Somnus, translated from Latin, means “sleep.” But nothing about the original soundtrack of Final Fantasy XV is restful. Anxious? Yes. Intense? Absolutely. Forceful? Without question. Yoko Shimomura and company were given the momentous task of adding their personal touch to the upper-echelon of music that comprises the Final Fantasy canon. If you’re like me, you would guess that Shimomura is up to that task. And if you listen to this soundtrack, you’ll know that you’re correct.
Final Fantasy XV opens with the instrumental version of “Somnus.” This piece sets the melancholic tone present throughout the soundtrack. It begins with a lone, somber piano, cut through by a mournful violin. The music swells into the song’s end, bringing with it a combination of hope, as well as sadness for what’s to come afterwards: “Departure.” The beautiful medley of piano and violin enters yet again, with the piano taking the lead this time around. It ends with a violinic motif that resurfaces in a multitude of tracks to come.
“Stand Your Ground” is the first of the game’s battle tracks. The song is, for lack of a better phrase, “classic Shimomura.” Its layered violins are forceful, its drums thumping along like the clash of swords on the battlefield. What makes this track interesting is that it is the first of the combat themes in the game, but, were it to be found in a Kingdom Hearts game, would not be out of place near the end of the latter’s soundtrack – when things are at their most intense. In other words, the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack is one of Shimomura’s darker albums overall. This becomes even more evident as the soundtrack continues into its fourth half.
“Broken Down” and “Hammerhead” tonally switches the album’s gears. As a game, Final Fantasy XV is meant to to emulate a road trip amongst Brothers-in-Arms, and these two tracks demonstrate that feeling with their Western, rustic roughness via a harmonica and an electric guitar. “Wanderlust” lives up to its name—the initial flute melody evokes the feeling of a journey, before kicking up into a mix of guitar, piano, and orchestral arrangement that swell together into an adventure as grand as the game’s.
That said, “Relax and Reflect” isn’t dark at all, and is one of the catchier songs in the album. The plucks of the flamenco, along with the casual drums and piano, come together to sound like something you’d hear while relaxing in the suite of a nice hotel. After a few more relaxing tracks, the album ramps back up again with “Hunt or Be Hunted.” It’s hard not to feel some animosity with this track, as it reminds me of the times my party was wiped out while I played the game. But it’s obvious that this is what the track is meant for as the bombastic drums overwhelm you with their intensity. Of particular note is the piano break at the minute and thirty mark, which is one of my favorite sections of music in the entire album.
One of my least favorite tracks is “A Quick Pit Stop.” As a song that you’ll hear for at least a fourth of your time playing the game itself, something should’ve been done to make it… more listenable, simply. A harmonica carrying the melody is not the way to go about doing that. The track comes off as feeling too repetitive far too quickly. “Love Lost” picks up the slack, however, providing one of Shimomura’s signature piano and violin compositions. “ARDYN” swaps beauty with unease by combining eclectic instruments with a slow pace. “What Lies Within” is one of the game’s dungeon songs and fits the bill well. The violin that reveals itself at the one minute mark, along with the organ near the song’s end, are appropriately haunting.
Now, let’s talk about “Bros on the Road.” I almost have no words for either the name of the track itself, or how out of place this song feels in comparison to the rest of the album. Which isn’t to say that I don’t find it highly entertaining—just that the song itself feels like it’d be more appropriate in Sonic Adventure 2 than Final Fantasy XV. The over-the-top electric guitar had me laughing the first time I heard it. But it does sound like the type of song a bunch of bros would rock out to on a road-trip, so I can’t complain too much. In fact, I can easily picture Prompto getting out of his seat and strumming his air guitar as the song plays.
“Veiled in Black” is another battle theme, which I find more engaging than “Stand Your Ground.” Shimomura’s trademark piano puts itself to work here, with a powerful drum backing to help move the piece along, and a violin that appears at crucial peaks in the song. Afterwards comes “Valse di Fantastica,” a key track of which its motifs appear in a few other songs on the album. The waltz-like structure of the piece carries with it a sense of both bombast and class. Most notable is the unique usage of castanets at points in the song. “Crystalline Chill” is a remixed take on the Final Fantasy “Prelude” theme. And “chill” it is: with a light techno beat interwoven between the iconic piano motif, the song is a great combination of old and new, delivering a refreshing imagination of Nobou Uematsu’s classic.
