In 1987, Nihon Falcom released a simple action-RPG with genre-defining music called Ys: Ancient Ys Vanished. 22 years, over ten games, and almost a googolplex of arranged CDs later, the franchise continues to adhere to these two elements. From rock-synth and memorable MIDI ditties to full orchestral arrangements, Ys will likely be remembered far more for its music than any other aspect, so we won’t open this review with any sort of query or cliff-hanger.
Ys SEVEN’s soundtrack is great, and after the jump we’ll tell you why.
The idea that a new Ys soundtrack could be good at all occasionally baffles me. Legendary composer Yuzo Koshiro and the should-be-equally-legendary Mieko Ishikawa set the standard impossibly high from the start. The last two truly new Ys games were a remake (Oath in Felghana) and a prequel (Ys Origin), and their music reflected this with vintage compositions by Sound Team JDK and inspired arrangements by Yukihiro Jindo, Falcom’s current arrangement specialist. Prior to those two and until now the most recent work in the Ys timeline was the heavily synthesizedYs VI: The Ark of Napishtim.
Ys SEVEN’s soundtrack achieves a confident balance between those three games, with just the right amounts of VI’s synth-energy, Felghana’s grandeur and Origin’s JDK Band Super Arrange sound. Throw in amusingly Motoi Sakuraba-style track titles and some surprising non-Falcom inspirations and you have over two hours of exemplary Ys music.
“Innocent Primeval Breaker” (earlier known as “Rush Out!”) carries on the legacy started by Ys II: an upbeat JDK Band rock-out accompanying the obligatory semi-animated introduction. I’m hesitant to use the term ‘instant classic,’ but “Breaker” may already be a highlight of JDK Band’s repertoire, if the crowd reactions at the recent JDK Band concert are any indication. The extended version is polished until it shines with not one but two shredding guitar solos and an interlude responding directly to the iconic “To Make the End of Battle.”
If you asked me to sum up this album in 25-words-or-less, I’d struggle to find the right sentences, and yet I can do it in just one: catchy. Just about every track has some sort of hook, be it the crisp acoustic town theme “In the Busting Square” or the driven “To Reveal The Way To Go.” After more than twenty years of experimentation and permutation, Sound Team JDK has ‘catchiness’ down to an art.
This ‘familiar but new’ approach seems to be the watchword of Ys SEVEN. Although only one of the 52 tracks is from a previous Ys game, Ys SEVEN feels like a faithful paean to the various peaks of Ys musical history. The uplifting ‘first level’ theme, “Mother Earth Altago,” owes much to its predecessors such as “First Step Towards Wars” and Ys IV’s “Field.” The idyllic “Being Slow on the Waves” features nostalgic moments of “Feena” and “The Morning Grow” from the original Ys I & II. You can almost imagine Adol (who should just stay off boats) on the deck, remembering his past adventures. Despite these references, Ys SEVEN never comes across as a mere rehash, primarily because it constantly twists and evolves.
This applies even when the soundtrack has tinges of non-Falcom inspiration. “An Assault” starts like a Nakatsuru Soul Calibur stage theme, but comes into its own with snare drums, bells and choir. The unfortunately named “A Sunbaked Throb” reminded me immediately of Kenji Yamamoto’s Dragon Ball Z, and then I heard a little of “Battle in the Forgotten Capital” from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children — yet both give way to an unmistakably Ys alignment of hammering drums and fast, light keyboard melody. Rather than detracting from the album, I feel these external touches enhance the complexity: as with a good recipe, there’s nothing wrong with combining tried-and-true flavors in new dishes. As a curious side-note, Motoi Sakuraba’s Tales of Vesperia contains a five-note melody any Ys fan would recognize, especially if played on a harmonica.
No Ys is complete without its boss themes, and here is where Ys SEVEN does more than pay homage to its ancestry: it outright challenges it. “Vacant Interference” is JDK Band at their most furious, like “Scars Of a Divine Wing” from Ys Origin on a caffeine rush. “Legend of the Five Great Dragons” could be a final boss theme of a non-Ys game: frantic, desperate and yet encouraging with sweet little guitar and keyboard solos near the end. And the apocalyptic “Scias” should be the final boss theme: it blatantly steals the best bits of one of the greatest boss tunes of any game, let alone Ys. “Scias” takes the powerful chords of “The Strongest Foe” from Ys III and incorporates them into a soundscape that is more layered and interesting than “Strongest Foe” ever was. I feel like a traitor to Mieko Ishikawa and Ryo Yonemitsu, but “Scias” more than deserves its brazen theft of Ys III’s do-or-die end-fight.
The real end-boss of Ys SEVEN is actually two tracks: “Hope for the Hopeless” and “Ancient Disputation.” “Hope” recalls several motifs from earlier pieces with a cleverness I’ve heard in Falcom’s other series, Sora no Kiseki, but not Ys. If “Scias” puts “The Strongest Foe” to shame, does “Ancient Disputation” manage to outdo even that? A qualified ‘yes.’ The drums aren’t as constant but when they’re there, they’re full-on; “Disputation” has spidery synth and choir where “Scias” is all rock, but all that tells me is that “Disputation” could make for a spectacular JDK Band arrangement.
After this thrashing climax, the denouement’s six tracks have a melancholy to them that indicates a less-than-happy conclusion. I think it’s all a bit too drawn out, but that can be blamed on the game as much as anything. That aforementioned extended version of the awesome ‘theme song’ “Innocent Primeval Breaker” brings things full circle, and you’re ready to listen to the whole thing again.
After only a few times through, I was certain I’d had (and loved) this soundtrack for years. This praise does not come without a few caveats, however. There is a lot of synth at play here, which ensures the listener never forgets the game roots of Ys music. It has to be said that the ‘live’ JDK Band tracks (notably the boss themes) have the edge and a full album at that level would have been nice. In addition to this, there is very little looping, which may accentuate the progression of each track but also leads to a few jarring, abrupt endings.
If you can overlook these very minor issues, the Ys SEVEN soundtrack delivers precisely what we expect from any Ys game: a musical tour-de-force of accoustic, rock, synth and orchestral compositions that are at once inventive, diverse and enduring.Tags: Falcom, JDK Band, Mieko Ishikawa, PSP, Reviews, Ryo Yonemitsu, Soundtracks, Ys, Ys Seven, Yukihiro Jindo