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Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack :: Review by Kero Hazel

Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack Album Title: Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack
Record Label: DigiCube (1st Edition); Square Enix (Reprint)
Catalog No.: SSCX-10069/70; SQEX-10017/8
Release Date: June 5, 2002; May 10, 2004
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


What an honor it is to be reviewing Nobuo Uematsu's latest contribution to the musical legacy of the Final Fantasy series. But let's not forget the other two composers who poured their heart and soul into this soundtrack: Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka.

Track-by-Track Reviews

Disc One

1) FFXI Opening Theme

Even though Final Fantasy XI is online-only, it's still a Final Fantasy game, and could we ask it to start out with any piece other than the traditional Prelude? No, siree! The first movement of the piece, "Legend - The Crystal Theme," is a modified version of the "Prelude," unmistakably the modern incarnation of that harp classic. It begins the same way it does in all the Final Fantasy games, but the later harmonies become completely different from those in the traditional "Prelude," leading into the second movement, "Memory of the People." This short, marchy tune sets the scene for the world of Final Fantasy XI, and you get the feeling that a momentous conflict is just on the horizon. Already we can see a whole new level of depth in Uematsu's music, as this sounds more like the soundtrack to a movie than a game. But he doesn't stop there.

The powerful third movement, "Memoro de la S^tono", is the flagship piece for this CD set and the main theme of the game. Much of it contains choir vocals (with lyrics in Esperanto), which add a great tone of sadness and despair to an already emotional piece. The harmony just sweeps you off your feet, but without becoming trite or melodramatic like some movie music tends to become. Since it is the main theme, it's important that the melody be simple enough to recognize yet complex enough so that it doesn't get tiresome. Its melody does just the trick. But the other parts of this movement are great too, such as the large instrumental section which serves as an interlude between vocal sections — the narrative composition makes it just as emotional as the vocals. Finally, the fourth movement, "Memory of the Wind", closes the opening piece on a happy and optimistic note. The final few measures are a return to the Crystal Theme, completing this outstanding track in a rondo-like fashion.

2) Vana'diel March

At a first glance (or listening, rather), this piece seems to be unnecessarily repetitive. The low, heavy bass does indeed repeat a lot, but hey... this is a march after all. After a melodic passage by a single trumpet, the Crystal Theme makes a short appearance. From this point on, the piece takes a turn for the better, developing the melody into a great piece of composition. One of the best marches I've heard in awhile.

3) The Kingdom of San d'Oria

Oooh, another march! This one is definitely more militaristic than the previous track, and more repetitive too. Its strongest feature is the instrumentation, from the melody-carrying bagpipes to the atmospheric string interlude. The interlude, especially, provides a nice break from the conventional march form.

4) Ronfaure

A Rennaisance-Faire feeling permeates this track. The choice of instruments is perfect, down to the tambourine and mandolin (at least I think it's a mandolin). The woodwinds and other instruments provide a primitive, but highly effective, harmony, just the sort of thing you'd expect to hear in Ye Olde King's Court. Every so often, a small solo or duet will kick in, providing a nice bit of variation.

5) Battle Theme

This is the first upbeat piece in the soundtrack, and is definitely worthy of the title of an Final Fantasy battle theme. While not as catchy as some of the earlier battle themes in the series, the composition and instrumentation are still very good. The 'cellos that kick in about a minute into the piece add a deliciously sinister touch. A pity that this piece is only two minutes long.

6) Chateau d'Oraguille

Back to another military marching piece. The main instruments used here sound like a combination of brass and woodwinds, which makes an interesting (albeit very repetitive) atmospheric effect. An organ-based segment in the middle contributes some good harmonic progression, but sadly, the rest of the piece is rather bland.

7) Batallia Downs

The slow acoustic guitar and the accompanying woodwinds let you know that this is a mellow piece, almost bordering on ambient. It's very calm and soothing, yet still has enough melodic variation to stay interesting.

8) The Republic of Bastok

Kumi Tanioka's first contribution to the Final Fantasy XI Original Soundtrack is a great one. She uses the whole orchestra to its full potential in a testament to the symphonic style. The early melody, carried by an oboe, has a slightly exotic sound to it. This later undergoes a series of progressions, changing with the rhythms and harmonies accordingly. It's a narrative piece that has "adventure" written all over it.

