Remembering the Music of Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII gets a lot of hate. The soundtrack, however, is one of the game’s most beloved features. Let’s dive into how the OST, composed by Masashi Hamauzu, plays nicely with the game’s themes, its characters, and the series’ first foray into HD gaming.
It’s impossible for me to start this without addressing the elephant in the Final Fantasy XIII soundtrack. In 2009, hot off the success of her debut album, Spirit, UK-singer Leona Lewis was tapped to perform the theme song for the English version of the game.
That’s right, she didn’t write a new track for the game. Nor did she sing something composed by Final Fantasy XIII maestro Masashi Hamauzu. Lewis was presumably offered bags of cash to license her track “My Hands” for the release of the game outside of Japan.
There are plenty of reasons why I mute “My Hands” every time I reach the end credits. Maybe none are more jarring than her lyrics about putting on makeup in a game in which our main characters never even change their clothes. At a surface level, the song is basic, and it fits the basic premise of Final Fantasy XIII. There’s not always an easy path in life, and sometimes you have to face fate even when you don’t feel ready.
In Japan however, fans reached the end of the game to hear “Kimi ga Iru Kara.” Known in English as “Because You’re Here,” the song is Sayumi Sugawara’s lead track from her 2009 album, First Story.
Even though fans tended toward disliking Sugawara's theme song too, the track was a much better fit. Thematically it followed the style of the rest of Final Fantasy XIII's soundtrack, thanks in part to being composed by Hamauzu himself. The piano intro builds into Sugawara’s vocals which belie her age at the time - she was just 19 when she recorded the track - but the fullness of her vocals tell the story of someone whose aspirations are deeper than penning the next pop hit.
Regardless of your, or my preferred track, the Final Fantasy XIII theme songs are merely gatekeepers to a larger, more developed vision that has divided the Final Fantasy community in the years since the game’s release. Even if you pan the games linearity, false sense of exploration, lack of towns or other defining JRPG features, Final Fantasy XIII is a good game whose music elevates it to greatness.
Final Fantasy XIII proved more impactful than simply the jump to HD hardware. The game discussed larger themes about fate and upholding one's duty from a variety of lenses and viewpoints. Lighting isn’t necessarily wrong for wanting to topple the government and save her sister, but her realization that it’ll take more than her mini-skirt and gun-sword shows character growth. Snow isn’t crazy for wanting a happy ending in which “the hero gets the girl,” but it takes a level of maturity to learn that the sacrifices he makes along the way to reach that end impact more people than himself.
Each of the main characters reflect different values and different aspirations that are incredibly human despite their superhuman powers. It’s through the characters — and more specifically the music — that Final Fantasy XIII earns its praise.
Character themes of Final Fantasy XIII
I’m black. And I love jazz. How did Final Fantasy XIII know?
That’s an overgeneralization for sure, but I can appreciate Masashi Hamauzu’s dip into the genre for Sazh Katzroy’s theme. We don’t learn much about Sazh throughout the game. He’s a pilot, he has a son named Dajh, whose Afro rivals that of his dad’s and he’s kind of a scaredy-cat. Unlike Lighting, Snow, Vanille, Fang and Hope, who have story lines woven into the larger plot of the game, Sazh is simply a 40-something man trying to save his son.
I love Sazh’s character because he isn’t a stereotype. I’ve touched on this before, but too often Japanese culture typifies black characters in a way that’s conducive to stereotyping. I don’t say this to downplay other stereotypes in Japanese media. Plenty of anime do the same with blond haired blue eyed white characters. Black characters, rare as they may be, just seem to get the short end of the development stick, possibly due to being a marginal demographic in Japan as a whole.
Sazh however, exists without ever being mentioned as being black. If anything, his theme song, which features a staple Hamauzu piano melody interspersed with horn sections, acoustic guitar and hand drums, puts a dash of color into his characterization without raising questions about why there are effectively only two black guys in all of Final Fantasy XIII’s fictional world.
The character themes as a whole do a phenomenal job of capturing the game’s narrative. On the theme for Vanille, who serves as XIII’s narrator, Hamauzu reverts to a simple piano tune. Though much of Vanille’s storyline revolves around running from the truth (Persona 4 much?), she’s actually one of the most pervasive characters of the bunch. She has intimate scenes with just about all of the main cast, including Serah, who spends most of the game encased in a block of ice.
Vanille is a building block from which players can learn about the game’s world and the solo piano theme reflects that. Hamauzu uses piano as the foundation for many of his compositions. The song kicks up not only when Vanille is a focal point, but when the party experiences a transition, like after the gang helps Hope capture his eidolon. By stripping down the theme, Hamauzu relays Vanille’s centrality to the game while giving the rest of the cast room to breathe and develop in their own ways.
Speaking of room to breath, the theme for Snow Villiers, our self-proclaimed hero in a du-rag, leaves little space for air. Electric guitars ring out atop shrill synths and a cantankerous bassline as Snow does something like fly his fiancé on a hoverbike through an onslaught of enemy bullets or take on an entire platoon of soldiers solo. If Sazh is supposed to be a bridge to the player, who by most accounts is pretty normal, Snow is the closest thing to a superhero this game has.
To counterbalance Snow’s thickheadedness, Hamauzu composed Fang’s theme, a swirling melody of flutes, strings, horns and percussion that captures everything the game has to offer. Fang is plenty headstrong in her own right, but unlike Snow, she is usually not so easily deluded to think that her actions won’t come without repercussions. The horn section on this track captures this, instilling a sense of impending doom despite the melody’s grandiose resolution about halfway through.
