The latest entry to Square Enix’s flagship franchise is here, as is its massive soundtrack. Final Fantasy XVI made landfall this June, and its Original Soundtrack followed along in July. Square Enix published two distinct versions of the soundtrack: the standard seven-disc Original Soundtrack and the eight-disc Ultimate Edition. Alongside that final disc, which is included in the scope of this review, the Final Fantasy XVI Original Soundtrack Ultimate Edition arrives with some impressive packaging design. It also appears to be a physical exclusive format, with the standard edition also being made available digitally (with some strange re-grouping of songs to fit four digital “discs”).
In giving this massive, nine-hour collection of audio my time and attention, I recognized two contexts, two cognitive overlays and filters, that colored my interpretation of the music. First and foremost, I played through the game before listening to the soundtrack separately, so I already had familiarity with the music in the context of the game. This invariably influences me, especially for larger titles, as I learned once upon a time when I listened to the Final Fantasy XII Original Soundtrack without first playing the game and, at the time, found little to latch onto. It was only years later, after playing the game and revisiting Sakimoto’s massive soundtrack, that I realized how much of it I really loved. So, please consider that my ears and mind were accustomed to this music before I listened to the soundtrack on its own, focused, uninterrupted.
The other context to keep in mind is that I have preconceptions about the game’s lead composer, Masayoshi Soken. His name has become synonymous with the flagship MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV, as he has served as lead composer since version 2.0 (A Realm Reborn) in 2013. In the past decade, Soken has composed original compositions and arranged tunes from other Final Fantasy and Square Enix IPs used in the game with such frequency and outstanding results that it is truly intimidating. At current standing, Final Fantasy XIV and its expansions (excluding what is primarily Uematsu’s work on Before Meteor, or 1.0) have over 42 hours of original and arranged music. What I’ve gleaned in my many forays into FFXIV music, without having played more than a few hours of the game itself, is that Soken and his crew of dedicated co-composers (Takafumi Imamura and Daiki Ishikawa, also composers for the Final Fantasy XVI soundtrack) have developed an incredible talent for working and reworking motif after motif into their music. Those motifs can be newly established ones that they concocted for a game or existing motifs, primarily from Nobuo Uematsu.
With these overlays, preconceptions, lenses, whatever you want to call them, in mind—my primary observation about the complete Final Fantasy XVI soundtrack is that Soken takes special care to weave some of the most potent and memorable Final Fantasy themes into the most important pieces of music. In doing so, he keeps the spirit of the entire series alive. A minor-key variant of the famous Final Fantasy “Prelude” arpeggio is deftly used throughout the first three tracks in the game: “Land of Eikons,” “Away (Overture),” and “The Lion and the Hare – The Nysa Defile.” The prelude is used again and again throughout the soundtrack, always at key moments in the story, often involving the Eikons themselves. In one particularly powerful battle theme, “Control,” the prelude arpeggio is joined by a simple countermelody performed by a booming mixed choir. The accompanying theme created by these few notes, written by Soken to join Uematsu’s classic theme, is quickly established as its own mega-motif. It works extremely well.
While the “arpeggio” half of the prelude appears most, the melodic upper half is used to great effect in “An Outlaw’s Uncle,” found on disc four, serving as the theme music to one of my favorite characters in the game. Other Uematsu themes feature throughout the soundtrack, of course: the series “Main Theme” (see “Azure Skies” and “Fighting Fate”), the FFI world map theme (see “Bloodlines” and “Mighty Acts of God” among others), the classic victory/fanfare jingle, the classic bass line opener to the standard battle theme (see “On the Shoulders of Giants”), and a quick appearance of the chocobo theme in a ten-second jingle. That last bit comes as a bit of a surprise, as the classic “chocobo” theme has been significantly reworked and emphasized in most entries of the series, but here, there is merely one little jingle, and that’s it.
All of this emphasis on the music from the first Final Fantasy has a thematic purpose beyond that of the music. Yes, it absolutely summons nostalgia for the game’s origins and roots for fans of the series. But there is an interesting plot element (that I will not spoil) that I think explains why Final Fantasy XVI‘s soundtrack pulls so heavily from the original Final Fantasy. Those who played the game to completion: just think about it.
Now, while Soken and team have done an excellent job using these motifs throughout this massive soundtrack, they’ve also written some incredible original music and scored it with just enough chamber orchestra instruments to recreate the sound of a larger orchestra. The 15-person choir carries things a long way as well. The recorded instruments allow for some bombastic tunes, such as “To Sail Forbidden Seas” and “Heart of Stone.” However, I find myself less drawn to the epic battle music and much more to the subtle town and environment themes. These are easy to spot on the tracklist, as they will use a dash between a descriptive song title followed by the location (example: “Forevermore – The Grand Duchy of Rosaria”). The first two that grabbed my attention appear early in the soundtrack. “Into the Mire – Stillwind” utilizes many of the instrumentals alongside some lifelike synth and piano/keyboard work. “Lovely, Dark, and Deep – The Greatwood” is lovely for the title alone! The ethereal upper-register vocal work paired with simple piano makes this one much akin to Monaca / Keiichi Okabe’s work on the NieR series.