9) Gustaberg

Another exotic contribution from Tanioka, "Gustaberg" begins almost as an ambient piece, but by the end you realize that it is quite the opposite. It's a very emotional piece, heavy on the guitars and percussion. Let the wonderfully unusual harmonies wrap your mind up in a blanket of music. Ahhh... that's the stuff.

10) Metalworks

The woodwinds and strings in this track work together in such a beatiful harmony, it's easy to let the other good qualities of the piece pass you by. Even though it's yet another military march, the composition gives this piece its own unique feel. The harmonic progressions give quite an inspirational mood.

11) Rolanberry Fields

This one is kind of like "Gustaberg," being very guitar-oriented and soothing. I like the choices of the other instruments, and the fact that they intertwine amongst each other gives an extra dimension to the harmony.

12) The Federation of Windurst

For this track, Mizuta tries his hand at making a festival-style piece, which bears some similarity to Uematsu's "Ronfaure." This piece employs a wider variety of instruments, and puts them to better use in my opinion (especially the percussion).

13) Heaven's Tower

Wonderful instrumentation makes this the ambient gem of the first disc. As much as I enjoy the composition and variation in the other tracks, it's nice to hear a non-narrative piece that sounds good; this is not in spite of its repetition, but because of it. The bulk of it is carried by non-traditional instruments such as big bell chimes and a wooden xylophone.

14) Sarutabaruta

Strings and woodwinds team up once again, although the effect isn't quite as good in this piece as it is in "Metalworks." Some of the instrument combinations seem kind of awkward, and the narrative quality of the track suffers from too much repetition.

15) Battle in the Dungeon

Like "Battle Theme" before it, this track blazes with passionate narration. Surprisingly, there are very few instruments used here. While I normally don't endorse battle themes pumping up the bass or employing other such cheap tricks, I must admit I would have liked to hear some more power from this one. The composition is good, it's just that the instruments need a little more "oomph".

16) Sauromugue Champaign

Slow ambient, but nowhere near as good as "Heavens Tower." The bulk of the piece, while suitably moody, doesn't really do anything special. About 3 minutes into the piece, however, there is a short harmonic section which makes listening to this track worthwhile.

17) Mhaura

It begins as a guitar and flute duet, displaying some of the most beatiful melodies and harmonies ever to grace the Final Fantasy series. The skill of the players is absolutely amazing, giving this track such unbelievable emotional power. Beware of the middle of this piece, because it catches you off-guard with a dissonant sour passage played by an odd-sounding instrument. Rather than diminish the piece, however, the sour part actually enhances it with a unique kind of contrast. And then it's back to the beautiful part again.

18) Buccaneers

There's not really too much to say about this track. It's got some dissonant chords and some heavy drum work going on. Perhaps Mizuta was building up to something better but got too tired to finish the piece, since it certainly sounds incomplete.

19) Battle Theme #2

The second battle theme carries on the tradition of the first, due to the agitated strings and the brass melody. Unfortunately, it's a sound we've heard before, with not too much to distinguish it from its predecessor. Even the compositional quality present in the first battle theme is in short supply here.

20) Voyager

Now this is something different. There is some good polyrhythm going on here, something which I have not seen in a game soundtrack for quite some time. This piece's melody really does something for me, as does the harmony.

21) Selbina

Reminiscent of an Irish jig, this track features a fiddle and one of those characteristic harmonies associated with that style of music. Another piece for our collection of "pieces from around the world".

Disc Two

1) Prelude

Well, I'll be a Chocobo's uncle! It's the "Prelude" again, but something's different... Yhe double harps remind me of the "Prelude" from the original Final Fantasy. No review necessary here, as it's too much of a classic.

2) Regeneracy

This track has big harp arpeggios just like in the "Prelude." While there isn't much going on compositionally, the atmospheric string harmony and the ringing bell make for some interesting mood-setting.

3) Hume Male

Now here's a couple melodies you can really sink your teeth into. Rarely have I heard such perfect symphonic cooperation between the instruments as in this track. Very inspirational stuff, with the sole drawback being its short length.

4) Hume Female

It's dancy, it's got a playful jazzy melody, it's got some very nice composition, and it's... one minute long.

5) Elvaan Male

While "Hume Male" was filled only with hope, "Elvaan Male" has a different mood to it. To me, it seems tainted with bitterness, optimism having given way to fierce determination. I like the harmonic work, though the melody could have been better.

