Square Enix's biggest score of 2007 accompanied their epic flop Dawn of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 4). It reunited the trio of Romancing Saga Minstrel Song's highly successful score — Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, and synthesizer operator Hirosato Noda — but the score wasn't to have that much in common with its second cousin. Ito, responsible for most of the stage themes, reflects a similar sort of musicianship with his 45 themes, mostly used in the introduction, conclusion, and as chapter background music. Sekito was principally given a composing role this time and focused mostly on creating cinematic themes to accompany the game's cutscenes and some unusual rock-based themes for the game's boss battles. The game's fourth disc mostly features arrangements of classic Seiken Densetsu themes from Masayoshi Soken (with Junya Nakano and Hirosato Noda making guest appearances) used to accompany the arena bouts. The score was praised by gamers for being a functional and often enjoyable accompaniment to the game, but how does it stand up on its own?
Oscar-winning motion picture composer and Yellow Magic Orchestra member Ryuichi Sakamoto is responsible for the soundtrack's main theme, "Dawn of Mana - opening theme". Inspired by the imagery of the Mana tree shown in the otherwise static title screen, Sakamoto reflects the spirituality, colour, and life so inherent to the series and its music. A surprisingly simple piece, it opens with a slow-paced solo piano melody written from the depths of Sakamoto's heart. The subtle yet astonishing beauty of the performance gently stimulates the senses of its listeners. With the entrance of a harp arpeggios and slow strings from 1:30, Sakamoto builds on what is offered in the introduction without perturbing the minimalistic fluidity of the piece. For the apex of the theme at 2:30, the melody is presented by Shoko Ikeda's oboe, inspiring one to reminiscence and contemplate further. The final section of the piece features a piano and harp presenting a series of ascending impressionistic arpeggios that encompasses great tonal colour before a piano chord resolves the piece. A subtle and touching masterpiece from a sublime musician.
Kenji Ito sets the scene of the game with the varied "Prologue ~Mana, the Earth, and the Spirits~". It attains some cinematic flair in the narrated introduction with a transition from a serene organic sound to a dark one dominated by Ito's trademark slow-paced minor scale runs. It then establishes the spiritual tone of the game with a vocal-led section before pausing to provide the game's opening fanfare. Regrettably, this theme is sparingly orchestrated and entirely synthetic — a significant drawback for emotional expression when Noda's samples lack realism or expressiveness. Everything offered here has been done by Ito before and often much more thoughtfully. Far superior is the opening credit's "Rising Sun", used by all Ito's scores for the series since its 1991 debut. Here, simple piano arpeggios and gorgeously performed strings harmonise an oboe's interpretation of the melody; following the flute-led second section, a contemplative solo piano rendition of the theme takes over before the lush but subtle conclusion that unites all the forces. In "Mana's Tale", Ito appears to be on auto-pilot on initial analysis, employing a structure, melody, and harmonic framework that one would expect from his softer works; however, the crystalline percussion and rich strings unite to reflect the spiritual tone of the game beautifully and the last thirty seconds of the piece take a delicious dark turn.
The game is split into eight multi-part chapters, each with their own areas, cutscenes, and boss. Ito is largely responsible for their background music and usually creates music to accompany each of the four parts. For the first chapter, 'A Spirit and a Maiden', "Pastoral Melody" sets the scene perfectly but comes across as slight overkill due to its presentation in soundtrack form; it combines a variation of the "Rising Sun" melody, the spiritual features of "Mana's Tale", and a unique dynamic and whimsical quality. "A Silent Drop" for the second part slows the pace and employs further atmospheric percussion, while "Dark Shrine" for the third and fourth parts provides a variation of this theme in a surprisingly well-programmed rock-tinged fusion. With the second chapter's "Reminiscence", Ito introduces a compelling flamenco component to the score to reflect an unfamiliar forest setting. He subsequently provides an impressionistic piano and woodwind piece in "A Mysterious Forest" that is welcome for the sake of variety despite its melodies not being among Ito's best. Despite all this variety, Ito's fingerprints are all over these pieces and this will be mind-numbing to those who cannot tolerate his simple sense of musicianship. Nevertheless, it is pleasing that Ito is prepared to add colour to the soundtrack through a mixture of experiments and homages to his past, while complementing the game's scenes and aura wonderfully.
