I find everything about Final Fantasy XIV’s life and development fascinating. Nothing about Square Enix’s MMORPG has been by the books. Typically, you see a game released, often alongside a soundtrack, and that’s the end of the story. However, FFXIV was released in bad shape, enough so that the game was torn down and rebuilt into the success story it has become. XIV’s musical history is just as interesting, since when FFXIV 1.0 launched in 2010, it brought multiple mini soundtracks with it. They didn’t contain every song in the game, but there were 55 tracks across the Field Tracks, Battle Tracks, and Eorzean Frontiers albums. This release approach was a little perplexing, as there was no talk of a complete album on the horizon.
In August 2013, two weeks before Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was set to launch, the album Before Meteor was released — a Blu-ray disc containing 104 tracks, comprising all the music from the 1.0 release of the game. It was a long time coming, and while the timing was odd (given that A Realm Reborn would feature largely new music), it’s great that the original music by Uematsu and Co. saw a proper release. Because unlike the game these songs were attached to, the music shouldn’t be forgotten.
There’s not a whole lot of music shipping on Blu-ray, so if you’re curious as to why Square Enix has been using the format, I think it’s largely the 6+ hour length of the album. Instead of building a massive multi-CD box or, worse, chopping down some tracks to fit on a smaller-capacity format, Square Enix took the uncompromising approach of the large capacity of Blu-ray. Not only do we get all the music on a single disc, but we also get a cool multimedia presentation alongside said music with interactive menus and concept artwork slideshows. If you have a nice TV and sound system, it’s the perfect thing to sit back, watch, and listen to.
Like the Final Fantasy titles of yore, Before Meteor is largely composed by series regular Nobuo Uematsu, who’s responsible for 74 of these 104 tracks. The rest come from a multitude of composers, from Masayoshi Soken (who would go on to compose the entire score for A Realm Reborn and the Heavensward expansion), to Square Enix mainstays Ryo Yamazaki and Tsuyoshi Sekito.
Then there’s Ai Yamashita, whose only other credited game album is Square Enix’s Hanjuku Hero 4 in 2005. I have no idea how or why she ended up composing Canticle, her sole contribution to this album, but I am so glad she did. It’s a song that plays in key story scenes, often when the characters are discussing a somber or serious matter, and thankfully this song carried over to A Realm Reborn. It’s a short, pensive piece that’s perfectly suited to its use in the story, and ends up being one of my favorite tracks on the album. Ai Yamashita, please compose more music!
Naoshi Mizuta’s two tracks couldn’t be more different: Both Quick as Silver, Hard as Stone and Maelstrom Command remain in the game today. The former is used in the Kobolds’ home base of the U’Ghamaro Mines, and is a low-key, but up-tempo song that befits such creatures scurrying about their mines. Maelstrom Command on the other hand, is a regal, inspiring piece that wouldn’t be out of place accompanying a parade or coronation ceremony. Both are solid pieces, though considering that Mizuta composed most of my favorite tracks on Final Fantasy XIII-2, I know he’s capable of so much more.
Now-current FFXIV composer Masayoshi Soken contributed key tracks to 1.0, with many of his songs remaining in A Realm Reborn, such as the deeply inspiring To the Fore, a dramatic drum-heavy track used for key boss battles. Garuda’s chilling Fallen Angel theme is here, despite being on ARR’s album as well. I assume their logic was simply that the song is too good to miss, a thought process I can support. Perhaps Soken’s most notable contribution is Rise of the White Raven, the theme for 1.0’s final confrontation with the Garlean Empire’s Nael Van Darnus, known among his peers as The White Raven. This rousing, bass-heavy battle theme has all the makings of a final boss track: A large, epic sound complete with horns, strings, and ethereal Latin vocals that sing the praises of the Empire and the White Raven himself. It’s one of my favorite songs in the game, and I was overjoyed when the song made a comeback in ARR’s Second Coil of Bahamut. A must listen.
Now it’s all about Nobuo Uematsu, who composed far too much of this album for me to comment on everything, but there some real standout pieces that warrant mention. On Windy Meadows is lighthearted and breezy, and reminds me of Kumi Tanioka’s music for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. From the Heart is a surprisingly heartfelt song accented by… electric guitars. An interesting blend of melody and instrument, it’s a great, if short, track. The themes of XIV’s three great city-states are noteworthy, as none of them exist in the game today. Ul’dah’s theme, The Twin Faces of Fate, is especially of a different feeling than Soken’s theme, which would give the city a very different vibe, as Uematsu’s take is more laid-back “desert oasis”-style than the grand theme of today.
There are more than a few themes that were thankfully deemed too good to remove from the game. Pennons Aloft is an epic, and fantastic, rousing battle theme, still used in XIV for some of the most important battles. Sacred Bonds blends somber undertones with a rising melody that never fails to inspire. Tranquility could not be described any better than its name already does. Often used in genuinely touching exchanges between characters in both the main story and certain side quests, it adds an immeasurable amount of emotion to each scene. One of my favorite tracks on Before Meteor, of all things, is When A Tree Falls, a relaxed, bouncy, and even crunchy upbeat tune that accompanies gatherer missions. No matter how many times I heard this song while leveling my Botanist, Miner, and Fisher to 50 (and recently, 60), this song never failed to encourage me to keep going. I’m not sure in what context Without Shadow was used in 1.0. In ARR and beyond, it’s become the theme of the literally shadowy Ascians, and the haunting vocals and sharp piano hits are so instrumental (har har) in enforcing their evil factor that I can’t imagine not having this song around. Finally, like Soken’s Rise of the White Raven, Tempest makes a return in the same key story-heavy battle of A Realm Reborn’s Second Coil of Bahamut. Everything about this boss is a throwback to 1.0, and I’m glad the songs came along as well. Uematsu’s part of this is a hard-edged, heavy beat that spends a solid three minutes laying a foundation before really kicking off. It’s a song that needs to be heard in its entirety, so it’s perfectly suited to the long-form battle for which it was composed.
