STORMBLOOD: FINAL FANTASY XIV Original Soundtrack
STORMBLOOD: FINAL FANTASY XIV Original Soundtrack
Square Enix Music
July 4, 2018
Buy on iTunes
Composing and arranging a score for any piece of media is a gigantic undertaking, and that becomes more true the longer the media in question is. Continually creating music for a game that receives content updates every few months or so seems to me as if it would require a massive amount of creative stamina. This is one of the reasons that long-running online games vary their composers over the course of several expansions. The music of Final Fantasy XIV, on the other hand, has been under the creative control of Masayoshi Soken ever since the game’s re-launch in 2013. During this timeframe, Soken has delivered enough music to fill two full games and several incremental patches, all while alternating between maintaining internal consistency where it matters and experimenting with different styles where it makes sense to do so. Soken remains the lead composer and arranger for the game’s third expansion, Stormblood, and with new game content comes a new opportunity for Soken to demonstrate his continued ability to maintain a consistent level of quality and style in his arrangements. When the full soundtrack for the expansion released, I was eager to get my hands on it and hear how successful he has been this time around and whether he is able to maintain the high bar of quality that he set in his scores for A Realm Reborn and Heavensward.
The first song I want to talk about isn’t the first song on the soundtrack itself, but instead the first one that we got to hear from the soundtrack in the promotional material leading up to Stormblood’s release. Ever since the release of A Realm Reborn, it has been tradition for composer Nobuo Uematsu to contribute a theme with Susan Calloway providing the vocals. The purpose of this track is usually to provide some overarching story concepts and to set the stage for what the listener is to expect both musically and within the story itself. Uematsu’s contribution to this soundtrack, ‘Revolutions’, carries themes of war and the costs that are paid by both the victors and the defeated. In addition to providing a layer of story context, this song inherits something of a continuity of style from the previous two vocal themes, ‘Answers’ and ‘Dragonsong’. There are also a couple of stylistic nods to past Final Fantasy titles as well which make ‘Revolutions’ fit in next to Final Fantasy VII’s ‘Aerith’s Theme’ and Final Fantasy VI’s ‘Terra’s Theme’. The song takes all of those expectations and mostly succeeds in adequately fulfilling them, though the bridge of the song takes on an odd lilting melody that doesn’t quite work with the other verses. In my opinion, ‘Revolutions’, while good, does not quite live up to the high bar set by ‘Answers’ and ‘Dragonsong’, though it definitely has a place alongside them in quality and impact.
Unlike Heavensward, where the melody of ‘Dragonsong’ was present in several other places in the score, Stormblood only features elements of ‘Revolutions’ in a few places. There are a couple of other major themes that are carried through the soundtrack, and the most prominent of these is ‘The Measure of His Reach’. The vocal version of this theme is first heard on the soundtrack as the much more pedantically-titled ‘The Garlean Territorial Anthem for Gyr Abania and Surrounding States – The Measure of Our Reach’. This initial version of the song has a dry and ceremonial feel to it, while in contrast, the second version has the sound and feel of a victory celebration or a convocation. When played back to back with each other, the two versions of the song provide support to the game’s themes of imperialism and national identity. The assimilation tactics of the in-game nation of Garlemald are derived from real-world examples. One of those tactics is taking something familiar to the conquered, such as a song of national pride, and retaining the shape of it while incorporating it into the greater identity of the conquering force.
It’s clear that ‘The Measure of His Reach’ is a large part of the identity of a number of the areas the player explores through the game, as the melody is present in much of the ambient area theme music. Here, Soken demonstrates his talent for creating variations on a theme that are similar enough to have a unifying effect on an area or segment of plot and yet different enough that no one variation ever overstays its welcome. ‘Impact’ mixes a strong brass melody with accents in sitar that give a subtle flavor to what would otherwise be a straightforward instrumental rendition, while ‘Afterglow’ is a more peaceful rendition that evokes the feeling of a warm summer evening spent with comrades and loved ones in times of peaceful stillness. ‘Procedamus in Pace’ takes that same theme and twists it into a more mournful piece, and ‘Heroes of Stormblood’ gives it the arrangement and instrumentation of a traditional parade fanfare. As always, Soken’s music is a perfect example of how to take one theme and adjust it to fit the mood and feel of an area while maintaining overall consistency.
