Last Friday, Distant Worlds returned to the Royal Albert Hall. This time, however, the show differed from previous incarnations; it’s 2012, and that means it’s Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary. That’s a milestone worth celebrating for both Square-Enix and its massive legion of fans, and with that in mind, Friday’s set-list was indeed a celebration of the series’ history.
The show kicked off with the iconic ‘Prelude’, before a few spotlights pointed out that we in the audience were in illustrious company – in attendance were composers Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu, along with father of Final Fantasy Hironobu Sakaguchi. Sakaguchi was here, in the same room as us! That certainly got the crowd in the right mood.
Next up was ‘Medley 2002’, a collection of pieces of music drawn from the first three Final Fantasies, and afterward Arnie Roth, occupying the conductor’s rostrum as always, set expectations for the night; being a celebration of the series’ history, we would be treated to a chronological trip through Final Fantasy music, and next up was Final Fantasy IV’s ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’. Maestro Roth told us we’d be hearing a mixture of Distant Worlds favourites, new arrangements and pieces of music that hadn’t been played before.
With that, we got to hear the first live renditions of the ‘Main Theme of Final Fantasy V’ and from Final Fantasy VI, ‘The Phantom Forest’, before Roth attempted to recruit the audience into the choir for Final Fantasy VII’s ‘One Winged Angel’. Unfortunately, the majority were terribly British about it all and remained quiet throughout, but that didn’t prevent the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and the London Voices choir from a rousing performance of Sephiroth’s signature piece.
Final Fantasy VIII’s battle theme, ‘Don’t be Afraid’ came next, and was followed by ‘You’re Not Alone’ from Final Fantasy IX. Then came one of my favourite pieces of Final Fantasy music, ‘To Zanarkand’ from Final Fantasy X. All of these performances were accompanied by cutscenes and video excerpts from the games on a huge screen above the choir, and X’s was particularly beautiful, ending with the iconic scene of Yuna performing the sending at Kilika.
One song remained before the intermission, and we were treated to a new rendition of the Chocobo theme, and this one was even more upbeat than usual, with the screen showing a medley of Chocobo footage, including Dajh’s chick popping out of Sazh’s afro as the choir chanted “Hey!”, before they called out the letters spelling out ‘chocobo’. It was a very entertaining way to lead into the intermission, and the crowd responded with plenty of laughs.
Once we’d returned to our seats, it was back to our chronological musical journey through Final Fantasy, and next up was ‘Vana’diel March’ from the series’ first foray into the MMO space. If anything, I felt this song dragged a little, but then I never played Final Fantasy XI, so I don’t have any emotional attachment to the game’s music. That said, it was still an enjoyable performance, and the next piece, Final Fantasy XII’s ‘Dalmasca Estersand’, was a wonderfully intricate, layered composition beautifully delivered.
Rounding out the retrospective were Final Fantasy XIII’s battle theme, ‘Blinded by Light’, and an absolutely stunning rendition of the signature track from Square’s second MMO entry, Final Fantasy XIV. Titled ‘Answers’, the song’s main vocal was performed by Susan Calloway (who should be no stranger to fans of Final Fantasy music), who absolutely blew the attending audience away with her powerful voice.
With our whistle-stop tour of Final Fantasy past and present complete, we were into the portion of the show that remained shrouded in mystery. We’d been promised some heavy hitters, something new, and another special guest or two, and the first piece we were treated to was Final Fantasy IV’s gorgeous ‘Theme of Love’. This was a real treat for me, a massive fan of FFIV, and it was a beautiful rendition that kicked off a more emotionally-led tangent of the show. Following in that vein, next on the agenda was a trip back to Final Fantasy VIII, as we got to experience an excellent performance of ‘Eyes on Me’, sung by Japanese recording artist Crystal Kay, and her vocals, along with the scenes of Rinoa and Squall on the big screen, really got emotions bubbling under.
What really got them soaring, however, was the utterly incredible ‘Opera – Mario & Draco’. This was a new version, with an extended battle scene embedded in the middle, composed by Uematsu specially for the ‘Celebration’ tour. We again had some guests on stage – three solo vocalists taking the parts of Maria, Draco and Prince Ralse, and a narrator to relate the story to the audience. The latter was a little underused, but was still a nice addition to help along those that might not have played Final Fantasy VI. The Opera must have run for at least fifteen minutes, but I was completely transfixed; it was easily my highlight of the entire show. It was an incredibly powerful performance that threatened to leave me breathless.
We had one final piece of music to go, and this one signalled a step up into more upbeat territory. It was another medley, and another fresh one at that; a brand-new battle medley, consisting of FFV’s ‘Battle at the Big Bridge’, FFX’s ‘Fight with Seymour’ and FFVII’s ‘Those Who Fight’. It was an excellently put-together medley, though I’d have liked to have heard each one in full as they’re all among my favourite battle themes. Having said that, at least we got an orchestrated version of ‘Those Who Fight’ (however short), rather than the bizarre jazz-piano style version featured on the Returning Home DVD.
With that, the performers exited the stage, leaving the audience to nervously await their return. Surely there’d be an encore, right? We hadn’t had ‘Aeris’ Theme’, nor Terra’s. Maybe we’d get to hear the ‘Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII’ or Liberi Fatali? Well, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, the London Voices and Arnie Roth did indeed re-take the stage, with Roth telling us that they just couldn’t leave without playing one final piece of music, one song that was absolutely vital in the history of the jRPG series. The audience held its collective breath; surely he meant ‘Aeris’ Theme’..?
And so, as the orchestra launched into the warm tones of the ‘Main Theme of Final Fantasy’, the groans were audible (seriously – you can hear it in my video). They quickly gave way to applause as we all immediately got over the (admittedly mild) disappointment to enjoy the piece of music that started it all, and in retrospect, it was the perfect way to end a night celebrating 25 years of excellent music. At the end, all the performers that had taken the stage throughout the evening were joined by Uematsu and Hamauzu and were all given a much-deserved standing ovation from the five-thousand or so Final Fantasy diehards in attendance.
With that, we were thrust back into the cold London night, contemplating one thing: will they be back next year? I can only say this – if they will, I will.