While a largely wonderful album, there are a few recurring things that I’m not too crazy about. There are many songs here that seem to suffer (at least to me) from one of two things: way too much synth, or way too much grandiosity. The synth-heavy stuff feels out of place compared to the rest of the music. I’m not even opposed to synth or other old-school music (my current obsession as of this writing is the Secret of Mana Arrange Album I just discovered). I just feel that it puts these songs in a weird place between classic game music and modern, orchestrated music, on top of being just a little too in-your-face (or ears…). The same can be said for the grandiosity: I’m all for big, “today, we battle!” themes. Give me some solid brass instruments, and I’ll march my paladin into whatever battle you want. But it needs to be used more sparingly than it is here. Even Limsa Lominsa’s salty city of sea scum can sound “grand” (as in Soken’s music) without having to resort so often to… Well, cheesy trumpets. Again, I’m all for the sound, but I think there are too many tracks here that not only are trying too hard to sound bigger than needed, but some of them end up sounding too samey as well. These are my only real complaints about the album, but these songs are in the minority, so it’s not exactly a condemnation of the entire package.
And honestly, none of those complaints mean anything in the long run, because this album is also where Uematsu gives us Answers, which quickly became my all-time favorite Final Fantasy vocal theme.
I close my eyes, tell us why must we suffer
Release your hands, for your will drags us under
My legs grow tired, tell us where must we wander
How can we carry on if redemption’s beyond us?
It was Final Fantasy VIII and Eyes on Me that began the series’ trend of attaching a vocal theme song with each title, and that’s precisely what Answers is to Final Fantasy XIV. When the original Final Fantasy XIV was shutting down in 2012, producer Naoki Yoshida and his team created a series of in-game events to truly bring the era to a close. The red moon Dalamud was slowly creeping closer to the planet’s surface, and it would be the way Eorzea would temporarily “end,” both for players and the people of the land. There are several excellent videos of players that documented the final minutes of Eorzea, with Dalamud eerily looming (watch it full screen, and pay attention to the chatlog in the lower left for the full effect). The immensely foreboding theme in the background of this event is the first time people would hear Answers, albeit in a muted, distorted form. (This version would return to the game temporarily for ARR’S 1-year anniversary event)
Now open your eyes while our plight is repeated
Still deaf to our cries, lost in hope we lie defeated
Our souls have been torn, and our bodies forsaken
Bearing sins of the past, for our future is taken
Following the closure of the servers, a video was released to wrap up 1.0. It’s part of the intro of A Realm Reborn now, and is seen in the link above. Along with being simply one of the most stunning pieces of CG animation I’ve ever seen, it’s also where the full Answers premiered, made amazing by the wonderful vocal work of Susan Calloway. Calloway was hand-picked by conductor Arnie Roth and Nobuo Uematsu to sing several well-known Final Fantasy songs for the Distant Worlds concert series, such as FFIX’s Melodies of Life and FFX’s Suteki da ne. Following her work with Uematsu, he chose her to be the voice of Answers, and I cannot express how pleased I am that he did. I have incredibly fond feelings towards many FF vocal themes, especially Suteki da ne, but Answers has become my new favorite. It’s so gloriously dramatic and swelling with each new verse, and, vitally, telling a story at the same time. I’ll admit I’ve launched the game and let the intro play more than a few times just to hear it.
War born of strife, these trials persuade us not
Words without sound, these lies betray our thoughts
Mired by a plague of doubt, the Land, she mourns
Judgement binds all we hold to a memory of scorn
Tell us why, given Life, we are meant to die, helpless in our cries?
The story that bridged 1.0 to 2.0 involved Bahamut breaking free of his prison within the lesser moon Dalamud and reducing much of Eorzea to ash. The endgame battles in 2.0 were a build-up to a battle with Bahamut, and as such, the melody of Answers would inspire some of the music in these Binding Coils that kept the Elder Primal in stasis. The final chapter would release over a year after 2.0 launched, and would feature not songs inspired by Answers, but Answers itself in the final battle. The song was “dismantled,” for lack of a better term, with each phase of the fight using a different aspect of the song — the deep, male vocals at the outset, culminating in the full, amazing finale of the song. The song’s lyrics and deep ties to the story make it more than “some neat song,” but one integral to the experience, and part of the reason this battle is such a thrilling experience to take part in.
This won’t shock you at this point, but I freely admit that I dropped $50 to get this album purely because I wanted a proper version of Answers. And while I’m still insane enough to feel that was worth it, what I found was a wonderful album with only a handful of stuff that wasn’t my cup of tea. It was great learning just how many songs in the game today began in 1.0, and comparing some theme songs to their placements isn’t so much of a “which one is better” situation, but a fascinating insight into how different composers visualize a soundscape for similar places and characters.
Also, Agent of Inquiry is a wonderful theme for a wonderful character.