Noriyuki Iwadare captured my ears, mind, and heart with his masterful composition of Grandia. The themes were memorable, very enthusiastic, and the translation of the large sound played by a full orchestra to the game was made flawlessly. Could he repeat this feat with Grandia II? Well, that depends on what you like in Grandia's music.
Grandia II ~A Deus~ is a single-disc compilation of original tracks from the Dreamcast game Grandia II. Being a huge fan of Iwadare and his work with Lunar and Grandia, I snapped this CD up as soon as I could find it, so I am reviewing it without the context of the game. However, the feel of the CD is similar enough to the original Grandia that it was not difficult to pick out which music matched with what event.
It's a little unfortunate that the track list is incomplete (there are 22 tracks). There seems to be a multitude of excellent tunes in the game, and it's possible that some of them were skipped over. Fortunately, another Grandia II soundtrack CD is available which should cover these missing holes.
The first track is an introduction with a beautiful arrangement of the original Grandia's main theme, which will bring up nostalgia in anyone with a familiarity of the game. The second track, titled "Opening Act", presents a full statement of the Grandia II Main Theme for the first time. This is a very promising theme and it has a lot of potential, as its composition rivals the original Grandia's main theme. The only problem is that there's a bit of a quirk in the middle of the track that serves as a transition into a llighthearted march, then twists into a little bit of a rock song. I suppose that this is the way the introduction goes, but it's a little disheartening to hear the grand statement of the Grandia II Main Theme suddenly cut short. Yet, it's also refreshing because it gives a rather good statement of Grandia II in two and a half minutes. Ignoring the sometimes odd transitions from one theme to another, if you like this track, then it gives you a pretty good indication of whether or not you like the music of the game.
There are a great number of tracks that are a refreshing throwback to the original themes in Grandia. These tracks are among the gems of the CD: they retain the sound and feel of the original game while adding something new to the realm. In this respect, Iwadare is great; he has you thinking that this *is* Grandia, while still offering something rich and new. The third track, with its mixture of kettle drum and bass guitar, instantly has you thinking of the streets of Parm. The ninth track, a victory march, is very similar to Grandia's original victory march. Track 11 is a reminder of the dungeon crawling theme "Dom Ruins". Track 14 follows in the ambient style of "Ghost Ship". Track 16, which has a native African feel, is one of those cultural town pieces that Iwadare composed so well in the original Grandia ("Jil Padon", "Dwight Village"). And, in a very welcome cameo, the theme from "Sea Cat Lilly" makes it to the CD with a few upbeat variations that take nothing away from the whimsical tune.
An interesting listen are some of the battle themes. Track 7, appropriately labelled "Dangerous Zone", starts off with a harpsichord solo, then leaps into a loud, chordal pop-rock rendition full of electric guitar and percussion, which really has you in a tense, apprehensive mode. The battle theme, which seems to have received some inspiration from Capcom's Megaman games (not necessarily a bad thing), is a complex polyphonic tune with some good electric guitar and a very catchy theme played by chines and synthesizer. There leaves no doubt that there is a large pop influence in this game, and fortunately, a lot of it leans toward the "good" than the bad.
Although all of the above tracks definitely keep a "Grandia" feel, there is one critical thing missing that really solidified my love of the first Grandia, and that is the grand, large feel of orchestrated music. You will notice two things after listening to the first two tracks. One, the band is much smaller in Grandia II. In an interview with Iwadare and Nishi (found on http://www.studentadvantage.gamers.com/framelink/288957), both state that "Grandia II uses a much smaller orchestra, which gives the music a pop influence which wasn't in the original". Since I am a fan of symphonic music (such as works by Beethoven or in game music, the legendary Koichi Sugiyama, composer of Dragon Quest), Grandia's symphonies were an absolute pleasure to listen to, and it is regretful that Iwadare chose to go for more of a chamber feel for Grandia II. However, this is only a personal opinion of mine. There are certainly tracks worthy of an orchestra, such as the Grandia II main theme, and it is unfortunate that a few exceptions couldn't have been made for these themes. Maybe the lovers of orchestra will still get what they want and see a Grandia II orchestrated version!
The second thing you will notice about Grandia is that quality of some of the samples are questionable. They don't sound bad, but many samples, such as the woodwinds, have a "synthy" sound. Now, this is understood in the tracks which use electric guitar or are supposed to have a pop influence, but in tracks like track 15 that are composed in symphonic style, the synthesizer quality of the samples is gratingly obvious. I haven't played enough Dreamcast to know if it is a limitation of the machine (many of the other samples, such as the large multitude of percussion instruments and electric guitar, sound just fine), or simply a consequence of awkward sound engineering. It seems to me that it is more a consequence of the latter than the former, as there are a few samples that exist on the CD that sound marvellous. Listen for the violin solo midway through track 22, then scratch your head and wonder why the rest of the violins weren't done just as well. Perhaps this is why the sound of Grandia II isn't as big as Grandia I - the samples just don't sound right.
I cannot finish this review without mentioning the vocal piece and the CD's namesake, "A Deus". Sung in Portugese, the song has a very serene, ethereal quality that makes it sound ancient. The female singer (whose name I cannot locate on the CD cover) has a calming and yet eerie quality to her voice. In the interview referred above, Nishi says that he was looking for a song with an ancient quality, and I think "A Deus" is a perfect match.
My negative comments about the sequel stem from the fact that it took away some of my favorite aspects from the original game, the large sound of the orchestra and its complex symphonic quality. However, the CD has some great tracks, and they fall alongside the feel of the synthesized tracks from the original Grandia perfectly. If you enjoyed the non-orchestrated tracks of the first game, then Grandia II is certainly worth it. For everyone else, you may wish to give the game a try first to see how the themes attach to you, or wait for a Grandia II symphonic version to come out. Now *that* would be something to grab right away.