Final Fantasy XIV‘s storied history is well-known now: The original release of the game in 2010 was met with harsh (and deserved) criticism. Despite years in development, FFXIV 1.0 was so flawed that even Square Enix had to admit as much and essentially start over with a different team. Part of the staff change involved bringing in Masayoshi Soken as the main composer and sound director, after he contributed a handful of tracks to Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack for the original game. I wasn’t familiar with his previous works at all — which include the Front Mission 5 soundtrack and some Seiken Densetsu albums, among others — so I wondered how was he going to fill such massive shoes in this rebooted title.
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn‘s soundtrack was released in the same format as 1.0’s soundtrack — Before Meteor — a Blu-ray disc. This means that you can listen in your PS3/PS4/Blu-ray player of choice and enjoy interactive menus and a ton of concept artwork tailored to the music you’re listening to. For example, listening to songs from the La Noscea areas of the game displays a slideshow of artwork from those areas. The handful of songs from The Binding Coil of Bahamut display some artwork related to that area I’d never even seen until this disc. Most importantly, you can extract mp3 versions of the music either from your PC, or via your home network from your PS3/PS4. It’s a clever little setup, and since Square Enix employed the same thing on Before Meteor and the Final Fantasy X HD Remaster Original Soundtrack, I’m sure it’s one we’ll continue seeing.
The continent of Eorzea has three major city-states. Well, four, but only three we can currently visit. Since players spend so much time there, the city-state themes are appropriately long, typically exceeding 10 minutes each. The cities of Ul’dah and Limsa Lominsa have daytime themes that are nothing short of grand, filling you with a sense of adventure and encouraging you to venture forth and slay a helpless ladybug or massive dragon, depending on your mood. While this soundtrack wasn’t even announced until four months after the game had launched, what made me want it to exist early on was Ul’dah’s night theme, “Sultana Dreaming.” There was only so much to do in the beta phase of the game in July 2013, and it was not uncommon for the handful of my fellow editors and me to stand around in town and listen to this theme. It’s a gorgeous, calming piece of music that fits perfectly with the warm glow of Ul’dah’s golden stone walkways in the moonlight. To be fair, Limsa’s night theme, “A Sailor Never Sleeps,” offers a similar comfort, though with different instrumentation that fits the nautical feel of the city. Finally, Gridania, nestled in the forest, has relaxed music both night and day. “Wailers and Waterwheels” is the daytime theme, and while it’s less “epic” than the other cities, it moves along with a bounce in its step, evoking images of the playful sylphs that live nearby. All of these themes are both subtle and varied enough to never get old as you listen to them, so they’re perfectly tailored to their use in game.
There are two other “town” themes worth mentioning: “Where the Heart Is” and “Where the Hearth Is” are the outdoor and indoor themes, respectively, of the player housing areas. Interestingly, although each city-state has its own musical theme, the housing areas of each nation share these same two tracks. It’s hardly a complaint, just an oddity. Luckily, the chill, laid-back “Where the Heart Is” feels at home anywhere, whether that home is on the beach, in a desert oasis, or Hobbiton. I mean, the forest haven of Gridania’s Lavender Beds.
There’s no shortage of battle themes in A Realm Reborn, though we’re going to look at the “regular” battle music first. There is, technically, one battle song when engaging normal enemies on the world map. This song features different instrumentation in each of the world’s major zones, adding some needed variety. Each time, these tracks — all prefaced with “The Land” — open with a musical cue that hearkens back to Final Fantasy titles of old. Thanalan’s “The Land Burns” has prominent wind and string instruments, while La Noscea’s “The Land Breathes” focuses more on horns. The Black Shroud has “The Land Bends,” which is backed by some powerful drums. The final two versions are for the game’s later areas, Mor Dhona and Coerthas. Mor Dhona’s key component in “The Land Bleeds” is dramatic horns and drums, accented on occasion by deep, almost ethereal vocal chanting. It evokes a stronger sense of danger and importance than the other areas, which is fitting, as you’ll hear this one late in your journey while finishing the game’s main scenario. For me, though, it’s all about Coerthas. “The Land Breaks” may use the same melody as all the others, but the heavy use of organs makes it stand out from the pack. Organs are an important instrument in the music of the snow-cloaked Coerthas, as well as its yet-inaccessible city-state, Ishgard. As Ishgard itself is an outsider to the conflicts of Eorzea (until the Heavensward expansion, that is), this different feel seems well-suited to a land unwelcoming of outsiders. The field music of Coerthas, “Fealty” is another great use of these instruments, and again, evokes a different image from any other area.
