Nine years ago, at the age of 20, Yasunori Mitsuda got his start at Square doing sound effects for the Koichi Sugiyama-composed Hanjuko Hero. Three years later, he worked alongside Nobuo Uematsu in his highly-lauded debut soundtrack for the game Chrono Trigger. Yoshitaka Hirota tread a similar path, originally working the sound effects for Final Fantasy VII. Four years later, the former sound effects engineer scores his first video game composition alongside Mitsuda in the dark Sacnoth RPG Shadow Hearts. As it turns out, Hirota's unique soundtrack stands alongside Mitsuda's as one of the best debuts by a composer in any video game to date.
Shadow Hearts, as its name might imply, presents itself as one of the darkest video game soundtracks of all time, up there with Vagrant Story and ambient-horror scores like Silent Hill. Most tracks on the soundtrack have a heavy industrial rock/techno sound, with strong use of percussion and occasionally interspersed thematic material. The sound quality is some of the best yet heard in a video game, using the highest quality synths and, often, live instruments. It stands as perhaps the best example of the PS2's sound capabilities heard thus far. Most of the tracks only loop once, but few feel as if they need to be any longer.
The music isn't overly thematic in its approach. Rather, it exudes a strong narrative feel, with each track fitting perfectly in the overall structure of the soundtrack. The game itself is set in parts of Europe and mainland China, which is reflected in the score itself. The Asian influences can be felt through much of the first disc. Most strongly emphasized throughout the soundtrack are the masterfully used percussive and electronic effects. It's hard to recall offhand any other soundtrack which uses percussion as often or as well as Shadow Hearts. This adds greatly to the narrative feel of the soundtrack, conveying sights and sounds despite being utterly separated from the game's visuals. One of the best examples of this is the aptly named "City", which adds a percussive loop beneath a funky, jazzy beat, perfectly evoking the sounds of the city.
Mitsuda's tracks blend in surprisingly well with Hirota's compositions. In his ten tracks, he adopts the same darkly ambient, industrial sound and occasional Asian influences, though he does leave the expected hints as to which compositions are his own. Careful listening and a decent knowledge of his style and instrumental preferences should be enough to single out his music from Hirota's, though it does take a little work.
Thematic moments in the soundtrack are often purposely understated. The track "ALICE" is one of the strongest and most heart-rending of these passages. It adopts a music box approach throughout the composition, with slow, mid-range strings perfectly augmenting the hopeful, yet dark tones of the composition. A solo violin joins in, bringing leading the piece to a quiet, beautiful climax. Another equally stunning reprise of this theme is heard a few tracks later, and stands as one of the most memorable moments in any soundtrack to be released so far in 2001.
The track that perhaps melds the contrasting thematic and industrial styles best is the beautifully oppressive "Castle of Silence". This theme begins with a flowing synth-wind effect, slowly followed by a choir and solo violin. Percussive, electronic forces slowly force their way to the forefront, joined soon thereafter by a cello and the same choir that started the piece. It makes for a wonderfully dark feel and must work wonders with the game's visuals.
As unique as the soundtrack itself are the track names and CD case. The CDs are set in a book-like cover reminiscent of the packaging of Soul Calibur's soundtrack. Inside are seemingly random pictures of different locales, many of which likely have little to do with the game itself. On the later pages come the liner notes themselves, exhibiting one of the strangest track lists in any video game thus far. Among the colorful titles are "Beltconveyor for Killers", "Coffin Fetish", "Callback from Jesus" and perhaps strangest of all, "Sicking Fucking."
The Shadow Hearts soundtrack finds itself near the top of my list of the most unique, rewarding soundtracks of all time. For anyone with an interest in something fresh and different in a video game score, this is exactly what you might be looking for. Both Hirota and Mitsuda have done a masterful job composing a deep score that doubtlessly fits its equally dark game perfectly. Hopefully, this debut won't get lost in the hype surrounding a certain Final Fantasy game just recently released. One can only hope that Hirota's future projects are this inspired.