Xenogears Soundtrack, 1998, Yasunori Mitsuda
During its late-1990s heyday, Square – bolstered by the success of its Final Fantasy franchise – created an astonishing number of new IPs. However, none of these experiments was as madly ambitious and head-spinning as Xenogears. Designed as an early concept piece for Final Fantasy VII and then morphing into part of a planned six-part series spanning millennia, Xenogears served up one of the densest narratives ever seen in a video game. Its storyline was heavily based on philosophical concepts by Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (and likely influenced more than a bit by Neon Genesis Evangelion). Throw in a pronounced anti-religious streak that jeopardised the game’s American release, and you have one of the 32-bit era’s most remarkable games. Sadly, Xenogears was held back by time constraints and the development team’s relative inexperience, leading to a bare-bones presentation of its second half.
Following on from his flawed breakthrough debut Chrono Trigger and his inclusion in the star-studded team behind the Front Mission: Gun Hazard score, Yasunori Mitsuda found himself at the helm of another demanding Square soundtrack assignment. He had to overcome director Tetsuya Takahashi’s initial assumption that music wasn’t all that important compared to a game’s graphics. On the other hand, Mitsuda’s job was made easier by his continuing close collaboration with Xenogears scriptwriter Masato Kato, who had already produced the script for Chrono Trigger. As on that earlier score, Mitsuda worked himself into the ground, to the point of him collapsing during the soundtrack’s mastering process due to exhaustion and requiring hospitalisation.
Part of the Xenogears soundtrack’s challenging nature – apart from the game’s mixed sci-fi/fantasy setting and heady character – was Mitsuda’s decision to include various musical styles from around the world. He particularly focused on Celtic influences to implement them into “easy-to-listen-to” pop tracks – correctly predicting that Celtic music would soon see a leap in popularity worldwide. His initially difficult search for a Western singer was solved after Mitsuda stumbled over The Book of Kells by Celtic band Iona in a CD store, and lead singer Joanne Hogg agreed to participate in the project. One choral track was performed by 41 members of The Great Voices of Bulgaria, contributing to the nearly 100 artists involved in the soundtrack. Mitsuda’s efforts certainly bore fruits. While Xenogears’ music isn’t as fondly remembered as Chrono Trigger, it reached No. 55 on Japan’s Oricon charts, generated two official arranged albums and has remained a fan favourite.
However, the Xenogears soundtrack suffers from the same patchiness that already plagued Chrono Trigger. Once again, Mitsuda struggles to write engaging action material that doesn’t quickly repeat itself – and there’s a whole lot more of this sort of battle cues on Xenogears than there was on Chrono Trigger. The second group of cues that usually underwhelm are what could have been the soundtrack’s most intriguing pieces – those compositions that delve into either the protagonists’ tortured minds or the game’s metaphysical setting. On Chrono Trigger, Mitsuda wrote several spell-binding pieces full of unusual textures, melodies and moods. On Xenogears, their equivalents are slow-paced, sometimes near-ambient electronic tracks that are fitfully functional within the game, but feel rather drawn-out outside of it.
That leaves the Xenogears soundtrack’s most stylistically conservative pieces to pick up the slack – its lyrical, warmly melodic compositions, which take up a significantly larger chunk of the score than on Chrono Trigger. Arguably, the truncated ‘best-of’ version of that earlier soundtrack still provided a solid album arc, whereas compiling Xenogears’ strongest material results in a fairly static work (about 70 minutes long). That such a relatively limited selection of the score can still register as one of the greatest game soundtracks speaks to Mitsuda’s rank as an outstanding melodicist.
Many of the score’s stronger compositions exude a welcoming melodic glow that turns them into immediate winners, starting with “Bonds of Sea and Fire”, thanks to its folksy charm and alternately intimate and expansive melodies. Mitsuda seamlessly integrates Celtic elements and their innately alluring melodic nature on the lively and ambitiously constructed “My Village is Number One” and the lilting, pop-inspired tunes of “Emotions”. “Dazil ~ City of Burning Sands” includes Middle-Eastern sounds just as effortlessly, elegantly sidestepping musical clichés. Here and elsewhere, Mitsuda’s often folk-inspired writing mixes well with his world music inspirations. And while he isn’t all that interested in contrapuntal writing, Mitsuda still uses chamber music-like woodwind instrumentations on “The Valley Where Wind is Born” to delightful effect. Even when evoking ecclesiastical wonders on the choir-only “The Wounded Shall Advance Into the Light”, the music is soothing, rather than imposing.
