I awaited the soundtrack to Panzer Dragoon Orta about as eagerly as I once did for series such as Final Fantasy back in the day. Panzer Dragoon is in my mind the most musically exciting game series to come about since the onset of the 32-bit era. The series in many ways achieved new heights in its previous installment, "Azel: Panzer Dragoon RPG", and Orta carries on the tradition.
The distinctive style of Panzer Dragoon's action music - tribal-sounding fast-paced percussion and high-energy wind instruments, slightly synthetic brass and strings, and some purely synthetic accentuations - kicks in early on in the soundtrack in the second track "Dragonmares", although it doesn't reach true form until the following tracks "City in the Storm" and "Gigantic Fleet". In "Gigantic Fleet" in particular, the percussion and fast-paced, frenetic main melody (carried by a trademark PD synth-brass instrument) really make you feel like you're caught in the middle of a massive, raging battle.
Although the battle-like stage BGM and "Ancient Weapon" boss battle music are exciting in their uniquely Panzer Dragoon way, in an interesting turn for a shooting game soundtrack, the mellower pieces are the true stars of this soundtrack. The slightly ethnic style of instrumentation fits in perfectly with less frantic tracks like "Altered Genos", a new agey exploration piece with a nice wind solo in the lead, and especially "The Fallen Ground", which takes an even mellower approach and is quite pretty. I'll admit I've been spoiled by listening to these tracks with the accompaniment of the game's breathtaking visuals, but even with the Xbox turned off you can envision the exotic landscapes scrolling by as you listen to "The Fallen Ground". "Worm Riders" adds a sense of majesty to the mixture and "Iva" one of peace and solace. Both, although short, are magnificent for every second.
Starting from "Legacy", the soundtrack takes an increasingly low-key, ambient turn, which it doesn't kick out of until partway into "Imperial City". Also around this range, the music strolls further into electronic territory, with less emphasis on the tribal percussion and flutes and more on synth instrumentation. These tracks are interesting for what they are and it's nice to see the series not backing itself into a corner, however I personally prefer the more organic side of Panzer Dragoon. Thus the latter portion of Orta's music selection is a bit anti-climactic for me until the ending theme arrives.
Fortunately, as is the tradition with Panzer Dragoon soundtracks (particularly Azel), the ending theme is anything but anti-climactic. It follows Azel's ending theme's lead with PD-style percussion, beautiful, majestic live orchestration, and enrapturing, exotic solo female vocals. It doesn't quite match the triumph of Azel's ending (one of my all-time favorites), but it comes close enough to literally leave me still savoring its excellence on into the moments after the track has come to a close.
My only complaint with Orta's soundtrack is, as alluded, it's a bit on the synthy side. Granted, many of the synth-tinged instrument samples are what have given the PD series part of its distinctive flavor since Zwei, and there are times (such as a cool little pure-synth segue midway through "Ancient Weapon 2") where they do serve the soundtrack optimally. However, the percussion, flute instruments, and brass, although capably rendered by the soundtrack's sound engineers, would be absolutely mind-blowing in live instrumental form. That the series hasn't yet accomplished this level of greatness - perfection, really - is my only disappointment.
As a special bonus to buyers of the domestic release, TokyoPop has included one standout selection from each of the three prior Panzer Dragoon games. These are truly a treat for new PD fans who didn't experience the Sega Saturn entries or their soundtracks, as the selections from the original Panzer Dragoon and from Azel are two of the most stirring closing/ending themes I've ever heard, PD in its somber beauty and Azel in its majesty. (Even as I write this review I still finding myself turning the volume up several notches when Azel's ending theme comes on.) The track from Zwei is a bit of a letdown in that it is the only extra selection to not feature dramatic live orchestration, but still it's a good track with a catchy lead melody in its own right.
Panzer Dragoon Orta doesn't quite match the very high expectations I had for the series' first post-Saturn installment, however it doesn't disappoint either. Pretty much everything Azel did right Orta does as well, there's just not as much of it to choose from, as Azel was a two-disc set. I'm still eagerly awaiting the day when a PD soundtrack uses live instrumentation liberally instead of saving it for the grand finale, but for fans of the series like myself and those who don't mind a bit of synthiness in their OSTs, Orta somehow manages to offer more of the often captivating, always unique sound the series is known for, without ever sounding like a rehash. It's almost worth purchase for the ending theme alone, and the several other standout tracks from Orta, along with the domestic release's addition of must-hear selections from the other games in the series, make the deal even sweeter. Bring on the next in the series!