Variations of parts of this theme are used in quite a few other places as well, such as in ‘On High’, which takes the form of a slow, reverent procession, and ‘With Giants Watching’, which brings with it feelings of contemplation, awe, and perhaps worship. A third variation on this theme, ‘Harmony’, is calm, soothing, and relaxing as the name of the track would indicate it should be. This combination of variations speaks to the peace that belief can bring a person, no matter what the source or object of that belief is. The devotion to something greater than oneself can be considered another recurring theme in Stormblood, and whether that greater thing is a deity, a nationality, a family, or even just the concept of belonging to a home, the idea is one that is central to the core of each of us. It’s a feeling that Soken taps into quite well with the variations of ‘The Measure of His Reach’, and it is, I think, a good choice on his part to unify many parts of the soundtrack with that theme.
Boss themes have always been a part of what makes Final Fantasy soundtracks amazing and special, and with each game comes a new chance for a composer to add to this continuing legacy. In Stormblood, the standout boss theme is ‘Triumph’. I have heard it said before that a good boss theme will do one of two things: ramp up the tension and use the music to build a feeling of danger in the face of an overwhelmingly powerful enemy, or, alternately, give the player the feeling of experiencing a crowning moment of awesome and the confidence to overcome any obstacle. A truly great boss theme in my opinion accomplishes both of these in a single track. For the first part of that, ‘Triumph’ launches into a minor key variation of ‘The Measure of His Reach’ played in deep, foreboding brass notes. Halfway through, this gives way to a rousing vocal chorus that provides the main theme of the track. This is the ‘makes you feel awesome’ part of the song, and just like the title would suggest, it has the feel of a victory cheer after striking the final blow to a powerful foe. The overall feel of ‘Triumph’ succeeds in supporting the theme of ‘victory through camaraderie’ that is yet another of the themes woven through the game itself. Variations on ‘Triumph’ can be heard elsewhere in the soundtrack as well, such as in the area themes ‘Crimson Sunrise’ and ‘Crimson Sunset’. These day and night variations present more soothing and peaceful moods that also come across as joyful. One more variation, ‘Looping in the Deepest Fringes’ provides a minor battle theme that maintains a consistent style with the track ‘A Fine Death’ from the original A Realm Reborn soundtrack, which makes sense as within the game they are used for the same manners of combat encounters.
As the narrative of Stormblood moves to areas that take a great deal of inspiration from traditional Japanese landscape and architecture, Soken’s themes and instrumentation shift in that direction as well. ‘Far East of Eorzea’ is a wonderful example of a theme that pulls in Japanese strings and bamboo flute to craft the kind of organic melody that’s reminiscent of the classical ukiyo-e style prevalent in Edo-era Japan. This emphasis on tradition is carried through the tune of ‘A Father’s Pride’ which blends the Japanese instrumental style with a more constant tempo. It’s companion piece, ‘A Mother’s Pride’ takes that theme and shifts it into a beautiful and calming piano piece that emphasizes tenderness and warmth. Finally, Soken takes that same theme and imposes another instrumentation on it entirely and turns it into an energetic dungeon theme in ‘Gates of the Moon. Even here, Soken still accents the rolling percussion and chorus of brass with traditional Japanese instruments that serve to keep this version of the song thematically tied to the area its played in and the melodies it’s derived from. In contrast, the tracks ‘Seven Hundred Seventy-Seven Whiskers’ and ‘Wasshoi, Wasshoi!’ retain as much of the traditional as possible to evoke the imagery of kabuki theater that has been a major influence on Japanese storytelling in many forms of media, including, in several ways, Stormblood itself. It is a nice nod to the origins of certain types of stories and just one more tool in Soken’s thematic toolbox that is used quite well here.
Just as boss themes have the responsibility of conveying certain moods and responses, the final dungeon theme in an RPG has a heavy task to shoulder. On top of being suitably epic, this theme should represent both a feeling of the characters having come a long way and having a sense of accomplishment, as well as the sense that there are great challenges to come before the journey is truly over. The track played in the last main scenario dungeon in Stormblood, ‘Liberty or Death’, definitely has the feel of something that would play during a desperate assault on an enemy stronghold. While great victories have been won, victory is never a certainty, and yet the heroes press on. ‘Liberty or Death’ is, appropriately, a theme fitting the resolve to give one’s life for a cause that is larger than any one person or even one community. The melody for this theme is echoed in the tracks ‘Old Wounds’ and ‘Song of Salt and Suffering’. The former is a sad, somber rendition played on piano that digs deeply into the feelings of pain and injustice that can drive a discontented population, and the latter represents the stirring of that resolve present in ‘Liberty or Death’ that could lead that affected population to take up arms in support of their convictions. This trio of songs that share the same melody are a wonderful representation of the journey from living under oppression to joining in revolution that is woven into the story and substance of Stormblood down to its core.
