Shadowbringers: Final Fantasy XIV Original Soundtrack
Shadowbringers: Final Fantasy XIV Original Soundtrack
Square Enix Music
September 11, 2019
Buy at CDJapan
Shadowbringers: Final Fantasy XIV Original Soundtrack is the first soundtrack surrounding the third expansion for Final Fantasy XIV, titled Shadowbringers, covering music from patches 4.4-5.0. As before, the release is available both digitally as well as on Blu-Ray, the latter including visuals to accompany the music and an mp3 download of all of the tracks. With this soundtrack, lead composer Masayoshi Soken continues his work and moves again to a new setting in the game, though the soundtrack does come with many borrowed tracks from other games. At 88 tracks totalling over 6 hours in length, this release is a bit scattered since it contains material from from the end of Stormblood, the beginning of Shadowbringers, and other miscellaneous properties, but it nevertheless contains very strong work that pushes the series forward to new sonic territory, and to some new heights as well. Light spoilers up to and including Shadowbringers about boss battles and raids are contained in this review.
Stormblood (Patches 4.4-4.56)
The first 36 tracks of the album cover Stormblood patches 4.4-4.56, with many of these being tracks borrowed verbatim from other games. “A Dream in Flight” and “Ending” are both from Chocobo’s Dungeon. Both fit into the sound of this game quite well, with the mix of live instrument solos with orchestral sound libraries, and “A Dream in Flight” in particular has some nice instrumental work. Then there are tracks 16-18 which are from Final Fantasy XI: Chains of Promathia, for the Eureka content. These are solid atmospheric pieces that serve as a nice throwback, and frankly we could have used more given how lengthy the Eureka content is. The only issue is that these sound libraries sound very dated, and combined with the different compositional style, these tracks don’t jive well with the rest of the Final Fantasy XIV sound. The same applies to tracks 19-34, taken from Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story for the Alliance raids. I think it would have been better to have fewer tracks if it meant getting rearrangements by the Final Fantasy XIV sound team, as was the case with the Crystal Tower raids. As it is, even though the tracks are not bad in themselves, I don’t keep many of them in rotation when I am in the mood for Final Fantasy XIV music.
As for the rest of the patch music, there are a few new area and dungeon themes. First is “A Land Long Dead,” a great melancholy take on “Penitus” from A Realm Reborn that combines the usual piano-centric stylings of the soundtrack with its bagpipe to surprisingly great effect. There is also “From Mud,” a distorted version of “The Silent Regard of Stars” from Heavensward which is very atmospheric. Later is the climactic “A Pall Most Murderous” with its combinations of the Stormblood and Empire themes, which is adequate, but also at this point very much what we’ve come to expect from the series. This isn’t quite a bad thing yet, but there is an issue of diminishing returns. Also notable are “Bedlam’s Brink” and “Everywhere and Nowhere” as new cutscene tracks, both of which become heavily used later on in Shadowbringers, but which are pretty basic and don’t make for compelling standalone listening.
There are also many new battle themes for the patches. The remake of “Battle” from Final Fantasy I is solid, and the piano breakdown helps it fit in. “Fearless” is also good but typical, while the choral and orchestral “From the Heavens” is another strong arrangement of “Torn from the Heavens,” here having a nice variation of tempi, dynamics, and textures throughout, helped by a convincing orchestral sound. There is also the energetic “eScape,” which follows in the style of other tracks by The Primals, especially those from the Alexander raid series. There are surprisingly lore-heavy lyrics here (which as usual are barely comprehensible upon listening), and the melodies are good, with a reference to Heavensward’s “Order Yet Undeciphered.”
But the highlights here are the themes for the trials. “Sunrise” is a phenomenal J-rock track that in some ways builds off of “Wayward Daughter” from Stormblood, having overt Japanese influences and instruments, catchy melodies, and a great buildup. It’s also more layered and less one-dimensional than many of the other tracks from The Primals, making it it one of my favourites of the vocal themes of the series. The other track, “From the Dragon’s Wake”, also features Japanese instrumentation combined with rock, but this time has no vocals. Still, it’s no less catchy than “Sunrise,” and the busier, almost wild and chaotic instrumentation is a great match for the battle that it accompanies. I do wish that this track (and others) didn’t unnecessarily loop on the soundtrack, which is a problem that was much more present in earlier soundtrack releases but thankfully shows up less often here.
