As I’ve been playing the Theatrhythm Final Fantasy demo almost non-stop since yesterday, I’m firmly back in Final Fantasy soundtrack territory. Granted, I’m usually listening to some series music anyway, but the inclusion of the ‘Sunleth Waterscape’ theme in the 3DS demo has brought memories of XIII‘s soundtrack to the fore.

It seems many don’t hold this installment’s soundtrack in particularly high regard, but I’ve been a fan since first playing through it two years back – even if a fair chunk of it seems to be a variation on ‘Serah’s Theme’. But then, that never bothered me, as it’s a beautiful, if short, piece of music.

Indeed, it was one of these derivations that actually brought me back to the game a second time. You see, I was playing Dissidia 012, enjoying being back in Lightning’s boots once again, and the thing that really struck me was the music that played on the world map.

It was the ‘Archylte Steppe’ theme! Hearing this, along with Ali Hillis reprising her role as the voice of Lightning, reminded me of all the things I enjoyed about Final Fantasy XIII – namely, the characters, that battle system, and of course the sumptuous, layered soundtrack. This piece is perfect for the Archylte Steppe, the place where the narrow corridors of the game opened out into expansive plains (and subsequently threw the previously excellent pacing out the window, in my opinion). It just sounds wide open, for want of a better term, and the feel of the composition seems to invite exploration, while the drumbeat hints at Gran Pulse’s tribal past.

It’s not the piece that sticks in mind the most though. Any decent jRPG lives and dies by its battle system – fighting is, after all, what you’ll spend much of your time doing – and so it stands to reason that it must also have a battle theme that isn’t going to drive you insane some 70 hours into the game. Some RPGs tackle this problem by having a few battle themes that switch out either in different parts of the world or at certain story milestones, but Final Fantasy has always settled for simply having a single cracking battle theme.

Final Fantasy XIII‘s is among the series’ strongest for me, mixing full orchestral bombast with chugging, yet understated electric guitar, and I never became tired of it. In fact, I frequently found myself, tens of hours deep in the game, whistling along with that gorgeous, soaring violin lead that bursts forth at the one-minute mark. The short drop in tempo that follows lends it some dynamism, so that by the time it builds back up to speed, the break in forward momentum has allowed the piece to breath, rather than race ever onward with relentless energy. The fact that I can still listen to it, after two playthroughs and God-only-knows how many hours and still feel pumped is testament to its quality.

And it would be silly of me to ignore the fantastic boss theme ‘Saber’s Edge’. Like the battle theme, it has a driving momentum, surely a crucial element for any battle music, and similar breaks in momentum to allow both the music and player to catch a breath. I love the way the schizophrenic piano notes at the start race away towards the massive horns that lend the piece a sense of epic majesty that looks to aurally describe the enormous bosses you’ll face along the adventure.

Were it not for the over-reliance on variations of Serah’s Theme, I think Final Fantasy XIII‘s soundtrack would be among my favourites in the series’ history. As it stands, I think it’s an incredibly strong, accomplished effort, and it would seem Square-Enix agree, as they included a five-song medley from XIII in their Tokyo Distant Worlds performance in November 2010, recorded for posterity on the Returning Home DVD. Many fans, myself included, were crushed when series veteran Nobuo Uematsu left Square-Enix in 2004, but on the strength of Masashi Hamauzu’s work on XIII, I’d have been tempted to shout “There’s Life After Uematsu!!” from the rooftops. But then of course Hamauzu scuppered my plans by following Uematsu out the door before XIII was even released. Still, he was back on-board as a freelancer for the sequel, so who knows what the future holds.

It seems many series fans were deeply disappointed by Final Fantasy XIII. I wasn’t one of them; while it’ll never be my favourite entry in the franchise, I appreciated its pacing. If you’re reading this and you’ve never played the game due to the negative reactions since its’ launch, listen to the music posted here and see if anything grabs you. Both XIII and its’ sequel can be had together for less than half the price of either game’s launch RRP, and that’s got to be a bargain in anyone’s reckoning.

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