Continuing the tour, the diversity of the other stage themes is impressive. The third stage features "The Lost One's Tremble", a bombastic orchestral march opened by power chords, and "Green Whirlpool", a 'new age' piece with floating synth and splendid choral decorations. They are joined by another flamenco-influenced work, "Goblin's Beat", that thanks to some very catchy motifs and a mischievous character, is easily one of the best on the soundtrack. Other infectious works in a similar style are "Rondo of Sand" and "The Fool's Dance"; the latter is the only stage theme to employ use of live instruments and has a strong enough rhythm, melody, and harmony to shine for it. In "Seeking the Light" and the trio of themes to accompany the penultimate stage, Ito employs orchestration he would normally reserve for battle themes to fair effect. "Old and Distant Memories" is wonderfully atmospheric, its dreary melody made neglible by a fascinating and gorgeous soundscape. Nevertheless, there are some weaker themes. "The Deep Blue" irritates with its sporadic novelty synth use, while the hideous saxophone synth of "The Peak of Twilight" worsens a track already condemned by its 'pump it up' string motif. The return of the dark scale runs from "Prologue..." creates some emotional impact in "No Turning Back", but the tenor voice is unconvincingly doubled by strings and the overblown percussion use makes the track seem anticlimactic at its loop.
Tsuyoshi Sekito is responsible for the game's boss themes. "Burning Spirits" for the first stage's boss Haggar is reminiscent of battle themes on Minstrel Song except more synthy; a rock interpretation of an original Ito theme, Kenichiro Fukui's keyboard takes the lead here and, following a low-key orchestral second section, features prominently with Sekito's guitar in the solo section. While this piece should please anyone that likes The Black Mages, the other boss themes are original compositions from Sekito. They significantly contrast — based on repetition and layering of riffs, they focus on conveying danger and intensity, have few tangible melody or solos, and are often dissonant and thickly textured. The highlight of the boss themes is "Blood Feud" for the first battle with the main antagonist, the young King of Lorimar Stroud. Following a virtuosic guitar introduction, the aggressive bass guitar ensures the piece gathers astonishing pace and rhythm, leading to the exposure of the main melody. For such a well-developed and enticing track, the melody leaves much to be desired; it consists of a one bar string phrase clumsily answered by badly synthesized choir before an especially ugly descending arpeggio string resolution that just raises one's left eyebrow even higher. The melody recurs in several event themes and the battle track "Dark King" as the villain's leitmotif, affirming that Sekito knows how to arrange a melody but certainly not create one.
The rest of Sekito's battle themes are a select taste. For "Shadow of Vine", "Red Wyvern", and "Death Sally Battle", Sekito uses his electric guitar performance to create a compelling rhythm with drum kit support and structures the tracks from here. Largely acoustic synth that take the lead — brass, strings, and choir being Sekito's favoured forces — and combine to create a hard and persuasive sound. The guitar techniques employed often demonstrate ingenuity and virtuosity, but sometimes Sekito doesn't know when enough is enough. "Desperate Fight" is essentially ruined by an emphasis on a grisly guitar riff, consisting of seven utterings of a low-pitched note followed by a higher note that is bent using the tremolo arm. Hearing this once quirky motif prominently repeated in almost every bar detracts from the effect of the meaty brass and choir lines that would have been a highlight to the final encounter with Stroud. "Godless Golem" gradually builds on a resolute slow-paced string motif with rasping brass fanfares, ghostly choir passages, rasgueado Spanish guitar, and dabs of intimidating electric guitar performance; it captures the intensity of the boss battle with Grim Golem Generalissimo but would be more pleasing if the string motif felt more technically comfortable. The inherently repetitious nature of most of the battle themes is exacerbated by the fact that most of the themes exceed five minutes in length even though they exhaust themselves within three minutes of playtime.
