Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
The soundtrack for the ongoing MMORPG Final Fantasy XI represents a necessary departure from the numbered Final Fantasy series. An abundance of themes accompany the long periods of gameplay in Vana'diel's vast landscapes. With rich organic palettes, subdued melodies and harmonies, and slow steady development, these themes help to characterise the scenery without being dramatic or penetrating. Militaristic marches, brassy battle anthems, adventurous travelling themes, emotionale event themes, and personable character themes complete the lineup. Some found it difficult accustomising to a Final Fantasy soundtrack without an abundance of dramatic tracks or instantly memorable melodies. However, gamers were mostly satisfied with the soundtrack, some finding it merely a pleasant and fitting accompaniment to the game, others eager to hear it in a stand-alone context.
Echoing his actions on Final Fantasy X, Uematsu took a backseat himself aside from the event themes. He introduced two new faces to the series to create most of the music. Naoshi Mizuta (Parasite Eve II, Mega Man & Bass) took the leading role creating most of the setting themes, battle themes, and male character themes using specific formulas. Kumi Tanioka (Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon 2, All Star Pro-Wrestling) completed the line-up and demonstrated versatility despite a small role. Uematsu made the correct decision here as his speciality is not MMORPG underscoring and a composer needed to be introduced that could also create new material for Final Fantasy XI's inevitable extensions. The Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack features two discs of music from the original game while the soundtracks for the extensions are separate.
Nobuo Uematsu and Shiro Hamaguchi's "FFXI Opening Theme" introduces the game with a recollection of Vana'diel's Crystal War. Split into four sections, it opens with a solo harp rendition of the "Prelude" before developing into an exuberant militaristic march. The theme's centrepiece is a rendition of the haunting main theme "Memoro de la S^tono" by full orchestra and Esperanto choir. The masterpiece is completed by an emotional interlude exposing a secondary recurring theme and an uplifting conclusion to bring the game to the present day. Early into the soundtrack, Uematsu also offers his only setting theme, dedicated to the vast forest of "Ronfaure". A calm enchanting soundscape is established with woodwind melodies supported by acoustic guitar and folk instruments. It sustains extended gameplay extremely well by both extensively elaborating on the primary section and exploring an intervening section that provides a deeper perspective on the forest's landscapes. Also of early importance is Naoshi Mizuta's menu theme "Vana'diel March". Supported by a resolute string motif, the theme develops over three main sections to offer nationalistic French horn melodies, carefully integrated arpeggios based on "Prelude", and a surprisingly emotional development section before the loop.
Mizuta's setting themes primarily define the sounds of Vana'diel. Most of these pieces are constructed in a four step process: 1) the instruments are selected from an organic palette to fit the context, 2) a basso ostinato is established that repeats for the majority of the theme, 3) an obligatory melody is added and developed with little conventional harmonisation, and 4) interludes featuring either entirely new melodies or more repetitions of the ostinato round off the composition. The diverse and artistic use of the soundtrack's palette ensures that the themes are colourful despite this understated and formulaic approach. For instance, "Rolanberry Fields" is an airy panpipe-infused theme gently supported by tuned percussion and arpeggiated guitar chords. "Battalia Downs" retains a laid-back feel with its syncopated guitar rhythms but works to attain more motion overall during its finely layered development. Most melodies here become memorable over time and aren't immediately striking; exceptions are found in the Irish jig "Selbina" and the poignant flute-led "Mhaura". "Sarutabaruta" and "Sauromugue Campaign" are probably the most barren repetitive additions here, but at least fit their areas well. Nearly all the instruments are also synthesized impeccably thanks to programmers Hidenori Iwasaki and Hirosato Noda.
The themes for the four main cities of Vana'diel and their administrative centres are dispersed throughout the soundtrack. In "The Kingdom of San d'Oria" and "Chateau d'Oraguille", imposing march structures convey the pride of the Elvaan and lead bagpipes represent their northern Edinburgh-inspired city. "The Federation of Windurst" simultaneously conveys the childishness and mysticism of the Tarutaru with folky wind melodies and Scotch snap tuned percussion motifs. The administrative centre's "Heaven's Tower" combines evocative flute wails and an ethereal ascending bell motif, but would have been more interesting if trimmed down from its 6:25 playtime. Kumi Tanioka is introduced to the soundtrack with the Humes' "The Republic of Bastok" and "Metalworks"; bright striking additions to the score, they combine the melodic drive and memorability of Uematsu's themes with the development and instrumentation use of Mizuta's. For Bastok's surrounding landscapes, Tanioka also creates "Gustaberg", which develops from a dusky xylophone-based introduction into a beautiful orchestral work rich with instrumental and textural contrasts. Finally, Mizuta's sedate classical ballroom pastiche "The Grand Duchy of Jeuno" memorably accompanies Vana'diel's leading city, complemented by Tanioka's canonic string quartet "Ru'lude Gardens" for its administrative district.
The races are further explored in the character themes at the start of the second disc. For the male characters, Mizuta creates a series of marches to convey masculinity and militaristic intent. Despite their square constructs, the dashing "Hume Male" and austere "Elvaan Male" are very well-characterised. Equally effective, cutesy flute melodies and lyrical development portray "Tarutaru Male" and low-pitched brass discords suit the bear-like "Galka". Kumi Tanioka expresses personality more outrageously in the female character themes. "Hume Female" and "Tarutaru Female" are both synth jazz themes that prematurely end after the one minute mark. "Elvaan Female" and "Mithra" are substantial techno themes that boast compelling bass lines and catchy cheesy melodies. Their personality enhances what is often an emotionally aseptic soundtrack and they firmly drive on the pace of the soundtrack to its eventual climax. However, they are also undeniably out-of-place on an almost entirely acoustic soundtrack and, in the end, seem more like superficial novelty features than particularly mature compositions. In combination, Mizuta and Tanioka do a good job portraying the appearance and personalities of the different characters despite curiously having opposite strengths and weaknesses.