As for the Shadowbringers proper, things kick off with the opening cinematic theme, “Shadowbringers,” which is essentially a medley of three tracks: two new vocal themes “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” and “Who Brings Shadow”; and “Eternal Wind” from Final Fantasy III. The two new vocal themes actually share the same verse melody, though are completely different otherwise, as the former is a lighter piano accompanied ballad sung by new soloist Amanda Achen-Keenan, and the latter is a grungy rock track. Both work in their own right and bring something new to the table: Amanda’s voice is very classical, while “Who Brings Shadow” is sung by Jason C. Miller and operates for the most part at a slower and more deliberate tempo than many of the previous rock tracks of the game. Some may find “Who Brings Shadow” a little too edgy and on-the-nose, as I did at first, but over time I warmed up to it in the context of the layered story that it accompanies, and Miller’s history with industrial rock makes him a perfect vocalist for the theme. I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that the central melody for both begins with an ascending perfect fifth landing on the downbeat; it shares this with “Answers”, “Heavensward”, and “Revolutions” from the previous expansions, providing a sort of thematic link, but it’s starting to become redundant. Aside from that, these are fine tracks to make the central themes of the expansion, and naturally the melodies and textures from these tracks become a major part of the rest of the score.
After these, the expansion comes with the usual variety of area and battle themes. For area themes, a number are fairly standard like “The Dark Which Illuminates the World,” the Crystarium’s typical grandiose city theme, Eulmore’s carnival-esque “Pain in Pleasure,” Lakeland’s militaristic “The Source,” and the playful but rather grating settlement theme “A Reason to Live.” The common melodies help give a coherence to the varieties of styles. But as with earlier expansions, what hampers these tracks is the middling quality of the sound libraries; many (both here but also elsewhere) call for a real orchestra or live solo instruments, but for either budget or to be consistent, these aren’t provided for majority of these soundtracks. Despite limitations, a few tracks manage to stand out from everything that had come before, such as Amh Araeng’s “Sands of Amber,” which uses moody pads and a distant echoing vocal to create an expansive and lonely atmosphere. There is also the tribal “Civilizations” for the Rak’tika Greatwood which spawned the “Lahee” meme, though the piece is also great in its own right thanks to the lead vocal, choral backing, and instrumental improvisation. The Tempest’s “Full Fathom Five” and its Amaurot sibling “Neath Dark Waters” both share the same great melody, but it’s the latter with a soft piano and ticking clock that steals the spotlight, creating a sad atmosphere that sets it apart from music for analogous areas in other games. It is quite restrained and doesn’t overdo it with sentiment, which makes it more receptive to story developments and contextual shifts. Overall there is less of a unified character to these area themes than with previous expansions; there are no obvious stylistic similarities or shared instrumentations at work (aside from perhaps an increased usage of vocals), though the trade-off is that the individual tracks are thus more memorable.
Like with previous expansions, most of these area tracks also have a nighttime piano version (or at least a quieter version), and following the pattern of Stormblood these versions are often quite significant departures in both atmosphere and harmony, so that the nighttime versions are not just loose transcriptions as they often were in A Realm Reborn and Heavensward, instead here often being transformative. Amh Araeng’s “Sands of Blood” is again a highlight with gorgeous trills and arpeggiations, as is Il Mheg’s surprisingly emotional “The Faerie Ring.” Even for areas where I was less enthusiastic about the daytime themes I enjoy the night themes very much, as in the warm “The Quick Way” for Kholusia and the lyrical “Unchanging, Everchanging” for Lakeland. I’ve always liked the nighttime themes for the Final Fantasy XIV up to this point, and Shadowbringers continues to deliver on that front.
The soundtrack also comes with plenty of tracks dedicated to dungeons and duties. First is “To Fire and Sword,” a tense rock and strings combo that is a bit lacking melodically, but fits with the grungier side of the expansion. A few others are built on the usual orchestral libraries for Final Fantasy XIV, like “High Treason” with the central “Shadowbringers” melody, “In The Belly of the Beast” with the Kholusia melody, and “Mortal Instants” for the Tempest melody. These are fine in the moment, but as with “A Pall Most Murderous,” it’s now a fairly established formula. Others change the soundscape to varying successes: “Figments” doesn’t go far beyond being a “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” pastiche, “Unwound” is a decent alternate instrumental version of “Civilizations”, while “Deep Down” is a very successful industrial and foreboding take on the Amh Araeng themes. One highlight here is “Shadows Withal,” a jazz expansion on the Ascian “Without Shadow” theme, which is hugely unexpected but very entertaining both in the game and outside of it. It is especially impressive given how bare the original is. The central piano is wonderful with many flourishes, and the choice to put filters on the orchestral elements was inspired. The other highlight is the Twinning theme, “A Long Fall,” which has also spawned memes. It’s a banging theme in itself, bringing together “eScape” and Crystal Tower melodies with heavier emphasis on synths and a dance beat to help distinguish it from the previous raid tracks that it draws from.
