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Shadow Hearts II Original Soundtrack :: Review by Z-Freak

Shadow Hearts II Original Soundtrack Album Title: Shadow Hearts II Original Soundtrack
Record Label: Team Entertainment
Catalog No.: KDSD-00030/1
Release Date: March 24, 2004
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


Horror/RPGs... Can they be successful against the vein of the more traditional medieval themed RPGs? What sort of element makes them so cherished aside having bizarre scenarios and creepy creatures? The soundscape is one of the elements that really hook the player. Often, it shall be ambient sounds that make up the brunt of said soundscape, such as wind blowing like a faint wolf's howling, to the echo of footsteps in a darkened room. The music is generally stressful tones that reflect the scenes being played out. Very few RPGs tend to have horror as the main theme. Sacnoth's Koudelka and Shadow Hearts are the more recent examples of excellent, horrifying background music that gets the player tense during play. The main composer for Shadow Hearts is Yoshitaka Hirota. He was part of Square as a sound effects creator from Final Fantasy VI to Final Fantasy VIII, and most projects in between. In Shadow Hearts, Hirota was aided by Yasunori Mitsuda, well known for his work on the Chrono and Xeno series. The game itself was deemed a 'sleeper hit' by many. While it had amazing monster design and a gripping scenario, the music helped to keep everything together as one entity. Sometimes, the music was quiet, peaceful... At other times, chaotic to the point that is was almost inaudible. The score was really original, yet even that couldn't save it from being overlooked thanks to giants like Square's Final Fantasy X being released at the time.

Despite the lack of attention it receives, Sacnoth has chosen to do a sequel to this unappreciated gem. This time, Hirota was not only joined by Mitsuda, but also Kenji Ito, mostly known for the Romancing SaGa music, and Tomoko Kobayashi, whom I've never heard about until now. For Shadow Hearts II, the music has been focused even more to plunge the player into a world of madness and terror. Let's see what this soundtrack has to offer.


As soon as you start Disc One, you're introduced to an electronic piece ("Prelude~") which mainly consists of static effects and vocal samples. After a while, several beats are introduced, constantly backed up by the odd vocal effects, followed by several piano keys, but it doesn�t last... "~ICARO AGAIN" sets the general mood for the entire soundtrack: fast, loud, distorted, and varied. The beats featured in the prelude return here, but more instruments are presented, such as violins, electric guitars, and drums. The track gets off the ground fairly quickly, builds up louder and louder, then the combination of violins, piano and drums allow the piece to return to a more tranquil stance. "Peaceful Meditation" serves as the game's title theme, its gentle piano passages followed by static would suggest calmness before a coming storm, or in this case, battles against horrific beings. All of these pieces so far were composed by Hirota, so we can see he's experimenting on a wide spectrum of styles, and getting better as he progresses.

How does Yasunori Mitsuda fare this time around? Given that he only composed 6 tracks instead of 10, Mitsuda took the 'quality over quantity' approach, which is very good news for Mitsuda fans. Mitsuda's first piece, "Old Smudged Map," is the map theme for the party's adventures through Europe for possibly the first half on the game. His trademark instrument set — bells, violins, acoustic guitars, piano, and a bit of soft synth work thrown in for good measure — all make appearances in this track. It is relatively light in tone and feel and proposes a 'reflective' mood as in deciding where they will be heading next and so on...

And Kenji Ito makes some interesting contributions as well. Compared to the rest, his instrument set sounds slightly 'dated', but this isn't necessarily a negative point, as his compositions are strong and enjoyable. An example of this is "My Name is Gran Papillion!!," an unlikely character theme. Anyway, while the track is excellent in its own right; the synth sounds like it came from Romancing SaGa 3 or SaGa Frontier, which definitely makes his pieces stand out from the rest.

For Tomoko Kobayashi and Ryo Fukuda, I can't really identify their pieces to a particular instrument set. All I know is that they composed several 'berserk' and emotional themes. Fukuda's "Crack Your Body" and "Crack Your Mind" definitely serve their purpose as berserk themes to full potential, they�re well composed, but on the other hand, they�re too chaotic for anyone to possibly enjoy in or out of context. Emotional themes, such as Kobayashi's "Sadness Mood," raise the bar in efficiency of conveying that particular emotion. Guess a piano and violin duet does that to people.