As much as I may enjoy “The Land Breaks,” it’s the FATE and boss music in A Realm Reborn that really stands out. While there are many shared tracks amongst the earlier dungeons and bosses, many quite good, it’s the primals that get preferential treatment here, and deservedly so. Primals are FFXIV’s version of the classic FF summoned beasts (or Espers for FFVI/FFXII fans). Ifrit’s theme, “Primal Judgment,” is one of the few Nobuo Uematsu tracks that stuck around from 1.0, and I’m glad it did. Its relentless melody and dramatic vocals instill the exact sense of danger that it should, given that Ifrit surrounds you with a ring of fire in a battle to the death. Garuda’s theme also remained in place from 1.0, though “Fallen Angel” was composed by Soken. A haunting intro makes way for a fantastically energetic rock song, and like Ifrit, is punctuated by some amazing vocal work. It may be my favorite primal theme in the game as of November 2014, though Ramuh and Shiva’s themes give it a run for its money. Hopefully those themes see an album release soon. While not a traditional primal, Odin’s 11-minute battle theme, “The Corpse Hall”, is another favorite of mine for its somewhat panicked pace and brass instrument use. I suppose the panicked pace makes sense, given that not defeating Odin quickly enough results in him cleaving the entire area with Zantetsuken (and before being fixed, had a habit of sometimes crashing servers).
Titan’s theme may not be my favorite of the primal songs, but the thrashing hard rock deserves special mention here, as Titan started the tradition of primals with multiple themes. We’d see this again later, as some other primals have two battle themes, but Titan has five. FIVE. Like most major boss battles in the game, Titan is fought in several distinct phases, and each transition brings us to a new music track, collected in tracks 63-67 here. Starting off simple with “Weight of a Whisper,” once the earthen primal leaps and breaks the walls off his arena, the urgency of the music is heightened in the following two tracks. There’s a slight reprieve with “Heartless”, though while the feeling is less intense, there’s a very ominous overture at work, reminding you that if you fail at this phase of the fight, your entire party will die. Successfully clearing this leads to the real meat of Titan’s theme, “Under the Weight.” This hardcore 11-minute song is essentially Soken rocking out, and it’s both great and very unique to hear in the game. This multi-track treatment has been popular with fans, which is likely why the confrontations with Leviathan and Shiva feature multiple songs for each phase of their battles.
Moving past primals, there are several other tracks tied to key battles in A Realm Reborn. “Ultima” is a track heard late in the main story, and its hurried pace and grand theatricality is perfectly suited to… well, the kind of major battle it was composed for. One of the only battle tracks that can compare in magnitude is right near the beginning of the album. There are several songs that play during FATEs — randomly-spawning real-time battle events — but only a select few key battles are backed by “Torn from the Heavens,” a grand battle march blended with the classic Final Fantasy Prelude/crystal theme. The result is a track that you can’t help feeling inspired by, and to this day is one of my favorite songs on the album. Before the album existed, RPGFan Music lead Stephen Meyerink and I would always refer to the song as “that really cool FATE song.” Once we learned our favorite “really cool” song was titled “Torn from the Heavens,” we agreed it was a perfectly dramatic name for it.
As for “Good King Moggle Mog XII,” is it really mimicking… everything about “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas? It absolutely is, and I don’t even care. And you know why? Because seeing ARR’s localization lead and lyricist Michael-Christopher Koji Fox sing this live at the FFXIV Fan Festival is, as the person behind me put it, one of the greatest moments of my life.
