Beneath the gazing stars
Vales deep and forests dark
Betrayed by loyal hands, Her wrath stirred
Bound fast unto our fate
One path, one burden great
Yet ever do our aching souls point Heavensward
Ever rings out our song
Yes, ever do our aching souls march Heavensward
As they’ve done for so long
To their trespass
We are Witness
Here to pass this
Now our steel shall sing
Guide us, O mighty Fury
Guide us to victory!
Dys an sohm in [Our slumber disturbed]
Rohs an kyn ala na [All my brothers wake]
Mah morn narr [The saviors must parish]
Sahl djahs afah an [Vengeance will be ours]
The soundtrack to Final Fantasy XIV’s second coming, A Realm Reborn (aka 2.0), featured music largely by Masayoshi Soken. Prior to 2013, he composed music for 2006’s Dawn of Mana, Front Mission 5 (which sadly never saw an English release), a pair of Mario sports games, and some others. While these are all noteworthy titles to have worked on, taking on FFXIV must have been daunting. And not only because the original release featured a soundtrack by the man who created the music for Final Fantasy as a whole. The result was that ARR was mostly Soken’s work, with some of Nobuo Uematsu’s songs from 1.0 being so good that they remained in the reworked game. If you read my intimidatingly long A Realm Reborn OST review, you know that I have nothing but immense praise for Soken’s work on that album and its followup from 2015, Before the Fall: Final Fantasy XIV. There aren’t many composers that can take over for a legend, but Soken proves his talents again and again. One could ask then, what would happen if Soken and Uematsu were to both work on an album? What musical euphoria would result?
Thankfully, that answer is right here, in the Heavensward OST.
I don’t know the dynamics behind the scenes of this album. I want to say that Uematsu and Soken are a formidable team, though I’m not sure how much they directly worked with one another. What I know is that Uematsu composed “Dragonsong,” Heavensward’s key vocal track. “Dragonsong” tells the story of Heavensward and Ishgard’s history, through lyrics that are only going to make sense once you’ve witnessed the expansion’s story. “Dragonsong” shines in part thanks to the gorgeous vocal work by Susan Calloway, returning to FFXIV after providing us with A Realm Reborn’s key vocal song, “Answers.” (A song I have discussed at length in the past.) Soken was responsible for the intro song, “Heavensward,” featuring a mixture of lyrics in English and Dravanian (the dragons’ language) that are deeply symbolic of the expansion’s backstory: the thousand-year Dragonsong War that has been taking place between Ishgard and Dravania.
These two songs are the backbone of this album, and provide the base for — or are entwined with — several pieces of music across these 60 tracks. Regardless of whether or not Uematsu and Soken worked hand-in-hand across the album, the specific places that Soken chose to evoke either of these themes could only have happened if he was deeply involved with the rest of the Final Fantasy XIV team, in particular the story and lore teams. We often discuss Heavensward on Rhythm Encounter, and our former RPGFan Music Overlord Stephen Meyerink commonly uses the word “cohesive” to describe this album. I can’t think of a better word to summarize the high-caliber integration of these songs.
Before we get to the bulk of this album, though, there is one other credited composer here: Yukiko Takada. Along with her credit of arranger on about a dozen tracks, she also composed two songs, including track 13, “Coming Home,” a theme that gets special mention as one of my favorites on the album. This song debuted in Patch 3.1 and is the main theme of the bird-like Vanu Vanu tribe that you help in establishing a new home in the sky. This song has a light, airy feel to it, accented by some solid tribal-like drum beats. Often, when you think of “tribal drums,” you imagine something bass-heavy that works well in highly dramatic music. In this case, the drums remain light, keeping the hopeful tone of the Vanu tribe intact. I really hope to see Takada compose more music, be it for Final Fantasy XIV or another title, as her work here has me wanting more.
With a total runtime of nearly 5 hours, there is a lot of ground to cover with Heavensward. Ironic, given that so much of the game takes place in the sky. Get it? “Not funny,” you say? “Move on,” I hear you pleading? That’s probably the right reaction.
Neeh Nishka [Journey to the Holy See]
Let’s start with Ishgard’s themes. The central hub of the entire expansion, the city-state of Ishgard is split into two levels, clearly dividing the upper- and lower-class that reside in The Pillars and Foundation, respectively. According to Soken’s comments on this album (more on that later), he didn’t originally plan on creating four songs for Ishgard — a day and night theme for each level — but I’m glad he was convinced to do so. Upon arriving in Foundation, you’ll hear “Solid” (track 3) first. Its darkly serious tone is evocative of a town perpetually in some form of reconstruction thanks to the seemingly endless Dragonsong War. Heavensward brought a new lighting system to Final Fantasy XIV, the most obvious change being an enhanced level of contrast between light and dark. The extra-deep shadows of Ishgard’s buildings, and the harsh glare shining on broken structures covered in scaffolding, work hand in hand with “Solid” to convey this feeling of a war-torn city. In A Realm Reborn, we visited one portion of the snow-covered, northern land of Coerthas, but we weren’t able to access Ishgard itself. The music there, “Fealty” and related songs, would set the stage for pipe organs to be unique to the northern lands, and this instrument carries over quite prominently in both “Solid” and in Heavensward in general.
