Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)

By John Son 20.04.2016 3

Final Fantasy XI marked the first time in the series' history when composer Nobuo Uematsu did not play a major role in contributing music to a main series title. While he did put forward a handful of material, it was series newcomer Naoshi Mizuta who took the helm in producing much of the game's music instead. Ten years on from the game's Xbox 360 release, we revisit Final Fantasy XI and take a quick glance at what sets this particular entry's music apart from other soundtracks in the series.

Image for Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)

The complete soundtrack to Final Fantasy XI spans six main album releases, in addition to a PLUS album and a disc of unreleased tracks exclusive to the limited edition Premium Box, making for a grand total of just over 210 tracks altogether. Modern Final Fantasy soundtracks are generally not one to scrimp on content in any case, but this is certainly one of the larger soundtracks of the series to grapple with.

With such a large catalogue of music, then, it's inevitable that there would be a few inconsistencies and shortcomings present. For instance, while all of the individual albums have their merits, The Chains of Promathia album is probably the least well-developed, featuring dull, muddy synth pads and laboriously plodding melodies that often feel like a chore to listen to. Many tracks across the board simply fall short of expectations - for one, cookie-cutter incidental music and forgettable, generic battle themes both make numerous unwelcome appearances. At its very worst, the music of FFXI simply descends into the bland, repetitive and outright pedestrian - a far cry from the high standard set by precious Final Fantasy soundtracks.

To add insult to injury, the game does not do itself any favours by limiting the number of live musical performances on the soundtrack. The precious few live tracks featured are nestled uncomfortably alongside tracks that flaunt dated instrument samples, which sound inferior in comparison. When the music hits home, though, it does so in a big way - one example being "FFXI Opening Theme," which incorporates a number of major themes (including the series' "Prelude" theme) and is a rare example of a track in the game being performed with a full orchestra and choir. All things considered, it's a stonkingly brilliant and dramatic piece to open with - it's just a shame that it sets a standard for scale and drama that is never really matched again in the rest of the soundtrack.

Image for Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)
Now that we've got a lot of the negatives out of the way, we can focus on the things that FFXI does do well - and despite the odds being stacked against its favour, there are actually quite a few. One of the most significant areas is the game's numerous location themes.

It is with these tracks that the music really comes into its own and gives the game its unique sound. There is a pleasant mixture of the relaxing and meditative, along with both melancholy and uplifting tracks, most of them well-composed and interesting enough to warrant multiple listens. The tracks themselves are rarely brash or overly energetic, instead favouring a kind of calm, sedate and understated sound that is consistent throughout.

Xylophones, woodwinds and acoustic guitars especially are heard many times over the course of the soundtrack, the focus often being placed more on the texture, timbre and rhythm of these instruments, rather than the actual melodies themselves. An excellent example of this is Kumi Tanioka's "Gustaberg," which combines xylophones, strings, guitar and woodwinds layered over unconventional tribal percussion effects to create a stunning atmospheric soundscape of sweeping, solemn drama. Similarly, the track "Heavens Tower" is notable its unconventional gamelan-inspired sound and steady build-up and progression revolving around the central melody, which repeats, mantra-like, from beginning to end.

Image for Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)
The game also strikes a chord with quiet, more melancholy pieces, which often have a serene kind of beauty about them. "Flowers on the Battlefield" is a good example - beautifully wistful and poignant for the most part, it also comes with a key change in the middle section where the music suddenly lifts and adopts a much more hopeful and optimistic tone for a while. This thematic dichotomy is a recurring theme across the soundtrack, and the general structure, as well as similar tones, styles and arrangements, can be found in other tracks such as "The Cosmic Wheel," "Griffons Never Die" and "Shinryu," among others. It's an interesting hallmark of Mizuta's, which helps the music carve its own niche, in a way.

By far one of the best pieces in the game, though, is the fantastic "Sanctuary of Zi'Tah." While the unconventional melody may sound odd at first, the earnest guitar lines and solemn woodwinds come together to create a sombre piece that is heavy with sadness and nostalgia, yet still strangely comforting at the same time. It's a difficult one to pin down, but is all the better for it; the enigmatic nature of the track only adds to the replay value. Of all the tracks in the game, "Sanctuary of Zi'Tah" is the one that perhaps best embodies the entire feel and the direction of FFXI's music - it's a track that more than deserves to be placed in the same bracket as Uematsu's work on the series.

