Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack
Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack
DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (2nd Edition)
March 10, 1999; May 10, 2004
Buy at CDJapan
The Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack was written by Uematsu at the peak of his career. Like his earlier masterpiece soundtracks for Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, he focuses on drawing gamers and listeners into the experience with plenty of memorable and emotional themes. However, he also carefully portrayed the topics of the game — exploring love, war, sorcery, and a funny thing called time compression in-depth — while exploring new technology using synthesizer operator Keiji Kawamori and even some streamed orchestral and vocal performances. That said, the soundtrack is one of the most inconsistent he has written. When signs of age of the Final Fantasy franchise are shown, something weird and wonderful pops up. When the soundtrack becomes too serious, a light-hearted number is inserted to liven up the mood. When the soundtrack is beginning to attain consistent high quality, it randomly plunges into the depths of direness. You can never be sure what to expect from the next track in this soundtrack, though you can be assured of the overall charm of the listening experience given it is a PlayStation era Final Fantasy score masterminded by Nobuo Uematsu.
The album opens in incredible fashion with an ambitious full-orchestral choral theme, “Liberi Fatali”. Derived from one of the main themes of the game, the so-called sorceress’ theme, it subtly intensifies from the opening unaccompanied “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec” chants towards a dramatic climax. Nobuo Uematsu and orchestrator Shiro Hamaguchi create a work that synchronises perfectly with a spectacular FMV sequence and exudes sheer power thanks to the magnitude of its production. The chromatic chord progression and epic augmented melody that provide the foundations of this theme are heard time and time again in the game to represent sorcery and the development of the game’s exploration of the witch Edea. “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec” and “Succession of Witches,” though strophic not programmatic, combine pre-recorded vocals with menacing instrumental passages. “The Sacrifice” and “Premonition” identify with Edea’s darkest side, creating a sense of terror and emptiness. They contrast with later incarnations of the theme, principally “Truth,” on a cold, authentic, and reassuring harpsichord..
The soundtrack isn’t as melodically rich as other Final Fantasy soundtracks due to the extensive reuse of the sorceress’ theme and two other leitmotifs throughout the soundtrack. Nonetheless, most subjects of leitmotif reusage add an extra layer of meaning to the themes they carry and reinforce the memorability of the soundtrack’s overriding melodic material. “Ami” and its arrangements are probably the most powerful for representing relationships, however; its bright and memorable melody represents calm and happiness, aiding scenes that intricately link the stories of Squall, Zell, Irvine, Selphie, Quistis, and Ellone. With “Tell Me,” a picture of Quistis’ unrequited love for Squall is formed; the gushing melodies reference her letting her feelings out, while the static harmonies are symbolic of Squall’s mere grunts in response. “Where I Belong” reflects memories with a nostalgic electric piano sound and shows the abovementioned characters being finally learning how they’re united. The theme’s final manifestation, “Trust Me,” is less successful, though provides necessary focus on Ellone, only otherwise represented in “Drifting.” Of course, all are united via Balamb Garden and this building’s ethereal theme appropriately introduces the melody rather subtly early in the soundtrack.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of this soundtrack is the absence of any true character themes. While this is again detrimental to the soundtrack’s melodiousness, it avoids simplifying Final Fantasy VIII‘s characters — among the most well-developed and realistic of the series — into caricatures represented by a single relatively shallow theme, a technique even Uematsu himself resents. Instead, Uematsu focuses his thematic representations on relationships or individual aspects of main characters, often building an overall picture through a multitutde of themes. For example, the sorceress’ theme takes many form, representing the gradual yet profound transformation in Edea’s character, while “Unrest” and “Rivals” demonstrate Squall and Seifer’s destructive relationship, albeit underwhelmingly. Meanwhile “My Mind” and “The Oath” are intertwined to distinguish the personalities of Rinoa and Squall, the former dreamy and conflicted, the latter heroic and resolved.
Indeed, it’s relationship of Squall and Rinoa is most thoroughly explored in the soundtrack. The culmination of their love is represented by Faye Wong’s award-winning vocal theme “Eyes on Me”. It’s a charming piece of music that boasts a fair melody from Uematsu, some pleasant string backing, and superb vocal execution. Though many cite it as an example of a hackneyed composing style and criticise it for its Engrish lyrics, it fitted the game suitably, constituted a very successful addition to the soundtrack, and made an impact on mainstream pop audiences that typically ignore the series’ music. “Eyes on Me” utilises a leitmotif that is introduced much earlier in the score with the brief but heartfelt piano theme “Julia” that demonstrates parallels of Laguna and Raine’s encounters many years ago with the situation of the protagonists of today. Other incarnations of the theme are carefully placed within the game to show the development of Squall and Rinoa’s relationship. For example, “Waltz for the Moon” integrates the theme within a Straussian dance to represent the lovers’ first chance meeting, while “Love Grows” is a full instrumental version of “Eyes on Me” that accompanies a powerful moment in the game where Squall comes to terms with his feelings about an absent Rinoa.
