The quality of Sony/MediaVision's game Wild Arms took me quite by surprise in every judgeable category. But with its welcome mix of rich PCM sound quality and live orchestral, choral, and acoustic arrangements, nothing was more surprising than the music.
Wild Arms offers a sublime setting of Japanese fantasy-RPG melodic sensibilities within the distinctive rhythms and arrangements of the old American frontier. This fusion is exemplified perfectly by the opening track, "To the Edge of Wilderness". This strong - if typical - Japanese "fantasy epic" melody is made fresh and interesting by the unabashedly western arrangement, with live whistling, acoustic guitar, bass, and snare roll. Most of the game PCM tracks reveal similar stylization. "Rody's Companions" in particular catches the ear, with a stirringly triumphant, intense melody backed by a techno-meter ensconced western snare rhythm.
This soundtrack isn't just about tweaking echoes of Americana though. Composer Michiko Naruke exhibits an exceptional compositional talent, not only in the way she seamlessly integrates the brash, lively sound of the Wild West into wonderfully epic and truly memorable melodies, but also in the impressive array of other styles she wields. The beautiful flute folk melodies of "Village of the Elw" and "Adlehyde", the sinister techno groove of "Knight Quarters" with laid-back acoustic guitar, and the RPG-staple symphonic rock of the battle music bear this versatility ample witness. Nearly every track on the CD is a treat.
All the credit can't go to Naruke however. Kazuhiko Toyama does a commendable job of arranging the game's live instrumental pieces. The prologue music "Clash and a Promise" especially excels. The poignant opening piano melody crystallised by a piercing acoustic guitar is injected with dramatic urgency by the bass and percussion, and concludes with a round of unsettling, sacred chanting. Another stand-out is the haunting, dignified, and yet romantically-tinged "Funeral March" for choir and orchestra.
Unfortunately, this CD has two flaws that bear mention. Less serious of the two, some of the tracks sound different on the CD than they do in the game. Specifically, the extremely cool and realistic blaring trumpet - used to great effect in songs like "Bravery" (a rearrangement of the main theme) and the overworld theme - has been replaced with a decidedly un-brassy, anemic mute trumpet that almost sounds like a cheesy synthesized flute. This not only weakens the impact of the songs, but also detracts from the western
motif. Bass output also seems to have been toned down from the game. Neither of these should be taken as dissuasions of purchase though, as they're ultimately minor nitpicks.
What may give some pause is the CD's glaring, nigh unforgivable blemish. Just over half of the game's score is included here, as the 60-some original tracks have been mercilessly pared down to a mere 36. Obviously, this game was screaming for a double CD set, but apparently Sony was just too cheap to go all the way and release one. Furthermore, it's nowhere near the case that we got only the "good" tracks; many of the best PCM and live pieces have been cruelly neglected. And a few weak tracks, such as the musically uninteresting "Cold Darkness" cave theme and the tiresome wedding ceremony theme, have instead been given inexplicable CD presence.
Were this a complete collection, "Wild Arms Original Soundtrack" would be as highly recommended as music can possibly be. The score in its entirety is of such boundless versatility and intricate composition quality that I place it among my top game soundtracks of all time - certainly higher than Final Fantasy VII. While the CD release doesn't achieve quite the same greatness as the full game soundtrack, it is still a very worthwhile purchase for the exemplary music that is included, and it is a fair enough representation of the game as a whole. Most especially, it is an extremely promising sign of great things to come from composer Michiko Naruke.