No substitute for the classic original soundtrack, but an interesting alternative.
Editor's review by Adam Corn (2010-08-27)
The producers of Panzer Dragoon Zwei: Alternative Elements chose a fitting name for their arranged album. It's very much an alternate take on the classic original soundtrack, on some occasions coming across as better than the original, on others worse, but in most cases essentially offering something different.
The arrangements generally take one of two directions - either the synthetic orchestral approach found quite often in game music, or an 80s New Wave synth approach somewhat less common.
To begin with the bad, the five "synthonic" orchestral arrangements mostly feel flat and lifeless compared to their more electronic original versions. "Bondage ~Main Theme~" begins the album on a sour note, the arrangement losing the spirit and vitality of the game's main theme while the synth orchestra can't manage the bombast attempted. "The Empire" and "Conclusion" similarly strive for a sense of orchestral bombast, and while the latter track is at least a bit more focused than its OST version, the plodding tempo and lazily arranged, one-note finale of "The Empire" are downright anemic. "The Great Ravine" may not have had one of the most enrapturing melodies of the OST but it at least had some interesting synth and percussion, both of which have been lost in the rather generic orchestral version here.
The bright spot among the synth orchestral tracks is "Flight". An arrangement from the conceptual state forward, it replaces the prominent percussion and distinct electronic instrumentation of the ambient original with soft synth strings, woodwinds and harp for a more romantic, natural sound. It's only faintly similar to its original version but makes for one of the more successful experiments on the album, and the best of the orchestral attempts by far.
Fortunately the seven synth-focused, sometimes New Wave-inspired arrangements fare much better than the mock orchestral ones, even if they aren't always a clear improvement on the OST. The classic opening stage theme "Destiny Begins" is mostly similar to its original version, except for punchier percussion and bass and a more uplifting, New Age feel to its chorus synth. As in the original, the main melody meanders about a bit but the more focused chorus excites. "Forest of Taboo" intersperses segments of the original version with a simple new synth melody and slightly syncopated beats. The combination of old and new feels just the slightest bit disjointed at first when compared to the excellent original, but the optimistic lead flute melody is no less endearing when it appears here. "Ruins" is the stage theme that best manages to improve upon its OST version while staying mostly true in style. A grooving bassline and slightly simplified melody give the piece a more focused, contemporary sound than the hyperactive original, with the New Wave synth offering a few cool effects to boot.
The remaining synth tracks provide a more drastically different experience from their original versions. The album's almost relaxing take on "Rando Doura" marks a complete contrast to the feverish, suspenseful original. "Unexpected Enemy" drops the heavy, heartbeat-like pounding, progressive synth, and overall suspense of the original version for a light drum march and cheerful synth trumpet and flute. The arrangement for "Sea of Ice" takes the opposite direction - though the lead melody mostly adheres to the original, a grinding synth guitar, resounding bell tolls, and a more cohesive arrangement give this version more weight.
The arrangers saved the best for last with "Reminiscence", which is actually closer in spirit to the OST's optimistic "Lagi and Lundi" than the poignant track it's named after. It takes the New Wave influence found in other parts of the album to its most unabashed extreme with a high-energy, driving bassline and crystalline lead synth. The sound is akin to the band Dead or Alive's classic "You Spin Me Round", but with an instrumental of the endearing Zwei theme in place of that pop track's quirky vocals. It's hard to imagine this type of arrangement working for a majority of the album, but as an accessible, enjoyable closing track it makes what might have been a questionable arranged album an overall worthy effort.
Despite the mostly high quality of the arrangements, one major issue cements Alternate Elements' place as a compliment to the original soundtrack rather than a substitute. Three of the very best tracks from the original are completely absent - the ambient "An Attack from Darkness" and the boss battle themes "The Empire's Giant Carrier" and "Hanuman". It's a shame these tracks didn't make it, as the New Wave and New Age elements in the album could have made interesting arrangements of all three, and Panzer Dragoon Zwei's soundtrack is a much lesser experience without them.
The arranged album for Zwei reminds me in ways of Chrono Trigger Brink of Time and Final Fantasy VI Grand Finale. Some arrangements stay close in spirit to their original versions while others take more risks; the results are mixed and I would expect the fan reaction to be mixed as well. On the whole Panzer Dragoon Zwei Alternative Elements doesn't match its classic original soundtrack, but as an alternate take dabbling in a genre not entirely common in video game music, it's an admirable effort and worthy of consideration.