Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light - Something Old and Something New

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light came out for the Nintendo DS in America in fall of last year. While the game garnered generally good reviews, it hasn't gotten very much attention in the states. It's not a perfect game, to be sure, and perhaps the older style of early Final Fantasy games was not something that a younger generation of gamers had any interest in returning to. Or maybe the game was just too gosh darn cute.

Aw, lookit how adorable they are.
The idea was a novel one: take the current technology and make a graphically and technically enhanced version of a classic RPG. The gameplay is innovative, but simple, and a class system based on various hats called "crowns" allows a large amount of flexibility in party creation. It's a great little game that channels the spirit of its predecessors without being too frustratingly archaic.

The very first thing that struck me about this game when I started playing it was the music. When you start the game, this is the music that you're treated to in the title screen:

"The Four Warriors of Light" 

Just like every other aspect of this game, the music is a blend of the old sounds of the 8-bit era and the newer, more sophisticated MIDI available today. This sort of combination really does a number on the senses. While purely 8-bit compositions would have solidified the retro feel of the game, even the most pleasing 8-bit melodies become grating after a while; and while purely new MIDI would have provided a cleaner sound on the whole, it's not at all unique or keeping with the themes of this game. In short, this combination is the best fit for the game. Not only that, but it's pretty fantastic.

The soundtrack was composed by Naoshi Mizuda, a fairly young composer working at Square Enix. He started work with them in 1995, contributing to the soundtrack for Street Fighter Alpha. Since then, he has worked on the soundtracks for Parasite Eve II and Final Fantasy XI (including all expansions). Although he collaborated with both Nobuo Uematsu and Kumi Tanioka for the Final Fantasy XI soundtrack, it's still a fairly lofty honor to compose for the illustrious RPG series. At the same time, though, this installment in the Final Fantasy series is one of the lesser known, lesser beloved entries. I'm embarrassed to say that I myself have never played the game, nor am I acquainted with its music.

That said, though, this was Mizuda's first time working on a Final Fantasy project as the lead composer. It's not just the blending of old and new sounds that makes the soundtrack what it is. Mizuda also has a way of balancing simple theme songs with more elaborate themes that tell a story in and of themselves. This is one example of a song with a simpler feel:

"Liberte, Capital of Art (Day & Night)"

While this is a pleasant song that accurately depicts the small, seaside town of Liberte, the driving "oom-pah-pah" and the tendency for the melody use notes of quarter-note duration or longer conveys a simplicity in thinking. This hearkens back to the structure of early Final Fantasy games, especially the original Final Fantasy: go to a town, save the town, go to the next town. This was a staple of many early RPGs that were released for systems that didn't have the power to support lengthy, in depth storylines.

Compare this to a theme that seems to go through different evolutions as it progresses, each telling its own view of the situation. A bit of background (with as few spoilers as possible): as in most Final Fantasy games, you eventually gain access to travel by air in The 4 Heroes of Light. This is accomplished by riding atop a dragon that you summon via a sacred harp. Shortly after you obtain the harp, you gain access to the sacred town of Spelvia, where something happens to plunge the world into darkness and woe. This is the theme that is played as you traverse this new world atop the dragon, your party's only companion in this strange yet familiar world.

"Riding on the Dragon"

The song begins with only two musical lines: the melody, consisting of a light flute-like sound, and an arpeggio, composed of what seems to be an 8-bit harp. The minor mode projects a sadness that pervades the beginning of the piece, especially when it opens up to include the otherwise heroic trumpet line and the polyphonic, harmonious horn line underneath. As the piece progresses, the flute line reappears, soaring above the other instruments, and the mode becomes major. The sense of hope created by this section may be represented by the four heroes, soaring above the world on their dragon in order to set things right once again.

While this sort of musicological interpretation can be done for the Liberte theme, it would certainly be a lot more difficult. This song paints a picture in the player's mind, and its complexities are like nothing seen in 8-bit era. With grand ritardandos and timbre shifts, this song illustrates the expertise of its composer. And it's beautiful, to boot. I admit that I would fly around aimlessly just to listen to this song play.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is simple in its complexities and complex in its simplicities, which is a step beyond the intended goal of pure nostalgia. The music reflects this as well, but for those of you who don't believe the music can stand up on its own, I share with you a fuller version of the original theme song, including actual instrumental accompaniment. I beamed the first time I heard this rendition.

"Four Heroes of Light"

There's also a nifty clarinet octet rendition of the theme that shows off its musicality as well. If you have a DS and are in any way attracted to RPGs, check out this game. The music alone is worth the purchase, in my opinion. What do you think? Let me know in the comments section!

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