Final Fantasy XV Original Soundtrack
Final Fantasy XV Original Soundtrack
Square Enix Music (Japan); Sony Classical (International)
SQEX-10566/9 (CD – Japan), SQEX-20030 (Blu-ray – Japan); 88985415432 (CD – International)
December 21, 2016 (Japan); February 3, 2017 (International)
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On that day, fiv— I mean, ten years ago, I heard Yoko Shimomura’s “Somnus” for the first time. That solemn piano intro, Andrea Hopkins’ exquisite vocals and Kaoru Wada’s orchestration swept me off my feet. I was hungry for more and couldn’t wait until the game was released. This was going to represent the maturation of Shimomura’s style. As the days turned to years, the music became the sole reason I occasionally kept an eye on the game’s increasingly troubled development. Reports that the game had switched directors and development teams had me worried that this would have drastic consequences for the score as well. In the end, I don’t know if the score’s flaws can be traced back to the game’s design, its troubled production or Shimomura herself, but the final product, while okay, is definitely not the masterpiece I was hoping it would be.
Things are off to a decent start with a violin-centered rendition of “Somnus” that, while pretty, makes me wish I was listening to the vocal version instead. “Departure” is forgettable but pleasant accompaniment to the early cutscene where Noctis bids his father farewell and sets off on his journey. Then, out of absolutely nowhere, “Broken Down”, a little track for harmonica, pierces your eardrums and you realize that Shimomura isn’t the only composer here.
“Broken Down” is the first in a slew of jazzy, rocky, bluesy pieces by Tetsuya Shibata and, to a lesser extent, Mitsuhiro Ohta (“A Quick Pitstop” and “Blues de Chocobo”) and Yoshino Aoki (“Altissia”, etc). These genres definitely fit the more grounded world of Final Fantasy XV, but the tracks themselves are screaming for some musical development. Pieces like “Safe Haven”, “The Hunters”, “Broken Bonds” and “Cartanica” start off promising, but never really go anywhere, a recurring problem on this album. Then there’s “Lestallum” which invents new and exciting kinds of repetitive, taking a basically catchy motif and repeating it ad nauseam. There are exceptions like the soothing atmospherics of “Hammerhead” and its moodier cousin “Hammerhead – The Last Bastion”. But overall, these tracks tend to reveal all they have to offer around the one minute mark which is usually when the skip button starts looking mighty fine. The problem isn’t that these tracks aren’t nice to listen to. They are. The problem is the lack of development and a genuine creative spark that would elevate them above being just decent exercises in genre. They’re sure to provide pleasant background noise during gameplay, but they’re just not particularly captivating and interesting to listen to outside of the game.
The real standouts are the veritable bevy of battle themes, starting with “Stand Your Ground”. Right from the crunchy intro, the track grabs your attention and never lets up. It segues into a choppy ostinato and a catchy dramatic melody for strings and brass. Good stuff and reminiscent of “An Earnest Desire of Grey” from Shimomura’s Radiant Historia soundtrack. “Hunt or be Hunted” on the other hand, with its heavy synths and rhythms, was definitely composed by Yoshitaka Suzuki. This one takes a while to grow on you, but there’s enough development here to keep things interesting. Suzuki is also the creative force behind tracks like “Veiled in Black (Arrangement)”, “The Hydraean’s Wrath”, “RAVUS AETERNA” and “Hellfire”. Those of you familiar with the man’s work on tracks like Final Fantasy XIII-2‘s “Heart of Chaos” will recognize his modus operandi instantly. While his bombastic sound is derivative, he injects enough fire and creativity into the proceedings to keep the energy level high. He also gets major bonus points for utilizing Shimomura’s themes, like in “RAVUS AETERNA” and its brutal reiterations of Shimomura’s theme for Niflheim and “Song of the Stars”. The same goes, by the way, for Aoki’s “Flying R” and “Over the Waves”, both of which reference “Valse di Fantastica”.
