Heavensward: Final Fantasy XIV Original Soundtrack
Heavensward: FINAL FANTASY XIV Original Soundtrack
Square Enix Music
Feb 24, 2016
Purchase at CDJapan
Since taking the lead on the music of Final Fantasy XIV, Soken has risen to the challenge with both his original compositions and his arrangements of Nobuo Uematu’s work on the original score. I have to confess that while I enjoyed the pre-2.0 music to Final Fantasy XIV, the 2.0 soundtrack, A Realm Reborn, is one of my favorite game scores, and I was highly anticipating the release of Heavensward – I was excited to see what else Soken would produce (along with composers Nobuo Uematsu and Yukiko Takada, who each submitted a few tracks as well), and anxious that it would not live up to the high standards he set with A Realm Reborn. When the soundtrack was released last month, I quickly dove into the score to see what it had to offer for followers of the game and music of Final Fantasy XIV.
I have mixed feelings about the opening theme, “Heavensward,” the vocal theme of the 3.0 expansion. I found the opening vocals a little inaccessible, sounding a little like a something from the fifties or sixties (particularly through a murky filter that heavily distorts the voice), but the effect is gone soon enough, and we’re left with the raw voice, which is unquestionably beautiful. I’m still not enamored with this track just yet, perhaps because I’m still struggling to reconcile this sound with the sound delivered by the rest of the score. However, the overall structure of the piece is great. It’s divided up into several segments, and each one – including the opening vocal melody – brings a top-rate melody to the table, all of which get incorporated quite fantastically into the Heavensward score as a whole, with the exception of a very light excerpt from “Praetorium,” one of the best tracks out of the 2.0 score. The 3.0 themes that are used in this track include “Descent,” “Ominous Prognisticks,” “Solid,” and “For the Sky,” four of the most prominent themes featured in Heavensward.
Like every game in the Final Fantasy series, Heavensward comes with its own Prelude that opens the game. As much as I enjoyed the renditions of Final Fantasy XIV and A Realm Reborn, “A Cold Wind” is probably one of my favorites in the entire Final Fantasy series, using a heavy rhythm combined with a strings-and-piano duo and laced with French horns for an appropriately icy and dramatic effect.
The first area theme in the game is accompanied by “Solid,” an excellent theme that unquestionably sets the mood for the game. The track is marinated in medieval instruments, from organ to harpsichord along with slews of brass. The six-minute long loop takes full advantage of its length, with each minute bringing something to the table. It is almost difficult to transition from section to section of the piece because of how brilliant the previous section is. Because each section is so different, “Solid” can – and does – introduce several themes that take root here but sprout leaves in other sections of the score. As a result, “Solid” really works as a foundational piece of the score – with all the musical nods to this piece spread across Heavensward, despite the length of the score, it does very much feel like one cohesive work.
Each area in Heavensward comes with an accompanying night theme, and “Solid” is paired with “Night in the Brume.” Dissecting “Solid” note-by-note, “Night in the Brume” reassembles it into what might be the best night theme of Final Fantasy XIV (perhaps tied with “Sultana Dreaming” from 1.0). The piece is enchantingly tranquil, effortlessly shedding all the grandeur of “Solid” to become a simple, plucked theme, unafraid of pauses and silences. The unusual combination of piano, harpsichord, and organ – each of which traditionally have opposing functions in music – reinforces the musical atmosphere of the game, and the simple switches between instruments ease the listener into the different themes that will permeate the game.
Two more area themes, “Painted Foothills” and “Painted Skies,” feature softly swung melodies that are both incredibly gentle. The former uses a combination of strings, woodwinds, and brass that have a stronger effect, although by no means overpowering. The piece is substantial and unmoving – the melody continues to play reassuringly as the settings shift from horn to woodwind, and the strings continue their various background movements. A pipe sweetly pierces the melody towards the end, bringing a soft but powerful added line to the track. Although the track picks up at one point to a more rhythmic pace, it is subdued as the loop begins again. “Painted Skies” is primarily a piano piece with the same melody – because of the more constant instrumentation, the dissonance of the chords is easier to hear. Chords with added notes are satisfyingly crunchy, and the dynamics swell and recede more naturally and freely.
“Lost in the Clouds” is an upbeat, invigorating piece that borders on annoying in its peppiness, but just manages to slide through with the substance of its melody and varied instrumentation. In fact, the piece becomes delightful at the plucky rhythms and vigorously enthusiastic strings and synth instruments helping the melody along. “Close to the Heavens” features an appropriate night theme, complete with a calm but bubbly piano solo and syncopated melodies and rhythms. And then on the ridiculous side of levity, “What is Love” brings in yet another variation of the moogle theme, initially from Final Fantasy VI and more recently from the primal theme in A Realm Reborn: “Good King Moggle Mog XII.”