Much of the other location themes in the soundtrack retain a pleasantly high standard throughout. "Selbina," another rare instance of live instruments making an appearance, features a superb fiddle performance alongside a cute accordion interlude, adding a charming folksy flavour to an already enjoyable track. "The Grand Duchy of Jeuno" is a lilting, traditional sounding waltz that adds a touch of regality to the proceedings, while "Kazham" is an unfailingly cheerful piece, which has a subtle festival-like feel to it. Tracks such as "The Forgotten City - Tavnazian Safehold" are instantly likeable for their catchy, rhythmic guitar hooks, while "Castle Zvahl," the longest track in the game, is very much an ambient slow-burner, relying less on melody and more on presence and atmosphere to help deliver a sense of place.

Image for Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)
Location themes are undoubtedly a strength here, but what of the game's battle themes? Every Final Fantasy game has at least one, perhaps two, standout tracks to fill this gap, but the case is slightly different here. As mentioned previously, "forgettable" and "generic" are two words that spring to mind when it comes to the game's battle themes, and for the most part, it rings true. There is very little variation in a lot of the individual arrangements, meaning that there isn't much of a reason to justify listening to one track over another; many simply blur together for lack of distinguishing features. Compare this to, say, FFIX's veritable smorgasbord of variety in battle themes alone, and it's clear that FFXI does unfortunately fall a bit short in this regard.

Fortunately, there are exceptions. One of these is "Awakening," another contribution from Kumi Tanioka. An engaging and distinctive piece with a dark, brooding feel, it flaunts heavy use of voice synths alongside pounding drums and percussion effect, which form the backbone of the track. A middle bridge section helps keep the piece fresh, with some pretty harp arpeggios and a single voice synth melody adding some brief calm before plunging back to the previous section's intensity. It certainly has tension, but for a final boss fight theme, it all feels quite unhurried and a little restrained - but then again, when you then think about the equivalent pieces from previous games, specifically FFVI to FFX, you start to think that the big, bombastic and frantic arrangements featured in these titles were perhaps due a rest after all. FFXI in general just feels like a change of pace in the series' musical history - it's certainly a much slower, quieter and more introspective offering than previous entries.

Image for Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)
In a similar vein, "Fighters of the Crystal" is probably the best battle theme in the game because it works despite being relatively understated and fairly unusual in mood. A teetering xylophone intro undercut with punchy string interjections gives way to the main brass melody, which then leads into a second major theme: a graceful and dignified orchestral section led with haughty strings. As with "Sanctuary of Zi'Tah," Mizuta here shows his odd talent of composing music, which toes the line between several ideas without committing fully to any particular one. It's unique, if not anything else, and "Fighters of the Crystal" definitely feels like a sideways step from Uematsu's battle themes of yesteryear. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, Mizuta's approach to composition is perhaps situational at best, and ultimately lacks the range and versatility of Uematsu's work.

The song "Distant Worlds," which has since spawned numerous cover versions and also lent its name to the hugely successful series of concerts performed around the world, can only be found on the Unreleased Tracks CD of the Premium Box release of the soundtrack. It's a shame, though, that this version should be marred with Izumi Masuda's Engrish vocals, which, despite my best efforts to overlook it, is still a very distracting feature. Susan Calloway's rendition as part of the aforementioned concert series is a noted improvement, but honestly, the best version of the song just might be the alternative instrumental version featured on the same disc as the original: "Distant Worlds Guitar Version." Not only does it do away with the slightly purple lyrics, but the solo acoustic guitar allows the fantastic orchestral arrangement to shine through while keeping the same sense of grandeur and sweeping majesty about it. The lack of vocals genuinely doesn't detract from it at all - though this may well just be personal preference more than anything.