I’m a bit ambivalent about some of the major battle themes. They’re wonderfully overwhelming, but can be somewhat lacklustre in terms of compositional complexity, especially with their repetitive use of the choir and dependance on ostinati. The lack of an actual orchestra is strange as well (and I say that knowing full well the Video Game Orchestra was involved), especially since Square Enix went out of its way to hire the Warsaw Philharmonic for Final Fantasy XIII. Heck, even Kingdom Hearts II featured the Tokyo Philharmonic. But back to the battle themes. I have a love-hate relationship with “OMNIS LACRIMA”, orchestrated by Wada. I grow weary of its ostinato-driven nature (0:34), but when it starts developing its melodic material (1:26), I’m all ears and I definitely appreciate “Somnus” being used as an ostinato. Sadly, both the final part of the impressive intro and the soft choral outro are missing on the album.
Another noteworthy track, Suzuki’s “Hellfire” wants to impress you so badly with its ‘Psycho-esque’ choral intro (0:27) that it just comes across as bland and forced. Not to mention the main section (1:02) sounds like it was ripped straight out of God of War, and this is coming from someone who usually doesn’t make such comparisons. Credit where credit is due though, “Hellfire” does have multiple ‘phases’ and a proper ending, combining “Prelude” and Gentiana’s theme (“Cosmogony”), so at least it evolves along with the fight. (And is it just me or do I detect a little “One-Winged Angel” reference at 3:34 – 3:38?) We’ve also got the popular “APOCALYPSIS NOCTIS”, a track that does its namesake proud. The second half lunges itself at you with such reckless abandon, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you, that you don’t really care how clichéd it is. Unsurprisingly, it’s orchestrated by Sachiko Miyano (see Kingsglaive credits), the same woman that turned XIII-2‘s “Caius’s Theme” into an orchestral powerhouse. I also have a soft spot in my heart for the summoning theme “NOX DIVINA”, again orchestrated by Wada. It’s repetitive and falls into the same trap of using the choir in typical declamatory fashion, but the way the voices sound distant and ‘muffled’ really fits the image of summoning a mythical creature under a darkening sky. The same goes for Suzuki’s “The Hydraean’s Wrath”. Again, there is repetitive use of choir, but I like how the female voices sound distant and hazy (1:20), a perfect fit for the scale of the fight against Leviathan.
Do you see a pattern here? Most battle themes, aka the score’s major selling point, sound the way they do primarily because of others, not because of Shimomura. Sure, they all say ‘composed by Yoko Shimomura’, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Square Enix failed to provide their usual detailed composer/arranger breakdown for this album and more detailed investigations have revealed that many of the tracks credited to her were in fact co-composed or arranged by others. “Hellfire” credits Shimomura as co-composer simply because Suzuki builds it around her themes. Unfortunately, many just read ‘composed by’ and stop there. The role arrangers and orchestrators, the unsung heroes, play in general cannot be understated. Do you think Uematsu’s “Liberi Fatali” would have sounded the way it did without Shiro Hamaguchi? Or “APOCALYPSIS NOCTIS” without Miyano for that matter? Tracks like “Veiled in Black” and “OMNIS LACRIMA” still have that Shimomura ‘touch’ despite all the orchestral flourishes, but others like “RAVUS AETERNA”, “Hellfire”, or worse, “Neverending Nightmare” and “Horrors of the Night” are so obviously the work of others that Shimomura’s ‘voice’ is lost in the process. Whereas, say, XIII’s score always felt like ‘Hamauzu’ despite the assistance from arrangers and orchestrators, the same cannot be said of XV. This is an issue that plagues much of the album, not just the battle themes.
A review of a Final Fantasy soundtrack isn’t complete without mentioning the final battle theme. Shimomura’s “Magna Insomnia” (orchestrator unknown), like Suzuki’s “Hellfire”, consists of three phases. She builds it around “Somnus” and cleverly sneaks in a few references to “ARDYN”. Some have derided it for not sounding epic enough for the final boss, but this makes sense given the fact that the scale of the battle is smaller. It’s a one-on-one fight after all. The music’s overall mood is not one of grandiosity, but of tension. Shimomura slows things down in the final section, a ‘duet’ for organ and soprano, but the singer’s voice is too wobbly to really convey the melancholy effect Shimomura is so obviously striving for. That being said, 2:58 – 3:35 is one of the score’s uncontested highlights. The violins start picking up the pace and we segue into a wonderful section with the choir singing “Somnus”, first solemnly and then aggressively. Do you see the magic that can occur when you provide the choir with an actual melodic line instead of merely having it pound out the same notes?