In stark contrast to “Solid” is “Night in the Brume.” Named after the poverty-stricken lowest area in Foundation, this nighttime track is ever so graceful in its use of piano and organ, and it is easily one of my favorites. The themes of upper Ishgard have a sound I can only describe as “classy.” Fitting, then, that these songs are heard while mingling with the stuffy upper class in Pillars. Each song is a bit melancholy, or at least introspective, a sense that feels right at home in a part of the city filled with nobles who often don’t want to give “commoners” a second look. Like with A Realm Reborn’s city-states, all four of Ishgard’s themes are long — between 9 and 13 minutes each — giving one proper time to sit back and appreciate the subtle grace of each piece.
These last two Pillars tracks are also part of a series of songs on the album with paired day/night titles (“Nobility Obliges” for day and “Nobility Sleeps” for night in this case). While these pairings don’t always affect the music, I like the thematic connection in the names.
Ahm Lehs Wehs [Songs of the Land and Sky]
Western Coerthas is as snowy and often as dreary as the Central area we knew so well from 2.0. The themes here, “Against the Wind” and “Black and White,” are contemplative takes on the Heavensward main theme, with the latter — played at night — evoking an even more distinct melancholy feeling. In the game, this is when you first start to understand this thematic cohesion, and how effective it is in connecting parts of the game emotionally.
The Dravanian Forelands is home to one of my favorite themes, “Painted Foothills,” a slow, peaceful song evocative of a stroll through the giant trees that populate the area. It’s a gorgeous song, and gets even better as you listen, as it gradually builds to a fairly epic march before it wraps up. Elsewhere in Dravania, the Hinterlands’ daytime theme, “Missing Pages,” is largely accented with an oddly echoing instrument I can’t quite place, which lends itself well to the air of mystery in an area where you may very well find yourself asking “why is there a giant honkin’ robot in the middle of the river?” “The Silent Regard of Stars” and its use of piano is effective as a peaceful nighttime theme, but my favorite song in the area is “The Mushroomery,” a new arrangement of a song from the very first Final Fantasy, “Matoya’s Cave.” Soken and Takada are credited with this gorgeous arrangement of Uematsu’s original, and the result is a song that really conveys the sense of wonder and magic prevalent in a cave of talking frogs and broomsticks. I was completely surprised when I stumbled across it while playing the game, as it’s such a lovely throwback, both in terms of story and music.
The final area in the game is a cluster of bizarre floating continents called Azys Lla. Filled with ancient technology and surrounded by unnatural weather patterns, Azys Lla has no discernible day/night cycle, and therefore your adventures there are backed by “Order Yet Undeciphered” regardless of the time of day. A bassy, ominous song that would be amazing just for those qualities, it also introduces some brief piano interludes, adding depth and variety, and cementing this song as a favorite of mine. Like Ishgard’s extra-long tracks, Azys Lla’s 11-minute theme really benefits from the Blu-ray format of the Final Fantasy XIV albums, with basically no need to trim songs to fit on a limited-space CD.
Deeh Ehs [Deep Emptiness, aka Dungeon Themes]
A full sixth of the songs on Heavensward are related to the expansion’s dungeons. While all are worth praise for their wide variety of styles, some stand above the others. Saint Mocianne’s Arboretum is a once-flourishing paradise of flora and fauna, now overrun by corrupted plant life. The mournful melody of “Poison Ivy” sets the stage quite well for what was once a place of tranquility. Two of the endgame dungeons feature some truly amazing songs. “Unbreakable” is full of crunchy electric guitar and a copious amount of synthy sounds that perfectly befit the hi-tech dungeon it accompanies. “Imagination” will be familiar to you if you caught our Music of the Year Rhythm Encounter series, as we’re big fans of this track at RPGFan. A regal, high-energy song based on the melody of Heavensward’s title track, “Imagination” makes what is already a stunning final dungeon an even more exhilarating experience. It’s not to be missed. Nor is “Slumber Eternal,” which is the theme for Heavensward’s second dungeon. Heavy drums, enchanting brass, and the occasional vocal make Sohm Al one of my favorite dungeons to experience. When a group of us first heard this song last summer for the first time in-game, I believe one of my friends uttered, “Are you kidding me with this song?” as we were so taken aback by something so epic early in the story.
