Lists give us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.
I mean just look at Virgos.
Generally speaking, I don’t believe in hierarchies. Rankings. These things are generally used only to harm and cause arbitrary division. Again, something that exists to give a sense of control in a random, haphazard world. Imposing order on chaos.
Which, I guess that’s what I’m feeling these days. The need to impose order over chaos. To be definitive in a time when definition is fuzzy at best.
So this week in Audio Logs, I’m breaking my own rules. I’m going to be definitive, authoritative, I might even be dogmatic.
I’m ranking the Final Fantasy soundtracks.
Five a week, for three weeks.
You might say, “But Dia, there are more Final Fantasy games than that.” Yes, but for our purposes we are focusing exclusively on the mainline titles. Sequels like X-2 and Lightning Returns are collapsed into their main entries, because both X and XIII are more complete works when taken as a whole.
Sorry, but Dirge of Cerberus doesn’t count. Neither does Crisis Core. You can argue they are part of the canon for FF VII, but they do not make Final Fantasy VII more of a total work.
And while Tactics may exist in the same universe as Final Fantasy XII, it is fundamentally set apart. Look, no one is more distraught that we didn’t get more and better games set in Ivalice than me.
We’re going from the very worst to the very best.
This week on Audio Logs: Top 5 Anime Betrayals.
Let’s make one thing clear: Yoko Shimomura is an indomitable composer. She’s a game music legend who has been making songs for videogames basically the entire time I’ve been alive.
She’s allowed to misfire. And let’s be honest with ourselves, aside from Prompto’s Photo AI, almost everything about Final Fantasy XV is a colossal misfire. That being said, this is undoubtedly the worst Final Fantasy soundtrack.
Even when the compositions are fundamentally flawless, they never seem to match the game that took a decade to come out.
The brass is on point when it needs to be, and the percussion is appropriately percussive. When there is time for bombast, it is bombastic, and the gentle moments command all the delicate sweetness Shimomura knows how to weave so well. It just never manages to stand out. Until making this list, I honestly couldn’t even tell you a single song on this soundtrack, besides the tragically boring Florence “I Need A Bigger Sound Booth My Voice Is So Concussive” Welch cover of “Stand By Me.”
Being entirely forgettable is about as critical an error a Final Fantasy can make.
Nobuo Uematsu never really felt comfortable on the Little Ricoh That Sorta Could. The melodies are there, but he always feels constrained and stymied. He needed more. And while technology would eventually catch up to him, the NES era of Final Fantasy doesn’t measure up.
Where the original Final Fantasy only has room to go forward, II is more of the same. It’s not quite as daring as III, and it’s more iterative than the explosion of the New that its predecessor brings.
And since this list is predominantly a measurement of Uematsu’s career and the trajectory of Final Fantasy, they fall just above XV because something has to. It’s serviceable, but serviceable just doesn’t hold up here.
II and III circle around one another a lot.
Both have their melodic strengths and tonal weaknesses. III leaps ahead on the virtue of its dungeon themes and final boss composition. Seriously, even the orchestrated version of the Cloud of Darkness theme in XIV can’t touch how good the original is. Even when it’s clear that Uematsu is bored with the Ricoh 2A03, the final run of Final Fantasy III fucking delivers.
Final Fantasy IX was a recapitulation of the early single-digit Final Fantasies. After the vast divergences of VII and VIII, showing us a glimpse of the gritty and neo-neoclassical spaces that Final Fantasy would finally end up inhabiting under the guidance of Tetsuya Nomura, there was a desire to return to the basics that launched the franchise (to some degree, and in ways that frequently didn’t work). Sorry, I’m not a fan.
Anyway, this soundtrack just doesn’t work.
Uematsu is given the real fullness of orchestration he clearly wanted in the NES and SNES days, but there’s just nothing to do with it. This is an updated throwback in the worst way, the audio equivalent of an HD Remake that fundamentally misunderstands why the original works. It’s a sonic high-resolution texture pack on Nexus Mods. Whatever moments of majesty and beauty appear are blown away by an overabundance of sound when a defter, more restrained hand is better suited. It’s never sinister enough or weird enough, and the spirit of adventure is filtered through third-hand imitations of lesser inspirations.
Also, god, that battle theme is just exhausting.
We can’t get around the challenges that Masayoshi Soken faced when composing this soundtrack. He was saddled with a game that was by most accounts broken, boring, and a financial disaster, right up front. To say nothing of the fact that scoring even a good, well-received MMO is HARD. This was always going to be an uphill battle.
We also cannot overlook the fact that the Gridania theme is absolutely a legally-actionable cover of The Shire theme from Lord of the Rings. Or that Good King Moggle Mog is just a weird remix of “This Is Halloween.” And that whole Powerman 5000 thing...
Look, scoring an MMO is hard work. These are songs people are going to listen to individually for dozens, even hundreds of hours. And XIV is entirely a game dedicated to fanservice, so you have to make classic motifs from the entire breadth of Final Fantasy land for hundreds of hours.
How the fuck do you even work with that?
But, Soken manages. He does a decent job. There are tracks that are still etched permanently into my brain. And some of the boss and dungeon themes are absolutely masterful.
The waltz for Ravana, which, before everyone started pushing phases like maniacs, kept time for the flow of the boss encounter. The hurricane of J-Rock of Garuda’s theme. Moments of gentle snowfall exploring the fractured Catholic feudal kingdom of Ishgard in Heavensward. When XIV’s score works, it delivers with both barrels at close range.
When it doesn’t… Well, at least it’s either funny (the Gridania Theme), ignorable (the Limsa Lominsa theme), or you’re too busy with THE FUCKING DRAGOONS (I mained DRG, I’m allowed) who can’t get where they need to be so you don’t really notice that it’s bad (no, I’m still not over Titan Extreme).
Or Uematsu showed up to do something like the godawful “Dragonsong,” with it’s ghastly, embarrassing lyrics by Michael Christopher Koji Fox.
So why doesn’t XIV rank higher? Honestly because memorable boss themes and the occasional rad dungeon don’t make up for the fact that a lot of this is reorchestrations of other Final Fantasy songs. And that’s really boring. Is this fair to Soken? No. Probably not. But it also wasn’t fair of Square-Enix to force fucking “Dragonsong” on me either.
Let’s just agree that Koji Fox isn’t a lyricist, vocalist, or much of a writer. And that Uematsu’s time has run its course in the land of Final Fantasy.
Yeah, I said it.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.