The anticipated follow-up album in the Final Fantasy XI Star Onions series, "Sanctuary", shares the same general source of music as its predecessor, and that's about all. Almost entirely gone are the jazz-fusion guitars and synth of the first album, replaced by a more organic ensemble of violins, flute, accordion and more.
One thing that can certainly be said of Sanctuary is it's more consistent than its predecessor. Though the jazz fusion and the piano arrangements of the first album played well off each other, a couple of misguided efforts like the Final Fantasy V Dear Friends'esque "Awakening" and the contemporary gospel "Blessed in Her Glorious Light" gave it a slightly haphazard edge. In contrast, Sanctuary wisely sticks with the same rich instrumental pallet throughout most of its duration.
The problem lies in the source compositions, which are painfully predictable. Even tracks like "Voyager", which sound quite pleasant on first exposure, grow trite and tiresome by their first repetition. "Faded Memories" doesn't even take that long - it manages to bore only 30 seconds in, still halfway through its main melody. (The second half is so similar to the first it makes little difference.) The slower the tempo the more noticeable the simplicity of the compositions - the plodding melody in "Griffons Never Die" brings to mind the image of a tyke pecking away a newly learned melody on his first keyboard.
Of the tracks that hold true to the album's signature quaint, serene style, "Mhaura" and "Gustaberg" best manage to maintain interest. The main melody in Mhaura - though a bit on the sappy side - doesn't go to the same extreme as some of the other themes in the album (particularly Uematsu's "Distant Worlds"), and a slightly dark refrain helps keep it in check. Gustaberg comes the closest to inspiring, falling just short at its conclusion and let down by an arrangement that gives precedent to the flute, when a more expressive rendition by violins could have potentially taken the rising main melody to its highest level. (Incidentally it's the only track composed by Kumi Tanioka over album mainstay Naoshi Mizuta.)
"Fighters of the Crystal" and "Rapid Onslaught" at least up the tempo for a bit of variety, even if the themes themselves are not that much more memorable than their counterparts. Rapid Onslaught even boasts a bit of funk electric guitar, an addition that will have returning Star Onions fans looking back fondly on the flawed but still somewhat more interesting first album. A refreshingly dark intro in "Xarcabard" distinguishes that arrangement, before it resorts to its original melody and the soundtrack's usual repetitive antics.
The only truly impressive track is "Wings of the Goddess", which again merges the electric guitar of the first Star Onions with the strings and flute of this second one. The main melody itself is still on the simple side, but thanks to a funky beat, that touch of electric guitar, and an enormously catchy string chorus, the arrangement makes for almost as much fun as "Metalworks" from the first Star Onions.
There's little faulting the arrangements for Final Fantasy 11 The Star Onions ~Sanctuary~, other than that they fail to compensate for the weakness of the source compositions. For listeners who from repeated exposure to the game are already fond of the original melodies, and aren't expecting the same upbeat, slightly funky interpretation of the first Star Onions album, the lush instrumentation here is bound to impress. But newcomers are unlikely to find enough substance under the initially impressive instrumental makeover for the album to hold interest.