'Suikoden II' OST Review, Part 2

(continued from Part I of the review)

After hearing the opening, I again found myself shaking my head at being so out of touch with such works.  Just listening to the Suikoden II OST places it extremely high on my preferred VGM list—I only wish that I could play the actual game without spending ridiculous amounts of money (one day…!).  Regardless, however, there is, as I’ve said before, something to be said about loving a game OST without having played the game itself.   Higashino’s work on Suikoden II is so involved and so perfect for a game that I am pretty content just imagining what would be happening on-screen during a particular tune and determining how that fits in the greater context of the musical body of work.

And what a body of work it is!  I listened to the OST via a YouTube channel by a user that just uploads full video game soundtracks (whose account has since been terminated by SquareEnix--thanks, guys!).  Suikoden II has 105 tracks in its playlist; if one looks at the list of games the number of tracks each one has, s/he will find that there are few (out of this relatively small sample size) that even come close to 105.  Regardless of length of the tracks, that’s 105 different ideas for a single game.  Including length, if one roughly calculates that the average track is two minutes long, that’s about three and a half hours of music alone.  I don’t care if the second half of most of the tracks is a loop – because, let’s face it, making something that is enjoyable to listen to after five loops is worth giving the gimmie – this is a lot of music.

Thinking about the quantity of music leads me to think about Suikoden II versus modern OSTs.  Journey, for instance, has 18 tracks that total an hour.  The difference is, Journey is an hour of non-looping music and has an average track length of 3:25; therefore, one may say that Journey has more ideas within a particular track – meaning that composer Austin Wintory took an idea and developed it over a large span of time coinciding with other ideas – while Suikoden II has an impressively robust number of raw ideas.  That’s just interesting to consider, looking at classic versus modern soundtracks and thinking about approaching composing for games.

What’s even more impressive about the soundtrack having so many raw ideas is that Higashino’s approach to Suikoden II was clearly not a linear one.  There’s such a variety in the soundtrack that the listener will be surprised from one track to the next due simply to the fact that s/he won’t be able to anticipate what kind of sound the next tune will have.  Some soundtracks might be able to be categorized into an everyday genre (i.e., electronic, rock, ambient), but this one is one of those that fall strictly under the blanket of “VGM.”  The listener will find that she wrote everything from orchestral music to Mitsuda-like folk songs and jigs to more traditional “classical” pieces to ambient abstractions.  One of the best things about it is, though, that Higashino makes her own mark and creates an OST that is distinct among its peers.

Let’s take a look at some of the elements and themes that one will find within the OST:

First up is the inclusion of that ethnic voice that is so prevalent in the opening track.  “Reminiscence" is a gorgeous, aptly named piano track.  Its sweet-yet-somber piano lines sweep by in ¾ backed by a bed of strings that provide the tune’s harmonic foundation.  Cutting through the gorgeous, memorable melody at 0:40 is that voice.  It’s only included in the piece for a mere twelve seconds, but once again it manages to strike the listener and provide a depth and distinctiveness that tunes similar to it in other games simply do not have.  To my knowledge, the voice being used in this manner is of this OST and none other (save for the possibility that Higashino used it in the first Suikoden).

Surprisingly, Higashino doesn’t use it in too many other places.  Look for it again in “Secret Village of the Ninja,” where it actually seems to find a home amidst the main instruments.  Plus, one can find a sort of old male equivalent in “Amid the Silence,” and while they may or may not have any in-game connection to the female voice, the fact that it’s there and is an element at all is certainly noteworthy.

Next, Higashino has a few tracks that are simply her way of showing that she can recycle tracks and keep them fresh by arranging them differently.  Listen to the voiceless string arrangement of “Reminiscence” and get a different, even darker vibe from it compared to the original.  Also compare the different instrumentations of “Withered Earth” and “The Outskirts of Tinto”—just a change in instrumentation can keep the interest of the listener and even change what the tune means to him or her.

The most extensive variance that Higashino incorporates lies within “Those Who Work Must Eat,” below, and the next three tracks on the playlist.

In these tracks, Higashino varies the instruments—when some are in, when some are out, which are more prominent, etc.  She also does things like alter the groove foundation via the hand drums and bass (or lack thereof).  By doing all of this, she tells a story through four tracks, and one can hear the gradual transition from one track to the next.  By the time the listener hears “Are you Gonna Eat That Carrot?”, the song has completely transformed.  It’s easy to hear the difference between track one and track four, but more fun to point out how one transformed from track to track.  So, through variance, Higashino keeps a track that repeats itself in multiple occurrences interesting and, ultimately, tells a story through audio alone.  Very cool.  Also, dig that counter-melody (0:28 in the first incarnation).

Listen for more theme variations in other tracks!  I won’t point any more out—just trust me that they’re out there and keep your ears open.

