Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.
I’ll let you all finish, but Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers deserves the most props for its soundtrack this year, and we’re about to show you why. Coming from A Realm Reborn’s humble beginnings, Final Fantasy XIV has grown exponentially over the years in both users and content. It seems the long-running MMO has hit a major stride with its latest expansion: Shadowbringers. Composer Masayoshi Soken has been with the title since the beginning and has composed a number of themes that are arguably some of Final Fantasy’s greatest hits, but none of us were ready for the musical smack-down he would deliver with this expansion. To say that it’s a quality soundtrack would be an understatement. Soken-san has perfectly translated Shadowbringers’ subject matter and themes into an emotionally-charged soundtrack that completes the game. None of the monumental turning points in this expansion would carry nearly as much weight without this newly-evolved sound. Shadowbringers’ music is unlike anything the game has experienced before with its darker melodies and instrumental choices. This expansion has the most heart-wrenching twists and turns, with some of the darkest subject matter we’ve experienced and all of this can be felt through its music. Not only can we feel the emotions through Soken-san’s composition, we can also hear the major evolution he has undergone as a composer and artist as he experiments with different techniques. This soundtrack represents a new height for the series: from hauntingly desperate boss and dungeon themes, to uplifting composition for the friends we meet along the way. In order to examine these themes, we’ll be delving a bit into the Shadowbringers expansion. While we will avoid major spoilers for the game, please be advised that there will be some discussion about this new expansion’s details below. If you would rather be surprised with first impressions (which I do highly recommend), this would be a good time to gloss over the embedded videos.
Shadowbringers’ OST gives us a hard, committed open with a gorgeous mixture of classic Final Fantasy melody and hard-edge electric guitars. The Main Theme opens with a haunting vocal and a light string accompaniment. An angelic voice sings lyrics of anguish:
For whom weeps the storm,
Her tears on our skin
The days of our years gone,
Our souls soaked in sin
These memories ache with the weight of tomorrow
After this delicate voice finishes, we shift dramatically to an almost Marylin Manson tone with electric guitars and a more rock oriented sound. Its a gorgeous juxtaposition of delicate and rough musical composition as a representation for the title’s “light vs dark” themes. We also have a lyrical switch in the song to even further solidify the game’s overall theme. Now a raspy, harder voice sings out:
One brings shadow, one brings light
Two-toned echoes tumbling through time
Threescore wasted, ten cast aside
Four-fold knowing, no end in sight
Even the lyrical composition is thoughtful of what Shadowbringers is about. We have parallel worlds, opposite alignments and the classic good versus evil story-line. To open up with a song that evolves as it’s being performed is symbolic of the various twists and turns this expansion is about. The main theme lyrically creates the backdrop for the story; much in the way that musicals have an overture to introduce the body of work performed. With Soken-san’s use of classic melodies with electric guitars gives Final Fantasy XIV an updated sound that the series frankly needed. As epic as previous FFXIV soundtracks have been, they have all sounded similar across the board. This is not to say FFXIV hasn’t had modern themes, there are numerous tracks that incorporate more modern instruments with some newer techniques, but those are just singular tracks. The entire Shadowbringers soundtrack is full of modern sounds and composition that set a completely different tone for the series as a whole.
To exemplify just how different Shadowbringers’ soundtrack is, we are hit with the ultimate tonal shift in the expansion’s first dungeon. The track To Fire and Sword perfectly conveys the urgency of the situation we need to deal with in the first dungeon. We are running into a town to save citizens from monsters. The track’s tempo, the use of percussion instruments and the percussive way the piano is played along with a crescendo of strings creates the pace for the dungeon. While leading the party as the tank, I felt an intense urgency to fight as quickly as I could because of the music. To hear this theme as I began the dungeon was indeed breathtaking because it was such a different sound. This composition is miles away from any previous expansion we’ve experienced. For example, Stormblood’s soundtrack went for a Far Eastern sound that didn’t quite push musical boundaries and utilized a lot of familiar melodies we’ve heard before. Heavensward had beautiful melodies, yet incorporated familiar instruments that didn’t make it stand out so much from the crowd of Final Fantasy soundtracks. Soken-san’s experimentation with melody is just the tip of the iceberg for this soundtrack, as even this dungeon’s boss theme brings new sounds to the table.
We are hit with a musical force once we enter the first dungeon, but nothing prepares us for the ultimate indication of what Shadowbringers is all about until we get to the dungeon’s final boss. The brief thought, “am I playing Dark Souls or Final Fantasy,” crossed my mind as the expansion’s new Boss Theme played and the grotesque creature of light reared its face. Battle drums sound out immediately, following up with distorted vocals through the use of a talk box (or at least mixed to give that effect) and a bass rumble that give a terrifying first impression. Its melody is heart-wrenching with crescendos and a tempo fitting of a desperate fight as lyrics cry out:
The road that we walk,
Is lost in the flood
Here proud angles bathe in,
Their wages of blood
At this, the world’s end, we cast off tomorrow
Everything about this track is hardcore. Everything about the track pushes musical creativity, from the use of vocals and lyrics, to the bass-rumble that we usually hear in movies. As my Dark Knight’s sword slashed and hacked, I was transported into the moment of that fight. Gameplay and soundtrack are beautifully married as the feeling of desperation mounts in our chest. Yet, with all of these new musical elements, these tracks are still unmistakably “Final Fantasy” because they evoke astounding amounts of emotion that will resonate for years to come–very much in the same way that One Winged Angel and Terra’s Theme are still known by name decades later.
If we are to identify any track by name, Civilizations is the one to remember (its Orchestrion Roll was selling for a cool 600k Gill on the markets not too long ago). This is the theme for the new area, The Rak’tika Greatwood, we travel to later in the game. Entering the forest is impressive as towering trees show off ancient power, their gnarled roots interwoven with thousand year old tombs. The Greatwood is also home to new allies who make their homes in the trees, miles high above the forest floor. There is a wild feeling of being in these woods. They were originally a source of ancient magical power connected to the Aether (the magical life force around us). Soken-san has taken this lore and turned it into a feeling with his composition. It’s a track that makes the heart soar with its use of vocals, and introduces a melody that feels both primal and free with its focus on organic sounds. It’s also the track that combines the most random instruments to make something amazing. Flutes, accordions and a bagpipe work to create one of the most memorable tracks in the entire soundtrack. We can feel the history of the forest, we can feel its untamed power. Once again, it’s a sound so different that it takes FFXIV’s music in a completely new direction. The entirety of this expansion’s music keeps surprising us with varied melodies and new sounds that have been major highlights of Shadowbringers.
The FFXIV community has varied opinions on favorite Final Fantasy music, but one thing has been concretely established: Shadowbringers’ soundtrack is a new standard for the series. Final Fantasy has always been known to bring epic stories and soundtracks to all of its games, and the Shadowbringers expansion has carried on that tradition expertly. Masayoshi Soken has created a masterpiece of work by utilizing the themes of “light” and “dark”, “good” and “evil” to help propel Final Fantasy into a new wave of music. The entire body of work brings a level of quality to music that should be appreciated. Shadowbringers truly wouldn’t be what it is without the soundtrack behind it breathing life into each tragedy and triumph. Every track has some emotion tied to it for the sake of story, lore or gameplay and we can feel how each of the game’s components were carefully considered during the composition process. We have come a long way from the music of Patch 1.0. This expansion marked an evolution not only in the game’s story, but also its sound. Very rarely have I heard a soundtrack that represents a game so well like this one. If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy, or just a fan of music in general, do yourself the favor of listening to the rest of this masterpiece.