I’ve spoken so much of Shimomura’s collaborators, you’re probably wondering where she is in all this. While truly remarkable tracks are few and far between, there are moments where Shimomura is able to produce a bit of magic. “Song of the Stars” features some wonderful interplay between a boy soprano’s soulful voice and a stirring string section. “Wanderlust”, a Shimomura/Suzuki collaboration, is an exciting field theme for flute, piano and electric guitars. The transition at 1:22 is an especially nice touch and the use of guitars really fits the concept of Noctis and his pals exploring the countryside. The dungeon theme “What Lies Within” isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but Shimomura’s distinctive use of the piano and violin really sells the mysterious vibe. “Valse di Fantastica” is a pleasantly orchestrated waltz that passes its radiant melody around the orchestra, from strings to piano to oboe, though it could use some more development. “Careening into Danger” is a nice, low-key, violin-centered version of “Stand Your Ground”. It’s in tracks like this and the Shota Nakama-orchestrated “Veiled in Black” and “The Fight is On!” that I feel like I’m actually listening to Shimomura. I also find her ample use of Uematsu’s “Prelude” admirable. “Crystalline Chill” and the captivating, mysterious “In the Light of the Crystal” feature it, while “Fantastica!”, “Somnus Ultima” and “Dewdrops at Dawn” all conclude with appropriate references to Prelude as well. The album also sports a glorious, Hamaguchi-inspired rendition of that other workhorse, Uematsu’s Main Theme.
Too many tracks, however, are just ‘decent’ and lacking in inspiration. And that’s not even mentioning throwaway ‘tense’ themes like “Encroaching Fear”, “Lurking Danger”, “Creeping Shadows”, “No Time Left” and “Imperial Infiltration”. Too often is Shimomura content to merely use arpeggio’s or some undulating motif and add a few other instruments on top; see also “Unsettling Aura”, “Cosmogony”, “Melancholia”, “Labyrinthine”, “Sorrow Without Solace”, “Disquiet”, and “Impending Peril”. It must be said, like with Shibata’s pieces, they’re definitely not bad. They’re sure to function just fine in-game, but from a compositional standpoint, they’re ‘decent’ at best and that’s not the name of the game when you’re composing for Final Fantasy. Where’s the creative energy? Where’s the development? The vision? The sense of storytelling?
Speaking of storytelling, while it’s nice that Shimomura made such ample use of Uematsu’s “Prelude”, I’d rather she paid the same attention to detail to her own themes. I mean, what does it say about your ‘original’ score when the old “Prelude” is the most prominent motif? Besides the ones I mentioned earlier, tracks that share thematic connections are “Dewdrops at Dawn” and “Valse di Fantastica”, “Departure” and “Dawn”, “The Niflheim Empire” and “An Empire in Ruins”. “Hellfire” and “APOCALYPSIS AQUARIUS” share the same heroic motif and the latter also sports the Skyrim-esque theme we hear in “APOCALYPSIS NOCTIS” and “The Hydraean’s Wrath”. While this is all very nice, it just makes me wish Shimomura did something similar with other tracks besides the highlights, and that’s not even mentioning the fact that Suzuki is responsible for half of these references. What’s more, the themes aren’t so much developed as copy-pasted into other tracks. Why not develop a theme like “NOCTIS” over the course of the game, reflecting the character’s inner development as a man? Why not utilize “Somnus” more often? It’s the main theme after all. If you’re going to throw your hat into the leitmotivic ring, at least give us something to write home about.
So, here we are. It’s a strange realization that after all these years, the stellar “Somnus” still ends up being the best piece of music on this album without question. Stranger still that the score I had such high hopes for turns out be, well, ‘adequate’. Yes, the highlights are there, but they’re sandwiched between tracks that run the gamut from ‘uninspired’ to ‘okay’. As musical accompaniment to the game, the score’s mostly fine. As a ‘Shimomura score’, it’s a mixed bag. And when you consider criteria like storytelling, thematic unity, creativity and compositional complexity…the cracks start to show.
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Posted on January 25, 2017 by Lucas Versantvoort. Last modified on March 4, 2017.