With the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack being largely a success, and with the game itself continuing to progress, add-on soundtracks were always on the cards. The first add-on was entitled Final Fantasy XI Rise of the Zilart, and Naoshi Mizuta was given license to express himself more freely in its Original Soundtrack, with Square Enix deciding not enlist the services of Nobuo Uematsu and Kumi Tanioka to assist him. Whether or not this was a good move on their part will be discussed throughout this review. Many people were critical of Mizuta for his work on the first soundtrack because his composition was so variable. Sometimes his composition would be sublime, yet it would be damn near awful at others. Unfortunately, this is just something that comes part and parcel with Mizuta, and you have to weigh the good with the bad.
The first piece on this album is one of Mizuta's better pieces. It is a piece of music that accompanies a colloquial coastal village called "Kazham," which is buzzing with life, and I think he captures this very well. The instrumentation is selected with precision, and everything about the piece just seems to work, from the ostinato, to the main melody. There is also enough diversity in the chord changes and melody to keep the ostinato flowing, even though it continues throughout the whole piece. This recipe seems to be used a lot of tracks to follow, but it doesn't always turn out as favourable.
The next piece on the album, "Yuhtunga Jungle," is more down to interpretation though. Mizuta sticks with the ongoing ostinato, but this time he uses a more ethnic feel to suit the setting of a jungle. Most of the instrumentation is fine, but I feel the main melody might have sounded better if they were on a stronger sounding instrument. The ostinato does appear to drag on though, and the inclusion of different sections unfortunately doesn't always help to overshadow its repetitive nature.
Having said that, I feel that Mizuta does well considering the scenarios he has to work with. The majority of the situation pieces that he has composed suit the area that they are intended for. Yes, pieces like "Raboa," "Altepa Desert," and "Tu'Lia" might not sound all that fantastic on their own, but in context to the game, the music plays in relatively mundane boring places. "Ro'Maeve" and "Ve'Lugannon Palace," in particular, are very serene places, and a brash piece of music would have been way off key for both of these places. Much the same also applies to "Grav'iton," which uses an refreshing ostinato like many of Mizuta's works, with some nice melodic tones to keep the listening experience pleasurable.
The rest of the soundtrack mainly focuses on specific events, with the inclusion of new battle music for different situations. "Battle Theme #3" continues on the same trends that Mizuta set when he composed the battle music originally, but "Battle in the Dungeon #3" seems a bit more upbeat than previous instalments of a similar format. "Tough Battle #2," however, seems more experimental, and I am not all that convinced by how it has been composed. Usually Mizuta is praised for his good selection of instruments, but in this case I feel that he could have done better. The ostinato just seems out of place when put in context to the rest of the piece, and I feel he could have done much more with it. Overall, it is not a very impressive piece.
There are a few pieces of music that accompany cinematic events and they actually perform quite well. "Fighters of the Crystal" does generally create a sense of panic, which is its intention and "Eald'narche" certainly does depict a lot of uncertainty, which is perfect for the representation of this character. A mention should also be made for the reprise of the Chocobo theme in "Dash of Chocobo," which makes an appearance on this album in a nice new acoustic guitar-led form, which includes much more of a rhythmic quality than previously seen.
Mizuta actually performs quite well for this soundtrack, with "The Sanctuary of Zi'Tah" being a particularly notable blessing in disguise. The majority of the music that he composed does the job it was intended to do, but sometimes this isn't always enough when producing a mainstream video game music soundtrack. I feel that Mizuta used an ostinato far too much, with the majority of his pieces focusing on one. Ironically, when he didn't use one, he produced the best track on the album, so perhaps there is a lesson to be learnt there. The absence of Tanioka and Uematsu certainly made the album less diverse, but it remains more than satisfying without them.
The Final Fantasy XI franchise has been updated with new extensions approximately every 18 months by Hiromichi Tanaka's third Square Enix production team. The first extension Final Fantasy XI Rise of the Zilart revealed new areas and developed a plot concerning the intention of two Zilart princes attempting to become Gods. Naoshi Mizuta returned to single-handedly create around 20 new pieces of music to accompany the new areas, events, action sequences, mini-games, etc. Working closely with synthesizer operators Ryo Yamazaki, Hidenori Iwasaki, and Hirosato Noda, he set out to produce a high-quality acoustic soundtrack displaying many continuities with its predecessor.