The soundtrack reflects the game’s initial focus on the military academy Garden and the elite forces it trains. “The Landing” opens in warlike fashion with a series of brass fanfares before exploding into a epic action theme as the FMV sequence reflects an assault on Dollet. There is an effortless transition into a more electronically-oriented section as FMV transitions to free-roaming gameplay and a secondary section of the theme is nicely decorated by a quasi-orchestral take on the sorceress’ theme. The game also boasts two militaristic marches, “The Stage is Set” and “Movin’,” which not only intensify the situations they are used, but also use the sorceress’ theme wonderfully and are great for whistling along to. The airship theme “Ride On” is full of buoyancy and blithe; it is made even more attractive in soundtrack form by its programmatic introduction, based loosely around “Blue Sky,” one of several short themes that are used to FMV sequences in remarkable fashion. Less impressive are “SeeD,” which comprises of lengthy drum rolls separated by repetitive wind and brass fanfares, “Heresy,” an eerie yet hackneyed organ-based theme used to represent a secondary villain in Balamb Garden, and “The Mission,” a track that is successful in-game only, due to some poor harpsichord synth and a repetitive basso ostinato.
The town and setting themes are a mixed bag, as defined by the overworld theme “Blue Fields”. Though it has a beautiful melody and some sumptuous harmonies, it suffers from a repetitive ground bass and poor synth programming. It’s not all that bad, but its shortcomings are so prominent that it ends up being the most disappointing world map theme of the series and a major letdown after the likes of the “F.F.VII Main Theme.” Some more modest tracks compensate, for example Balamb’s “Breezy” uses major 6th guitar progressions to create a lovely seaside feel, while “Fisherman’s Horizon” carries a beautiful melody to provide a representation of a town that demonstrates peace, simplicity, and the fundamental importance of the sea. “Dance with the Balamb-fish” gives Dollet some ‘oomph’ and, like “Waltz for the Moon”, is written in the style of a stately yet gushing romantic dance (but not a waltz). “Fragments of Memories” is perhaps the most remarkable of all, however; its fragmented, fragile, soothing, and innocent melodies are interpreted by a single tuned percussion instrument and the theme is a strong setting for the dream sequence showing Laguna’s memories of Winhill.
The last third of the soundtrack introduces a number of interesting experiments. “The Salt Flats” is a beautiful ambient theme used in Disc Three to demonstrate the hostile environments on the journey to Esthar. “Silence and Motion” suitably represent the party’s arrival at the jaw-dropping futuristic metropolis. It offers a combination of sweeping well-developed melodies, eccentric percussion use, and high-pitched electronic sounds that seem to ‘float’ above everything. Even more zany is Uematsu’s interpretation of a crystal light pillar (whatever one of those is) called the Lunatic Pandora. It’s an imposing imperial march made twisted and alien by high-pitched synth sounds and eerie synth vocals. Less popular but still interesting are “Residents”, a light-hearted electro-acoustic theme with a quirky bass line, and “Compression of Time”, an ethereal minimalist creation that features a blaring saxophone sample endlessly repeated. Finally, “The Castle” is a Gothic organ theme to represent the final dungeon, but is hardly a hackneyed one; there are some modern touches to represent time compression, three contrasting sections, lots of intricate pseudo-counterpoint, and, of course, some unforgettable melodies.
Popular response to these themes have been mixed but hardly hostile, though, fear not, the authentic sound of the Final Fantasy series is not dead. Notably, the “Victory Fanfare”, “Prelude”, and Chocobo themes all make prominent appearances, even if their arrangements aren’t special. One way Uematsu has gone backwards from his Final Fantasy VI days are in the jazz- and country-based themes, though. “Shuffle or Boogie” lacks the quirky harmonies, decent melody, and sense of fun that made “Slam Shuffle” and “Spinach Rag” successful; it grows old very quickly used and is not effective as the accompaniment to the regularly played card game Triple Triad. There are a few effective light themes, however; the two slide show pieces in the final third of the soundtrack are fun, if underdeveloped, while “Under Her Control” represents the sleaziness of Deling City well, despite utilising yet another repetitive ground bass. Timber’s “Martial Law” initially drags on, but an awesome electric piano solo in the development section and some top-notch percussion use saves it from the realms of the unremarkable. Oh, and special mention for “Timber Owls”; this employs the most quirky ensemble in the game — pizzicato strings, a tuba, a clarinet, an oboe, a triangle, and the characteristic ‘tick-tock’ of a clock. And guess what? It works!