The final boss theme, ‘The Worm’s Tail’, is a significant point of connection between the Stormblood soundtrack and the music of A Realm Reborn. This suitably epic track opens with a melody that is very similar to what is present in the track ‘Ultima’ from the original game without being exactly the same melody. I will fully admit that I had to listen to the tracks side by side to convince myself of that, which was a comparison made easier by the inclusion of the orchestral version of ‘Ultima’ on the Stormblood disc. Midway through the loop, ‘The Worm’s Tail’ shifts from this into the chorus of ‘Triumph’. At this point in both the game and the soundtrack, the listener will have heard ‘Triumph’ many times and in many different forms and yet, when included here, it can still inspire the same feeling of impending victory over an even more difficult foe. The blending of the two halves of the song into one track still feels more like two separate songs than one cohesive one, but it does serve to blend the past into the present and establish the soundtrack as an ever-evolving continuity.
This incorporation of the past is handled much better with the traditional Final Fantasy song ‘Prelude’, which is present in the first two tracks on the album. The first, ‘Storm of Blood’, opens with a single musical phrase from ‘Prelude’ to establish that yes, this is most definitely a Final Fantasy game. From there, the track transitions into a taiko drum instrumental before returning to the ‘Prelude’ in the same vocal style with bamboo flute accenting it. Finally, the taiko instrumental returns before the song finishes with the chorus of ‘Triumph’. It’s an effective overture with the quick transitions and instrumentations reminiscent of kabuki theater that tie the various themes of the game together in one opening track. The second use of ‘Prelude’ is a little more of a direct cover. ‘Prelude – Long March Home’ takes the ascending and descending notes of the classic track and adds the percussive cadence of a parade march beneath it. It’s something that, in my opinion, shouldn’t work, and yet it is the kind of thing that can effectively set the mood before a single scene is shown. Finally, with every Final Fantasy game comes a new rendition of the chocobo theme. There are not very many styles of music that this theme has not been covered in, though I’m not quite sure I’ve ever heard it done in ‘beach rock’ style like it is in ‘Starlit Gateway’. It’s weird, but to be completely fair, chocobos are weird, so it fits.
There are quite a few other tracks that are taken from past Final Fantasy games as well, the most prevalent of which being ‘Cyan’s Theme’ from Final Fantasy VI. This theme is given an orchestral re-arrangement but is fundamentally the exact same song from the earlier game given a modern upgrade. The same can be said for the other tracks brought in from Final Fantasy VI, which in this game are titled ‘Phantom Train to Sigmascape’, ‘A Battle Decisively’, and ‘Dancing Mad – Movement I-IV’. Final Fantasy V gets some love here, too, with tracks such as ‘Deltascape’, ‘Omega^2’, ‘Decisions’, and ‘Final, Not Final’ which are also direct updates from their originating tracks without other noticeable changes. There is also a collection of some of the most memorable songs from Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII included as well, though those songs, which were already recorded in a quality suitable for inclusion on Playstation 1 and 2 discs, were not re-recorded for this soundtrack. It’s definitely a nice walk down memory lane to hear ‘Trisection’, ‘Apoplexy’, and ‘Flash of Steel’, though I think it would have been even better to hear at the very least a reorchestrated medley of the Ivalice songs. There are also a few songs from other Final Fantasy XIV arranged albums, such as ‘Ultima’, from the orchestral album, and ‘Primal Judgment’, ‘Under the Weight’, and ‘Fallen Angel’, which are taken from From Astral to Umbral and played by Soken’s rock arrangement band The Primals.
