The latest FFXI soundtrack release marks the first time that Square Enix has chosen to release a digital-only soundtrack for the game. I think there’s an importance all its own in this decision, and before getting to the content of the music, I’d like to discuss that.
Final Fantasy XI has been up and running, for better or worse, for about twelve years. As SE’s newer MMORPG, Final Fantasy XIV, has finally become a force to reckon with (and is arguably the best MMO out there; it’s easily the best Japanese MMO), FFXI must inevitably wind down its content. And while the content being generated for FFXI continues to come at a steady pace, it comes in many derivative forms: palette swaps, NPCs once programmed for special event-fights now joining you in normal combat, recycling boss battles at higher levels for new gear. Outside of the new story content found in Adoulin, all that’s left these days seems to be a reliving of “the good old days.” There is even one quest line (in the Records of Eminence category) that speaks quite plainly to this experience, as a sort of lament.
In the past, when Naoshi Mizuta wrote new music for the final chapters and events of an expansion pack, Square Enix simply included those tracks on the next CD release, whether it was the next expansion or a collection album like the two disc “FFXI OST PLUS.” Not this time. Adoulin’s last bits of music (which, as it turns out, are some of its best bits of music) are released as a digital-only EP. What does this suggest to you?
I’m speculating here, but to me, it suggests that Square Enix currently has no plans in sight to release a sixth major expansion for FFXI. If they did, they could have easily waited to release these eight tracks on the next expansion’s OST, per the usual. Perhaps because this album included a new vocal track (only the second in the MMO’s long history, the first being “Distant Worlds” from the second expansion, Chains of Promathia), this digital release came about for purposes of marketing — i.e., they thought it would sell more, but not in the traditional CD format. But I suspect my first hypothesis is correct, given the game’s age.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what we have here.
Vocalist Mika Kobayashi sings the “ending” song for the fifth expansion. This piece, entitled “Forever Today,” is a lengthy vocal ballad that is at times bright and inspirational, at other times somber and melancholy. It runs the gamut of emotions quite nicely, and it fits the expansion and its NPC protagonist Arciela perfectly. The vocal track also includes performances from Mizuta’s group “Nanaa Mihgo’s,” so there is some great violin work on the track as well.
On track 6, there is the “EP Version” of this same song. While you may think this means it’s a special version unique to this EP-sized “OST PLUS” release, it’s clear after listening to the song that “EP” stands for Electric Piano, because that’s what the song is. The vocal track remains the same, but all the backing instrumentation is cut and replaced with Naoshi Mizuta playing electric piano. Simple as that. It’s a nice alternate cut of the song to have, though it certainly wasn’t a necessity.
“Worlds Away,” a beautiful piece of cutscene music used throughout the expansion’s story, is my personal favorite. It ranks above everything else on Adoulin’s OST as well as this OST PLUS. Mizuta-san has learned so much in his time at Square Enix. His work on FFXIII-2 remains his crowning achievement, but some of the production, arrangement, and mixing skills he picked up there have clearly carried over into FFXI, even though FFXI has its musical limitations. Worlds Away uses a simple looped piano track as its foundation, and then builds with effect-laden glockenspiels. That’s all it took. I am wowed every time.
“Monstrosity” is a new game mode that’s been added to FFXI wherein players can transform themselves into certain monster types and run around old areas in the game, customizing and leveling said critter all the way to level 99. It’s quite a bit of fun, though it serves the player absolutely no benefit for their main character. When battling other monsters in Monstrosity, this piece of music is what you hear. This is a fun little battle theme, with a lead synth holding the melody and crunchy/distorted guitar punctuating in many a syncopated rhythm. There is also a synth string ensemble weaving its way through, and it works really well for a fun, light-hearted battle theme. Nicely done!
“Clouds Over Ulbuka” is, for me, the least listenable piece of music. This is the ominous/threatening cut scene music for the Adoulin story sequence. The music is perfunctory: it serves its task well. In the context of the game, it definitely works. There’s also a very small part of it, about 15 seconds, where Mizuta channels Hitoshi Sakimoto in a totally uncanny way. Otherwise, however, it is quite skippable.
“The Price” is Adoulin’s final battle music. In my mind, Naoshi Mizuta has generally saved his best compositional efforts for these special bits of music within each and every expansion, including the story-based mini-expansions (Kupo d’Etat, etc). I’ve found greatness in each and every one of them: Ragnarok, for Treasures of Aht Urhgan, was particularly powerful. Here, “The Price” softens its tone a wee bit, similar to what Mizuta did for the final battle music of the previous expansion (Wings of the Goddess). “The Price” is, nonetheless, an excellent example of how final battle music in an MMORPG can be incredible without being overwhelming to the ears.
“The Serpentine Labyrinth” is environmental music for an area of Adoulin that was made accessible nearly one year after the game’s release. That area, “Ra’Kaznar,” is indeed a huge labyrinth. A multi-floor labyrinth with lots of one-ways and sealed doors only opened through secret methods. This is excellent dungeon music. There’s a simple string ensemble-led melody. The low, echoing drums add to the mystery and intensity of it all. The instrumentation and the heavy reverb all serve to create a beautiful song. Mizuta doesn’t skimp on the production value here. As one of the remaining faithful FFXI players, I can definitely say that this new tune added so much to the enjoyment of exploring this strange new area.
Adoulin’s “OST PLUS” ends on a strange note. “The Divine” is another piece of environmental music. The song isn’t weak, per se; it has the ephemeral quality of “Worlds Away,” but it also (intentionally) uses dissonant and unresolved tonal structure. Many casual listeners will dismiss the tune for not having the “catchy earworm” gene. I am pleased with the song myself… I’m just confused by its placement in the track ordering. In my mind, the album should have gone out on “The Price” or the EP version of Forever Today. “The Divine” should have come well before The Serpentine Labyrinth, as the one was written and released (in-game) before the other.
So that’s it: the digital-only nugget of goodness from Naoshi Mizuta. While Final Fantasy XIV has great music in spades, I would urge all who have fond memories of FFXI to check out this latest soundtrack. It’s new, but there is always something familiar in Mizuta’s soundscapes. For some, it will be an echo of former greatness. For others, it will be an extension of that greatness into new and uncharted territory.