“Upon your return, I will gift you a beautiful flower.”
Music and emotion are inextricably linked. Out of all of composer Masayoshi Soken’s extensive Final Fantasy XIV works over the last eight years, no single album exemplifies this more than Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker.
First, a brief warning: I may get into some spoiler territory for Endwalker out of necessity, but I’ll tread lightly — it’s not a story you want to miss experiencing for yourself.
The best RPGs rank highly in our hearts and minds for emotional reasons. It could be characters we resonate with, a tale so fantastical that it stirs the imagination, or a narrative of compelling, relatable stories that we can’t turn away from. Final Fantasy XIV has told (and continues to tell) stories that touch on all of these and more. The characters are dear to those of us invested in FFXIV — whether you’ve played since 2013 like me or just a year like several of my FFXIV friends. It’s impossible to not become invested in their fates, and likewise, we can’t help but put ourselves in the shoes, greaves, or Thavnarian Sandals of our Warrior of Light (and sometimes Darkness).
When Endwalker launched last winter, emotions were running as high as the stakes were for the world of Hydaelyn herself. Who would make it through to the end? With every new area I ventured into and plot point that unfolded, I was full of exhilaration and no small amount of dread. I expected an emotional journey, and I got one. What I did not expect was for emotion to play a role in my real-life experience with Endwalker, and that emotion itself would be a vital aspect of the game’s narrative. Yes, this is starting to sound like a game review. But just as music and emotion are inextricably linked, so too are music and narrative in Endwalker.
From the first time Producer and Director Naoki Yoshida introduced us to the latest expansion with a new trailer, it was clear what Endwalker would be: a finale. More than that, it is a culmination of a story first introduced to players in 2010, even if it only truly started taking shape with A Realm Reborn in 2013. Endwalker wraps up the tale of Hydaelyn and Zodiark that we’ve been experiencing for eight years, so the music has to follow suit. Echoes of themes from every expansion appear in the “Footfalls” version of the Endwalker main theme and elsewhere on the soundtrack. Key themes such as Heavensward’s “Down the Up Staircase” and Shadowbringers’ “‘Neath Dark Waters” return from 2016 and 2019, respectively, to remind us of important characters and stories. Oh, and there’s one other essential song that I’ll talk about below.
But Endwalker isn’t all reused themes. Sometimes a story like this can be too heavy-handed with nods to past events, and even though it makes sense to cycle musical motifs back in where appropriate, doing nothing but that would prevent Endwalker from having its own identity. FFXIV features plot points, dungeons, and characters inspired by — or taken directly from — the likes of Final Fantasy III and Final Fantasy IV (yay!). And yes, getting some FFIV music while meeting my moon bunny buddies made me super happy. Soken’s arrangement of Nobuo Uematsu’s “Tower of Zot” is spectacular; somehow this song from 1991 fits perfectly inside the dungeon of a game from 2021.
All of this makes up just a portion of Endwalker‘s soundtrack. But when Soken seeks to create a new identity for this expansion, he exceeds my highest expectations, which is ridiculous after the high bar he and his team set with Shadowbringers.
As always, the new major city themes are gorgeous. Old Sharlayan’s upbeat daytime and chill nighttime tunes feel somewhat familiar, given our previous visits to other Sharlayan settlements. However, Radz-at-Han, the other major city in Endwalker, gives us something completely new. The whole of Thavnair has a strong Indian influence, from the characters’ dialect and gorgeously colorful clothing to the extremely vibrant architecture, and the music and instrumentation are also inspired by the region. It’s unlike anything else in Final Fantasy XIV. I always appreciate how Soken’s team instills different locales with unique musical identities, as it makes the world feel that much more alive.
Endwalker finally allows us to explore the nation of Garlemald, and it was not what I expected. The phrase “harshly cold winter” only begins to describe the atmosphere. The main area themes (“White Snow, Black Steel” and “Black Steel, Cold Embers”) feature such an extreme sparseness and bleakness that they set the tone and emotion of the ruined Garlean capital as clearly as any pile of smoking rubble does. Perhaps the most essential track here is “Home Beyond the Horizon,” a song some Garlean citizens listen to on a sad little portable radio in the freezing cold. Beyond bleak, this song is the definition of haunting, as the basso vocals and gloomy piano help define the soundtrack of a fallen nation’s displaced citizens. It’s impossible for me to hear it and not recall the encampment where this song plays, as my Warrior of Light and the Leveilleur twins try to help these poor souls. Let’s just say the music is effective.
If there’s one track in each expansion that can feel tiring, it’s the “standard” battle music. To be fair, for a type of music heard so often, it’s asking a lot for each expansion to give us something that won’t grow old over dozens (hundreds?) of hours. But Endwalker‘s battle theme, “Unbowed,” is dramatic and energetic, with a pleasant enough rhythm and a rich bassy tone that I never mind hearing.
One area in which FFXIV has never lacked musically is boss music, and Endwalker‘s mid-boss and end boss themes — “On Blade’s Edge” and “Finality,” respectively — are stunning, epic pieces that raise the stakes for every encounter they accompany. “On Blade’s Edge” features crunchy electric guitars, intense strings, and an ominous choir. “Finality” is equally good and has the added bonus of incorporating the Endwalker main theme as well, so no matter what boss I take on, I am sufficiently pumped up. Admittedly, both pale in epicness compared to “Endcaller,” the theme of the first major trial, a fight we’ve been anticipating for years. As such, there was no way to go besides delivering something as big and dramatic as possible, because the odds have never been more stacked against us. “Endcaller” is largely vocal-based and about as “big” as they come, with a soundscape that feels as wide as the wingspan of… the thing you’re fighting. It’s utterly fantastic and exactly what you’d expect in a final boss theme.