Some of the most interesting tracks on any of the Final Fantasy XIV soundtracks are those that accompany the fights with the primals, which are typically fights based on traditional Final Fantasy summoned monsters. These entities sometimes don’t receive a lot of characterization within the written dialogue of the game itself, and so within the battle, the soundtrack serves to showcase aspects of their personalities and lend a uniqueness to each one. In Stormblood, these primals aren’t based on familiar Final Fantasy creatures but rather deities from traditional religion and folklore of Japan, China, and India. The first of these, Susano, is based on the Shinto deity Susano-o, and the music once again pulls from traditional Japanese styles as inspiration. The underlying percussive beat and the evolution of the melody from ‘Revelation’, through ‘Riot’, and ending with ‘At Both Ends’ evokes the feeling of a building thundercloud worthy of the Japanese god of the seas and storms. The second primal, Lakshmi, is based on the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, and beauty. Her theme ‘Beauty’s Wicked Wiles’ reflects this both in the melody, which is derived from a blend of dance music both traditional and modern from the region, and in the lyrics, which are a call to the listener to be free of inhibitions and embrace the beauty of desire. The third of the Stormblood primals, Byakko, is a version of the White Tiger of the West, one of the guardian constellations in Chinese folklore that has over time become ubiquitous throughout the lore of east and southeast Asia. Here, the trio of representative songs begins with ‘Answer on High’, which has the feeling of a Megami Tensei pre-boss-battle lead-in. As the fight continues, the music transitions to ‘Todoroki’, which is a lighter, faster track, and ends with ‘Amatsu Kaze’, which cycles back to the kind of hard rock background music that once again sounds like it would fit either in a Megami Tensei game or perhaps Street Fighter.
The last set of primal themes is, for me, what brings the entire soundtrack together. The final primal fight that is musically represented on this soundtrack is a derivation of the Shinto moon deity Tsukuyomi, who is represented in Stormblood as female despite her masculine real-world counterpart. The first of Tsukuyomi’s tracks, ‘Nightbloom’, is a sinister-sounding march that pulls in ‘The Measure of His Reach’ along with elements from other tracks as well, including a short bridge that is very reminiscent of ‘Bombing Mission’ from Final Fantasy VII. This track transitions into ‘Lunacy’, which is a piano rendition of ‘Gates of the Moon’ that shifts into ‘Cyan’s Theme’, serving to tie in the heavy influences that Final Fantasy VI has throughout Stormblood. This nearly seamlessly fades into the final track, ‘Wayward Daughter’, which begins with a piano flourish before immediately being dominated by heavy electric guitar which accompanies a vocal rendition of the melody from ‘A Mother’s Pride’ and ‘A Father’s Pride’. The effect of the transition is much like that seen in Shiva’s theme, ‘Oblivion’, from the Before the Fall soundtrack, and narratively the collection of tracks is likely meant to evoke a similar character journey as was present in that earlier segment of the game itself. Taken apart from that, it’s clear that the contrast between ‘Wayward Daughter’ and the originating melody in ‘A Mother’s Pride’ and ‘A Father’s Pride’ is meant to illustrate how generational differences and views on the importance of tradition can sometimes be a point of contention and even outright hostility in many families. And yet, the presence of the same binding melody between the three songs is a reminder that for better or for worse, we are who we are because of our past experiences, whether those experiences were uplifting or traumatic. It is a fitting note to end the soundtrack on, both because of how much the music blends the past with the present and because of how the narrative of the game itself deals with how much the present world is influenced by past events on levels that can be personal, geopolitical, or deeply traditional.
The soundtrack for Stormblood had a lot to live up to, and it mostly does. The high points, such as ‘Triumph’, ‘The Measure of His Reach’, and ‘Wayward Daughter’ are clear indicators of the quality and emotional impact that Soken strives for when creating music to accompany every expansion of the Final Fantasy XIV game world. The songs brought in from past games are given the respect they’re due, and even the ones that have no changes feel like they were included because they represent the best of the past of Final Fantasy. However, if I have one complaint about the soundtrack, it’s that the inclusion of so many styles, influences, and memorable themes from past games make Stormblood feel like less of a cohesive whole than Heavensward did. If the original tracks from the game were taken separately from the covers and other inclusions, then perhaps I would feel differently. As it is, about a third of this album feels more like a ‘greatest hits’ collection and less like an original score. Having said that, I do feel that most of the original tracks on this album are of exceptional quality and are a clear demonstration of Soken’s ability to take a melody and create variations on it that are unique enough to convey different moods when the narrative requires. In a game as long-lived as Final Fantasy XIV is becoming, that ability will only become more important with each future contribution to the whole.
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Posted on August 8, 2018 by Greg Fisher. Last modified on August 8, 2018.