Before we move past the big boss and battle themes, I need to talk about “Penitus.” Penitus is — a fact I learned as of this writing — a Latin word that basically means inside, or the innermost part of something. This epic 19-minute track plays during The Praetorium, the final stronghold of the Garlean Empire in A Realm Reborn’s main storyline, so it’s a perfect name. The song changes pace more than a few times, and has its deep, slow sections that lead in to a resounding march, with more instruments used in its duration than I can pinpoint. There’s some low-key vocals that remind of “Through the Gloom” (a track I’ll discuss shortly), and even a bit of the Final Fantasy Prelude in areas. This song goes so many places and has so much to it that I fear I’d just ramble (more than I am) trying to properly describe it. The point is, it’s well-suited to a final dungeon thanks to both its actual composition and incredible length. It’s also yet another reminder that this soundtrack had to be on a Blu-ray disc for us to really get the most out of tracks such as this without them being cut or spread across 8 or more CDs.
Let’s turn it down a little and talk about some of the “background” music, which may not jump out at you like some of the tracks we’ve been talking about, but sometimes it’s all about setting a mood. And there are some great pieces that accomplish just that. The Waking Sands may be a place that you’ll loathe traveling to (“again!?”) at certain points in your Eorzean journey, but the warm embrace of its theme eases the pain a bit. The delicate tones of “Crystal Rain” belie the danger in the otherwise gorgeous crystalline landscape of Mor Dhona. The dungeons have short intro tracks that welcome you to each location, and these range from the dark, clanky melody of songs like “Below,” to “Through the Gloom.” The latter is a chilling tune (in a good way!) that debuted with the Pharos Sirius dungeon, and was so overwhelmingly popular it would later earn an extended version that plays throughout the dungeon (another song that desperately needs an album release). One of my favorite light-hearted songs is “Another Round”, a bubbly piano-laden piece appearing in some Eorzean bars that gives World of Warcraft‘s Taverns of Azeroth album some healthy competition. On that topic, the laid-back nature of “Saltswept” and its plucky strings would be the perfect accompaniment to a tavern full of foul-mouthed sailors somewhere in the pirate-laden La Noscea. So it’s good that’s exactly where it’s used! There are so many great songs used like this to set a mood that I can’t possibly comment on each one here. This was only a handful, but all the others I didn’t mention do equally good jobs at complementing their locales in-game and pulling you further into the moment.
No Final Fantasy is complete without a chocobo theme, and A Realm Reborn is no exception. Nobuo Uematsu’s “Bo-down” is one of less than ten of the legendary composer’s tracks to make the transition to the ARR soundtrack (even though more of his songs are still in the game). A booming intro makes way for a very familiar tune, with a very similar sound to the Final Fantasy IV chocobo theme. As someone with immensely fond memories of the SNES classic, hearing this song with a similar feel but more modern instrumentation and some hearty drums is enough to make me happy. There are two main chocobo themes, however — Uematsu’s plays when riding a rented chocobo from town, while Masayoshi Soken’s “Eorzea de Chocobo” is the theme you’ll hear when riding your own feathered friend. It’s interesting that Soken’s version has a similarly lively opening, though his song makes use of brass instruments throughout. Despite the instrument choice, “Eorzea de Chocobo” is nothing like Final Fantasy X‘s amazing Brass de Chocobo, but it’s an upbeat feel-good rendition of this classic song nonetheless.
Another not-so-subtle nod to Final Fantasy history is Final Fantasy III‘s prominent inclusion in FFXIV. It’s no secret that Eorzea’s Crystal Tower is straight out of FFIII. This album contains three tracks from the first leg of Crystal Tower — tracks 98-100. I’m not intimately familiar enough with FFIII‘s music to pinpoint every musical cue, but there are parts of the original Crystal Tower theme, one of the battle tracks, and I believe pieces of a few other songs as well. “Hubris” is what starts you on your Crystal Tower journey and is an impactful but low-key piece. It’s heavy on bass and drums, and serves as a nice lead-in for what’s to come. “Ever Upwards” appropriately ups the ante a little and brings in some horns to liven up the beat a little, with Crystal Tower musically culminating with “Tumbling Down,” which plays during the final boss battle. The three songs go together nicely, starting low and dramatic, with an ever-increasing pace and higher-pitched instrumentation that fits nicely with the progression of the journey. Crystal Tower continued in a later update to the game with even more FFIII themes, but those are not yet available on an album. I really like that the developers and Soken went all-in on Crystal Tower, and realized that if FFIII fans would enjoy the tower, the music should be an updated throwback to that game as well.