“Upon the Rocks” is something I have to talk about because this song appearing on yet another album is just hilarious to me. As I discussed in my Before the Fall review, the Song Formerly Known As “Through the Gloom” began as a sub-two-minute intro theme to the Pharos Sirius dungeon. Due to popular demand, Soken revisited the song with an extended 5-minute “Long Version” on a Square Enix sampler album in 2014. Before the Fall gave us what I thought would be the definitive version: Titled “A Light in the Storm” and clocking in at 8 minutes, this extended cut should have been enough to satisfy anyone. Then Soken made an even meatier arrangement for the Hard version of Pharos, known on this album as “Upon the Rocks.” Now over 12 minutes in length, it has the honor of being the longest song on the album behind “Solid.” I can only assume the next album will have a 20-minute version, at this rate. All that said, the song still gives me chills, so the less I have to loop it, the better.
Esh Ehd Narr [Gods and Saviors]
FFXIV’s primal themes are usually vocal tracks, and recent tradition (since Shiva), dictates that these epic battles each feature two songs for distinct phases of the fight. The battle against Bismarck high in the sky gives us the bubbly and brassy “Limitless Blue” and “Woe that Is Madness,” the latter being a fast-paced song with an interesting mix of piano, otherworldly vocals, and more. But much like how FFXIV players feel Bismarck himself is the less-interesting primal in Heavensward, his themes are also outshined by those of Ravana. The giant insect warrior demigod lives for battle, and the heavy chanting and almost hypnotizing rhythms of “The Hand that Gives the Rose” is a mere warm up to “Unbending Steel.” The vocal styling of this song, as Ravana sings of battle and his impending victory over lesser beings (that’s us), is starkly different from any other vocal song in FFXIV, and as a result the piece is fairly divisive amongst players. Everything about the song is just so heavy. The excessively bassy vocals, the heavy brass, and the militaristic march vibe this song conveys may not be for everyone — I took awhile to really give it a fair shot — but it’s so fitting of the battle and Ravana as a character that I can’t imagine any other direction Soken should have taken.
I know I’ve used the word “epic” to describe several songs in Heavensward by now, and I’m hoping it hasn’t diminished the impact of the word. Fact is, our heroes are trying to end a war that’s literally been going on for a thousand years across generations. There’s bound to be some really big moments and battles, which calls for appropriate music. The culmination of this big bag o’ epic music comes in the final battle with “Heroes” and “Heroes Never Die,” featuring an operatic-esque choir backed by powerful drums, piano, and…everything else. Following a great energetic intro that pulls you right in, we get motifs of the Azys Lla theme in a moody piano, “One-Winged Angel”-caliber vocals, some overlays of the Heavensward main theme, and more. These are the songs that amazing and inspiring songs turn to when they themselves need inspiration.
I don’t really have any commentary on “For the Sky” and “Stone and Steel” except that they are some of the most vital “event” themes in Heavensward, and make me want to use the “e” word again. Listen to them.
Akh Afah [Eternal Circle, aka Blu-ray Stores Much Data]
Every Final Fantasy XIV soundtrack, and in fact, many large Square Enix soundtracks since 2014, is released on Blu-ray. Not only does this free the team from the limits of individual CDs, it means less packaging, and the ability to fit many hours of music on a single disc. But it’s more than just storage; Yoshi-P and Soken pack several niceties into each album, to take advantage of the format. For Heavensward, that means a pair of bonus tracks, as tracks 59 and 60 are fully orchestrated songs from A Realm Reborn. Since “Torn from the Heavens” has become the de facto standard in representing FFXIV in other games (such as Dissidia and Final Fantasy: Record Keeper), it’s a welcome non-surprise to see it get this treatment.
As always, the album can be viewed on your TV with track info in English and Japanese, and track-specific image slideshows. Vocal tracks have lyrics displayed along the bottom, and there’s a pop-up menu in which Soken and his team offer commentary on every single track (well, tracks 1-58), though sadly these text-based comments are in Japanese only. The key to the soundtrack may be its music, but a great deal of effort went into the multimedia aspect of this album as well. I wanted to properly highlight this, so check out this quick video overview (I recommend watching in full screen for a better experience):
Alongside the things I already mentioned, the disc also contains the Heavensward trailer in HD and 5.1ch sound, and a behind-the-scenes documentary with Soken. And, of course, you can copy MP3s of the album directly onto your PC, or over your home network from your PlayStation 3/4.
As you can see, I have a lot to say about the Heavensward OST, and none of it is bad. There are some songs I don’t mention that might not be as memorable as others, and some I just had to skip for brevity (as close as I’m likely to get to brevity anyway). But much like how Heavensward itself excels because the developers were free of the shackles of the original FFXIV, Uematsu, Soken and co. really got a chance to shine musically, and this resulting collection of music is one I still listen to often even over a year after the expansion’s release.
The section titles in this review were amateurishly cobbled together from both the official Dragonspeak Dictionary and A Lesson in Dragonspeak forum posts. The Dravanian language in FFXIV is the result of countless hours of research and effort; localization lead Michael-Christopher Koji Fox compiled these extensive resources, and they are well worth a read.