There are also a number of new cutscene tracks, though as with previous expansions, many of these tracks tend to be more basic. “Paradisaical Predicaments” is one of the better ones, with evolving instrumentation and clear melodies in addition to a mounting atmosphere of preparation for battle. In a similar vein is the grungy “Dangerous Words” which is a bit messy at times, but suitably so. The slower tracks don’t fare as well: “A Better Tomorrow” is a pleasant track built from the “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” melody, but its low quality instruments hamper it; “Tears in the Rain” is better thanks to the mournful piano and the good use of the “Shadowbringers” melody; “More Than Truth” is also downbeat, but also needs live solo instruments; “The Lute” is short and repetitive; the new rendition of “Vamo’ alla Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX has had better versions elsewhere, though I appreciate that it was remade rather than simply having the original inserted. There’s unfortunately nothing here that matches the quality of material like “Tranquility” from Before Meteor, which is a shame given how much cutscene tracks have been in need of an upgrade.
As for battle music, the field theme “Rencounter” is a good match for the expansion’s rock sensibilities, though it isn’t strong melodically. The standard boss theme “Insatiable” is better, alternating focus on rock, piano, and orchestral elements, with good shifting dynamics. The first trial track, “What Angel Wakes Me,” has a vocal by Paula Kaye Gerhold and is a huge departure from previous trial tracks, blending together cuteness and whimsy with intensity and a touch of the sinister. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it is a unique track with lots of attention to detail. The other trial theme “Insanity” has a dazzling piano undercurrent that provides a strong momentum for the epic rock and orchestral track, and also benefits from variation of instrumentation throughout. It’s a huge development from earlier trial tracks from the game that were more homogenous and easily tiresome over time. The climactic “Invincible” sticks to orchestra and choir, and although the orchestral sound quality here is quite good and the arrangement is competent, it is also rather formulaic. The new arrangement for Final Fantasy VIII’s “Force Your Way” also doesn’t do much new. Thankfully, the closing tracks, rearrangements by Takafumi Imamura, are much more interesting: “Blinding Indigo” and “Landslide” are very successful remixes of “Through the Maelstrom” and “Under the Weight” respectively, the former glitchy and even lurching in rhythm, and the latter with light dubstep. Both improve upon their originals simply by being more dynamic and less relentless, mixing things up with synths and reductions. Unfortunately the soundtrack versions are still unnecessarily looped so that they sometimes overstay their welcome, but in themselves they are great remixes that show how far the soundtracks for Final Fantasy XIV have come.
Last to be discussed is the release format for the soundtrack, which, in the pattern of the previous soundtracks, is available both digitally and on Blu-ray disc. Although the Blu-ray release was a neat novelty and a convenience with the earlier soundtracks, at this point the constraints imposed by it are becoming frustrating. As usual, the visuals accompanying the soundtrack on the disc are still lacklustre and do not justify the higher asking price for the format, and the bonus features are meagre: video recordings of “Locus” and “A Father’s Pride” from Fanfest 2019 (the former is unremarkable, but the latter does have Soken’s hilarious signature otamatone antics). The bigger issue is the apparent need to further justify the format by making it a lengthy product, which is achieved here by the inclusion of Stormblood patch music alongside all of the borrowed music from other games, as well as through needless loopings of tracks which frequently makes them overlong; although there is more value packed in, this strategy harms the coherence of the soundtrack as a single product, making it a stark contrast to a tighter and more unified release like the Heavensward soundtrack. The material here has a lot of strengths in its separate parts, and would’ve benefitted from being divided up accordingly.
Shadowbringers: Final Fantasy XIV Original Soundtrack is another strong entry in the game’s catalogue, expanding on the sound palette alongside some great new melodies and rearrangements, though still falling into many of the usual patterns and pitfalls. Although sonically it isn’t as unified as previous expansions are, there is still heavy usage of melodic leitmotifs throughout to tie things together. Unfortunately, the quality of the base sound library has still not improved much since Before Meteor, holding back many of the area and cutscene tracks in particular. As usual, the nighttime themes are the most successful of the slower tracks, while many of the new battle themes are also excellent and show clear development from the earlier soundtracks. As content, the soundtrack is more of what we’ve come to expect, for better and for worse; as a product, the soundtrack unfortunately suffers from being constrained to follow the pattern of the previous soundtracks as a Blu-ray release. Even so, Shadowbringers is still a must-have soundtrack for fans of the game, as the many high points make it easy to overlook the filler and flaws.
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Posted on January 19, 2022 by Tien Hoang. Last modified on February 26, 2022.