Image for Final Fantasy XI 10th Anniversary | Final Fantasy XI Soundtrack Review (MusiCube)
As a closing thought, mention must also be made to the main theme of the game, "Vana'diel March," and its offshoots: "Unity," "Vana'diel March #4," "Wings of the Goddess," etc. Marches are a recurring theme in the game, and these tracks, serving as the title themes for the base game and its expansions, are fun and uncomplicated musical introductions, also underlining the militaristic themes present in the story. As with a few other themes present in the music, these tracks help establish a sense of identity, as well as unifying the many album releases that make up the game's expansive soundtrack.

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10
Final Fantasy XI suffers from being less accessible than previous soundtracks in the series, but given a chance, there is a well-rounded, enjoyable and thoughtfully composed body of music to be found. While the slow pace and laid-back compositions can become wearisome after a while, the simplicity of the stripped-down acoustic arrangements still have an undeniable charm, which makes up much of the music's appeal. Ultimately, the inconsistencies prevent it from being called a true classic, but there's no reason why this title shouldn't deserve a second glance over any of its peers. A truly underrated gem.

Comment on this article

You can comment as a guest or join the Cubed3 community below: Sign Up for Free Account Login

Preview PostPreview Post Your Name:
Validate your comment
  Enter the letters in the image to validate your comment.
Submit Post

Comments

Thanks for another great in-depth review, John. Do hope you can put out one of FF13-2 at some point. Must be about a year since we had that awesome chat about it!

I've only really experienced the FF11 OST through Theatrhythm, and I know you wanted to recommend some tracks to me at one point. I'll try to check some of the ones highlighted in your article out. Awakening is probably the one I'm most familiar with - I believe Dissidia introduced me to that, actually - and I love it. Really builds into a cool battle theme.

Do you know if any of the FF11 composers have worked on FF14? I've put a lot of time into 14 (unlike 11, which I never played), and it's amazing the breadth of different tracks and sheer quality of them.

Azuardo said:
Thanks for another great in-depth review, John. Do hope you can put out one of FF13-2 at some point. Must be about a year since we had that awesome chat about it!

I've only really experienced the FF11 OST through Theatrhythm, and I know you wanted to recommend some tracks to me at one point. I'll try to check some of the ones highlighted in your article out. Awakening is probably the one I'm most familiar with - I believe Dissidia introduced me to that, actually - and I love it. Really builds into a cool battle theme.

Do you know if any of the FF11 composers have worked on FF14? I've put a lot of time into 14 (unlike 11, which I never played), and it's amazing the breadth of different tracks and sheer quality of them.


Cheers, Az. XIII-2 is def on my radar, as are the other two in the trilogy, but I can forsee them being difficult ones to write since I've got such strong opinions on all of them (would be difficult to be impartial). LR has actually kind of grown on me over time - I'm loving Sunset Path on the second disc at the moment because it's such a cool throwback to Mizuta's work on XI. I'm still not really convinced by the tribal and Arabic influences as a whole though, tbh.

Yeah, the tracks I've given mention to are good starting points if you want to get into it. There's a lot of filler to wade through if you're listening to the full albums, but it's pretty cool seeing for yourself what works and what doesn't - if you've got the patience for it. 

As far as I know, XIV is pretty much just a Masayoshi Soken and Uematsu production. They do make a damn good team though, some amazing stuff on A Realm Reborn - plus not to mention I'm a sucker for re-arrangements of classic FF tunes (who knew the battle theme from II could sound so good?). I really should get round to listening to Before the Fall and Heavensward sometime as well.

( Edited 21.04.2016 09:48 by Freedom_Dive )

Really cool to hear you've grown to like LRFF13's OST. Not surprising you like Sunset Path, given it's Mizuta! Think I'll have to give the full soundtrack itself another proper listen at some point. Really do love it. I can defo see how the entire 13 trilogy OSTs as a whole give mixed opinions for people, but they've all grown on me massively over time.

Were there any other remixes of old FF tunes in 11's OST, or was it only the Prelude theme in the FFXI Opening? Definitely a sucker for remixes.

Subscribe to this topic Subscribe to this topic

If you are a registered member and logged in, you can also subscribe to topics by email.
K-Pop Korner - The Best of Korean Music
Sign up today for blogs, games collections, reader reviews and much more
Site Feed
Who's Online?
Azuardo, Ofisil

There are 2 members online at the moment.