The Curious Case Of Ni no Kuni's Unpleasant Battle Music

The first time I heard the battle music in Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, I thought, "Ugh."

That's never a good sign. In a Japanese role-playing game like Ni no Kuni, the battle music is arguably the most important music in the game. Sure, the world-map music is crucial, but it's the battle music that you're going to hear over, and over, and over again. It's the battle music that will accompany your many victories and defeats, and so it had better be good. Persona 4. Final Fantasy VII. Trails in the Sky. Many a JRPG has made a mark with its excellent battle music.

The Ni no Kuni soundtrack was composed by longtime Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi, the man responsible for the scores for films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. Hisaishi's work on Ni no Kuni is one of the most remarkable things about the game, both for its outright quality (it's often jaw-droppingly good) and because it's the kind of grand orchestration and performance that we rarely hear in video games.

But I just don't care for the battle music. Every time it begins playing, it sets my teeth on edge.

Here is the battle music, recorded direct from my PS3. Compared with the relatively placid (though lovely!) version that accompanied the Ni no Kuni DS game (and some of the battles in the PS3 game), the tempo has been kicked up a good chunk, we've got countermelodic flourishes happening every few seconds, and the mallet players are really earning their paychecks. The entire thing is faster, denser, and more energetic than the downtempo version.

As I recorded this and listened to it, I couldn't help but think, "Man, this is good stuff!" The music, on its own, is distinctive and energetic, with some strong themes and interesting fake-out metric modulation. It's actually in 4/4 time, but the way it's written trips the listener up and makes things feel unsteady and plunging. The introduction, taken in the context of the whole piece, is really cool.

So if I like this music as a discrete composition, why doesn't it work as battle music? I think it might be that tumbling introduction, actually—it's so strident and stabby, and starts things off on a weird foot. It's as though every time I begin a new battle, I stumble off the starting block. It takes the music 20 seconds to land at a place that feels like you can latch onto it, and it isn't until almost the one-minute mark that it hits something resembling a stride.

The problem, then, is that Hisaishi has assembled this battle music like a regular non-video-game composition, without allowing for the requirements of JRPG battle music.

The problem, then, is that Hisaishi has assembled this battle music like a regular non-video-game composition, without allowing for the requirements of JRPG battle music. As you play Ni no Kuni, you'll hear this music hundreds of times. But because of the nature of the game's battles, you'll often only hear the first twenty or thirty seconds. Most fights in this game are over in that amount of time, meaning that it's only on rare occasions that the composition even reaches the point where it settles into a groove. (This isn't a problem unique to Ni no Kuni—for example, as my colleague Jason Schreier pointed out to me this morning, the battle theme for Final Fantasy XIII takes a minute to get to the good part.)

Compounding the issue is the fact that in Ni no Kuni, you're likely going to start "farming" for enemies at some point. The game encourages you to defeat and collect monsters for your ever-growing menagerie, but to do that, you've got to fight dozens of low-level beasties until one allows you to recruit it. That means dozens of fights that all last a matter of seconds, since you're taking on comparatively weak foes. And so time and again, you'll listen to that stabbing, disorienting musical introduction without ever hearing the music develop the theme or settle into its middle section. (Surely none of this is helped by protagonist Oliver's repetitive and irritating pre-battle shouts. "Let's do it!" etc.)

Hisaishi's work on the Ni no Kuni soundtrack is rare in its quality, and I mean that in both ways. It's uncommonly gorgeous and well-written, and it's also often remarkable just how musically and sonically different it is from most garden-variety video game soundtracks.

With the game's battle music, the soundtrack's more distinctive qualities work against it. Under ordinary circumstances, it would feel unfair to fault a composition for its introduction—listen to the whole piece, please! But these aren't ordinary circumstances. Repetition is something that any video game composer should take into account, and a failure to do so can make otherwise exceptional music like the Ni no Kuni battle anthem feel chaotic and unpleasant.