Speaking of throwbacks, track 120, while technically “hidden,” is hardly a secret. “Battle on the Big Bridge Reborn” is Soken’s rendition of the fan favorite Gilgamesh battle theme that originated in Final Fantasy V. The FFXIV version marks at least the fourth time the song has been rearranged for a main Final Fantasy game (following inclusions in FFXII and FFXIII-2‘s DLC battle pack). I adore the mix of guitar and string instruments used here (violin perhaps?), and it is one of the few times the soundtrack really dips its foot into rock music. Given that Soken has formed his own rock band, The Primals, it’s almost surprising we haven’t seen more of it yet. I’m thinking this is a taste of things to come.
I have one regret about A Realm Reborn‘s soundtrack, and that’s the fact that “Answers” was released on Final Fantasy XIV 1.0‘s album, Before Meteor, and is not included here. I get it, and it’s fine, and yes, I spent $50 on that album for this song alone. But I feel that, as “Answers” is intimately tied to Bahamut and his razing of Eorzea, and repurposed in A Realm Reborn many times, it should have been on this album as well. It’s amazing, but I’ll talk about that in my Before Meteor review. Each major update to FFXIV has introduced a new high-end set of dungeons, alternating between Crystal Tower and The Binding Coil of Bahamut, the former being entertaining side content and the latter being pivotal to the plot and destruction of the realm. As the Binding Coil of Bahamut, shockingly, is binding the Elder Primal inside it, most of the music attached to it are arranged renditions of “Answers.” Fitting, as it’s the song that plays during the intro where you watch the land burn.
Similar to the first track in Crystal Tower, “Primal Timbre” features a sparse intro accentuated by light piano. As the pace builds, so too does the impact and tone of the piano. “Spiral” is a more frenzied track that plays as adventurers progress between boss battles in certain turns of Coil. Featuring a faster pace and more instrumentation than “Primal Timbre,” it’s still “Answers” at its core, and I’m a little sad that both tracks are only used a couple of times in the game, as boss battles use different music. And I say a little sad because Coil’s boss battle theme, “Calamity Unbound,” is an epic, sweeping tune that surpasses even the likes of “Penitus” and Crystal Tower’s music. It’s the thunderous beats. The strings. The dramatic vocals. It’s everything I could hope for in a song that will play with the hardest, most punishing boss battles in the entire game. I’ve heard this song a ridiculous number of times, and it still gives me the same feeling of wonderment it always has. I’m sure Soken knew it would be a song players would hear often, and at length, which is why the song has the variety it does, and can loop for long periods of time without sounding repetitive. Soken’s work on these endgame songs are some of his finest work on A Realm Reborn, and with the Bahamut storyline wrapping up, I’m both saddened and excited at what’s to come next, musically.
I’m almost positive this has been the longest review I’ve written for RPGFan, even exceeding some of my staggeringly-long reviews of FFXIV:ARR itself. For anyone who’s read this far, I’m both humbled and thankful. This has been a hard piece to write, and I hope the structure makes sense. Compiling thoughts on a 20-track album? No big deal. 50+ tracks? A little harder, but manageable. I hold A Realm Reborn‘s music so dearly that when I volunteered to tackle this 120-track, 7-hour behemoth of an album, I hadn’t thought about how daunting it would be. Granted, none of this compares to Masayoshi Soken’s work on composing all of this music. Thanks to the insane schedule required to fix FFXIV and re-release it, Soken revealed at Fan Fest that he composed 140 songs (in addition to his work of creating sound effects and ambient sounds) in a mere 8 months. It’s hard to imagine, and makes my hours spent writing this seem like nothing. In any case, I have nothing but good things to say about A Realm Reborn and its music. This is easily my favorite album of the year, and I anxiously await the next album release that will contain music added after this release shipped. To say that I can’t recommend A Realm Reborn‘s soundtrack highly enough is putting it lightly.