The Returner: The Beautiful Sounds of Final Fantasy XIV’s Seventh Umbral Era

There is one aspect of Final Fantasy XIV that keeps bringing me back more than anything else. It’s not the incredible worldbuilding, not the variety of challenges the game offers — not even in the interesting and well-crafted narrative. Nope, it’s the music.

While much of the Final Fantasy series’ distinctive sound is attributed to Nobuo Uematsu — and indeed some of Final Fantasy XIV’s music is composed by the venerable maestro himself — Final Fantasy XIV specifically should be considered the magnum opus of one Masayoshi Soken, a veteran of Square Enix and its predecessors since 1998.

Final Fantasy XIV

Soken has worked on a wide variety of titles over the years, often contributing to soundtracks alongside Mana and SaGa series composer Kenji Ito. His portfolio includes everything from baseball games to the fourth Seiken Densetsu game for PlayStation 2 and the Square Enix-developed Mario Sports games for Nintendo DS and Wii.

Soken became the sound director for the Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn project following the failure of Final Fantasy XIV’s “1.0” version and the subsequent development team reshuffle. With the launch of A Realm Reborn in 2013, he became the game’s primary composer — though Uematsu still contributed here and there, mainly on the main themes for the various expansions — and has remained in that role ever since.

Final Fantasy XIV

In fact, when Uematsu fell ill in 2018, Soken stepped up to compose the main theme for Final Fantasy XIV’s third expansion Shadowbringers, making it the first distinct part of the Final Fantasy XIV saga to be entirely composed by Soken. In various interviews, he has always remained somewhat humble, though, preferring to compose with the player’s experience in mind — and with great respect for Uematsu’s legendary work on the series to date.

Today we’re going to take a look at a selection of tracks from the early days of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. And you’d better believe this is a subject we’re coming back to later, because Final Fantasy XIV has one of the most consistently incredible soundtracks in all of gaming — something we can all appreciate, whether or not you’re up for some massively multiplayer online action.

So let’s begin!

Prelude: Discoveries

Final Fantasy XIV

If you’re going to compose for a Final Fantasy game, you’d better get one of its most iconic themes right. And Soken pulled this off with not one, but two different versions of the distinctive “Prelude” — a piece of music which has been heard in some form in almost every single Final Fantasy since the first one.

This particular version is one that most players likely take for granted these days — it’s the theme you hear on the character selection screen, or while you’re creating a character… or while you’re queueing up to get in to your favourite server on patch day! Consequently, you probably only hear this for maybe ten or twenty seconds at a time at most — but it’s actually a ten and a half minute long piece of music worth listening to in its entirety.

Soken gets it.

A World Apart

Final Fantasy XIV

The other iconic Final Fantasy track you’d better bloody get right if you want to be taken seriously is the Prologue theme — another track which has been part of the series since its inception. Thankfully, Soken absolutely nailed this one — and in context, the first time you hear this track is an absolutely incredible moment.

It marks the point in A Realm Reborn’s story where you step onto an airship for the first time to leave your initial “home” city, acting as an envoy to the other two great city-states with an important message of unity to deliver.

It’s the point where you go from being “just another adventurer” to a person of importance — and it’s the point where you realise that Final Fantasy XIV is serious about making you feel like the hero. Not that guy over there with the fancy armour and the glowing sword — you. And it happens as early as level 15!

Also, fun fact: when I got married in real life, my wife walked down the aisle to this piece of music. It was pretty awesome.

A New Hope

Final Fantasy XIV

In MMOs, players often spend a lot of time in the world’s main population centres, as this is often where a lot of useful facilities can be found. In Final Fantasy XIV, you’ll initially be spending a lot of your time in one of the three city-states in Eorzea: the maritime city of Limsa Lominsa; the nature-respecting city of Gridania, deep within the Black Shroud forest; or the desert sultanate of Ul’Dah, which this particular track is the theme for.