The mount theme has also changed – we have moved well past the rote chocobo theme and even “The Rider’s Boon” from A Realm Reborn into “Borderless,” a refreshing piano-and-electric-guitar track that uses basic scales, echoed notes, repeated patterns, and key changes to create an elevated and bracing track that moves along swiftly and coolly. Only at a few parts does the track pause for breath, and even then, certain lines – sometimes harmonic, sometimes percussive – continue moving to keep the piece at a briskly running pace.
The main battle theme is the same for each of these areas; “Melt,” is easily my favorite normal battle music of the game, including the pre-3.0 soundtracks. It opens with a series of powerful organ and harpsichord pulses, not unlike those of “Solid,” but this time supported by strings instead of brass, and featuring a piano solo that at times sounds almost Shimomura-esque in its animated but intense vivacity. Not only is it an extremely fun listen, but it does not get old very easily. The loop is relatively short – just under two minutes – but something about the repetition in the rhythm and the lack of an easily discernible melody in the piano keeps the piece from becoming frustrating even after several loops.
The boss themes are more developed – there are a couple that show up depending on the theme of the dungeon. One is the basic boss melody, and the second shows up for bosses more related to specific aspects of the storyline. The former, “Ominous Prognisticks,” is used far more often, and even in unique boss themes, it generally manages to make an appearance. The theme is grounded in a rising melodic pattern that manifests itself in two melodies, both of which work their way into several other themes in the game. “Safety in Numbers” is a tranquil area theme that incorporates a much-slowed version of the theme. The overall mood of “Ominous Prognisticks” is driven but almost joyful at points, very much pushing a heroic vibe.
The second boss theme, “The Heavens’ Ward,” is a more sinister track with a particularly terrifying bassline that pushes the pace of the piece and keeps the chords from being too identifiable. The melody, which is later used in the album as the “Dragonsong” theme, sounds faintly like the “Answers” theme from 1.0, and is accompanied by a tortured choir. While the track effectively works as a boss, it’s much less uplifting and more frenetic, and overall almost threatening.
Other battle themes include “For the Sky,” a variation of “Ominous Prognisticks” that sets it against an octave-based melody that makes the overall effect of the piece wilder and more exhilarating. I enjoyed this particular rendition of the theme more than the original in a few ways, mainly just because the octaves are so memorable – they are used in other locations in the score, like in “Heavensward,” and bring a sense of heroic daring to the battle themes. “Jewel,” actually features a melody that sounds extraordinarily similar to “Noel’s Theme” from Final Fantasy XIII-2, although the setting is drastically different. The fanfare of instruments that brightly accompany the theme are quite fun, although relatively forgettable.
The dungeon themes are extremely varied in style and mood. “Descent” is an interesting composition for what is ultimately the first dungeon of the game. It follows the pattern of some of the later dungeon themes in A Realm Reborn of being without any accompanying battle theme, meaning that the theme is essentially unbroken between the opening of the dungeon and each boss. It is hard to discern the melody at the beginning of the track, as it blends in with the other instruments – almost all of which are vibraphones of some type, giving the piece as a whole a hollow, cold sound. The melody really culminates with its closing notes as it arcs upwards and falls back down every minute or so. While it seems innocuous during the track, I found that the melody lingers long after the piece is over.
One of the tracks I was surprised to enjoy as much as I did was “Ink Long Dry,” an elevator music-like track rife with key changes, styles changes, tempo changes – with no particular warning or pattern attached before each change. This dungeon track opens with cymbal tapping out a swung rhythm against an ominous, off-beat motif – a little dull and dry, but quickly addressed as the piece suddenly changes to a bland piano (whether it’s a synth or a live piano put through a dozen filters is hard to tell) playing a lively but uninteresting series of notes as the percussion picks up to include a full drumset in its swing. The piece suddenly shifts again to a stronger melody that remains in the listener’s head well after the piece ends. The style changes again to a more distorted version of the chords at the beginning, then some anonymous piano riffs – so arhythmic and atonal that I would be interested to see what the sheets looked like for this – before the loop ends with the most distorted version of the opening theme yet. It’s hard to point out one thing about the piece I really enjoy, but as a whole, for some reason it’s worked its way up to being one of my favorite tracks on the score, if only because it’s so strange and different from the rest of the pieces. By loop 2, I’m happily welcoming the familiar elevator music back to center stage.