Higashino shows off her knack for scoring classical music in this OST.  I haven’t often heard straight-up classical forms being used in VGM, but Higashino’s efforts makes a great case for them.  The above piece is constructed using a form of the same name, “Praise be to My Master” is a fugue, and others use different forms.  To get into these tunes a little more, I highly recommend researching how their forms are constructed and listening to other classical compositions that utilize them.  Strict adherence to form may be seen as something that restricts and constricts a composition, but oftentimes it’s something that aids the composer to develop ideas and bring them to whole new levels, as seen here.

There are two other pieces with classical influences that are worth pointing out.  You’ll find hints of Stravinsky in “Tension,” which has a primal minimalist pulse in the beginning and some dissonant melodic lines that just scream “Harbingers of Spring.”  On a completely different note, “Gothic Neclord” is a piece that one might expect to be more like “Praise be to My Master” but instead is a discoed-up organ number.  Instead of Stravinsky, Higashino went more Mortal Kombat.

… okay, okay, that’s a little unfair to her—I actually enjoy the concept behind “Gothic Neclord,” as it does a great job combining a beat that is made to get the gamer’s adrenaline pumping with classical-influenced lines that don’t lose the feel of what one would expect from a scene with Neclord musically.  I also really enjoy the lines of the synth strings and the organ along with their interplay.

Speaking of hints of Stravinsky, Higashino does a fantastic job of providing the listener with great melodies iconic of classic VGM while at the same time writing tunes that are rhythmically heavy.  The above tune, “Mad Luca,” is a virtuosic piece that finds a lot of strength in its rhythmic hits.  The hits accent the unpredictable lines of the melody and how it constantly shifts its tempo at-will.  As a side note, listen to the track again and tell me how many games that you know has a tune like this one—Higashino is such an inspiration in that she stays in the realm of tradition VGM while fitting in these tunes that completely break the mold and are simply awesome.

A couple other tunes that showcase rhythm are “Enemy Attack” and “Freedom, Again.”  The former is written in the odd meter 7/4.  Utilizing odd meters in game music is something that I often think about doing because it can completely throw off the listener and add tension to a situation.  Of course, composers fluent in those signatures can turn their ability to add tension on and off—there are plenty of instances where a tune in an odd meter is so fluid that the listener hears it like any other typically metered tune.  “Freedom Again,” for instance, has an inconsistent meter.  Count the first thirty seconds of the piece; the form is:

  • Phrases 1 and 2: 3/4 time for six bars and a bar of 2/4
  • Phrases 3 and 4: 3/4 time for six bars and a bar of 4/4
  • Phrases 5 and 6: 3/4 time for seven bars

I would bet money that the average gamer doesn’t even question the change in time, and if s/he does, it wouldn’t be to the extent that s/he suspects more than just one abnormality.

Lastly, despite all of these traditional forms and odd meters, Higashino is still writing VGM.  She knows it and the listener knows it, too.  The above tune, “Beautiful Morning,” is SO cheesy.  Almost unbelievably so.  Every last ounce of it is bathing in a rich cheese fondue.  “Dandy Richmond” isn’t as bad, but its slinkiness rides on an unstoppable juggernaut of predictability.  If a game was made up solely of tracks like these, I’d set the composer on fire; but here, I remember not to take Higashino too seriously and love that she shows this side of her as well as the side that reeks of being musically tasteful.

On that note, I wonder if this kind of not taking oneself too seriously is absent from major publishers’ games these days.  We as gamers are treated to more composers who know a lot about music, but we’re also missing out on a lot of, shall I say, “unconventional” fun.   Maybe I’m overplaying the role of ridiculous BGM in older games to highlight goofy situations in more serious games, but I just can’t think of any modern instances of its usage.  I wouldn’t doubt that they still occur in small-market games, yet I’m not so convinced about large-market titles.  The only tunes that I can think of that have been laugh-out-loud funny in recent years are Final Fantasy XIII-2’s “Crazy Chocobo” (comp. Uematsu; arr. Shootie HG), Laura Shigihara’s Plants vs. Zombies theme, and “Still Alive” from Portal

To sum up, Higashino shows her huge range in the Suikoden II soundtrack.  From the melodies to the forms to the rhythms and beyond, she gives us everything she has in a complete package that is undeniably VGM and, more importantly, undeniably her.  The Suikoden II OST is nothing short of being a VGM masterpiece, and it should serve as a model in many ways for modern composers.  I highly recommend that the reader listen to the whole OST from back to front.  Multiple times.

*PS: I had mentioned this before in another post, but make sure you listen to “Chant.”  People love to site the Halo OST as breaking boundaries in the video game world with its music, and I stand by the belief that it really didn’t break anything.  Even recently I had read something – be it an interview or an opinion piece – talking about how the opening theme was masterful because of the inclusion of Gregorian chant in a video game.  Case in point, “Chant” had been there and done that.  Nothing against Salvatori and O’Donnell’s work, but people should be aware of this great music that had already been released.