Shadow Hearts II's battle themes are definitely a highlight on the album. The main battle theme in Europe, "Vicious 1915," uses odd vocal samples and scratching effects, backed up by a choir of sorts, then all of a sudden, a piano quickly shows up in the middle of the piece, only to get swallowed by the choir, vocal, and scratching effects. It certainly gives a hint that you're not fighting a usual RPG creature, but a twisted, nightmarish creation. The boss theme for Europe titled "Glint of Light" has a more normal soundscape, mostly strings mixed with a few electronic effects, but as the track develops, it gets more and more complex, which means it has certainly accomplished its task as a proper boss theme.

One of the most interesting battle themes is used for a fallen angel. "Astaroth" gets the prize for being the most laid-back battle theme in the soundtrack. But despite this remark, the theme does a lot with its subtleness. The starting melody sounds a lot like Kenji Ito's "Lost Techno" track from Culdcept II, which would suggest Ito composed this theme. Upon looking in the liner notes, it is Mitsuda who did this piece. It's just the signature use of female chants, flute, percussions, and violin that gives it away. While the theme is generally light in tone, it still gets me to imagine a tough battle against this enemy. In Asia, "Deep in Coma" has the honor to be the main battle theme. While it is more oriented towards electronica, it has a few uses of tribal percussions and odd female chants. It doesn�t give a strong impact as �Vicious 1915� though. The boss theme for Asia is another matter. "Hardcore to the Brain" starts off with a nightmarish belch that could belong in Silent Hill territory; this effect is used sporadically throughout the piece and helps to create a sense of tension and feel that you�re fighting a much stronger foe than what you've faced so far. Drums, bells, chants, and electronic effects accompany the belching effects in order to create one of the more intriguing boss themes in RPG history. Props go to Hirota for trying something so bizarre, yet entrancing.

For the final boss theme, they wanted to score big, so Hirota, Mitsuda and Ito collaborated on the piece altogether. "The 3 Karma" starts off with organs before grunting effects, bells, drums, piano, very rapid drums, and vocal effects soon join in. The piano keeps on getting hammered, metallic percussion instruments dominate, and strings, more rapid drums, distorted chants, etc. all enter. There is A LOT going on here, but it gets progressively better and better, crazier and crazier, and you get the idea... When you think things are calming down, some sort of sneezing effects are used, a bit more piano, drums, weird chants, and it finally ends with a few piano chords. Wasn't that a thrilling ride, folks? This track easily ranks among my top themes of all time. As you can see, the battle theme department is very strong.

The dungeon department also has many shining examples, my favorite being "In Darkness of a Labyrinth". Starting off with scary ambience and strings, it definitely portrays the feel of wandering in total darkness. The best part is when the howls make their entrance, backed up by massive drumbeats... These howl samples are actually rights-free, as they were used in Silent Hill 3 during Heather's venture in the abandoned mall, infested by... well you know, hellish fiends. For town themes, I'll make it short by talking about "City of Sunset". This is the town theme for Europe. It definitely has a French sound to it, as the main instruments are the acoustic guitar and accordion. This theme surely matches the picturesque villages where virtually no trouble occurs. The track suggests a relaxing, carefree break, you know, like just having a drink, and enjoying the view of the countryside.


So there you have it, an amazing soundtrack to what has become a major cult hit. If you already own the original Shadow Hearts soundtrack/game and enjoyed what you've heard, why deny yourself of a second chance to experience this type of original VGM? It is readily available at most online stores, so do yourself a favor and purchase it. Yoshitaka Hirota, Yasunori Mitsuda, Kenji Ito, Tomoko Kobayashi, and Ryo Fukuda will be glad you did. They deserve the recognition for creating this inspired, bizarre, yet enjoyable aural masterpiece.

Overall Score: 9/10