After the grand successes of the Final Fantasy IX and X soundtracks, Final Fantasy XI's soundtrack was much anticipated and heavily hyped. Not surprisingly, Nobuo Uematsu once again snatched up two young, up-and-coming video game music composers to help him out with the majority of the composing, just as he did with the Final Fantasy X OST. Instead of Junya Nakano and Masaishi Hamauzu though, Uematsu picked two much lesser known composers: Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka. The resulting mixture is a soundtrack that falls somewhere between Final Fantasy IX and X, having some familiar strains from both games, but never matching up to either in terms of quality. This isn't to say that the soundtrack is bad... quite the contrary! Final Fantasy XI OST features some wonderful town themes, powerful battle themes, and the best opening theme out of the entire series to boot. The soundtrack fails in a few key areas, but still delivers a fun, engaging, and ultimately attractive addition to the series that can wear the Final Fantasy crown proudly.
The soundtrack opens with what is quite possibly the most beautiful opening theme of the entire series, combining a sweeping opening movement with a gorgeously emotional choral section throughout. The middle of the piece introduces a typical Uematsu "crisis" motif and the track is finished off with a beautiful restatement of the main theme, ending on the last soft harped notes of the "Prelude." After that, listeners are introduced to the first of the two Vana'Diel marches, which opens up the soundtrack quite nicely with a triumphantly energetic march motif. The second "Vana'diel March" at the end of disc 2 is even better, in my opinion, holding a more spirited, uplifting, and bombastic tone to it.
The best thing about the soundtrack can be summed up in two words: town themes. "The Kingdom of San d'Oria" is a bright and spirited march puncuated with some great bagpipe motifs. "The Republic of Bastok" is a wonderful piece filled with some fabulous orchestrational techniques and a booming underlying percussive rhythm. "The Federation of Windurst" reminds me of Klonoa music in many ways, from its wonderfully bizarre percussion to its light main theme carried out by soft woodwind-type instruments. Some other great town themes are "The Grand Duchy of Jueno" (a spirited classical piece with some delightful string/harpsichord passages) and "Ru'Lude Gardens" (another very classically influenced, heavy violin piece). Some of my other favorite tracks include "Metalworks" (a fun, adventurous march), "Voyager" (a very Mitusda-esque piece), and "Castle Zvahl" (bashed as one of the most boring pieces on the soundtrack, but is actually a deliciously long and dark piece featuring some very dischordant and low thrumming string passages and some other good low key orchestrations).
Of course, no Final Fantasy soundtrack review would be complete without an analysis of the battle themes present on the soundtrack. Railed upon as the worst part of the soundtrack by many, the battle themes are actually, in my opinion, some of the best yet composed in the series! Mizuta's style for both "Battle" and "Battle in the Dungeon" themes carry a very heavily weighted bombastic approach with some absolutely fantastic string and brass instrumental techniques. "Tough Battle" is also an excellent track, with a much more ferocious attack sound. The final battle music, "Awakening", is the only battle track Kumi Tanioka gets to do, and she does a splendid job of crafting a very dark, rhtyhmically pulsing battle motif.
However, the soundtrack is not without its faults. For one, each track of music is all based along the same motif most of the time (although each motif is carried through slightly different orchestrational changes throughout the pieces), so the music can tend to get a little long-winded and draggy sometimes. I suppose this is just Mizuta's style, but it does tend to get tiresome to a point. Another down point would be that Uematsu's small contribution to the soundtrack only includes three really good tracks, "FFXI Opening Theme", "Ronfaure", and "Airship"; the rest of his music ranges from the "typical Uematsu we've already heard before" to the downright drab and uninspired. It's not bad, but definitely some of his weakest compositions yet.
Despite the wide criticism the soundtrack seems to be receiving for its apparent "lack of originality", "boring motifs", and "bland sound for a Final Fantasy OST", the Final Fantasy XI certainly matched all my expectations, even if it is probably the weakest soundtrack in the series since Final Fantasy VII. It will take time and patience to let the music grow on you, but I can promise you that eventually the music *will* grow on you, one way or the other. Mizuta and Tanioka cooked up some very exciting pieces of music, including some of the best town and battle music yet heard in the series. Despite the abuse leveled against it, it's a Final Fantasy OST not to be missed by any fan of the series.