Distant Worlds (London 2012) Review

London’s beautiful Royal Albert Hall has been host to breathtaking nights of entertainment before, from the BBC Proms, the English National Ballet, the Festival of Remembrance and Cirque du Soleil. However, this past Friday (November 2nd) they put on a one of a kind show, celebrating a bringing together of music, art and storytelling that has been a staple of its industry for the last twenty five years – Distant Worlds.

The idea behind Distant Worlds is to take a top quality orchestra, in this case The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and The London Voices choir, and perform some of the most memorable music from the Final Fantasy video game series. While the show’s crowd was mainly made up of a very specific demographic, people who are not only fans of the games but also specifically its music, the concert was tremendous in both its music and overall presentation. This was an evening that may not have had the same impact for non-fans, yet music lovers would still have been able to enjoy and appreciate it for its intricate composition and flawless performance.

The first Final Fantasy game came out in Japan in December 1987, making the concert almost 25 years after the original game’s release. As Europe’s only Distant Worlds performance this year, those who went to the show were treated to a very special event which celebrated the series in a way that felt like a great way to experience a world that has given so many people great stories and taken them on such grand adventures.

The show began with an introduction from conductor Arnie Roth, who introduced many of the evening’s guests. The audience contained staff from Square Enix, series composers Nobou Eumatsu and Masashi Hamazu, and even more who would be announced throughout the evening. Seeing the composers sat amongst the rest of the audience in fairly standard seating really made the evening feel both personal and intimate.

With that the lights dimmed, the orchestra prepared themselves, a multimedia screen burst into life and the show began. We began our chronological journey through the series’ fourteen main entries with a fantastic medley of music from Final Fantasy through Final Fantasy III. With its sweeping gentle melody and voices just lightly dancing over the music, the opening medley was gentle but breathtaking. You could see people watching and listening with baited breath, hanging on the track’s every detail. It was a wonderful start to the concert and one that even now, days later, I’m struggling to do justice with words. The song was accompanied by video from the first three games, beautiful original concept art and served as a brilliant reminder of the series’ roots.

Next up was Final Fantasy IV and Battle with The Four Fiends. Picking up the pace, the track was darker, more urgent and brought us our first real taste of footage from the series’ big gameplay draw, the battles. Being able to relive some of FFIV’s key battles with the added tension that a fully orchestrated soundtrack makes possible was brilliant and allowed me to re-experience the feelings I had when I first fought to save the world all those years ago.

This was followed by the main theme of Final Fantasy V. With its almost military drumline and frantic urgency it’s a track that encompasses a lot of the themes that the game’s story centred around. It was performed flawlessly and the accompanying video footage from the game was well selected to add tension.

The track selected from Final Fantasy VI, Phantom Forest, felt like an odd choice. While beautifully performed and very fitting with the gameplay footage shown, it is far from the most interesting moment in the game, and one that very few people connect with in the same way they might with some of the game’s later tracks. That being said, it didn’t stop Phantom Forest from being beautifully and brilliantly performed, even if it felt shoehorned in for the sake of chronologically covering every game in the main series.

With Final Fantasy VII, considered by many to be the series’ best game, they chose to do something I didn’t expect. As a celebration of the series turning 25, rather than singing happy birthday, they invited the audience to join in and sing along to one of the series’ most iconic villain themes, One Winged Angel. Arnie Roth tried very hard to encourage everyone to join in with his chorus of “Sephiroth”, but after the first few times where very few of the audience were joining in I felt pretty uncomfortable. It was a fantastic idea, but one that only really works when everyone joins in. While it’s a great track, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to feel torn between joining in and keeping my mouth shut.

Next up was Final Fantasy VIII and Don’t be Afraid. The music was timed perfectly to fit with the start of a particular fight scene and captured the ebb and flow of the game’s turn based battle system fantastically. It’s a grand track, constantly finding new ways to feel bigger and bigger, and really did impress.

Then came Not Alone from Final Fantasy IX, a beautifully sombre track. Paired with some of the game’s more saddening and tense scenes, starting with a tiny boat being thrown around amongst huge waves and ending with an enormous attack from a late game battle, the piece was amazingly polished and drew one of the nights biggest round of applause.

