The Returner: More heavenly tracks from the Heavensward soundtrack

The Returner: Rediscovering Final Fantasy XIV

As I believe I’ve mentioned a couple of times previously, the one thing that keeps me coming back to Final Fantasy XIV more than anything else is its amazing soundtrack by Masayoshi Soken. If I haven’t played for a while, all I need to do is spin up one of the soundtrack albums on Spotify and I instinctively start going through my rotations in my head.

The soundtrack to Final Fantasy XIV’s first expansion Heavensward is, as we’ve already seen, a real highlight of Soken’s ongoing work on the game. Now, as I’m coming up on the end of the “post-game” story and heading onwards to Stormblood, I thought it high time we had another celebration of some top tracks. So let’s do just that! This time around we’ll be particularly looking at tracks from “The Far Edge of Fate“, an album which collects together Heavensward tracks from beyond the base story.

Final Fantasy XIV Heavensward

Down the Up Staircase

The Antitower is a dungeon you take on as part of the “post-game” story in Heavensward, and it’s a super-fun dungeon filled with strange scenery, weird and wonderful enemies and a sense of genuine mystery. This track highlights all of these aspects rather wonderfully with some magical melodies, a few unexpected key changes and some pleasingly epic undertones.

“Down the Up Staircase” is a reference to one of the bits of flavour text you get as you proceed through the dungeon and change areas. Since the Antitower is inverted, hence its name, you initially go down the up staircase, and later you go up the down staircase.

Revenge Twofold

Heavensward’s basic boss theme Ominous Prognosticks is pretty great, but when this track first showed up for players, it was both a genuine surprise and a real pleasure. It incorporates themes heard elsewhere in the Heavensward soundtrack, but ups the intensity and “epic” feel of everything that is going on.

Pretty fitting, since by this point in the story you’ve already beaten the crap out of the great wyrm Nidhogg, fended off two Primals and flattened the god-like reincarnation of an ancient king. And that’s not even getting into what you got up to back in A Realm Reborn.

Metal: Brute Justice Mode

I’ll level with you here: I kind of hated the Alexander raids in Heavensward. The story was hard to follow, I’ve never found Final Fantasy goblins (particularly those seen in XI and XIV) to be convincing antagonists and the stupid, stupid bouncy music heard in most of the stages drove me nuts.

However, Brute Justice was amazing. After battling your way through a series of steam-powered robotic monstrosities in the previous stages of this raid tier, they then go all Voltron on your ass, join up and play you this wonderful retro anime-inspired piece of music. The fight is an absolute joy as a result — plus it’s actually a pretty fun encounter to play, too. Still not a patch on Phoenix from Coil, though.

Blackbosom

One of the best things Final Fantasy XIV does is provide a lot of rewarding payoff for those who pay attention to stuff that is going on in the background. And one of the best examples of this is the story of Edda Blackbosom, final boss of the first 50 floors of Palace of the Dead.

You first encounter Edda as a completely unimportant NPC while you’re a fledgling adventurer yourself; she and her party of friends are waiting outside a dungeon you’re about to go into. When you stumble across her again later, it seems that all has not gone well for her group at all. When you encounter her in the Tam-Tara Deepcroft’s “Hard” variant, she’s absolutely lost the plot. And by the time you reach the confrontation with her in Palace of the Dead… well, let’s just say that there’s really only one way to get through to her now. And it involves pointy things and fireballs.

The Gauntlet

One of the great things about Palace of the Dead is that it provided Soken the opportunity to do two things with the soundtrack: firstly, to bring back a lot of as-yet unused tracks from Final Fantasy XIV’s 1.0 incarnation, some of which were composed by the legend that is Nobuo Uematsu.

Secondly, the chaotic, randomised nature of Palace of the Dead meant that he was perfectly within his rights to do some interesting and strange things with the music. Which is what resulted in this marvellous trance remix of Heavensward’s main battle theme, Melt.

The Dragonsong War Concludes

Partway through Heavensward’s main patch cycle, you finally bring the main conflict at the heart of the narrative to a conclusive finish. This then leaves the remainder of the pre-Stormblood story to actually set up Stormblood and, much like A Realm Reborn uprooted us before Heavensward, prepare us to move on.

But before that, there’s a major, major, major fight to go through. So major that it takes three full pieces of music to resolve completely. So here they are.

In true final boss tradition, we begin with a restating of the game’s main theme. The full vocal version, complete with passionate singing telling us the story of Shiva and Hraesvelgr’s doomed love, and rising, swelling choirs emphasising both the tragedy and the anguish that have brought us to this situation. If you proceed straight from the pre-fight cutscene (in which this track starts playing) into the battle itself, there’s no interruption whatsoever; it’s like those cool moments in single-player RPGs where you know shit’s getting real because the music started early.

Unfortunately, with the length of queues for this fight due to the fact that it doesn’t drop any loot and is only for story progression, you might be listening to Dragonsong for quite a while before you get to do anything. At least it’s a nice song.

This is the “shit got real” moment for this fight. After a spectacular display of pyrotechnics — which you hopefully weathered by taking out all of the additional monsters before it went off — you proceed into the second stage of the fight, in which your opponent’s fury is rising. He wants you dead, and he’s not going to stop until one or both of you are lying in a bloody heap on the ground.

This track is also another example of how much Soken likes to reuse themes in different pieces of music; the main melody in this part is heard frequently throughout all of Heavensward, so hearing it under such dramatic circumstances sends real shivers down the spine.

And finally, we come to the last phase of the fight — it’s do or die time for both you and your opponent. We switch to a different main melody — this time the main theme of the city of Ishgard, which helps highlight the fact we are fighting on behalf of the beleaguered Ishgardian nation in the hopes of bringing a thousand-year war to a complete and conclusive end.

And boy do you feel the pressure at this moment. The arena is surrounded by flames; your opponent’s anger rises still yet further; and you have some of his most ferocious attacks to fend off. And, since this fight came a fair way through Heavensward’s main patch cycle, you can’t outgear it quite as easily as you could the main boss battle that finished off Heavensward’s base story.

Absolutely incredible stuff. I listen to this complete cycle of three pieces pretty regularly any time I need inspiration to get up and do something. And, for me, it’s yet to be beaten in terms of sheer drama — though I, of course, say that with the caveat that I haven’t played all of Stormblood or any of Shadowbringers yet!

But if this was Soken still in the relatively “early” days of the game (comparatively speaking), I can only imagine things get even better from here. And I can’t wait to turn the sound up and enjoy it further.

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Pete Davison
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