The Returner: The incredible sounds of Heavensward

 The Returner: The incredible sounds of Heavensward
The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

You will hopefully recall that a while back we took an enthusiastic look at the soundtrack to the original release of A Realm Reborn — the sounds of Final Fantasy XIV’s Seventh Umbral Era.

Today, we’re going to give first expansion Heavensward the same treatment — because it’s at this point that the game’s main composer Masayoshi Soken really got the opportunity to let his hair down and go wild with the game’s soundtrack. And the result is some of the best music the Final Fantasy series as a whole has ever seen… err, heard.

Heavensward

The reason for this is that A Realm Reborn reused a fair few tracks that were originally created for Final Fantasy XIV’s failed 1.0 incarnation — it wouldn’t make sense to just discard a bunch of game assets that already existed, after all. But from Heavensward onwards, the game was entering all-new areas that had never been seen before — so it made sense that there would be an all-new soundtrack to match.

Heavensward

We, of course, start with the title theme for the new expansion. This is heard at various points throughout the narrative, and really drives home some of the most obvious things about Heavensward as a whole: we’re looking at a rather bleaker, darker narrative than before, and we’re going to be heading into somewhat more inhospitable climes than we’ve previously seen.

This particular version of the track moves through several distinct themes, all of which are heard numerous times in several different arrangements over the course of Heavensward’s complete narrative. We’ve got the Ishgard theme, we’ve got the Knights of the Round theme, we’ve got Nidhogg’s theme — and they’re all fantastic, memorable, triumphant melodies capable of sending a shiver down even the strongest spines.

Melt

Heavensward’s normal battle theme is another way that it emphasises the fact we’re somewhere new. This is a common trick in offline, single-player RPGs to mark the beginning of a major new chapter in the story — and that most certainly is the case here. After the events at the end of A Realm Reborn’s patch cycle left the Warrior of Light on the run and the status of the Scions of the Seventh Dawn largely unknown, we’re most certainly in a position where anything could potentially happen.

I always liked this battle theme better than A Realm Reborn’s rather underwhelming combat music, too. It has a much better sense of drama about it — and the specific instrumentation used captures the feel of the new zones nicely while emphasising the darker tone of the expansion as a whole.

Ominous Prognisticks

To go along with the new normal battle theme, we have a new boss theme, too, heard primarily when you reach the end of Heavensward’s dungeons. This is a great example of how the main melodies heard throughout the Heavensward theme are used over the course of the game to enhance a coherent sense of drama over the course of the expansion as a whole.

The boss battles accompanied by this theme feel epic. And so they should; you are, after all, still the Warrior of Light, and by this point in the game you have already taken down several primals, the Ultima Weapon and, if you were good enough, even Bahamut himself.

Shelter

This theme, heard in small settlements found within Heavensward’s zones, is an example of how the Heavensward musical themes are used in different ways. This has the same main melody as Ominous Prognisticks, but a completely different feel.

Rather than fighting for your life, you’re in a safe haven — but the reuse of the same melody helps your journey feel coherent and familiar.

Painted Foothills

This song, heard in the Dravanian Forelands zone, emphasises the sense of sadness and melancholy that runs through much of Heavensward’s main scenario. By the time you reach this zone, you’ve already heard some revelations about the truth behind the Dragonsong War, and it’s clear that there’s a lot more tragedy in the region’s history than you ever imagined.

The sadness in this theme reflects the melancholy the Dravanians doubtless feel at their never-ending war against the Ishgardians — and how it seems like it might be a hopeless cause to get the two sides to reconcile. But you’ve got to try; things cannot continue as they are.

Unbending Steel

The second half of the theme that accompanies the boss fight against the primal Ravana is a great example of how Soken likes to take inspiration from opera and musical theatre in Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack, with lyrics designed to sound as if they are being sung by the foes you’re fighting against.

In many ways, the “musical theatre” aspect makes a lot of sense — a well-coordinated battle against a foe like Ravana can often resemble a dance number, after all. Sometimes that even happens in Duty Finder.

The Mushroomery

Now here’s a nice bit of series fanservice for those who have been with Final Fantasy since the very beginning: the theme for Matoya’s Cave. And wouldn’t you know it? Matoya herself even shows up, complete with swish-swish-aree backwards-talking broomsticks.

To say more would probably constitute spoilers — if revealing Matoya’s presence wasn’t already a spoiler! — so I’ll leave it at that.

Unbreakable

While most of Heavensward’s environments are fairly “natural” in appearance, the final zone Azys Lla and a dungeon therein, known as the Fractal Continuum, is heavily themed around the glowing ancient Allagan technology that has been showing up continually over the course of Final Fantasy XIV up until this point.

This theme, which is heard in The Fractal Continuum, really drives home the fact that you’re exploring a location which feels somewhat anachronistic; you’re surrounded by this unimaginable Allagan technology, equipped only with present-day Eorzean arms and armour. Will it be enough to get you through this challenge?

Heroes

And finally for now, we come to the “final boss” theme for the main Heavensward storyline. And it’s a fantastic Final Fantasy final boss theme if ever there was one — we’ve got scary choirs, we’ve got reuse of the main themes we’ve been hearing for hours up until this point, we’ve got driving piano lines, and we’ve got a real sense of energy and urgency.

As with the other “final story boss” encounters in Final Fantasy XIV, it’s a bit of a shame that everyone ends up outgearing this fight so quickly, meaning you don’t get to enjoy much of this theme before you’ve absolutely flattened the boss in question! Still, there’s always the Extreme mode variant for those with the courage to take it on…


And that’s that for now! There are some other tracks from Heavensward that I’m keen to explore, but I’ll save discussion for those until another time. For now, happy adventuring!

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Pete Davison
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