“What a Hoot” and “Blues de Chocobo” are more entertaining pieces to me than tracks like “Hammerhead,” though both are similar in their rustic tone and harmonica usage. I suppose I will have to concede that part of me enjoys these tracks more simply because of how iconic the Chocobo theme is. “Lestallum” and “Welcome to the Leville” continue the trend of relaxing town themes, while “Unsettling Aura” and “Don’t Panic!” are serviceable enough in establishing the mood as described in their titles.
Next up is “APOCALYPSIS NOCTIS,” one of the strongest tracks in the game. I am a sucker for Latin chanting. The sweeping violin lends itself to the epic scale of the track. Just a fantastic composition all around. “Flying R” feels like a callback to more classic Final Fantasy songs with the simple melody and use of organ overlaid over a fast-paced track. “Imperial Infiltration” could have been another “tense, slow” track, as is present in a million JRPGs (and this album—see “Unsettling Aura”). Thankfully, the track sets itself apart with a harp. A harp! It’s these kinds of unconventional choices that make Shimomura’s compositions so unique.
“OMNIS LACRIMA” takes a page from “APOCALYPSIS NOCTIS,” right down to the all-caps title. The former is also just as good as the latter. Latin chanting gets an A+ from me once again, but this track in particular gets bonus points for implementing motifs from other key tracks into its melody. After a few more serviceable tracks—including all three variations of “Cape Caem”—we get to “NOCTIS.” The waltz-like structure of the piano in this track makes it one of my favorites. A combination of wistful and hopeful, the song feels like the sun rising after a rainy day.
“LUNA” is a track as short as the titular character’s involvement in the game itself, which is unsurprising.
The last fourth of the soundtrack takes a turn for the dark, getting progressively more anxiety-filled as one listens through the tracks. Songs like “Broken Bonds,” “Dining Car,” and “Relax and Reflect – Pensive,” all feel uncomfortable, with the last song feeling almost claustrophobic with its muffled instruments. After a few more relatively subtle “death and despair” tracks, things pick up again with the intense, bass-heavy “RAVUS AETERNA.” The horn that backs this song gives it a unique feel as well.
“Somnus” is the breathtaking vocal version of the first song in the game. Aundréa L. Hopkins’ haunting vocals signal that the final moments of the game—and, subsequently, the album—are drawing near. The final swell of the track refuses to leave my head, even hours after I’ve listened to it. It’s simply that good. Then we get “Hellfire,” which can be best described as a six and a half minute masterpiece. The opening of this song is one of the most engaging I’ve heard in recent memory. The powerful bass, rising chant of the Latin choir, and desperate swell of the violin all lead to an incredible arrangement. It almost feels as if Shimomura combined her signature style with techniques used in western cinematic orchestral arrangements.
Compared to “Hellfire,” “Magna Insomnia” feels almost like a let-down. That said, it is still a great, impactful track. A callback to “Departure” from the beginning of the soundtrack, “Dawn” has a greater sense of finality, which feels thematically appropriate after the tumultuous journey you’ve gone through listening to the album. “Somnus Ultima” continues that trend of finality, as another fantastic arrangement of the song. Seriously, I could easily call “Somnus” one of Shimomura’s greatest songs.
If “Dawn” represents the end of a journey, then “Dewdrops at Dawn” embodies the day that come afterwards. Using “Valse di Fantastica” as a backdrop, it feels appropriately hopeful, especially after the intensity of the last section of the album. Things come to a head with last song, “Main Theme from FINAL FANTASY.” It’s hard to get this song wrong, considering its timelessness, but it is done justice by Shimomura, and its placement gives it even more impact.
The original soundtrack of Final Fantasy XV deserves praise for being one of the best RPG soundtracks of 2016, if not the past couple of years. It’s hard to write a review without multiple variations of “this album is just fantastic.” But it really is. Every song nails it on each front. Even the most serviceable of tracks are catchy and engaging. Even with Final Fantasy XV’s turbulent development, it’s comforting to know that one aspect of the game will always known as being great: its music.