Final Fantasy XI Chains of Promathia Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
The soundtrack to the second extension to Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XI Chains of Promathia, differed in two major ways from its predecessors. As Square Enix could not afford the expenditure of a synthesizer operator on the project, Mizuta was left to his own resources to sequence the music resulting in a substantial blow in sound quality. The music also took an even more ambient and subdued approach than previous soundtracks for the most part. This can be attributed to the storyline focus of the game and the introduction of mostly gloomy new areas. Together, these changes meant that the Final Fantasy XI Chains of Promathia Original Soundtrack initially alienated even many of the fans of the first two soundtracks, including me. Over three years on, did it deserve the criticism levelled against it?
The setting themes for the extension mostly take a different approach to their predecessors. In "Faded Memories - Promyvion", a haunting soundscape creates powerful imagery of the insidious emptiness integral to Chains of Promathia's plot; a dim piano and celesta play a slow melody echoed beautifully by synth vocals, supported by warped synth pads representing a distant menace. "Moblin Menagerie - Movalpolis", in contrast, melds playful calypso-flavoured tuned percussion melodies with an electronic bass line; this is the first time in the series that Mizuta has used an electronic instrument but it works well to create a catchy and cheesy composition. The habanera bass line of "Words Unspoken - Pso'Xja" support drab and slow-developing treble lines to appropriately depict exploration of underground ruins. Towards the end of the soundtrack, "The Celestial Capital - Al'Taieu" and "Gates of Paradise - The Garden of Ru'Hmet" revisit the soundscapes of Promyvion to represent the ruined capital city of the Zilart. The former is relatively comforting and meditative during its massive playtime, whereas the latter presents an instantly unsettling ostinati construct for the final towers of the game.
Still, not everything about the stylistic approach to the setting themes is different. Elegant and contemplative, "Currents of Time" follows the examples of "Mhaura" and "Grav'iton" by combining flute melodies and acoustic guitar accompaniment to portray the Manaclipper. "The Forgotten City - Tavnazian Safehold" uses a similar construct to Rise of the Zilart's "Altepa Desert" but creates a rather different atmosphere; the elevated oboe melodies and unchanging basso ostinato portray a resting place from the beastmen. Probably the strongest piece of all is "A New Horizon - Tavnazian Archipelago", an exhaustively developed woodwind-based theme that finely accompanies the forgotten isles off the west coast of Phon. Also of note, the bonus track on the soundtrack is a performance of "Gustaberg" from the first soundtrack by the original Star Onions quartet (Kumi Tanioka and Hidenori Iwasaki on keyboards, Naoshi Mizuta on bass, Tsuyoshi Sekito on acoustic guitar). Warmth and exoticism radiates through this conventional arrangement despite the poor sound quality. This piece will forever endear most that listen to it.
There are plenty of action themes in this soundtrack. Probably the strongest of the bunch is "Onslaught", which is reminiscent of the battle themes from its predecessors with its bold trumpet melodies and epic interludes, but also individualised with distinctive flute trills. The rhythmically focused "Depths of the Soul" combines a heavy string bass and brass melodies constructed from brisk anacrusi leading into suspended notes. "Dusk and Dawn" takes a similar approach but at a slow cinematic pace, though occasionally comes across cheesy due to the triplets being resolved on inappropriate notes. Uncertainty is produced in "Turmoil" with the combination of string crisis motifs and exotic percussion within a variable metre, while "The Ruler of the Skies" uses a similar motif in a slow malevolent context. Finally, the two tracks titled "Conflict..." are completely different from other music featured in the series. Both use catchy bass guitar riffs, string punctuation, and fun but horribly synthesized saxophone melodies. The development of "Conflict: March of the Hero" is especially impressive.
There are more event themes here than previous soundtracks due to the integration of five odes into the storyline. With "First Ode: Nocturne of the Gods", Mizuta arranges the "Recollection" theme from the first soundtrack in a simple touching manner for piano. The theme is used again in "Second Ode: Distant Promises", presented by a resonant cello, and the related "Memoro de la S^tono" reappears in "Third Ode: Memoria de la S^tono", a brief but dramatic orchestral arrangement. "Fourth Ode: Clouded Dawn" and "Fifth Ode: A Time for Prayer" are well-developed original compositions, revisiting the soundscapes of "Faded Memories - Promyvion" and "Currents of Time" respectively. The third Vana'diel march opens this soundtrack in the vibrant and expressive "Unity", though it is let down slightly by the synth of the trumpet melodies. The classically-oriented pseudo-resolution "Happily Ever After" is actually placed in the middle of the soundtrack so disrupts the flow slightly. In contrast, "A New Morning" solidly concludes the dramatic arch despite the true ending theme "Distant Worlds" being written after the soundtrack's release.
The Final Fantasy XI Chains of Promathia Original Soundtrack stands with its predecessors as an excellent in-game accompaniment. The change of approach to the game inevitably affects the soundtrack's accessibility and it takes a long time for listeners to familiarise with the soundtrack. After all, it is prone to very ambient drawn-out tracks, regular interruptions by event themes, and fairly generic action themes. However, it is still fascinating on a stand-alone level due to how Mizuta deals with areas like Promyvion and Al'Taieu. In combination with the emotional and nostalgic event pieces, the more predictable setting and battle themes, and the novel approaches to the Movalpolis and "Conflict..." tracks, this ensures a worthwhile listen. The main disappointments here are the occasionally grating synth use and the inevitable omission of the final battle theme and ending themes. Given that this is probably the least accessible Final Fantasy XI soundtrack, it may be worthwhile buying the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Premium Box for those interested instead.
Overall Score: 7/10