It’s time to once again return to the wonderful world of Atelier music, this time with a look at Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm’s soundtrack.
Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm was a noteworthy installment in the series from a musical perspective, because it marked the point where Gust’s sound team switched from using synthesised, sequenced music to streamed prerecorded music. This allowed them considerably more flexibility to put together more elaborate compositions and make use of more realistic sounds.
So turn up the volume and let’s have a good listen to find out exactly what that means!
Schwarzweiß ~Kiri no Mukou ni Tsunagaru Sekai~
This track, whose bilingual title translates to “Black and White” (in German) and “The World That Leads to the Other Side” (in Japanese) is the theme that accompanies the opening video sequence. With those opening rock organ notes, we know we’re in for a bit of a different Atelier experience than we’ve had in the past — one with a little more “edge” (no protagonist-related pun intended) to it than in the past.
It’s not long before we’re into recognisable Gust territory, however, with some urgent choir chanting before a transition into the rather anime-style main vocal melody. Although there had always been more than a touch of anime to console RPGs ever since the early days, it was this transitional period between the late PS2 era and the early PS3 days where we really started to see the two forms of media starting to cross-pollinate like this. This track most certainly wouldn’t sound out of place accompanying the opening credits to a seasonal anime show.
This track, which plays on the title screen for the game, is noteworthy for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a stark contrast to the rock rhythms and energetic tempo of the opening video. Secondly, it’s a clear example of composer Ken Nakagawa very much nailing down what he wants “the Atelier sound” to be — the combination of instruments and overall timbre of this piece wouldn’t be out of place in the later Arland games, for example.
And thirdly, it’s a great example of what the switch to streamed music meant: greater overall realism in the sound of the music. Nakagawa found himself particularly enamoured with composing and recording music using EWIs, or Electronic Wind Instruments, and this track is a good example of how that contributes to that distinctive Atelier sound through the use of realistic recorder melodies, presumably performed by Nakagawa on an EWI. The little ornaments and embellishments on the melodic passages are something that is only really possible on an actual wind instrument — be it electronic or real.
Welcome to the Workshop!
It wouldn’t be an Atelier game without some form of “working” theme to play in the workshop, and this is a particularly catchy, enjoyable one. Its bouncy rhythms and bass line gives something of a Germanic feel to the whole thing — appropriate, since much of the Atelier series unfolds in a world somewhat inspired by Renaissance Germany — while the use of guitar and wind instrument sounds once again demonstrate how Nakagawa is very keen to establish an iconic music profile for the series as a whole.
It’s rather interesting that although in many ways Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm can be looked at as “the edgy Atelier“, it’s also stuffed full of super-cute themes like this, demonstrating how Gust never really wanted to go too grimdark with it; you’ve got to remember your roots, after all, even if the moment-to-moment gameplay and atmosphere is a little different.
Town of Water
If you’re making a game with a “hub” structure — one where there’s a central “home” location that you keep returning to between major story beats — then you’d better make sure that the music for that hub is enjoyable and catchy. It should preferably not get tiresome even when you’re hearing it for the umpteenth time, and it should also provide a pleasant sense of returning “home” after a long and perhaps perilous journey.
This track, which accompanies your day-to-day explorations of the town of Zey Meruze where Edge and Iris live, fulfils all those conditions very well. It captures the peaceful atmosphere of the city perfectly, and it’s always a pleasure to hear this bouncy theme once again any time you return from an excursion into an Alterworld.
Likewise, any RPG worth its salt knows that if you want to keep people hooked in the long term, you better have a banging battle theme to accompany regular combat. And boy, does Nakagawa deliver in this regard with this wonderful track that combines the drama of combat with the inherent cheerfulness of the Atelier series as a whole.
Once again, we hear Nakagawa very much establishing an iconic sound for the series as a whole — that combination of acoustic guitar and EWI-powered synth lead line is a distinctive audio profile that we’ll hear several more times in the subsequent games.
Interestingly, this is one of a few tracks in the game that has a very slight remix after a certain point in the narrative, with the synth lead line being replaced by harmonica and flute sounds. It’s subtle, but it’s definitely there if you know to listen for it!
Melodies of a Distant Time
I like this track from a purely personal perspective because it sounds like something from a Nier game. It’s thematically appropriate for when you hear it in the context of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, however; it plays in certain areas of the Grimoire Castle dungeon. Specifically, the ones that are filled with mechanical gears and the inner workings of a large clock.
There’s an obvious literal relationship there, what with the explicit “ticking” sounds in the background, but the track title and the overall feel to it gives something of a feeling of melancholy; the feeling that Grimoire Castle has plenty of its own stories to tell from through the ages — and that many of them, at this point, have probably been lost.
Haunted Girl for Grand Phantasm
After her seeming absence from Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny (although there was a character that looked suspiciously like her), recurring series ghost girl Pamela returns in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm. Is it the same Pamela as the one we meet in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana — and indeed the one we meet in Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis?
Who knows at this point. I’m not entirely sure if Gust do. But Pamela does always have a variation on this same theme any time she shows up, so there’s that. This particular version is a rather gentle, calming version that reflects the utterly charming nature of this particular Pamela — and gives you just a hint of understanding as to why grumpy researcher Winna falls for her over the course of his narrative.
Iris and Her Pleasant Company
Most of the Atelier games have some sort of “pleasant things are happening” theme, and these usually relate to the main female protagonist in some way. This theme captures Iris’ character perfectly, showcasing both her gentle, kind nature and her playful side.
This is one of the catchiest themes in the game, and another one that it’s a pleasure to hear, because it usually means you’ve done something right — or at the very least, something nice is happening in the narrative.
Things Thought Alone
This track, typically heard during some of the more emotional scenes towards the end of the narrative, is one of several tracks based around the same basic melodic line. Here, it’s arguably in its purest form, delivered as it is on solo piano.
There are a few recurring themes throughout the narrative like this; personally speaking, this is probably my favourite.
Mystery of the Heart
Here’s a good example of how this theme is used in a different way elsewhere in the game. The basic melodic shape is present, but it doesn’t take long for it to be complemented by electronic dance rhythms and some distinctly Celtic-inspired sounds — something of a reflection of the traditional, rural feel Nakagawa made a point of trying to create with the soundtracks from this point on.
This is also an oddly atmospheric track — the sharp intakes of breath heard in the latter section of the track, accompanied by a heartbeat, give a sense of urgency to what is going on, and create a markedly different feel to Things Thought Alone.
Taisetsu na Kotoba
And let’s close off today with one of several ending themes. Yes, there are multiple endings to Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm — two, to be exact, depending on whether or not you complete a very important quest towards the end of the game.
This particular track is heard if you get the “Good” ending, which concludes with some rather emotional scenes that will give you a marvellous sense of closure to the whole experience. The track title translated to “important words” — and let’s just say that’s an eminently appropriate title, given the implications of the events in that particular finale!
But, of course, I’ll have to leave the details for you to discover — it wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, right?
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