Dragon Quest IX Original Soundtrack & Synthesizer Suite
Dragon Quest IX Original Soundtrack & Synthesizer Suite
Aug 05, 2009
Buy at CD Japan
Everything old will be new again. That’s a truism that seems to be quite apt in describing the Dragon quest series. Released in 2004, Dragon Quest VIII was both a great tribute to the old adventures, but also a bold step forward in terms of the quality of the game experience. The music itself was also a tribute to classic themes with slight upgrades. There was some hope that Dragon Quest IX: Protectors of the Starry Sky would surpass its predecessor, and the early videos suggested as much, showing a pseudo MMORPG where people could connect their DS consoles together and go off on an adventure. Unfortunately what we received was an inferior product that was in every way a step backwards, with any of the novel features stripped away.
What does this have to do with the soundtrack you may ask? Perhaps nothing, but most likely it is the very reason that the soundtrack feels much like the missed opportunity that the game itself was. Instead of stepping forward boldly, we’re left with a much safer product that while technically accomplished, lacks any sort of vibrant pulse. If Koichi Sugiyama were to retire from composing Dragon Quest soundtracks altogether at this point, as apparently rumoured, his career would go out with a whimper instead of a bang. In short if you gain nothing from my review other than this, I’d probably hold off on purchasing this album unless you’re an obsessive completist.
Before talking about specific tracks, I’d like to take a moment to ask why he even bothered to include both discs. In the case of this soundtrack, the DS MIDI is actually bearable. It’s been a bit of a tradition for Square Enix products released on the Nintendo Handhelds to have both an original soundtrack and an “Enhanced Synthesizer” version. But in this case, both sound similar, that it just feels like a cash grab. If you’re going to bill something as enhanced, you need to actually make it sound like an upgrade.
In regards to the overture, while the additional fanfare at the beginning is a nice addition, it’s essentially the same track we’ve heard eight times before. To be fair, I can’t really completely criticize it, since certain themes have been part of the other long running series, Final Fantasy since the beginning as well. Instead, I’ll focus my attention on the two castle themed tracks which follow. “Heaven’s Prayer” is the sombre castle in the sky theme. Of note is the shameful derivative music that comes in at 0:54-1:20, which comprises of much of the B section. More shameful is that he uses an old trick from his symphonic suites of playing with the instrumentation for the reprise. While in a live orchestra setting, the change can yield a different dynamic, synthesized instruments don’t generate the same effect. The earthbound castle theme, “The Palace Oboe”, is a bit different in shape than previous castle themes though. And I actually enjoyed the change up from the standard trend of pure brass or pure strings that has come before. The woodwind lead piece is actually a bit refreshing, even if the actual melody is standard fare.
Tracks 4 through 8 are town related themes, ranging from high derivative of previous works, to surprisingly dynamic and interesting. Starting with “Come to our Town”, I was enjoying it quite a bit until I noticed some of the striking similarity to “People” from Dragon Quest I. The only noticable difference was the rhythm, but the core melody was the same, just broken up a bit. Of the set though, the biggest draw for me was “Pub Polka”; it’s lively and fun and while it’s certainly not completely original, the highlight of the album.
The biggest surprise this time out was that the world map theme is actually the weakest track on the album. The instrumentation is fragmented and tends to be subdivided into compartmentalized capsules of sound. The sense of blend or flow is broken up by the ever changing lead instruments. In short, it feels like a song without direction, and hollow at its core. The same sort of meandering sound comes into play with the main battle theme “Are You a Loser?”. And I’m not sure what chord progression Sugiyama was going for, but from 0:55 – 1:12 just doesn’t quite work. The unfocused nature of these two tracks which really make up the bulk of the journey doesn’t bode well for the player who will be forced to listen to these tracks ad infinitum. I am thankful that CD players come with a skip button.
“Dark Den of Thieves”, the main dungeon theme, starts off really well. The melody is clear, focused and the harmonic blend is perfect. It’s a shame that at 0:30 onward, that the track devolves into the tropes that he was guilty of in Dragon Quest VIII. Far too many menacing chord progressions and melody fragments that don’t seem to go anywhere. The jarring transition when the track loops back to the beginning at 1:59 left me confused. There is this abrupt jump back into the core melody that feels like Sugiyama was just unsure how to end this piece off.
“Omen of Towering Death” is the tower dungeon theme suffers from the same fate that the last half of “Dark Den of Thieves” got sucked into. Although it feels derogatory to use the term in this way, this is the closest that Sugiyama has come to in terms of “game music”, which in this case is defined as ambient mood music. I’m sure that within context, these tracks work quite well, but outside of context without a core theme, it’s just not worth listening to. There’s no technical proficiency or even solid musical craftsmanship in these tracks. It’s the sort of laziness that just shouldn’t be coming from a classically trained composer.
I’ll now take a pause and bring up the fact that, once again, Sugiyama is reusing music from previous entries in the series. For instance, rather than compose a new temple theme, he reuses the temple theme from Dragon Quest VIII. The same is true for the sea vessel theme (Dragon Quest IV) and even Dharma Temple uses the opening bars of the “Dragon Quest March” from the Dragon Quest I suite. This laziness in composition would be forgiven if this was a 4 CD epic, but not when the music barely fills up a single disc.
Probably the last examples I’ll speak about on the topic of this album are the pair of tracks “Guide Them to their Fate” and “Temple with No Master” as an example of the lack of vision or sense of purpose that this soundtrack exudes. “Guide Them to Their Fate” is essentially the theme for the Goddess’ Palace. It’s a sinister theme that has a melodic purpose and acts as great foreshadowing for the tragic turn of events in the last third of the game. It would have made a fitting track for the final dungeon. Instead he decides to rework the theme and actually takes out all of the flow and structure and we’re left with the mess that is “A Temple with no Master”. It’s really a case of “Why did he even bother?” Perhaps he was trying to strike lightning twice, like he did with a brilliant reworking of “Heavenly Flight” in Dragon Quest VIII as a battle theme. Unfortunately it doesn’t work quite as well here. It feels like Sugiyama is an idiot alchemist who takes gold and transforms it into lead.
In short, I really wanted to like this album. I came in with hopes that he’d do what he’s always done best; taking simple melodies and polishing them to a shine. Instead, what we receive is laziness and poor craftsmanship. In the end all this album will probably do is tarnish the legacy that Koichi Sugiyama has built up since the beginnings of his career and that is the real tragedy of Dragon Quest IX.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Andrew Oldenkamp. Last modified on January 17, 2016.