Monolith Soft's epic, groundbreaking JRPG Xenoblade is blessed with an equally outstanding soundtrack, contributed by two veterans and some newcomers. Comprised of 91 tracks over four discs, the creative forces involved have spared no expense in providing this score all the depth, richness, and texture that fans nowadays demand of such ambitious projects.
The hauntingly gorgeous title track which opens the score, penned by Kingdom Hearts veteran Yoko Shimomura, provides an auspicious tone to what promises to be a grand adventure. (Perhaps coincidentally, the song will remind many of "Dearly Beloved" from Kingdom Hearts.) Highlighted by a wondrous-sounding piano motif and a violin solo, this massively rendered central theme (which also doubles as a love theme for protagonists Shulk and Fiora) milks every second of its nearly four-minute running time with dynamic range and with inspiring passion. This and Shimomura's other compositions only makes up about twelve percent of the soundtrack, but even so, they showcase the composer at her best. "Hometown" in particular is a standout, with its gentle background guitar and subdued tapping percussion providing a welcome contrast to the more bombastic "prologue" tracks which follow the main theme.
The real attention-grabber of the score is how each area is provided with a "daytime" and "nighttime" version of its chosen motif. This is noticeable beginning with "Hometown / Night", which cleverly reprises the theme heard in its predecessor at a slower tempo and with reduced orchestration. Following this approach for all the areas has a potential danger for tediousness, but Xenoblade steers around this problem by providing just enough variation to make the two arrangements of each stage stand out. "Colony 9", to give another example, has a thumping, percussive tempo in its daytime version, while its nighttime version isn't just a slower reprise, but is transposed by several octaves and performed in a style that recalls Hiroki Kikuta's guitar work for Secret of Mana.
The other famous name in the soundtrack is Yasunori Mitsuda, whose soundtracks for Chrono Trigger and Xenogears remain classics to this day. Here he contributes to one of the highlights of the soundtrack, the ending song "Beyond the Sky." Sarah Lim's soft, lyrical voice beautifully compliments the pop-style orchestration, rendering the sometimes awkward-sounding lyrics into something truly engaging. The piano-guitar-snare accompaniment is icing on the cake.
As great as Shimomura and Mitsuda's efforts are, the compositions by Manami Kubota and ACE+ (Tomori Kudo, Chiko Yamanaka, and Kenji Hiramatsu), which make up the bulk of the soundtrack, are often the ones that really stick with you. Much of the credit for the area songs goes to these guys. With themes ranging from rousing ("Gaur Plain", "To The Final Battle"), to majestically grand ("Alcamoth"), to soft and soothing ("Valak Mountain", "Agni Ratha", "Eryth Sea"), to primitive ("Makna Woods" and "Frontier Village"), the spectrum is impressive, and even the interlude songs are no less creative.
The battle themes boast similar variety and style. With aggressive energy and a gritty edge, ACE+ tracks like "You Will Know Our Names", "Searching Glance", "Crisis", "Pursuit of the Enemy", and "Into the World of Zanza" all succeed in conveying danger, determination, and dread. Other tracks like "Engage the Enemy" and "Tragic Decision" have a more melancholy feel, while later bits like "Mechanical Rhythm" and "Irregular Bound" have wild electric guitar solos that sometimes border on dissonance but are fitting nonetheless. Kubota, while mostly responsible for event/cinema tracks and a few stages, gets her chance to display an aggressive edge with her two battle tracks, delivering a chanting chorus and throbbing electric guitar for "Zanza", and the more symphonic but no less powerful "God-Slaying Sword".
While listeners of game soundtracks may say that the "event" tracks are not generally the standouts of a JRPG score, Xenoblade strives to break that stereotype. One standout in particular is the thunderous "Awakening of Bionis" - with its choral chanting and organ-driven second half, this track is attention-grabbing and effective. Only in character themes is Xenoblade deficient, in number at least. Aside from the aforementioned "Shulk and Fiora", there is "Riki the Legendary Heropon", with its goofy-sounding melody and intentionally quirky instrumentation, and a dark, moody theme for Egil, which starts with grumbling bass instruments before delving into a sort of minimalistic style. It's one of the least engaging themes, but hardly a detriment.
All in all, the praise heaped among Xenoblade's score is well-deserved. It's hard exactly to say where in the ranks of great achievements in game music that Xenoblade stands, but it's easily up there. It's also a rarity to find a soundtrack album released for any Nintendo-published game, aside from the occasional "exclusive" from Club Nintendo, so it's pleasing to see Xenoblade receive the full treatment. With its mixture of young and old providing a breath of fresh air throughout, Xenoblade ranks not only as one of the best scores of 2010, but as a new contender among the best game soundtracks ever made.