Each of the three city-states is “grand” in its own way, but Ul’Dah is by far the most opulent thanks to its affluence. And this theme reflects that nicely; step through the gates and hear this music and you immediately feel like you’ve entered a lively, prosperous town in which anything is possible.

Before long, though; those triumphant chords give way to something a little more contemplative and mournful, reminding us that all is not quite well even in a city seemingly as well-off as Ul’Dah; there are always people working from the shadows to ruin the lives of others, and inequality and injustice still run rife.

I Am the Sea

Final Fantasy XIV

By contrast, Limsa Lominsa’s theme in Final Fantasy XIV emphasises the “maritime” theme of the region through its distinctive use of instrumentation and a somewhat militaristic feel to its underlying rhythms.

Although Limsa Lominsa was technically built by pirates, these aren’t your average pillagin’ and plunderin’ pirates… well, some of them aren’t, anyway. The people who founded Limsa Lominsa quickly understood the need for organisation and strong leadership — and they found that in the form of the perpetually unspellable Merlwyb Bloefiswyn, Admiral of the region.

Wailers and Waterwheels

Final Fantasy XIV

And to complete the trilogy of city-state themes in Final Fantasy XIV’s base game, we have Gridania’s music, which adopts a lilting, compound-time structure for a distinctly traditional, “rural” feel. Out of all the three city-states, Gridania is probably the one most in touch with its traditions — particularly in a spiritual sense — so it makes sense that the city’s theme reflects that through the use of folk dance rhythms and instrumentation.

Again, there’s a touch of mournfulness here, too, though; the scars the Calamity left on Eorzea can be felt far and wide, and while Gridania and its people may seem to have things pretty together for the most part — nature has a habit of enduring, after all — they are no exception.

A Fine Death

Final Fantasy XIV

Although arguably one of the weaker boss themes in Final Fantasy XIV as a whole when compared to some of Soken’s later work, I’ve always had a lot of time for this track, heard when battling the mid-bosses in the game’s dungeons.

I’m particularly fond of the fact that this incorporates elements of the Prelude throughout; it’s a nice reminder that yes, indeed, this is a Final Fantasy game, and don’t you forget it. Plus there’s just something about those driving string rhythms that really gets the blood pumping.

The Waking Sands

Final Fantasy XIV

I’m very fond of this theme for one key reason: the fact its melody pays pleasingly loving homage to one of the most underappreciated installments in the Final Fantasy series — Final Fantasy II.

In fact, almost everything to do with your early encounters with the Scions of the Seventh Dawn is one big Final Fantasy II reference — whether it’s the fact you identify yourself to them with the password “wild rose”, or the fact that they have a habit of getting discovered and murdered by their enemies from the Empire.

Battle Theme 1.x

Final Fantasy XIV

And if you don’t believe me that certain members of the Final Fantasy XIV team have a lot of time for Final Fantasy II… allow me to present exhibit B, which is a gloriously light-hearted remix of that game’s battle theme.

You don’t hear this often in Final Fantasy XIV, but it’s always a pleasure when you do.

Titan’s various themes

Final Fantasy XIV

For many players, their encounter with Titan marks the point where it became abundantly clear that Soken was up to something truly special with Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack. Specifically, he could be argued to be treating it as much as a piece of interactive musical theatre as a traditional game soundtrack, with pieces of music that evolve as fierce battles continue.

Titan’s initial battle theme evolves into this after a certain point, highlighting the fact that you are facing down the fury of the earth itself. Things have got serious, for sure.

Not quite serious enough, however, because then the tempo gets jacked up a bit and things get more intense. We start hearing some chanting and cheering in the background, too — perhaps the sounds of the kobolds cheering on their lord and master, Father Titan, as you attempt to weather his fierce assault.

Partway through the fight, there’s this oddly ethereal break, at which point you have to batter the crap out of Titan’s exposed heart before he sets off his ultimate attack and murders you all. (If you do batter the crap out of his heart sufficiently, he still sets off his ultimate attack; it just doesn’t hurt quite as much.)