“Poison Ivy” is a sorrowful and intoxicating track, opening with a repeated chord progression that begins its accompanying dungeon with a somber mood. The piece never really picks up in intensity, instead meandering its way through various chords and instruments with wisps of identity, but the opening of the piece ties each loop together briefly before the melody scatters into several haunting but segmented parts. At one point, hints of “Solid” shine through, but only for a moment, and the piece quickly begins again.
“Slumber Eternal” takes the “Painted Foothills” theme and turns it into a heavily percussive, dynamic track. “Roar of the Wyrm” brings back the “Heavensward” theme again under slightly more energetic conditions, although this was not my favorite setting. “Like a Summer Rain” has an ostensibly catchy but easily forgettable melody – while it’s prominent while the track is playing, once it’s over, it does not stick around. While many of the dungeon themes are great, not all of them have the same effect as “Poison Ivy” or “Descent.” In fact, maybe just because they’re so unusual, the softer dungeon themes really stand out in this score. On the other hand, one of the final dungeon themes “Unbreakable,” is a fast-paced, rock-and-synth track with lengthy jam sessions between loops. The melody is equally action-packed, and the piece compels the listener forward with no room for breath.
The new primal themes are also quite varied in structure, and are splashes of color even in this vibrant score. As with the slew of primals, or summon bosses, that accompanied the patches of A Realm Reborn, the primal themes are divided into two: the opening piece, which takes place in the first half of the battle, and the closing piece, which takes place at a predetermined point in the battle, generally around halfway through. “The Hand That Gives the Rose” is the first primal theme of Heavensward, and it’s difficult to emphasize how gratifying it was to hear that the first theme was such a strong one. The first area theme (“Solid”), the first battle theme (“Melt”) and the first primal theme were the three tracks I initially sought out upon receiving the score – and once again, Soken delivered 100%, this time with a dark and rich combination of solo strings and male chorus in a downbeat-heavy waltz. The strings slither their way up the scales to reach a few culminating high notes – which, barely break alto range. The melody varies between being entirely solo and accompanied by a soft harmony line. Not only is “Rose” intoxicating to listen to, but it’s both a break and continuation from the previous primal themes – following in the spirit of the varied themes from 2.0-2.5, but very much its own unique piece.
The second half of the theme is “Unbending Steel,” which, like its predecessor second themes, follows similar motifs while entirely breaking the style. “Unbending Steel” opens with a few powerful drumbeats and cascading chords, but evolves into a polished march with a unique feature: an impossibly low bass singer in an octave I so deep I have trouble following it, even just in my head. I was actually amazed at the audibility of the words. As the song – really, at its heart, “Unbending Steel” is a song rather than a piece with vocals – the melodic line rises almost imperceptibly (although at no point does it become an easily accessible octave). The key changes as well, gently bumping up the vocal line as it goes. Between loops, a string intermission in a more normal octave serves as a palette-cleanser before the voice returns and begins again.
“Limitless Blue,” a second primal theme, takes an entirely different approach with something closer to an ostinato than a melody in a spray of lightly punctuated synth notes that tattoo their pattern ceaselessly amid several drawn-out string chords. “Woe Is That Madness” is then the follow-up theme, the theme for the second stage of the fight. Paired with “Limitless Blue,” I preferred this one for its more substantial melody. The piano melody is mildly reflective of the “Solid” and “Night in the Brume” themes, accompanied by a female vocalist who brings a very raw element to the otherwise high-synth piece. The vocals in it, to some degree, reflect those in “Thunder Rolls” in the earlier score, which is perhaps appropriate, although the similarities between the two pieces end there.
Three tracks show up near the end that share a theme. “Aetherpause” is the first and murkiest piece, with some tantalizing accidentals (deliberately rolled at times to increase the anticipation between notes) and tempo changes that give the piece the same freeing quality as “Ink Long Dry”. In a score bursting to the seams with careful rhythms, marked downbeats, melodic chord progressions, and antiquated chord progressions – “Aetherpause” pits those qualities against a more free-form style. “In Darkness, There Is One” is more unwavering and march-like, and in fact from the music alone, it’s very difficult to discern whether the piece is meant to represent a protagonist or antagonist. It ends quite resolutely, but the twisted nature of the melody that first shows up in “Aetherpause” keeps the piece ambiguous in quality.