Cluttering the first three discs of the soundtrack are three recurring melodies treated by Sekito used in various cutscenes. "Pack of Ice Wolves Ver. 1" metamorphoses from a calm harp and strings theme to a furore of chorus, percussion, and brass to reflect Stroud's invasion on the hero's village at the start of the game. In "Pack of Wolves II", the motif from the second half is explored over four action-packed minutes of action to reflect a second brutal assault while the also makes two brief appearances in the second half of the soundtrack that create masse of tension in the game. "Stroud Ver. 1", which accompanies the antagonist's capture of Ratzia, spends most of its playtime tediously repeating a harp broken chord with a few forces layered atop. At 1:30 there is a sudden horrifying moment as the antagonist's leitmotif is suddenly exposed; while big in terms of dynamic, articulation, and sheer instrumental bulk, the melody exposed is ridiculous. The other two versions of the theme have this motif in common and are generally more excitingly orchestrated, but distressingly rip Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek works explicitly. "Echo of Darkness Ver. 1" offers a strong theme on harp-accompanied woodwinds in its first half before building into another orchestral clamour dominated by a highly predictable ascending scale. Its two alternative renditions thoughtlessly swap the palette of the original and add absolutely nothing to the soundtrack. There are about 20 other event themes across the soundtrack contributed by Ito and Sekito. Many have great emotional impact within and outside the game and mostly feature characteristic Ito and Sekito musicality. However, other fail to exceed the one minute mark so somewhat clutter the soundtrack or simply aren't memorable at all.
The climax of the soundtrack sees a curious reversal in the Ito / Sekito assignment. The first four parts of the final chapter are accompanied by Sekito's "Dark Palace"; a slow-developing ostinato-focused piece reminiscent of Final Fantasy XI's "Castle Zvahl", it sets the scene well and features some highlight orchestral moments. "Den of Thieves" is used for the fifth part of the chapter and is similar in makeup to Sekito's battle themes despite the absence of the electric guitar. To announce that the final boss awaits, Ito provides a distorted twist on the melody featured in "A Silent Drop" with the comprehensively developed event theme "The Stage of Ruin". For Ito's final stage theme "Illusions", a misleadingly gentle timbre is created by a collection of tuned percussion, but the obsessive treatment of the "A Silent Drop" theme provides a dark Elfman-like twist. The exuberance of a full orchestra is offered with "The Final Decisive Battle", which doesn't disappoint. It's a highly lyrical theme that features the classic Ito combo of gliding brass and strings reinforced by brisk percussion and occasional choral chants. The two-tiered "Eternal Parting" reflects on the bittersweet conclusion of the character's journey first with an emotional piano and flute section before providing reprise of the "Rising Sun" melody. The combination of piano, chamber orchestra, and voice solo provide touching spiritual renditions of "Mana's Tale" in both "Birth of the Goddess ~The Beginning of a New World~" and "The Endless Dream". "A Legend Forever", "Epilogue ~The Continuing Future~", and "Traces" are short contrasting pieces that provide a gentle conclusion to the game and the third disc of the soundtrack.
The fourth disc features mostly arrangements of classic Seiken Densetsu series themes courtesy of Masayoshi Soken. Pieces from all previous soundtracks in the series are referenced here in standard and 'hurry up' versions. Soken seems to have a flair for capturing the spirit of Hiroki Kikuta's more whimsical compositions, demonstrated by the delightful percussion and woodwind use of the standard versions of "Child of the Fairies" and "Don't Hunt the Fairy". For the battle theme "Meridian Worship", he offers a desirable rock remix that presents the melody convincingly on a self-performed electric guitar and superbly executes the rhythmically eccentric of its development section. On "Irwin on Reflection", he reflects individuality again with an extensively developed rock mix instilled with overdriven electric guitar. The rock aspect of the soundtrack continues with the 'hurry up' remixes, which are brief fast tempo renditions of all the other tracks previously arranged. While "Irwin on Reflection" and "Child of the Fairies" come off quite well, not all the themes shine in their mixes. "Don't Hunt the Fairy" sounds clumsy and ugly, while "Meridian Worship" skips its development section. Unfortunately, Soken never does Legend of Mana's "The Darkness Nova" justice either, the standard mix taking an inappropriate overblown orchestral approach, the 'hurry up' remix being irritating with overdubbed vocal samples. Soken's arrangements are welcome for nostalgia's sake and the rock element despite the mixed quality of the 'hurry up' versions.