When it comes to the town music, I will leave it at this: if you enjoy some of the background environmental music from FFXIV, you are sure to enjoy Final Fantasy XVI‘s town themes as well. There are over a dozen of them across this soundtrack, and they are beautifully well-developed pieces of music. Though different in tone, they are comparable in quality to the area themes in Octopath Traveler II; that’s high praise on my part, as I still hold that soundtrack as my favorite for 2023.
There are a few other general styles, or types, of tunes to consider across this massive soundtrack. First, there are the rock and electronic tracks. For example, the seven-minute vocal track “Titan Lost” features vocals and lyrics by Michael-Christopher Koji Fox. FFXIV fans will recognize that name. He has had a lasting presence as a member of The Primals band. Then there are more ambient electronic tracks, like “A Land in Peril.” These are easy to write off as filler tracks, but even as a soft piece that one might associate with a Western-developed computer RPG from the early 2000s, it takes work to craft these tracks well.
Then, of course, there is the game’s vocal theme saved for the ending, sung by Amanda Achen. “My Star” is a sweet, jazzy love ballad pulled from another era and brought to life in 2023. Soken is a master of reharmonizing, even within his own pieces. He will establish a chord progression, then repeat with diminished chords, augmented chords, and full substitutions. Careful listeners will also hear how he does the same with Uematsu’s themes. However, hearing it done within the same song is quite impressive. Perhaps more impressive, though, is Achen’s voice. Her dynamics impress me most, letting the softest, most dulcet tones escape and then interrupting these with powerfully belted words as the backing piano and strings join in the crescendo.
Finally, as promised, is that bonus disc for the limited edition. There are some short incidental pieces of music opening the disc, most of which are re-used themes from the main game. Takafumi Imamura’s “Old Friend” makes excellent use of one of Final Fantasy XVI‘s key motifs, with a lovely solo guitar leading the way. The brooding piece “For the Water Was a Wall” is one that I do not recall from the game, but is one of my favorites on the final disc. “Away (1987)” is a chiptunes demake of one of the game’s key themes, bringing the FFI – FFXVI theme full circle. Finally, there are eight unused tracks, some of which appear to be early demos for what would later become more fully realized pieces of music. Among them, my favorite is the first of the bunch, Daiki Ishikawa’s “The Grand Duchy of Rosaria (Unused).” The flute flourish in this version is lovely, and not found in Soken’s finalized “Forevermore – The Grand Duchy of Rosaria” (disc three, track seven). While I think Soken’s version is ultimately the superior version, it is interesting to see and hear which songs were left on the cutting room floor for the final version of the game.
Friends, I daresay I’ve only skimmed the surface. There is so much more I did not speak to, so much I feel uncomfortable trying to piece apart without additional listens and discussions with other keen listeners and fans of the game. This is to be expected with a soundtrack of this size and, I suspect, for so many of Soken’s FFXIV expansion soundtracks. However, I feel the Final Fantasy XVI Original Soundtrack stands above many — if not all — FFXIV‘s expansions, if only because of its thematic coherence and high budget. I wonder if die-hard XIV players would agree or disagree with me.
What I can say for certain is that, compared to the sparse packaging of the Blu-ray FFXIV soundtracks, this “Ultimate Edition” soundtrack for Final Fantasy XVI received a superior packaging treatment, with beautiful illustrations from Yoshitaka Amano and Kazuya Takahashi and dual-language (Japanese and English) liner notes from key staff, including Soken himself. The additional cost for the complete set makes for a no-brainer. Of course, the convenience of a cheaper digital release is also a good option, though fans should be prepared to shell out money commensurate to such a long soundtrack. At the time of writing this review, the iTunes release sells for $36 USD.
Clive, Jill, Joshua, Cid, Byron, Dion, and many others are memorable characters worth celebrating. Their adventure, scored by Masayoshi Soken alongside a cavalcade of great arrangers and performers, will be long celebrated. Listening to the complete Final Fantasy XVI soundtrack in a single sitting, however, is absolutely overwhelming; it is the audio equivalent of doing a Lord of the Rings trilogy movie marathon. I recommend listening in smaller bunches or curating subsets of your favorite pieces into playlists appropriate for background studying, driving, or sleeping. There is enough here to suit many different listener’s needs, after all. Grab a copy of this mammoth OST, and you’ll see what I mean.