Except we’re only at the midpoint of this album.
After this, the narrative takes a sharp turn. Following a brief respite (and an excellent FFIV throwback), a terrible event unfolds and brings with it “As the Sky Burns,” a track of relentless rhythm tinged with danger on every beat. I was beside myself at this point in the game, and this unbelievably great song is what kept my emotions running high.
After resolving the immediate danger, Endwalker throws yet another curveball at us. With the wondrous land of Elpis, we at last get to what is, for me, the heart of the story. Here we meet the elusive Venat and other vital characters. I was not prepared to fall in love with the locals as hard as I did, especially Venat and a certain bird girl. From the outdoor tracks to the dungeon theme to the gorgeous vocals by Amanda Achen on “Flow Together,” every song here perfectly fits the fantastic landscapes and creation magicks at work. Unique creatures and structures are found around every bend and bring with them more questions, but even more importantly, answers.
Speaking of “Answers,” this track is the subject of nearly half of my Before Meteor: Final Fantasy XIV review. At the time, I fell in love with Nobuo Uematsu’s composition, Susan Calloway’s heartfelt and passionate vocals, and how the song tells the tale of the significant, world-altering consequences that rebuild Eorzea between FFXIV 1.0 and A Realm Reborn. A story of death and rebirth, of a new generation of heroes being inspired to defend the realm by those who no longer can, is infused into “Answers,” making it an incredible finale for ARR‘s Binding Coil series. Having “Answers” return in Endwalker with new context makes perfect sense, given the expansion’s goal of bringing the current story to a close.
But Yoshi-P and his team went beyond just reintroducing the song: the events surrounding “Answers” completely recontextualize the meaning of the song’s lyrics, and it blew my little Paladin mind when it dawned on me what was happening. If you’ve played to the end of this sequence in the game, you know exactly what I mean. I was glued to the screen, and no small amount of tears were shed. And that was all before I heard a new arrangement of “Answers” for an emotionally charged battle. I love this stripped-down, dramatic arrangement, as it lends the appropriate amount of gravitas to the sequence, as does the piano version of ”Answers” that follows. And let me tell you, the emotional impact of this sequence hit me like a truck, but it wasn’t until I had the soundtrack that I realized the battle arrangement was titled “Your Answer.” Knowing what Venat’s “question” is adds so much meaning and feeling that… well, I guess I need a more significant description than “hit me like a truck.” How could this song invoke such an emotional response from me eight years later, for totally different reasons? It’s a masterpiece.
And yet… and yet! We are not done, because it’s the final leg of our Warrior of Light’s journey where it all comes together. The last area of Endwalker is literally all about emotion, and boy, did I feel things. The events that transpired with my fellow Scions and friends were heart-wrenching and yet necessary to proceed. As I did, I was introduced to three variants of “Close in the Distance,” a song that rises to a crescendo with absolutely beautiful vocals by Jason Charles Miller. This trio of songs is excellent on the soundtrack, but the way they’re woven into the narrative is immensely effective. As I ventured forward, hope and despair rose within me in tune with the changing music. It’s the best final area of any Final Fantasy XIV expansion, but it wouldn’t have hit me in the feels nearly as hard without this music, no matter how gorgeous and eerie it may be.
At the end of a road paved with memories is a long-awaited moment of respite for one of Endwalker‘s most important characters. Dynamis — the concept and not just the song — is one of the key elements in the world(s) of FFXIV, playing a vital role in the most major conflicts ever seen. It is also the song that inspired me to write this review after days of deliberating on what my angle should be. It dawned on me that what makes the Endwalker soundtrack so wonderful and effective is the integral role the music plays in shaping the emotions of the game world, the characters, and the players. Dynamis and emotion are the keys that bring people back from the brink, pave the path ahead, and help our beloved characters (and us) keep going.
No matter how long Final Fantasy XIV may run or however many more games I play in my lifetime, the experience and the music of this MMO will stick with me for the long haul. Endwalker, in particular, delivered everything I could have hoped for in a story and its soundtrack. It took me to many places I expected and many more I didn’t. It’s nothing short of a triumph.
I honestly restrained myself in regards to specific song coverage, but for lack of a better place to include them, I wanted to note a few quick thoughts here at the end:
- As always, the physical release of the Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker soundtrack (available on the Square Enix Store and elsewhere) ships on a Blu-ray disc with interactive menus and game footage backing each song. I love these discs and the inclusion of game clips. I don’t love the organization — breaking songs into “battle,” “day time,” and “night time” groups is a nice touch, but I prefer albums that also let you simply jump to specific songs. You can download mp3s to your device, so it doesn’t ultimately matter, but the organization makes it hard to find particular songs using the Blu-ray menu.
- The bonuses on the disc make the physical release an easy recommendation. A colorful low-res visualizer accompanies the fun chiptune rendition of the Endwalker main theme. There is also concert footage of many songs performed for the 2021 China and 2022 Seoul FFXIV Fan Festivals. The Primals (Soken’s FFXIV band) are always enjoyable to watch, and the tracks where Yoshi-P makes surprise appearances to sing had me cheering. Don’t miss it!