In his first time at the reins of a primary installment in the Final Fantasy series, Hitoshi Sakimoto continues the series' progression from the simple if accessible melodies of early installments towards a more complex sound increasingly present since Final Fantasy X. Final Fantasy XII Original Soundtrack offers some exciting endeavors towards the series' new musical course, but not without making the listener wait or sometimes suffer for them.
Town and environment themes are a staple element of any RPG score and are possibly FFXII's strongest area. "Royal Capital Rabanastre ~ City Upper Ground" may not be as immediately catchy as an old-school FF town theme, but its subtle melding of lighthearted flute and plucked strings with regal undertones is no less endearing. "Rabanastre Downtown" loses the regal tone for a more pedestrian feel, which makes the New Age segment that comes at its peak all the more inspiring. The floaty melody and mellow wind and string instrumentation in "The Skycity of Bhujerba" perfectly convey its namesake atmosphere, and the highly charged brass and eccentric choral samples in "The Phon Coast" have a sci-fi feel perfect for recent Final Fantasies. It's impressive how tracks like these can portray a convincing fantasy world without the assistance of a single polygon or pixel.
Along with these varied exploration pieces are some simply beautiful compositions in the latter half of the soundtrack. "Time of Rest" and "An Hour of Rest" are as soothing as their titles would suggest, and the lead flute in "Eruyt Village" is beautiful to the point of virtuosity. But they pale in comparison to "To the Place of the Gods", an ethereal, mysterious piece with a climax that is indeed almost transcendental and takes its place among the Final Fantasy classics.
Another staple element of any RPG score is the battle music, and here once again FFXII excels, providing the series' most exciting suite of fighting themes since Final Fantasy VIII. Perhaps someone at Square realizes this, as they've provided teasers from two such themes ("The Strike of a Blade" and "Fight to the Death") in "Loop Demo" right at the beginning. In their full versions both are instrumental tours de force with rousing climaxes. Even better is "Boss Battle", which begins relatively subtly but is ragingly intense at its peak.
Although notable for its departure in style from early Final Fantasy soundtracks, FFXII does feature some throwbacks to classic series material, including a pleasingly mellow take on the chocobo theme and an exciting pseudo-orchestral version of Final Fantasy V's "Clash on the Big Bridge". Accompanying these are completely original themes that capture the classic Final Fantasy spirit without sounding dated or rehashed. "Clan Headquarters" is bouncy and upbeat but with classical sensibilities to boot. "Secret Practice" is lighthearted and just a tad zany, but without descending into childishness as recent similar efforts sometimes have.
While the more refined sound in FFXII is refreshing, sometimes it's subtle to a fault. "Symptoms of Change", for example, may make fine BGM for a dark, damp dungeon or an "ominous decision" scene, but it's easy to listen straight through without even noticing. Then there are tracks that are downright annoying, like the atonal and random "Abyss".
However the problem with FFXII is more a matter of multitude than of magnitude. As with many multi-disc RPG original soundtracks, FFXII has an excess of filler. Almost the entirety of disc 2 consists of tracks that though capably composed are boring. Disc 4 as well is consistently dull, with the exceptions of "The Cerobe Step" and the aforementioned "To the Place of the Gods". The longest tracks are generally the less eventful ones - "Theme of the Empire" doesn't make a strong enough statement to be a theme for anything, and "The Battle for Freedom" meanders about aimlessly until finally finding its course all too briefly at the climax.
Following their SNES heyday, Final Fantasy OSTs haven't been known for their sound quality, but FFXII takes a step towards remedying that. The brass instrument samples are much higher in quality than before, and the percussion is no less than masterful. Sakimoto perfectly implements rolling snares and plucked strings alongside less conventional instrumentation like the claps in "Rabanastre Downtown", which while not immediately noticeable add a certain amount of variety and character to the soundtrack. Nonetheless, as with Sakimoto's score to Final Fantasy Tactics, the synth instrumentation can become repetitive over prolonged listens. These compositions beg for a live orchestral performance and all the added detail that comes with it.
Final Fantasy XII Original Soundtrack has several truly outstanding tracks that deserve to be heard by series fans and non-fans alike, so it's a pity to see them diluted by such a large amount of filler. A single or double-disc best-of set would be ideal, and a symphonic suite arranged album would easily make for a classic. What we have for now, however, is this four-disc set, and for those that don't mind paying a small premium and wading through some excess, it's very much worth it to witness the most promising new development in Final Fantasy music in many years.