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Game Music

Masashi Hamauzu Returns: Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY XIII (Review)

Masashi Hamauzu Returns: Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY XIII (Review)

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Square Enix has fortunately been giving Final Fantasy XIII’s soundtrack a lot of attention. From the amazing original soundtrack released at the beginning of this year, we’ve seen drama discs, the PLUS soundtrack, and even multiple vinyl releases, but we’re just now getting our hands on perhaps one of the most anticipated albums covering the music from Final Fantasy XIII, the piano collections.

I had high hopes for this album given Hamauzu’s background in piano, and as the tracklist was revealed and samples were posted to the album’s official website, I grew even more excited. Those looking forward to the collaboration between Masashi Hamauzu and pianist Aki Kuroda should rest assured that they’ve done an amazing job with this album, tackling many of the themes you’d expect along with a few that come as a surprise and are still executed wonderfully.

Find out which tracks I’m talking about after the jump.

I do want to note that Hamauzu was responsible for all of these arrangements himself. Also of note is the fact that they recorded this album in Milan, Italy of all places, at a place called Studio Forzani. They apparently not only recorded this album there, but also a new track for the Square Enix re-issue of the SaGa Frontier 2 piano collections and rhapsody album, which we’ll also be reviewing soon.

Here are the tracks that made the cut:

01 Lightning’s Theme ~ Blinded By Light
02 FINAL FANTASY XIII – The Promise ~ The Sunleth Waterscape
03 March of the Dreadnoughts
04 The Gapra Whitewood
05 Nautilus
06 Vanille’s Theme ~ Memories of Happier Days ~ The Road Home
07 Nascent Requiem
08 Fang’s Theme
09 Reminiscence – Sulyya Springs Motif
10 Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII Full Version

As I mentioned, there are several tracks that you knew had to be on this CD, although a number of these seem a bit out of place if you recall the source material. I’ll get to those in a bit. One thing you’ll notice immediately is that most of these are mainly mellow tracks with the exception of “Blinded by Light” and “Nascent Requiem.” For the most part, this album provides a pretty relaxing listening experience which is aided by the healthy dose of reverb that adds warmth to the performance, although some may argue that many of the arrangements are pretty straightforward in relation to their original soundtrack counterparts.

The opening track, “Lightning’s Theme ~ Blinded by Light,” is interesting in that it combines two themes with essentially the same melody. Well, rather than combines, I should say it arranges them back-to-back. We first get a soft yet decisive version of “Lightning’s Theme” before a rather abrupt transition into the powerful and extremely fortissimo “Blinded by Light.” The tempo feels increased from the original, and the heavy use of bass gives the piece a big sound, although I wish this part was longer than a minute and a half long.

This back-to-back arrangement style is also present in the angelic first half of “FINAL FANTASY XIII – The Promise,” which takes the memorable theme in a more contemplative direction before a much better transition to “The Sunleth Waterscape” adds a nice bounce with notes that flutter in between the main melody. It’s a lovely arrangement. Later, “Vanille’s Theme ~ Memories of Happier Days ~ The Road Home” is the final track to use this multiple-track arrangement style, appropriately going from whimsical and upbeat to reflective to overjoyed without noticeable transitions, which is quite a feat.

I’m glad they brought along “March of the Dreadnoughts,” as, before even playing the game, I picked this one out as the “most Hamauzu” track in the game. The arrangement here doesn’t stray much from the original, but there are some impressive moments, and I like the different accents added to the main melody line that comes about midway through. While the orchestra-based “Fang’s Theme” on the original soundtrack didn’t sound nearly as “Hamauzu-like,” the arrangement here certainly does, gaining a nice swing that will have you tapping along.

“Nautilus” and “Nascent Requiem,” on the other hand, never really stood out to me, but I understand their inclusion given that they did accompany very important moments in the game. The “Nautilus” arrangement is the longest on the album, coming in at over 6 minutes in length, and is interesting in that it covers a large swath of emotional territory while “Nascent Requiem” expands upon its cinematic sound with this live performance.

The two tracks I had in mind when I said “out of place” were “The Gapra Whitewood” and “Reminiscence – Sulyya Springs Motif.” Both were ambient tracks created mostly with electronic sounds (both of which were among my favorite tracks), so I was surprised to see them here. Given that “Gapra” appears on both the PLUS and Piano Collections album, I guess it’s obvious that Hamauzu likes the track, although this arrangement feels slightly empty without the choir pads and deep bass tones of the original. It meanders about, and loses its familiarity as it grasps for something from the original track, but has difficulty doing so with just a piano. I enjoy this arrangement, but it’s “different.” “Reminiscence – Sulyya Springs Motif” is even more ambitious, taking a single motif from the original and turning it into over 5 minutes of music that you should find incredibly soothing. I’m quite impressed with this one, and it’s one of my favorites here.

They put my favorite track right at the end, however, “Prelude to FINAL FANTASY XIII Full Version” is a great closer in that it was the first track on the original soundtrack, letting you reflect on the game now that you’ve (hopefully) completed it. I assume this is called the “Full Version” because it’s a rather faithful recreation of the original, complete with the ominous opening notes with piano replacing the bell-like pads of the original. This was by far my favorite theme from Final Fantasy XIII, so I’m happy they’ve decided to keep it alive here. I personally find the melody incredibly touching, and it gains in intensity as the piece progresses before fading out into the same ominous progression it started with.

The packaging is quite nice, with a cardboard slipcase featuring a crystal piano and a lengthy booklet with liner notes and commentary of each arrangement. Extensive credits are included, and I appreciate the fact that the credits and track list are provided in English.

I will say that while I’m not as impressed by the technical aspects of this Piano Collections album, I think that when you consider the strength of the source material, the straightforwardness of these arrangements, and the solid song selection, you can’t go wrong with this album. Some will fault it for sticking too close to the original, and others may be disappointed by its 45 minute play time. I found myself enjoying it, although I always find myself chasing after the technical magic that I remember from the “The Battle” on the Piano Collections Final Fantasy IV album. If you’re interested in picking this album up (which you should if you’re a fan of the soundtrack), it’s available at Play-Asia for 10% off and CD Japan.

What do you think of the track selection for this album? Do you think these arrangements should stay true to the originals or explore new potential in the individual tracks?

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