This was followed by Zanarkand from Final Fantasy X. Opening with a beautifully soft single piano, soon to be joined by some equally delicate string work from the violins, the piece was so beautifully quiet that you could almost hear people holding their breath, afraid to miss a single moment of the track. The screen showed the story of Tidus’ feelings for Yuna and transitioning to a segment devoted to Yuna’s dance for the dead; the piece felt incredibly special to see live. If there was ever a moment in my life where the phrase “so quiet you could hear a pin drop” applied, it’s probably the amazed moment of silence at the end of this piece. You could feel the emotional connection of the room and it was a terrific choice of track from the game.

Last up in the show’s first half was a special Chocobo Medley. Taking a break from the chronological journey through the main entries, this piece was a brilliantly light hearted way to bring up everyone’s spirits going into the interval. The opening twinkling tune, which was accompanied by scenes of a baby Chocobo being raised, had the audience audibly enjoying how adorable the scene was. There were several moments in that first section where the whole room of five thousand joined together in a chorus of “AWWWWWWW”.

The medley then transitioned into the classic Chocobo theme Final Fantasy fans all know and love. Rather than just resting on the track’s popularity amongst fans, they did a fantastic job of injecting humour into it. The audience burst out laughing when the low pitched male chorus shout of “HA” was synchronised with a shot of the baby Chocobo in Sazh’s hair tweeting. Showing varying shots of Chocobo from various Final Fantasy games, this medley served as a great way to remind everyone that the series isn’t always doom and gloom, with the fate of the world in the balance. The series has its moments of fun, humour, laugher and light heartedness. It was one of the show’s highlights and a great new composition of a classic track familiar to anyone who is a fan of the series.

After a short interval we jumped back into the main series of games with Final Fantasy XI and Procession of Heroes – Vana’diel March Medley. From its opening regimented military drumline it kicks into a sweeping grand melody that encapsulates the sense of wonder that setting off on a large adventure in unknown lands brings with it. Most of the accompanying footage was sweeping overhead shots of various locations from Final Fantasy XI, which could be argued was either a great way to show the sense of scale the Final Fantasy games encapsulate, or was just an easy way to create a video with very little effort. I fall into the former camp, but spoke to plenty of people who found the approach a lazy way to have something on screen. The last minute of the song was split in half, the first part showing the assembly of a large and diverse group of characters to represent the fact that the game was an MMO, followed by a jump cut to around thirty seconds of a pitch black screen during the track’s climactic ending. There’ll be more on the random cuts to black later.

The track chosen to represent Final Fantasy XII was The Dalmasca Estersand. While Final Fantasy XII is often looked at by fans as being one of the weaker entries in the series, its soundtrack is one of the most intricately designed in any JRPG to date. If you’ve not heard the song before then give it a listen as it’s one of the greatest pieces of music I’ve ever heard in a game. I doubt any amount of words would do justice to how fantastic it sounded at the Royal Albert Hall, but it was an absolute delight to hear. While the visual portion to this track was not particularly memorable, the twenty or thirty seconds of empty black screen at the end certainly were noticeable. I wish that were the last time that issue raised its head during the show, but the most pronounced example is still yet to come.

Blinded by Light is arguably the most memorable piece of music in Final Fantasy XIII and was a brilliant choice to include in this slot of the evening. As the first Final Fantasy title to come to the current generation of HD consoles its soundtrack was able to remain fairly uncompressed and maintain a lot of its rich sound for gamers at home to enjoy. Compared to some of the earlier tracks during the evening, this meant that the track’s orchestral arrangement didn’t have as much of an effect when performed by an orchestra, but nothing quite compares to the stellar acoustics of the venue and they made an already brilliant track even better. Yet again the visual portion, while fantastically fitting and encompassing many of the key moments from the game, fell flat when it cut to an empty black screen for round twenty seconds at the end. This was not a huge issue at this point, something I could overlook due to the fact that live performances can vary in length from performance to performance and conductor to conductor, but it didn’t feel as polished as it could have. Even just fading to the Distant Worlds logo would have been a little more fitting.

At this point we came to the end of the main chunk of the evening’s journey with the most recent main entry in the series, Final Fantasy XIV. Here we were treated to a special guest appearance from the official singer for XIV, hand selected by Nobou Eumatsu himself, Susan Calloway, who came on to sing Answers. Opening with a haunting male acapella hymnal chant, the track transitioned into a harp backed vocal solo by Susan. It was clear within seconds why she was chosen for the part as her voice was crystal clear, powerful and filled with emotion. Much of the song’s visual component was comprised of concept art of various characters from the game, which worked well until rather than panning across each image it cut to fit the whole image on screen at once. It didn’t feel terribly polished and just felt like it could have been handled better. As the song continued the male and female choirs joined back in, along with other instruments slowly being added to very gradually make the song more and more powerful, but in a way that felt very natural.