The third rendition, “Voidal Manifest,” is a brilliant, punctuated version of the theme with tight staccatos and rests towards the beginning that make the wild start of the main body of the piece even more dramatic. The piece combines the orchestra with a choir for a fuller effect; the accompanying percussion lashes against the melody and pushes it further on. The melody is there from the very beginning through those rigid chords. The counter-melody that softened “Aetherpause” comes now with neither a bassline nor a change in tempo, to a very odd effect. The intensity is not lessened, but it does feel as though some of the instruments are taking a quick break before returning first for a quick nod to “Solid,” and then again for a “Fithos Lusec”-style ascension. “Voidal Manifest” is an exhilarating track, and one of my favorites from the score, particularly when the theme is paired with the more drawn-out renditions from the previous iterations.
Two of the tracks towards the end of the album, “Imagine” and “Heroes Never Die,” bring together several of the permeating themes in the game to create some ambitious endgame dungeon and boss themes. “Imagine” combines the “Descent” and “Ominous” themes along with “For the Sky” in a triumphant, driving theme that gloriously brings in every instrument in the Heavensward arsenal to create a final area theme. Followed up by the heroic “Heroes Never Die,” a track that brings in the prelude – which ends up broken up in a quite a beautiful way – and “Solid,” as powerful as ever, rising to new keys and assaulting the listener with a full choral orchestra. The theme is interrupted by pieces of the “Ominous Prognisticks” and “Unbroken” themes mashed oddly together, rising from a deceptively frail piano solo to rockestra work. The two ambitious tracks work extremely well together, and bring the soundtrack together in a satisfying concluding work.
Of course, no Final Fantasy game is complete without a hidden final boss theme, which shows up in “Heroes,” a new theme that that combines “Ominous Prognisticks” with “Heavens’ Ward,” and “For the Sky,” heavily pushing the choral aspect of those tracks for a particularly ecclesiastical setting (combined with organ for added effect). Overall, I preferred the wide collection of themes that gave “Heroes Never Die” its nostalgic quality within the score, but “Heroes” certainly delivers a finite theme that works well for its role.
The main vocal theme returns a few times before the score is over. “Contention” features the main Heavensward theme in a rich piano solo (with some light soli strings). I found this particular track to be one of the more accessible renditions of the theme, at least more so than the vocal one. “Inception” brings back the voice, this time even more filtered, with a harp accompaniment. Having not been a huge fan of the filter the first time around, I was even less so this time – I much preferred the setup of “Contention.”
A second vocal theme makes its way into this score at the end: “Dragonsong.” This track brings back threads of the theme from “Answers” but combines it with the theme of “The Heavens’ Ward” in a surprisingly beautiful setting. The boss theme is so unsettling and chilling that hearing the same theme in a vocal ballad is both unexpected and powerful. Accompanied by a counter piano melody, the same theme takes on an entirely new mood. Interestingly, I found that even listening to “Dragonsong” several times over didn’t change the effect “The Heavens’ Ward” had on me, but I was all the more impressed with how skillfully the same theme had been warped to fit two completely different atmospheres without changing any notes.
The album ends with three themes from the last primal of 3.0, the much-anticipated Alexander. I have to admit that I heard players talking about these tracks long before I ever heard them myself. “Sins of the Father, Sins of the Son” establishes a techno beat that accompanies some heavy guitar riffs and “Limitless Blue”-like synth tattoos. “Locus” is entirely different from anything else in the game; it sets itself up to be rap track, but ultimately it’s some rave hybid of rock, techno, and faint grunge elements, saturated with elements of general electronica, that are ultimately really difficult to pin down. Even weirder is when hints of “Ominous Prognisticks” melody somehow surfaces in the relatively melody-less track. Fortunately for my music vocabulary and knowledge (or lack thereof), the last track of Alexander – is titled “Metal” – because it is, in fact, a metal track. There is no doubt about why people seem to have been enjoying these tracks so much. They may represent the most difficult primal of 3.0, but quite frankly, I would spend hours on a level like this regardless of what I was supposed to be doing.
The Heavensward soundtrack met every single one of my expectations. The themes were brilliant, varied, and extraordinarily fun to hear. Moreover, the score as a whole created a brand-new atmosphere for Final Fantasy XIV, and a necessary one after Before the Fall, which ended up rehashing themes one too many times. Not only did Heavensward come with a brand-new set of themes, but they were intricately incorporated into the rest of the score, establishing a real identity for Heavensward as a concise unit – something the previous installments of Final Fantasy XIV have not quite had yet. A fantastic score by a fantastic composer, Heavensward is a gratifying soundtrack in a slew of RPG soundtracks and one absolutely worth checking out.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on March 20, 2016 by Emily McMillan. Last modified on March 22, 2016.