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PIANO OPERA FINAL FANTASY I/II/III: It Finally Exists! (Review)

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While we were ecstatic to hear that Square Enix had taken us up on the suggestion we made to them over two years ago to release a piano collections CD from the first three games, I think we were all a little confused as to the change in naming convention from ‘piano collections’ to ‘piano opera.’ Can’t Square Enix stick to ANY of their conventions?

In any case, the title aside, this is the piano collections CD that you always wanted from the first three games.

Hit the jump for our full review.

So, PIANO OPERA FINAL FANTASY I/II/III. I thought they perhaps went with this naming scheme with the idea that they would incorporate lots of medleys and concert-style pieces into the album. This isn’t the case, however. The tracks tend to focus on a single theme, just as with past piano collections CDs, generally ranging from three to four minutes in length. In line with what I was thinking, there are a few medleys dedicated to town themes, battle themes, and the opening track which combines “The Prelude” with “Opening Theme” (the “Final Fantasy” theme or “Prologue” as I like to call it).

But before we get to that, let’s talk about arranger and performer Hiroyuki Nakayama. He has a long history of working with Uematsu and Square Enix on a wide array of titles and piano projects ranging from Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and Guin Saga to Distant Worlds, PiA-COM II, and the Kingdom Hearts piano collections CDs. He has the experience, and it shows through in his arrangements that mostly stay true to the original compositions but incorporate all kinds of neat flourishes that inject his own style. This is particularly prevalent during the openings to each track which often get a little more elaboration before launching into Uematsu’s lovable melodies.

With that, let’s jump in, starting with the original Final Fantasy. After a pretty straightforward but surprisingly full sounding rendition of “The Prelude,” we get a decisive take on “Opening Theme” with a neat breakdown towards the end where Nakayama repeats some high-pitched chords before pausing altogether and starting back up. “Main Theme” is one of my favorite arrangements with its bright and bold approach, especially in its ascending and bass-heavy opening before launching into the playful melody we all know and love with some very fast playing. “Gulg Volcano” is the shortest track on the album at two and a half minutes, but I love it nonetheless with its jazzy spin and somewhat unsettling key change towards the end. Finally, “Matoya’s Cave” comes as much more contemplative and almost epic with its powerful chords providing an almost stop-and-go rhythm.

It’s then on to Final Fantasy II with “Main Theme.” It’s slow and melancholy, which is accented even more by the moving introduction. “Rebel Army Theme” is one of the tracks I was looking forward to the most, and it doesn’t disappoint, opening with a quick crescendo that will wake you up right in before the triumphant and elegantly arranged melody whisks you away into its fantasy world. “Tower of Mages” never struck me as a key theme from the game, and so I don’t have much attachment to it, but the arrangement is quite tense and foreboding, making for a memorable listening experience.

Final Fantasy III comes next, although I’m surprised to see “Elia, The Maiden of Water” absent. Still, the tracks represented are great. “The Boundless Ocean” receives a rather tumultuous arrangement with its powerful yet melancholy take on the theme. “Crystal Cave” was not a track I was particularly looking forward to, but proves to be one of my favorites with its slow buildup featuring fluttering piano notes and stray crystal-like notes towards the top of the keys. I really enjoy the separation of the high and low on this one, and it’s just fun to listen to. It takes a turn for the epic towards the end, standing out as one of the most memorable moments on the album. This is followed by what at first seems to be a sleepy lullaby-esque version of “Eternal Wind” that transforms into an energetic and upbeat overworld theme about midway through. The final track, “Final Struggle to the Death,” takes us through the final battle, spending about two minutes on an ominous and dissonant introduction before the explosive melody kicks in, closing out the album on a high note.

But I left out a few tracks. The two medleys I mentioned before. The first is titled “Town Medley” which unfortunately comes in at only a little over four minutes (I could have done with a 10-minute arrangement!). While the transitions aren’t particularly elaborate, the upbeat melodies of each theme just feel so right on the piano. A second medley, “Battle Medley,” incorporates all five battle themes (excluding final bosses), remaining true to the original melodies (completely fine by me) with better transitions between tracks.

In all, I’m impressed with this album. I was excited to see it finally happen, and despite my reservations regarding the album title, this is the piano collections album we always wanted. Nakayama does a fantastic job, and while I think the recently announced PIANO OPERA FINAL FANTASY IV/V/VI is highly unnecessary, I’m still looking forward to hearing what he does. Now we just have to ask where that Piano Collections Final Fantasy XII album is…

The packaging is pretty minimal aside from the cardboard slipcase that looks exactly the same as the cover and back of the jewel case. A brief booklet has photos from the recording session with Uematsu and Nakayama as well as track-by-track commentary from Nakayama. It’s available for 2,800 Yen from both CD Japan and Play-Asia.

Are you surprised to see this CD released? What are your thoughts on the title and Nakayama’s work in general?

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