6) Elvaan Female

Apparently the females in Final Fantasy XI are very lively, if these themes say anything about their personalities. This one is pure dance, though I find its sheer catchiness makes up for its repetitiveness.

7) Tarutaru Male

This piece is an odd one. With odd instruments and odd harmonies, something tells me these Tarutarus are weird creatures.

8) Tarutaru Female

This happy-go-lucky bouncing ball of music is straight out of a Disney movie, I swear. Not that it's cheesy, it's just really REALLY happy.

9) Mithra

Heavy bass and cosmic-sounding synth instruments make an interesting combination in this piece. Be sure to give it a careful listen, as the composition is better than you might expect from hearing just the beginning. Strange, but very cool.

10) Galka

Here we get our first taste of despair since "Memoro de la S^tono." The harmony is dissonant and quite tragic-sounding, and has many of the same qualities that permeate "Elvaan Male." The composition is a little skimpy, but it sets the mood just fine.

11) Airship

This piece uses some electronica instruments in the melody, which is a great contrast to the traditional instruments which handle the harmony, such as the acoustic guitar. Intertwining instruments and counterpart melodies run free here, and the effect is like no other.

12) The Grand Duchy of Jeuno

This track borrows heavily from the old Classical style, and possibly from the Baroque era as well, plus it makes use of the harpsichord, a piano-like instrument rarely heard in game soundtracks. The harmonic progressions are great, and the composition puts many true Classical pieces to shame.

13) Ru'Lude Gardens

More Classical goodness, this time from Tanioka. The piece manages to outperform the previous track, though not by much. Not satisfied with simply using Classical instruments, the composer employs counterpoint and other techniques straight out of 18th century Europe.

14) Recollection

This track plays with a segment of the instrumental interlude in "Memoro de la S^tono," expanding the passage into a full piece of its own. Fairly minimalistic, this piece is very dramatic and emotional nevertheless. The melody is good enough to stand on its own as a compositional accomplishment, but the harmony makes it just that much better.

15) Anxiety

A delicious variety of ambient styles are present in this piece, each passage more moody than the one before it. It begins with some piano chords in creepy minor keys, followed by a slow, dissonant progression of chords. After that, prepare to have your spine tingled as you hear a haunting melody which bears an uncanny resemblance to a creepy piece from the Final Fantasy VII Original Soundtrack (if you've heard it before, you'll recognize it instantly). What is really amazing is that Uematsu manages to put variation into a piece like this, and still stay true to its ambient nature.

16) Battle in the Dungeon #2

It's now the fourth battle theme in the soundtrack, and Mizuta decides to go for a style different than the one he used for the previous three. Smart move, in my opinion. This one's got a lot more going on compositionally, and the overall feel is more inspirational and battle-like.

17) Blackout

I have a feeling this is the "game over" music. It's short, ominous, and reeks of death. Death! DEATH!!!

18) Mog House

Once again, Mizuta manages to put together a very nice guitar piece. While its very mellow throughout, there is a great deal of variation and composition present. It's got a pleasant melodic theme which gets expanded upon in several different sections.

19) Hopelessness

A special technique known as pizzicato (plucking violin or cello strings) is used in this piece, giving it an unsettling, slightly eerie mood. The harmonic progressions are this track's best feature, making the mood more than simply "mysterious".

20) Fury

Scattered throughout this track you will find fragments of the main theme. These fragments are buried within a dissonant ambient orchestra. And orchestra it is indeed, for there are almost too many different instruments to count, but not too many. Even though the instrumentation is top-notch, the bizarre harmony is what I like most about this one.

21) Tough Battle

This piece reminds me of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," a work so intensely dissonant that you'll never be able to sing in tune ever again after hearing it. But I jest. "Rite of Spring" is fantastic music, and so is this track. Even if you can't appreciate the musical quality, you can still appreciate the terrifying mood it invokes.

22) Sorrow

Uematsu takes the soundtrack back to a more conventional tone with this piece. I always hear tiny hints of past Final Fantasy pieces hidden in this one. It's a complex emotional piece, with the violins in the second half almost contradicting the keyboard in the first half. We see multiple facets of the mood called "sorrow".

23) Sometime, Somewhere

Creeping is the nature of this narrative track. Well-timed instruments tug at your senses in just the right way, so that you keep looking cautiously over your shoulder. Short but sweet.

