Everyone knows that people who play Final Fantasy XIV will not shut up about the game’s music. This includes me. I will not shut up about FFXIV’s music. It adds a lot to the atmosphere and emotional moments of the game, it’s memorable, it’s beautiful, and it is an absolute testament to the fact that Masayoshi Soken has proven not only that he is capable of scoring this game but that he is a musical titan on par with those who have come before him.
Today, I want to take a look at a handful of the game’s tracks that slap hard, and we are specifically talking about battle tracks here. There’s a load of beautiful music in this game, but what it does with its fight themes makes every moment of the game’s combat encounters more memorable, more intense, and more motivating. And hey, I just felt like going on a musical tour today. So let’s look at a small, energetic sampler.
I’m starting off with this one because if you started playing the game recently, there’s a very real possibility you’ve never even heard it. How often does anyone do battle leves these days? They’re not even present in new areas at all, and you kind of have to go out of your way to do them during the normal leveling path. But I feel like that’s part of what makes this one work. It’s not huge, not a boss fight, but it has a light and pulsing intensity that makes you feel like you’re fighting against time and pressure as you clear through your targets. It’s very solid “basic Final Fantasy” music, and while the game later went in some very novel directions, it’s good to start with the foundations.
2. Under the Weight
This track is the point when it becomes clear what Soken was doing. Soken does not want to be Nobuo Uematsu. The man’s work is inextricable from Final Fantasy as a franchise, and so the temptation is to attempt to match Uematsu’s composition. But Under the Weight is where it’s clear that Soken is willing to chart his own course, a unique sound, trying not to be an inheritor to the specific sonic landscape Uematsu created but the same willingness to experiment and forge new ground.
In many ways Under the Weight is a very shaggy track. It’s too long, it has five movements, and it doesn’t finish ramping up until the very end. But it showed what was possible, and frankly, considering what a wall Titan was for people playing the relaunch? It’s hard not to hear “BOW DOWN OVERDWELLER” without getting your blood pumping if you were there in 2013.
3. Dreams of Ice / Oblivion
This track is so good that it basically established the template for trial soundtracks for much of the game – a very orchestral piece that segues naturally into an absolute banger, a perfect transition from establishing the gravity of the battle into the clear sense that shit just got real. But you know what? It still stands up, both in telling us about Ysayle herself and in keeping a high-energy environment. Just when your energy is lagging and you think the fight is half-over, it charges up substantially.
Yeah, I know, there was some controversy over this particular track and the back and forth about was it or was it not inspired by Worlds Collide by Powerman 5000. (Personally, I’ve never really bought that; there are some similarities, but they’ve always sounded broad enough to me that it feels like just general related industrial composition.) However, what can’t be ignored is the fact that the song not only slaps but gives you a glimpse into Sephirot beyond just the fight, giving some much-needed idea of who the Fiend of the Warring Triad is supposed to be.
5. Exponential Entropy
You know what’s great about this track? It’s not just that it’s an excellent song; it’s that it’s an energetic battle theme that in no small part is just cheery and upbeat. Instead of giving the atmosphere of “this boss is about to deal with you like a bowling ball deals with pins,” it’s got an upbeat and genial tone to the whole thing. I really like that, and it makes the fight stand out with a unique sort of energy and pacing.
6. The Worm’s Head / The Worm’s Tail
Real talk: I get why for some people, the climax of Stormblood against Shinryu didn’t totally work. Pairing him with Zenos makes sense, but it kind of relies on some series lore for the connection to fully adhere, and this is definitely the fight with the highest level of “where is this even happening” of the entire series.
But what you can’t argue? That this track doesn’t slap. It keeps the two-movement structure of many trial themes, but rather than going from orchestral to more contemporary, it slams hard on the soaring music and gives the whole thing a feeling of a titanic clash. If all of the actual story elements have issues, you can’t argue that the music doesn’t come close to making you ignore all of that. (And I’d argue it does work, but that’s a discussion for another time and column.)
7. Wayward Daughter
Yotsuyu is a compelling, tragic figure whose overall character arc could probably be discussed at length, but at a certain point Bree tells me to shut up and talk about something else. (Then she clarifies that by “something else” she didn’t mean Mega Man X and I go cry against my cats.) But that’s part of why her theme here works so well. It’s not a battle song, it’s an up-tempo lament, mourning the fact that Yotsuyu was a victim at the same time that she made all her own horrible choices.
It’s a tragedy and you’re just playing along, powerless to stop it. No heroic battle theme here – just regret.
So one of the things that FFXIV does as an audio trick is that it usually reserves things like electric guitars for fights against primals and Things That Should Not Be. In Shadowbringers, the guitars are front and center, because the entirety of the world is in the “Things That Should Not Be” category. So how do you still make boss themes sound distinct? You give them an odd, off-putting energy, a meld of distorted vocals with orchestration that follows through the whole expansion.
9. Twice Stricken
Obviously, Thunder Rolls (the original Ramuh theme) is not on this list. I’m not a huge fan of it and don’t think it totally works, even though the calmer and more meditative approach is an interesting one. But the Eden bosses forming a funhouse mirror of existing Primals means that we got this remake and reimagining of the original, a beautiful blend of the quiet moments of the original with an almost frantic pace and fear. It’s an amazing track, made all the more notable because it’s the first boss of this sequence and arguably one of the easier fights.
Speaking of boss themes that go incredibly hard for fights that aren’t actually supposed to be a huge deal, Scream feels like it should be a final boss theme. It is not. It’s a mid-tier theme for the middle of a raid tier that’s full of the bliss of melodramatic pseudo-goth music like Evanescence or HIM while being super-memorable and fun. Scream all you like, indeed.
I should note that this list is far from exhaustive; the list of songs I cut from this article would make an entire other list of 10 songs, and I could probably make another list on top of that. And again, these are just the battle themes for this game. It sounds really good, that’s the message here.