Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack often shows similarities to previous Final Fantasy scores, most of which I am quite fond of. Which makes it peculiar that I am not overly impressed with this one.
To its credit, FF8 has an improved sound system that erases much of the bad taste left by FF7's. FF8 does use similar samples to FF7 for some of the more electronic tracks and more ambient tracks, but fortunately these are the samples that weren't too bad in the first place. Where FF8 improves upon its predecessor is in the synthesis of acoustic instruments such as piano, guitar, string sections, flutes, and others. Occasionally they impress slightly, sometimes they still manage to disappoint, but mostly they just suffice. It's not the pinnacle of 32-bit synthesis but it is a noticeable improvement over FF7, and old-school game music fans can deal with it just fine.
FF8 is the first Final Fantasy title to include any prerecorded, non-game-synth music in the original soundtrack. This includes the opening and ending themes, which feature a small orchestral set and chorus. The performance isn't anything special by film music standards, but it is a huge improvement over the game synth and certainly does the job. A whole disc's worth of this stuff would make me a very happy camper.
Along different lines, "Eyes on Me" is a surprisingly enjoyable vocal track based on the love theme from the game. The instrumentation is the standard orchestral/contemporary pop ballad sort, but the vocals by Asian pop star Faye Wong are quite nice. She sings in perfect English and her voice has a nice mellow tamber.
The most important part of a Final Fantasy soundtrack is not the sound quality, but the composition. As mentioned, there are some noticeable similarities to earlier FF titles. Usually they take the form of short melodic spurts which are similar to previous FF themes, from FF3 and FF6 in particular. Many of the mood-setting tracks are reminiscent of such tracks in FF7. The really noticeable "homages" to earlier Final Fantasy themes probably number around a dozen in all. In addition, I've noticed similarities to the E.T. and Dune scores in "Ride On" and "Ending Theme", respectively.
Are there new themes unique to FF8 that captivate and excite as in earlier installments? To a degree, yes.
As in FF7, the battle themes are a strong point, although not to quite the same extent. The normal battle theme "Don't Be Afraid" is similar in style to FF7's, and also in its ability to remain exciting after repeated listens. The boss battle music "Force Your Way" uses some coolly melodic cascading of a catchy electronic pulsing sample, as well as some nice keyboard hooks and guitar melodies. Also impressive is "The Man with the Machine Gun", another electronic-oriented boss theme, but one that boasts a slight dance music flavor. As for the final battle themes ("The Legendary Beast", "Maybe I'm a Lion", "The Extreme"), they can't match the tag-team of "J-E-N-O-V-A" and "One Winged Angel" from FF7, but if not for that they would receive plenty of praise in Final Fantasy music fan circles.
The "fithos lusec wecos vinosec" chant is used quite often throughout the score, and while from the very beginning it hasn't done much to excite me, the namesake track does have a couple catchy instrumental segments. One of the most memorable tracks comes at the very beginning of the score; "Balamb GARDEN" offers a nice - albeit slightly gushy - melody with very well-done instrumentation. The "Eyes on Me" love theme is used often, as is another theme seemingly geared towards love, friendship, reflection, or something of the sort (found in "Where I Belong" and elsewhere).
Other noticeable inclusions are two decent enough waltzes, a couple catchy battle marches ("Movin'" and "The Stage is Set"), and some moderately zany pieces reminiscent of FF7 (including the plucked strings, tuba, and "tick-tock" samples of "Timber Owls"). The ragtime "Slide Show Part2" and Zozo-esque "Shuffle or Boogie" bring back more memories of FF6, but they don't match the enjoyment of their precursors. There are certain slightly ambient, slightly experimental tracks like "Lunatic Pandora" which, although not enjoyable melodically, are interesting enough to warrant attention. Finally, mention must be made of "Mods de Chocobo", which provides yet another pleasurable rendition of the chocobo theme, this time in beach rock style.
Scattered throughout the score are some shorter tracks that are probably background music for cinema sequences. For the most part they aren't particularly noticeable, but if memory serves, they are more interesting than FF7's.
It should be noted that FF8OST has its share of "try me out a few times then skip me from then on" tracks. None are particularly offensive as are some in FF7 (mostly due to the improved sound system), but they can be boring and disappointing when you expect constantly great things from a Final Fantasy score. Such tracks are fewer in number than in FF7, but more common than in FF4 and FF6.
All in all, I am a bit disappointed with FF8OST. I'm really beginning to have a problem with mediocre sound quality in a flagship RPG title with a multi-million dollar budget, when the series used to epitomize high quality in *every* aspect, sound quality included. But besides that, the composition in FF8 leaves something to be desired. There's too much of the same, not only in the brief passages similar to previous FF themes, but in the overall makeup. All things considered, FF8 may well match the classic 16-bit installments and my personal favorite FF6 (albeit with a less melodic and emotional focus). But this is 1999, others series are breaking new ground in game soundtrack territory, and the Final Fantasy series should do the same.
Editorializing aside, there are certainly those who will be satisfied purchasing Final Fantasy VIII Original Soundtrack. Serious fans of Square music and game OSTs will find music similar to the rest of the series, granted much of it is in a slightly ambient direction a la FF7. But more casual game soundtrack listeners, skeptics of game synth, and fans with rising expectations of the Final Fantasy series would be better off playing the game first, or waiting for a possible best-of album in the vein of Final Fantasy VII Reunion Tracks.