Opening with a lively number, "Kazham" portrays a jungle paradise city introduced to the expansion. A brisk acoustic guitar ostinato gives rise to finely synthesized woodwind melodies that give a hint of the unfamiliar. The theme comes together very well, featuring many beautiful moments and sustaining a motivating drive. "Yuhtunga Jungle" finely portrays the tonberry-infested jungle that blankets Kazham's landscape. Focus is placed on a catchy ethnic-influenced bass riff that punctuates a slow developing ethnic flute melody. The rhythm perfectly sets the pace of the exploration while the lengthy development represents its vastness. However, those who found "Castle Zvahl" to be mind-numbingly long in the main soundtrack may find the 8:16 playtime obnoxious. In parallel, the reedy woodwind melodies and rustic guitar of "Rabao" capture one's contentment at the desert oasis. However, "Altepa Desert" is much more exhaustive, mostly featuring enigmatic cor anglais melodies against a barren marimba ostinato to accompany wandering through the enormous surrounding expanse.
Music sets a duality of moods in the grotto town "Norg" with inquisitive jazz-influenced clarinet primary melodies leading to a dusky secondary section. "Ro'Maeve" asserts a fascinating musical identity by contrasting smooth woodwind melodies with a detached accompaniment composed of pizzicato strings and muted acoustic guitar chords. The chorale "Hall of the Gods" is one of the few pieces to deviate from the acoustic soundscape of the soundtrack, depicting the resting place before the ascent into the floating island. "Tu'Lia" perfectly depicts this setting with feathery soundscapes and minimalistic accompaniment while "Ve'Lugannon Palace" asserts a serene spiritual identity at the Gate of the Gods located there; neither piece is particularly dazzling on a stand-alone basis but they are nevertheless two of the finest scene setters of the franchise. Arguably the gem of the soundtrack, "The Sanctuary of Zi'Tah" beautifully portrays a crystal-enlightened forest during its extensive fluid development; it notably deviates from Mizuta's ostinato-based approach in favour of a more dynamic acoustic guitar accompaniment.
The battle scenes for this extension are accompanied by a healthy variety of new themes. "Battle Theme #3" is reminiscent of other normal battle themes featuring resolute brass melodies, bold string accompaniment, and an especially dark interlude. Using similar instrumentation, "Battle in the Dungeon #3" distinguishes itself with brisk pace and lyrical drive assuring an exciting listen. "Tough Battle #2" imposes obsessive dissonant orchestral motifs against irregularly measured ostinato and percussion cross-rhythms; the result is disorientating and unpleasant, but also especially compelling. The final battle theme for the extension, "Belief", is an epic chimera of the others. Here, Mizuta blends an irregular ostinato pattern like "Tough Battle #2", engaging trumpet melodies like "Battle in the Dungeon #3", and richly flavoured interludes like "Battle Theme #3". Despite the formulaic approach to the composition of these battle themes, each is sufficiently individually characterised to be enjoyable on this soundtrack while sustaining the distinct sounds of Vana'diel.
The rest of the soundtrack mostly features miscellaneous event themes. Highlights include "Grav'iton", which brings back memories of "Mhaura" with its soothing guitar-supported flute melodies, and "Fighters of the Crystals", a pressing motivating action cue written in a similar way to some of the battle themes. The Chocobo theme also makes its first of four appearances in the Final Fantasy XI soundtrack series with "Dash de Chocobo"; one of my favourite renditions of the theme, the theme is able to breathe with its interpretations on solo Eb clarinet and acoustic guitar against a dainty percussive line. Moving towards the end of the soundtrack, the portrayal of the antagonist in "Eald'narche" creates uncertainty with the inherently simple construct of repeated marcato string notes and layered suspended brass notes. Finally, "End Theme" uses a classically-oriented combination of legato string arpeggios, wistful woodwind melodies, and reflective brass fanfares to create a lovely if understated conclusion to the extension soundtrack.
The first extension for Final Fantasy XI features a very well-produced soundtrack. Naoshi Mizuta develops the acoustic sound of the franchise and embellishes his occasionally mundane ostinato-based style to produce a series of successful setting, battle, and event themes. Though the album is less diverse than its predecessors and features fewer obvious highlights, Mizuta makes up for this by producing a consistent and fitting effort that becomes more appreciable with time. Thanks to the three synthesizer operators, his compositions also use some of the most realistic and enjoyable samples available. Widely considered the most accessible and well-rounded extension soundtrack, I would highly recommend purchasing it for those who liked the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack and have discounted the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Premium Box as an alternative.