At this point Roth explained to us that with the main fourteen titles out of the way, we were going to hear some special arrangements of tracks that had been hand selected for the anniversary shows.

We began with another track from Final Fantasy IV, Theme of Love. One of the most beautiful love songs I’ve heard, it simply and without the need for words conveys a brilliant sense of love, care and tenderness. It’s a beautiful track that has stood the test of time and is still one of my personal favourite songs.

Following that was Eyes on Me from Final Fantasy VIII. Featuring guest vocals from singer Crystal Kay, the piece opens with light and gentle flute and piano notes. Crystal’s voice was almost angelic in the way it effortlessly flew about the various notes. The evening featured very few lyrics until this point, but at times like this when they were used, they were used for exactly the right reasons. Her voice conveyed a great deal of emotion in a short deal of time and kept everyone listening intently.

The next one was in some ways the most impressive track of the night, but also gave me my biggest complaint of the night as well, Final Fantasy VI’s Opera “Maria and Draco”. During Final Fantasy VI there is a section in which the main party has to infiltrate an opera in an attempt to thwart a kidnapping attempt and commandeer an airship. Hearing the opera that was only ever shown in short bursts of 16-bit chiptunes, originally reinvented with a full operatic lyrical score and the addition of a narrator completely brings part of that scene (that gamers never got to truly experience) to life. The juxtaposition of the video game footage of the party adventuring during the performance along with the actual opera singers down with the orchestra was the highlight of my evening, but it also led to the source of what I felt was a great disappointment.

The visual component of the piece is not introduced until around three minutes in. That didn’t bother me, it felt like it was introduced at the perfect time to allow us time to take in the opera then introduce the video game side of the piece. What felt completely unnatural to me was that once I was invested in the visual aspect of the song, it suddenly and abruptly vanished for the last four and a half minutes of the fifteen minute song. I personally feel like it was a little indecisive. I’d have been perfectly happy to watch the orchestra for this piece, but by introducing a perfect visual accompaniment only to suddenly remove it felt a little disjointed. While I’m happy to watch the orchestra, I don’t want to be offered a more compelling visual option and then have it removed seemingly without reason part way through the piece and that stopped me enjoying it to its fullest. That being said, it was still a tremendous piece of music, and the best piece of video game music I’ve ever heard re-imagined. The added section of battle music in the middle of the piece was superbly composed, adding a great deal of tension to the track and I can’t wait to replay this section of VI just to listen to the opera alongside it.

After that we moved on to a medley of Battle Themes from all across the series. I would have rather seen a collection of clips from some of the series’ most important battles, like end of game bosses or similar instead of the seemingly random collection of clips we got, but the piece covered several of the most important battle themes in the series and did a great job at getting across the action packed tension of facing off against a foe who once completely outmatched you. Oh, and ending with the first notes of the classic victory theme was a genius move.

And with that we came to the end of the evening. The credits rolled on screen as the orchestra played their final song, THE Final Fantasy theme. It felt like a very fitting end to an evening celebrating this terrific series of games to roll a set of credits with the series’ most iconic theme and it left everyone I spoke to with the same sense of victory, accomplishment and satisfaction. It was a brilliant end to a brilliant evening.

While the music was all fantastically performed and most of the visuals were brilliantly meshed with the audio, I do have some complaints about the evening. Firstly, as previously mentioned, some of the visuals cutting to black at odd moments bothered me, lessening my immersion in the whole experience. Secondly, the choice to play Phantom Forest felt a little odd. Lastly, the cost of the programme (£25) was prohibitively expensive for many of the people I know who went. While it was well made, glossy and had some lovely artwork in it, very little of the programme was dedicated to the soundtrack or the evening, mostly just taking a page to talk about each game in the series. Maybe if it wasn’t so overly priced it would have made taking home a nice glossy memento of the evening a lot more reasonable for most people at the show.

With all that being said, the fact that those are my biggest complaints about the evening says a lot. For Final Fantasy fans it was one heck of an evening of goosebump inducing journeys into some of our favourite games. Having spoken to a couple of non-gamers dragged along to the show by their significant others, I can confirm my suspicions that even for them the quality of the composition, orchestration and performances over the course of the evening was simply top notch. It was an incredibly impressive event, and one I certainly hope to attend again should it come around next year.

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