24) Xarcabard

This mysterious piece is a moody one, but I would consider it more narrative than ambient. It's extremely drawn out, so you'll have to listen closely to get the full effect of the harmonic progressions.

25) Despair (Memoro de la S^tono)

The track name tells you exactly what this remix is based on. You thought the instrumentation in the original was good? Listen to this one, and be prepared to have your proverbial socks knocked off. Of course, if cosmic electronica is not your thing, you may not think it's that great. But the composition of the arrangement is awesome enough by itself.

26) Castle Zvahl

Remember how I said "Heavens Tower" was the ambient gem of the first disc? Well, here's the gem of Disc Two! Throughout much of the piece, the harmony is maintained by constant organ chords. Yes, constant, as in held down for minutes at a time. After a cacophanous series of these chords about halfway through the piece, the organs drop out, and the low oboe (or bassoon) takes over the melody while other instruments fill in the harmony. Then the organs come back along with some atmospheric strings, but they play nice this time, backing up the the melodic instruments with a lesser amount of dissonance. The quality of this piece is on such an abstract level, it's difficult to explain why I like it so much. Give it a listen and discover for yourself.

27) Shadow Lord

As a short mini-theme for the ultimate baddie in Final Fantasy XI, this sounds good. As a piece though, it is far too short and simplistic, even for an ambient piece. I do like the choice of instruments, however (as always).

28) Awakening

You'll really feel things start to heat up with this track. It's not incredibly ferocious, but it's getting there. The heavy drums and droning chorus get you into the battle mood, but there are a few interesting calm interludes that demonstrate this piece's compositional qualities as well. Note the brief cameo by the "Prelude" near the end.

29) Repression (Memoro de la S^tono)

It all comes down to this, the climactic re-emergence of the main theme. The low bell chimes and other new instruments make this remix an emotional one, though I wish it were as compositionally good as the previous remix, "Despair."

30) Vana'diel March #2

Though a lot like "Vana'diel March," this track boasts a richer harmony and has a feeling of completeness. Rightfully so, as this closes the soundtrack as well as the game. As it stands, it's pretty good. Perhaps if Uematsu had done this one, it would have been better.


One of the most surprising aspects of this soundtrack is that Nobuo Uematsu only composed 11 out of the 41 tracks. For some, this might seem like a crime against the sacred traditions of Final Fantasy-dom. I disagree. First of all, the artists work so well together that you often cannot tell who the composer is without looking at the liner notes. Secondly, the fact that each composer does not have to come up with several dozen pieces means that they can go for quality over quantity. Without having to worry about filling up space with second-rate music, Uematsu (as well as the others) can focus their efforts on making their few pieces the best they can possibly make them.

But can Uematsu's lessening influence on Final Fantasy music be a sign that he is ready to pass the torch on to another composer? As saddening a thought as that may be, we all know it's going to happen eventually (unless Square decides to end the series soon). Having heard the work of Kumi Tanioka and Naoshi Mizuta, I am sure that his successor(s) will be more than capable of continuing his legacy.

Anyway, about the soundtrack itself. You probably noticed I rated most of the pieces very highly. I liked this soundtrack from the first time I listened to it, and my opinion keeps getting better with every listen. While not my favorite soundtrack, I would certainly count this one among the top five. None of the pieces here except the "FFXI Opening Theme" are really going to blow you away, and you won't find yourself humming very many of the tunes you hear. But every piece in this collection is a winner, being worthy of at least a 7 out of 10 ratings-wise. And most are even better than that, with many worthy of a perfect 10 out of 10.

Should you buy this soundtrack? Absolutely. There's such a variety of music here, you should find something that you like, yet it all is coherent and part of a larger whole. Be prepared to give these discs some serious attention, though. You will miss out on much of this soundtrack's goodness if you let it play idly in the background while you are doing something else. Now go out and get it; it's a Final Fantasy soundtrack and should be in very plentiful supply, being at Square Enix Music Online's own store right now.

One final thought: Final Fantasy XI has been causing a lot of controversy because of its online nature, as you probably know. How can Square stay true to the series if they make it mutliplayer? One could ask a similar question about the soundtrack: how can the music stay true to the series if Uematsu is composing less and less of the music? That second question has already been answered; we would miss Nobuo if he were to leave, but the Final Fantasy musical department is in good hands. Perhaps the answer to the first question is something similar. I have faith in the series and its music, no matter how it changes. People say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.