Until finally, we reach the climax of the Titan fight, accompanied by the urgent demand to “bow down, overdweller”. Back in the days when Titan’s Hard and Extreme variants presented a meaningful challenge to players, reaching this point of the song was how you knew you were doing reasonably well at the fight — but that you also still had a fair distance to go. In other words, this was pretty much where the “real” fight began.

The end of the Seventh Umbral Era

Final Fantasy XIV

The night I reached level 50 for the first time in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn was one of the most exciting moments in my gaming life. I’d never reached the level cap in an MMO before, and I didn’t know what to expect.

I’d also never played an MMO with such a strong emphasis on narrative as Final Fantasy XIV, so I was curious to see if they could pull off an authentically “Final Fantasy” finale. Thankfully, rather than being forced to rush through this awesome experience by impatient randos — as regrettably happens all too frequently today — I had the full support of my Free Company to back me up and let me enjoy it to the fullest.

The base game’s final story dungeon, the Praetorium, sees you invading an imperial base with seven comrades by your size — double the size of the parties you had been taking into dungeons prior to this point. And this spectacular, fourteen minute long piece of music accompanies your infiltration.

If you want to talk tropes, this is a textbook example of a This Is Very Definitely The Absolutely Final Dungeon music. (Except it most certainly is not the final dungeon in the grand scheme of things — but we weren’t to know that at the time, since the future of A Realm Reborn was still a little uncertain back in 2013!)

Reach the end of Praetorium and, in true Final Fantasy tradition, you fight several bosses in succession, each with their own music. This is the theme for battling one of the main villains, Gaius van Baelsar — and immediately follows one of the best “are we really doing this for the right reason?” speeches in video game history.

Interestingly, a slightly different version of this theme with vocals was originally used for Final Fantasy XIV 1.0’s final boss — who later returns as part of the Binding Coil of Bahamut raid cycle as a nice bit of closure for those who actually played the original release.

This bit is the “we’re goddamn heroes fighting the final boss, and we’re going to win” track. Except partway through the fight, you’re presented with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle — and the divine means with which to overcome it.

Permit not the manifestation of that divine magick, lest Darkness prevail! Ugh, I’m getting shivers just thinking about it.

After sort-of preventing the manifestation of the aforementioned vile magick (you dampen it somewhat, at least) and at the very least not quite allowing Darkness to prevail, it’s time for the obligatory RPG finale scary choirs to put in an appearance as you take on the final final boss, surrounded by a ring of flame and the ruins of the facility in which you were standing moments ago.

Is the power of Hydaelyn’s blessing enough to overcome the awesome might of the Ultima Weapon? Of course it is, but humour me.

And, this being a Final Fantasy game, there is, of course, a “true” final boss who is actually a bit of a joke to overcome after all your hard work — but he has a great theme, nonetheless. And boy, is it satisfying to lay the smack down on him after he’s been taunting you for 50 levels of exploration, battling and questing.

Interestingly, this wouldn’t be the last time this piece was used for an important fight in Final Fantasy XIV; it would also be heard in the story trial The Chrysalis in patch 2.5 — and also Turn 5 of The Binding Coil of Bahamut, the absolute toughest fight in the original 2.0 release of Final Fantasy XIV. If you did that latter fight back when it was “current”, you would have gotten to know this piece of music very well indeed.

One of the great things about Final Fantasy XIV is that it’s a constant journey of discovery — in terms of the locales you’ll visit, the enemies you’ll fight, the characters you’ll meet and, of course, the music you’ll hear.

Soken only refines and improves his craft as the Final Fantasy XIV saga continues — and I can’t wait to share more with you as my journey of rediscovery (and, eventually, once I reach Shadowbringers, outright discovery) continues.

What are some of your favourite tracks from Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack? Let us know in the comments or via the usual social channels.

Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack can be found on Spotify.

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Pete Davison
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