The dungeon themes pretty much comprise of “Find Your Way” and “Junction,” despite some other themes (e.g. “Fear” or “Movin'”) being used in very specific areas; The former here is much stronger — a well-developed mystical theme that integrates some magical instrumentation — while “Junction,” based on just four chords in a repeated sixteen bar solo harp melody, is hideously dull. Another entirely mediocre piece of BGM is the pizzicato string-based “Intruders”; any whim and drama this piece could have had is limited by predictable chord progressions and a repetitive bell motif. Likewise “The Spy,” “Fear,” “Jailed,” and “Galbadia GARDEN” are ambient jazz-based themes that are used in lengthy gameplay sequences. They’re the worst in the soundtrack due to their uninspired progressions and melodic deficiencies. All Final Fantasy soundtracks in the past have had a degree of filler material, but what separates this one is that they’re used in long gameplay sequences and do nothing to alleviate the tedium. Added to this, there are two percussive hurry themes, “Never Look Back” and the curiously titled “Only a Plank Between One and Perdition.” The former mainly relies on a little too much repetition of ascending melodic sequences while the latter is more rhythmical, using the combination of a piano basso ostinato and some guitar riffs.
The battle themes on Final Fantasy VIII are its best feature. “Don’t Be Afraid,” the normal battle theme, creates plenty of tension with its irregular 5/4 metre and is orchestrated well enough to sustain in-game use rather well. The boss battle theme “Force Your Way” takes an upbeat approach that combines rock riffs with decorative electronic arpeggio patterns rather effectively. Laguna’s battle theme, “The Man with the Machine Gun,” is written in a surprisingly accessible light techno style and evokes many warm feelings with its exhilarating melodies. Among the final bosses, “The Legendary Beast” passes melodic fragments between each instrument uncompassionately and gradually undergo metamorphoses over ascending chord progressions; the harmonies are horrifyingly consistent, constantly off-beat and rhythmically unsettled. It’s successor, “Maybe I’m a Lion,” isn’t much kinder; aggressive tribal drum beats, overdriven guitar backing, and dominant organ melodies present a powerful picture of Squall’s nemesis. Finally, “The Extreme” opens ominously with spacey sounds and harp and piano use that gives a sense of inevitability before quickening into a electro-acoustic beat fest that climaxes with some deliciously crisp duelling synth lines.
Plenty of musical bliss is offered in the “Ending Theme”. Opening mysteriously in a string-led passage, the first two and a half minutes set the scene and are breathtakingly orchestrated. The theme segues into a reprise of “Eyes on Me”, now fully orchestrated by Shiro Hamaguchi; the lush orchestration gives the theme much more depth and meaning and support Wong effectively. After the vocal theme has finished and the game’s credits roll, the trademark “Final Fantasy” theme plays, boasting an execution superior to any other rendition of the theme. The truly momentous part of the “Ending Theme,” however, is the final three minutes. This offers an epic orchestration of the sorceress’ theme and some programmatic music to accompany a touching epilogue scene. Ending with a glimpse into Final Fantasy IX and the harp arpeggios of the “Prelude” theme, the final minute and a half of the theme is a breath of fresh air. Over 13 minutes long, fully orchestrated, encompassing four major sections, incorporating four popular themes, and even providing a glimpse into the series’ future, what more could you ask for? This is a timeless classic and the emotional peak of the soundtrack. It’s preceded by “The Successor”, which ties up the loose ends of the sorcery element of the game by reflecting Edea’s true character, and is followed by the misplaced “Overture”, which ends the soundtrack with a whimper, but not after a massive highlight.
Overall, Uematsu did an excellent job embracing new styles and technology on the Final Fantasy VIII while capturing the unique tone of the game. However, the individual pieces he created to achieve this are quite variable in quality. There are themes like “Liberi Fatali,” “Ending Theme,” “The Extreme,” and “Silence and Motion” that are completely unparalleled and exceed Uematsu’s prior achievements. However, themes such as “Fear,” “Jailed,” “Rivals,” and “Junction” add nothing to the soundtrack, despite being used in prominent and lengthy gameplay sequences. It’s fortunate that the introduction and conclusion to the soundtrack is nothing short of exceptional, easily making the soundtrack comparable to other additions of the numbered series. This release is still as heartfelt, enjoyable, and memorable as its immediate predecessor, with lots of progressive elements to boot. All Final Fantasy music fans should add this to their collection.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.