sunleth Waterscape music, was almost jarring — the use of human vocals popped out in a uncomfortable way, shoved to the forefront of what had the potential to be a very soothing background track.
Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s music, however, is more cohesive. Hamauzu makes good use of melodies previously used in the game’s predecessor, creating new riffs and arrangements that keep the soul of the original tune while imbuing it with a freshness that hints at the changes Serah and friends have undergone since the fall of Cocoon. Main melody “Blinded by Light” has been reworked and embedded in a number of tracks, and when it pops out at you it’s like getting punched in the face by Lightning all over again. “A Broken Wonder,” “The Goddess’s Tears,” and “Lightning’s Theme ~Unguarded Future” all carry the song’s frantic violin melody and lend it a new, somber voice with piano, strings. “To the Land of Hopes” and “Metashield’s Expansion” both carry XIII‘s “Prelude,” which plays during the opening menu movie when you first start the game.
I think it’s safe to say that a battle theme can make or break a Final Fantasy fighting experience. If the music is obnoxious, chances are you’ll either mute the sound while levelling or not bother with it at all (God forbid we hear that teeth-grinding opening to the Final Fantasy X battle theme again). XIII-2‘s main battle theme, “Last Hunters,” is a face-paced number with the same hits of techno and frantic use of violin that characterize “Blinded by Light.” Whereas XIII’s battle music brought the focus on Lighting by using her theme, XIII-2 uses the melody of new protagonist Noel; the string undercurrent in “Last Hunters” is all about the guy, and when the foreground violin calms down for a moment it’s his theme you hear.
Those of you who were apprehensive about the crazy use of lyrics: you shouldn’t be. There are some real gems among these tracks, and Hamauzu, along with collaborators Naoshi Mizuta and Mitsuto Suzuki, has worked hard to steep the lyrical tracks in meaning. “New Bodhum” is probably the best example of this. New Bodhum is the settlement on Pulse in which Serah and Snow now reside, modeled after the ocean-side city of Bodhum on Cocoon where they once lived. The song itself uses acoustic guitar, a snappy drumbeat and a soft, swelling synthesizer beneath it all, conjuring an image of a comfortable beach, blue water, clear skies. The lyrics sound like Serah remembering her former home: “Do you remember the touch of the wind on you?/Softer than whispers of angel that falls in love./Do you remember the sound of the ocean waves?/Breaking alone time after time.”
An interesting thing about the score is that there are tracks — and then there are “aggressive mixes” of tracks in which the original is remixed and made into something like rave music. “Augusta Tower” is a soothing, ambient environment track. Now speed it up and add another layer of drums and some frenzied synthesizer and BAM, “Augusta Tower -Aggressive Mix-,” which sounds like you’ve been ambushed during a basement light switch rave. These Aggressive Mixes can be swapped with the tracks they are remixed from without missing a beat — they blend seamlessly into each other. No track-changing jarring effect here.
There is a soft, melancholic undercurrent running through all these tracks — drawn from the rather sad circumstances surrounding the game’s characters — and this is where the soundtrack’s cohesion is found. Below I’ve picked six tracks (for different reasons), and despite their different genres and use of instruments, there is something familiar in all of them. They are unmistakably from the same game, and Hamauzu has done well linking the sounds of XIII-2 like the Historia Cruz links time periods.
“Knight of the Goddess”
You’ve all heard this one before: it’s been used extensively in the trailers and is featured in the game’s opening as Lighting prepares to fight Chaos Bahamut. It’s all Lighting here: it reeks of influence from “Blinded by Light” and returns again as her moniker battle theme in the game. The same instruments return, but in a different packaging — much like our pink-haired heroine herself.
“Invisible Invaders -Aggressive Mix-“
Yes, I included the infamous “Lake Bresha Rap.” This was the music in the demo I played back at NYCC, and I have to say, it fit the area and the circumstances. It’s just upbeat enough to keep you skipping around the Bresha Ruins, and it’s actually quite catchy. The humming synthesizer that overshadows the beat is the backbone of this track; you’re exploring ruins for crissakes, and there’s something mysterious about that haunting couple of notes floating around over your head. Also the lyrics are, again, pretty spot-on for the area they’re serenading: “Who am I? What I am here for?/All these questions appear and barge down the door.”
This track makes use of the Final Fantasy theme. You know, that gorgeous arpeggio that accompanies practically every loading screen of every Final Fantasy game ever produced. Except it’s been transposed into another key, a flatter one, and made chillingly sinister, almost harash. A trembling violin kicks in, and a gentle female chorus takes up the main melody of the theme for the Historia Crux. You know something’s going down, and the appearance of the main series’ theme you know it’s some serious biz-nass. Something about coupling the theme with the Historia Cruz melody makes you feel overwhelmed by not just the world of XIII, but the breadth and scope of the series itself. What if, like The Legend of Zelda, this was all on a timeline, and we leave Pulse and go far enough forward or backward in time we’ll arrive in Spira? Or Baron? This music in particular makes you feel small in the grand scope of things, like how Serah must feel on her journey to save the world.
“Hope’s Theme ~Confessions~”
I don’t know what the confessions are, but this might very well be my favorite track on the album. It’s all there — “Hope’s Theme” from Final Fantasy XIII is there, the sames notes, the same ascension of hope and descent into doubt, but they have been reworked to convey the grown boy’s confidence and determination. The unsure little kid suffering from PTSD has overcome his insecurities and despair and budded into maturit, but the memory of his pain and suffering is there. It’s as though the complexities of Hope’s character have been compressed and transformed into music, and you can’t help but feel a little warm and fuzzy that he’s made it this far.
This song takes the freaking cake. Set this one up next to “The Extreme” and “One-Winged Angel.” Thirty seconds into the song a shiver ran down my spine. With a full chorus belting in Latin and a steady march for a backbone, this theme is fit for a truly dangerous Final Fantasy villain. Listening to it I thought, “Who IS this guy?” Turn your speakers all the way up for this one. Oh, have I mentioned that the lyrics are about Chaos and Death? “Goddess of Death, I will keep/My vow, my beloved./Goddess of Death, I will see to it/That time is steered in the right direction.” Well damn.
Fun fact about this track: Nobuo Uematsu returned to compose it. In fact, he returned to compose all three Chocobo themes for the game: “Groovy Chocobo,” “Rodeo de Chocobo,” and “Crazy Chocobo.” This particular brand of Chocobo madness only plays when you ride a Red Chocobo. That whackass Red Chocobo. Every Chocobo the Final Fanatsy universe should be jealous — this theme makes their pale in comparison. The lyrics, sung by a heavy metal screamer, wax poetic on the strength and power of the majestic bird, singing its virtues and praising its unparalleled glory. Just look at this poetry: “Gas ’em up with the greens and let him go/Stand back, stand clear as he puts on a show/So cute yet fierce, is he from hell?/I cannot tell, yet I don’t even want to know.” It doesn’t get much more epic than that, folks.
The Final Fantasy XIII-2 soundtrack is, simply put, a keeper. If you’re a fan of game music this one would make a sweet addition to your collection. The score plays like a story — the game hasn’t been released in our hemisphere yet and I can already feel Serah’s determination, the loneliness and pain of Noel, and the overarching sense of dread, the looming fog of death, that creeps over all, passing through the Historia Crux and clinging to Serah’s shadow in the wake of the decisions she makes. It is an unearthly ambiance and a pervasive sense of how microscope the individual is in the face of all space and time… but how one person’s actions can cause a ripple that becomes a tsunami, and how that tiny ripple can either save the future or wipe it from the face of eternity.