Not all of the Xenogears soundtrack’s more convincing pieces are as inviting though, creating some much-needed shades and hints of mystery. “Forest of the Black Moon” intrigues with its complex balance of moods and musical elements. Opening abruptly with a sudden orchestral discord, the cue comprises a surprising number of segments – sometimes jazz-influenced, sometimes lucidly gliding on shimmering woodwind or harp melodies, then focusing on gently swirling electronica. It’s here that the score captures the elusive appeal of the Chrono Trigger soundtrack best. “Ship of Regret and Sleep” evokes religious awe in creative ways, mixing a distant choir with an icy, resonant harpsichord line that proceeds unmoved and unperturbed, with aristocratic grace and power. And of course there’s the opening track “Light from the Netherworld”, a compelling – if not necessarily complex – mix of orchestral, choral and electronic elements that creates the required sense of scale for the game’s gargantuan narrative.
Indeed, what turns the Xenogears soundtrack into such an arresting work is its ability to develop an emotional pull and feeling of grandeur one might not initially expect from a primarily cosy score (in this truncated ‘best-of’ version). However, it’s those engrossing compositions listed above that lay the groundwork for the soundtrack’s emotionally harder-hitting pieces. “Shattering Egg of Dreams” stands in beautifully for this development, its almost stately, somewhat subdued string lead turning into a gushing melody during the cue’s B section that no longer holds back. “The Treasure Which Cannot Be Stolen” tugs at heartstrings with the quiet defiance of its peaceful clarinet melody set against harp and piano. “June Mermaid” is the soundtrack’s most moving piece. Gazing inwards and initially withdrawn from the world, the composition opens up during its final section, adding a hopeful harp ostinato and warm bass line to its emotive oboe solo.
And then, there is the one-two punch of “The Beginning and the End” and “Small Two of Pieces ~Broken Shards~” that concludes the Xenogears soundtrack, providing not necessarily a full-blown album arc, but most definitely a sense of uplifting closure. “The Beginning and the End” is the one piece on this score that manages to create a convincing sense of religious awe. The Bulgarian choir’s female voices present a refreshing vision of the divine that pronounces its unfathomable, overwhelming nature with their borderline abrasive timbres. “Small Two of Pieces ~ Broken Shards” achieves sensory overload through different means – that of a deliciously overblown power ballad. With its near-operatic dynamics, Hogg’s impeccable, soaring performance and Mitsuda’s Jim Steinman-esque arrangement (listen to the guitar solo continuing throughout the third verse), “Small Two of Pieces ~Broken Shards~” is one of game music’s greatest vocal cues – and obliterates any memories of this soundtrack’s shortcomings.
- 01 - Light from the Netherworld Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:53
- 02 - Bonds of Sea and Fire Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:09
- 03 - My Village is Number One Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:05
- 04 - The Valley Where Wind is Born Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:33
- 05 - Forest of the Black Moon Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:04
- 06 - Shattering Egg of Dreams Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:04
- 07 - Dazil ~ City of Burning Sands Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:28
- 08 - Emotions Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:09
- 09 - The Treasure Which Cannot Be Stolen Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:27
- 10 - Singing of the Gentle Wind Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:11
- 11 - The Wounded Shall Advance into the Light Mitsuda, Yasunori 1:58
- 12 - Ship of Regret and Sleep Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:43
- 13 - June Mermaid Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:29
- 14 - Shevat ~ The Wind is Calling Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:32
- 15 - Tears of the Stars, Hearts of the People Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:36
- 16 - Flight Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:50
- 17 - The Beginning and the End Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:37
- 18 - Small Two of Pieces ~Broken Shards~ Mitsuda, Yasunori 6:20