Junya Nakano's guest appearance comprises creating the standard arrangements of four classic themes. He preserves the catchy eccentricity of Seiken Densetsu 3's "Splash Hop" and "Weird Counterpoint", focusing his efforts on fleshing out their exotic percussion component. Not as creative as one might desire, but Soken nevertheless produces 'hurry up' remixes of these, the former an infectious calypso complete featuring chanting, the latter another guitar-led rock theme. Nakano ensures Seiken Densetsu's "Endless Battlefield" and Children of Mana's "Eternal Plains" sound rich if orthodox in their orchestral renditions, while Soken's mixes here retain the rock formula. Synthesizer operator Hirosato Noda makes two cutesy but irritating renditions of Ito's "Dwarves' Theme". The standard version preserves the original's chiptune format while adding some novelty synth sounds that remind me of what muZik used for their Final Fantasy III "Eternal Wind" remix. The hurry up version adds some light techno beats that are reminiscent of Noda's Final Fantasy X "Prelude" remix, but the composition is incoherent and underdeveloped overall. Adding to the myriad, Ito offers two original compositions for the fourth disc — one candypop, the other a typical orchestral theme — while Soken also produces four original compositions. To accompany the arena, the brassy "The Horn of Dawn" and "March, march, march" reflect a Soul Calibur influence, while "Rush, rush, rush" is standard rock piece and "Gentle Eyelids" is a whimsical game over theme. The soundtrack concludes with five brief fanfares from Soken.
The Dawn of Mana soundtrack is a fine accompaniment to its game. The diversity and expressiveness of the stage themes complements their visual colour, the battle themes energise and intensify boss encounters, the cutscene music provides a glorious spectrum of emotion, the arena music gleams with fun and nostalgia, and the contribution from Ryuichi Sakamoto beautifully reflects musical expression through visual inspiration. The synthesizer operating leaves much to be desired, particularly with respect to choir and string samples, though Noda still competently implements a wide range of forces so that the soundtrack remains quite colourful; certainly, the average graphical specifications didn't prevent the game being a vivid experience and similar is true here. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack was almost unequivocally praised by otherwise dissatisfied gamers.
As a stand-alone experience, the Seiken Densetsu 4 Original Soundtrack -Sanctuary- isn't always enjoyable. Ito's work is often indifferently received by gamers and this soundtrack, while one of his most diverse, is still very much what you'd expect from him in terms of musicianship. Pleasant to some, uninspiring and boring to others. Many will be disappointed by Sekito's contributions here. His works aren't accessible or melodic like Minstrel Song's, given he focuses on composing rather than arranging. Many will find his cinematic works derivative, samey, and forgettable. Worse still, his battle themes can be ugly, repetitive, and overly long; still, the dense timbres, intense rhythms, and convincing interpretations of darkness and action across his creations are effective in the game at the very least.
This soundtrack is highly recommended by those who have played the game and enjoyed the music featured in it. However, the wonderful chapter themes are surrounded by six minute oppressive battle themes and atmospherically focused story and cutscene themes, so it won't be a smooth journey and perhaps compiling a 'best of' upon ripping the album may be a good idea. For those who haven't played the game, the soundtrack may be worthwhile if you're an Ito fan, want to revisit the days of old on the fourth disc, or actually like samples of Sekito's work here. This soundtrack is very difficult to appreciate without considering in-game context, so it is unrecommended to casual listeners. It remains an otherwise solid work.