Mizuta's battle themes are a strength of the soundtrack. The brassy string-punctuated "Battle Theme" and "Battle Theme #2" fit with the militaristic focus of the game, though their strong melodies and intense development sections still scream classic Final Fantasy. The two "Battle in the Dungeon" themes also interest with their bold basslines, inspired by both flamenco movements and some of Uematsu's more belligerent creations. Deliberately discordant, repetitive, and aggressive, "Tough Battle" will divide listeners but nevertheless has a compelling quality to it. Overall, the battle themes nicely break up the setting themes of the soundtrack and provide some definitive highlights. Other intense themes here are "Buccaneers", which compensates for its lack of chord progression with driving percussion rhythms, and "Fury", an intimidating orchestral work that briefly recollects "Memoro de la S^tono". Also of note are the two travelling themes. For the Mhaura / Selbina ferry, "Voyager" would not feel out-of-place in the Chrono Cross soundtrack with its breezy flute and guitar use. Classic Uematsu, the "Airship" theme is probably the strongest in the series; it elegantly combines a calming but dynamic guitar accompaniment with boundless electronic synth melodies to demonstrate the impressive view from deck.
As the decisive encounter with the Shadow Lord approaches, the soundtrack intensifies towards its climax. Marked by melancholic harpsichord lines and plodding tuned percussion chords, Mizuta's "Xarcabard" is a fitting theme for the frozen valley prior to the final dungeon. "Castle Zvahl" is a wonderful ambient work to accompany the long dark passages of this dungeon. Using resolute string melodies, eerily suspended organ chords, a selection of tribal percussion, and fleeting malevolent voices, Mizuta subtly develops the theme culminating in a breathtaking gong clash at 4:30. It is controversially extended to over 9 minutes in length on the actual soundtrack to strictly account for the second loop. Tanioka's "Shadow Lord" is one of the less accomplished works here; the impact imposed by the choir's introductory ghostly chants is diminished by an unfitting transition to a much more ambient string section. She redeems herself with the 'final' boss theme "Awakening", however. The work establishes a delicious soundscape with agitated string / brass melodies, ferocious drum rhythms, and climactic vocal chants. There are also fluidly integrated interludes, one featuring beautiful flute melodies and another offering the harp arpeggios of the "Prelude", that top off a rounded emotional work.
The second disc of the soundtrack also features most of the event themes for the game, though some were relegated to the unreleased tracks on the box set. Nobuo Uematsu demonstrates his emotional capacity with the "Recollection", also used in the opening theme and the Chains of Promathia vocal theme "Distant Worlds". Other strong contributions are "Anxiety" and "Sorrow", which gushingly develop from their respective acoustic piano and electric piano melodies. "Hopelessness" and "Sometime, Somewhere" are whimsical works resembling some of Final Fantasy IX's pieces, though come across a little mundane without in-game context. Mizuta's "Mog House" has become a favourite of fans of the game over time with its comforting acoustic melodies. However, it isn't related to the moogle theme featured in most Final Fantasy soundtracks. Indeed, the only classic reprises featured here are of the "Prelude" theme; in addition to its use in the two Vana'diel marches and "Awakening", it receives a lushly synthesized solo harp rendition at the start of the Disc Two and the spiritual bell-supported variation "Recollection". The "Memoro de la S^tono" also recurs in the linear instrumental themes "Despair" and "Repression" before "Vana'diel March #2" closes the soundtrack elatedly.
The Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack represents the scenery, emotions, and history of Vana'diel very well. On a stand-alone basis, it is a varied attractive experience featuring compositions meticulous in their development and synthesis. Unlike Uematsu's solo works, it is not instantly likeable but has the potentially to become a favourite with multiple listens. It definitely helps if you immerse yourself into imagining Vana'diel while listening this soundtrack. In addition, it's certainly desirable if you don't find the predictable ostinato-based approach of Naoshi Mizuta's music mind-numbing superficially or musically. However, unlike the extension soundtracks, it is possible to rely on obvious highlights to initially enjoy the soundtrack; themes like "FFXI Opening Theme", "Ronfaure", "The Republic of Bastok" "The Grand Duchy of Jeuno", "Airship", and "Awakening" should be instantly attractive to most listeners.
In subsequent soundtracks for the series, Naoshi Mizuta goes solo and reflects new facets to Vana'diel. Extension soundtracks portray the rich jungles and deserts of Rise of the Zilart, insidious emptiness of Chains of Promathia, Eastern adventures of Treasures of Aht Urhgan, and journey to the past of Wings of the Goddess. Alternative, one may prefer to purchase the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Premium Box featuring the main soundtrack and all but the most recent extension. Lots of courage (and money) is needed to journey further into the Final Fantasy XI musical experience than just the main soundtrack, which has the potential to become a redundant purchase. Whether treated as a stand-alone purchase or a starting point, the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack is nevertheless a fulfilling and enjoyable soundtrack for those looking for calming acoustic music sprouting with highlights.
Overall Score: 9/10