While Square Enix’s NieR Gestalt will be out in the United States this week (simply titled NieR), I admit I haven’t been following it until now. The two versions of the game (Gestalt on the Xbox 360 and Replicant on the PlayStation 3) are essentially the same game with a protagonist swap in the Gestalt version to appeal to a Western audience, as it will be the only version to come to the United States.
This strange release strategy along with the fact that I haven’t been reading much about the game has created somewhat of a shroud of mystery around the game in my mind. This sense of something new and foreign is even further enhanced by the fact that the score was handled by a team of ex-Namco composers headed by Keiichi Okabe under the studio name of MoNACA along with Takafumi Nishimura from Cavia rather than Square Enix’s internal audio team.
Get ready for something new and completely different from a Square Enix soundtrack. Hit the jump for our review of the NieR Gestalt & Replicant Original Soundtrack, and get ready for something good!
Let me start by spouting off a list of adjectives that describe what the NieR soundtrack is all about: instrumental, choral, vocal, atmospheric, live, dreamy, otherworldly, beautiful, melancholy, captivating, different. Hopefully by the end of this review, you’ll understand why all of these apply.
While the team at MoNACA is responsible for the game’s music, they’ve employed an impressive array of talent to bring their compositions to life. Vocalist and lyricist Emi Evans was brought on board to not only lend her angelic voice to most of the tracks on the album, but she was also tasked with writing the lyrics in a made-up and completely enchanting language that she derived from Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and other languages. Guitar by Takanori Goto, piano by Keigo Hoashi, strings by DAISENSEI Muroya Strings, and choral work by Evans, Okabe, Nami Nakagawa, and a boys choir lend the album a rich instrumental sound that is organic, yet rooted in another world.
The opening track, “Snow in Summer,” features nearly two whole minutes of chilling choral work before any other instruments are added to the mix. Powerful orchestral percussion, strings, and brass eventually join in, but the focus is still on the human voice. The piece has a very cinematic quality about it, sounding ominous and full of despair, which sets the tone for the rest of the music on the album.
“Hills of Radiant Winds” is the only track on the album that could be categorized as “upbeat.” It creates an image in my mind of the first rays of sunlight after a long and cold winter with its string stabs and galloping tribal percussion. This is the first time we hear Emi Evans, her voice floating on the wind with long, drawn out words in her mysterious language. Later, “City of Commerce” offers a more laid back guitar and choir version of this theme. “Grandma” is a particularly powerful piece featuring an elegant piano backing for Evans’s sorrowful vocals. Her voice calls out in mourning, but still retains a certain romantic elegance with lyrics that sound like they’re derived from a Latin-based language. Marching snares come in about midway through, forcing us forward into an icy symphony of strings.
There is one brief moment where the strictly organic sound of NieR is disrupted. “The Wretched Automatons” works in piston-like percussion and a rapidly shifting synth line that sounds like distorted mechanical vocals, which contrast nicely with the human touch provided by Evans. Many of the tracks that make use of the Okabe-only male choir also have a different sound about them, coming as more gutteral and raw in comparison to Evans’s work.
My favorite track on the album, however, has to be “Song of the Ancients,” which appears in a variety of forms throughout the score. The first version, dubbed “Devola,” sports Spanish-sounding guitar and Evans’s comforting voice. She sounds hopeful with ascending phrases, but the guitar in the background provides a counterbalance. There’s also an interesting section in the vocals that sounds almost like Chinese which I find fascinating with each listen. Next, the “Popola” version features a dreamy belltone backing and a thick layer of reverb on Evans’s voice that gives it a distinctly otherworldly quality. The second disc hosts “Hollow Dreams,” a somewhat jazzy version with bongos and a rich piano backing, and the final version, “Fate,” carries listeners and players through to the end with its driving percussion and rousing orchestral accompaniment.
We also get four arrangements each of both “Dispossession” and “Yonah,” ranging from piano, strings, guitar, and music box for the former, and piano, strings, and two guitar versions of the latter. “Dispossession” is a slow-paced and emotionally-tinged piece that is simply heartbreaking in all four styles (major bonus points for including a music box version), while Yonah mixes both beauty and anguish with a melody that reminds me of the game over theme from the original Final Fantasy. Fragments of hope shine through the mainly downcast melody.
A number of themes on the second disc get a similar multi-style treatment, starting with “Kainé / Salvation,” a contemplative piano piece with Evans’s seemingly German and Japanese hybrid lyrics. The “Escape” version ups the tempo and charges forward at a swinging pace, sounding almost like something out of the Panzer Dragoon series with the added tribal percussion and string stabs. This sound carries over into the instrumental-only “The Lost Forest” as well, with its heavy percussion and flamenco guitar work.
“Shadowlord’s Castle / Memory” features a filtered organ melody that sits in the far distance while Okabe’s male choir and Nakagawa’s female choir voice a foreboding melody. “Shadowlord’s Castle / Roar” is much more intense, adding pounding percussion and a swirling string section. There’s even a drum solo towards the middle of the track. Towards the end, “Shadowlord,” which I imagine is the musical accompaniment to the final showdown, relies only on choir, organ, and ominous bell tolls for the first half, which is very unsettling. Eventually strings and percussion explode on to the scene to lend an epic touch to the final encounter. Interestingly, there’s also a remix of this track tucked away at the end of the album titled “Shadowlord –White-note remix,” which features the boys choir and only a groovy solo jazz piano underneath it. It’s a great remix, but I think it would have been a better fit in the tracklist if it had appeared right after “Shadowlord” rather than coming after the moving final sequence.
And that final sequence, titled “Ashes of Dreams,” is yet another piece with multiple arrangements. It’s rooted in the same melancholy melody from “Yonah,” with the first version, “New,” actually featuring English vocals. “Once there were trees with birds.” “Clouds came and covered the sun.” “Fight until the battle is done.” It’s a mesmerizing song, and Emi Evans performs masterfully throughout all four versions. The next three arrangements proceed through other Earth-based languages with “Nouveau” (French), Nuadhaich (German), and “Aratanaru” (Japanese).
And there you have it: hands down one of the best soundtracks Square Enix has published over the years. I may have not been following this game at all before hearing this album, but Square Enix certainly has my attention now. The packaging consists of a meager booklet with the tracklist in both Japanese and English, a lengthy list of credits, and a few pages containing the bizarre artwork from the world of NieR. That’s okay, however, as Square Enix has more than done its work by allowing MoNACA, Takafumi Nishimura (and the rest of Cavia), the live players, and most importantly, the incredible voice of Emi Evans take the spotlight here. Everyone seems to be shooting for that “epic” sound these days, but NieR Gestalt & Replicant take the opposite approach, allowing a mellow, emotional, and mainly vocal soundtrack contrast nicely with the few truly epic pieces that come towards the end. This one’s already on my short list of top soundtracks of 2010, and you owe it to yourself to pick this one up regardless of whether or not you’re into vocals. This is a rare treat indeed. It’s available at CD Japan and Play-Asia.
What do you think of this unique approach to the NieR soundtrack? Will you be picking up the game this week, and seeking out the soundtrack release from Japan?Tags: Cavia, Emi Evans, Instrumental, MoNACA, NieR, NieR Gestalt, NieR Replicant, Orchestral, Square Enix, Videogame, Vocals