Ok, so, I want to have more to say about Hope’s theme, but for the purposes of keeping this short just know that Hope is teenage angst embodied in the silver-haired slight physique of a sheltered rich kid. He spends the first half of the game out to kill Snow but being too damn weak to go through with it. Then in the second half of the game he becomes a mini-Lightining, ready to fight his fate with all his might even if his scarf and matching arm bandana suggest otherwise.
The song is depressing, with acoustic guitar doing much of the heavy lifting. And even when the melody tries to take a turn for the brighter, it fumbles right back into its own self-consciousness. It’s a masterful theme that capitalizes on the various points of solitude throughout the game.
And that brings us to Lightning. If any character undergoes a transformation during the game, it’s Lightning.
Lightning’s transformation from over-protective big sister to realizing that she is in fact responsible for her sister’s rebellious nature is just one of the many changes she undergoes throughout the story. In Chapter 5, Light learns that force isn’t always the answer as she watches Hope lose his innocence while plotting to kill Snow.
In chapter 7, Light learns that revenge isn’t worth the effort after smacking Fang across the face and realizing “it didn’t change a thing.”
Even late in the game when confronting Snow about his plans to marry Serah, Light realizes that fighting our big, dumb hero is useless, and that her time is better spent supporting someone she loves rather than tearing down her sister’s happiness.
Hamauzu orchestrates this with a sweeping string intro that fazes out into a piano and string section before building into a triumphant finish. Lightning is the phoenix that rises time and time again. For the record, her toughness, captured elegantly on the box art, is part of why I bought the game in the first place. She’s a strong willed female character that learns to support those around her and in turn, lean on them for help.
Rounding out our character themes is Serah’s. Though she spends most of the game existing only in flashbacks or a block of ice, the theme song for Lightning’s sister is based around the game’s main motif. As an added bonus, the song features the only instance of lyrics among the main cast’s tracks. Sung by Frances Maya, the song’s lyrics are multi-pronged, playing out with Serah addressing Snow, and Light directly, as well as the rest of the cast.
The strength of Hamauzu’s musical motifs is one of the soundtrack’s selling points. Somber as “Serah’s Theme” may be, Hamauzu can just as easily flip the melody into a jovial tune, as he does on “In the Sky That Night,” as he can transform it into a quiet prelude, as he does on the intro track.
Where Hamauzu’s ear shines is in the various stage themes and background music that plays throughout the 45-hour adventure. JRPG’s can fall into the trap of becoming routine. In one of my favorite games and scores of all time, Persona 4, composer Shoji Meguro works wonders to characterize each of the game’s areas and themes through the soundtrack. But the melodic shifts can become predictable, making periods of text-based exposition drag out.
This happens even in other Final Fantasy games, in which players are presented with a world map and the freedom to explore as far as their levels and gear allows. But even when players are able to advance to a far off town before the game expects them to, they are often greeted with reused town music that doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself from previous areas.
Final Fantasy XIII nullifies that complaint by setting our cast out on an incredibly linear path that largely prevents them from revisiting areas. Though this design choice offended Final Fantasy traditionalists, it’s a choice that supremely supports the game’s compositions.
Take “March of the Dreadnaughts”, an upbeat track featuring a roaming piano, shimmering bells and a slippery string section. Its composition is equal parts man and machination. The bells add an air of rigidity to the lively violins.
You first hear this song when Hope decides to pilot a dreadnaught war mech to advance through the Vile Peaks. Though Hope is far from a combat pilot, his innocence and tech savviness (which is a focal point of future games in the series) is aptly reflected in the song.
Speaking of the Vile Peaks, the eponymous song for the area is just about my least favorite track on the OST, but it does its job perfectly. Rattling percussion and droning bass urges the player along as party members join and leave your group seemingly at will. It’s an ominous beat that drips with uncertainty as our heroes struggle to figure out which path to saving the world will do the most good.
I’ll sing Hamauzu’s praises here, too. Players criticized the game for its lack of choice through the first 20 hours. The menu displayed a battle settings option, but players can’t willfully swap their party members until chapter nine. Again, Hamauzu’s score comes to the rescue, easing the distress of not having full control by composing tracks that reflect the moods and mentalities of our sequestered heroes.
When Light and Hope team up, you get the “Gapra Whitewood,” a song that gently reflects Light’s newfound responsibility for the young Hope. Wordless vocalizing from Sakai gives the song a bit of a techno feel until it gives way to a bumbling bass line that helps Light and Hope remain focused.
Sazh and Vanille however, earn the lighthearted “Sunleth Waterscape.” Another of XIII’s vocal themes, the track is the perfect backdrop for getting away from the pair’s fear of failing their focus and becoming C’ieth. Maya lends her vocals here as well, and paired with the thumping back beat I’m hard pressed not to bop my head in sheer enjoyment.
On a similarly lighthearted tip, the Yaschas Massif, while one of my favorite tracks from the OST, is more than a bit jarring. For context, the first time you hear this song is after reaching a more lush and verdant section of the Archylte Steppe, the main over world for the second half of the game. And while the composition is light and breezy with simple guitar riffs supporting a floaty clarinet melody, the song is a reminder of the mildly hilarious JRPG trope that the best time to do side quests is when the world needs saving.
Realistically, you never have to go to the Yaschas Massif to complete the game. It’s an entirely optional area, home to a few mission marks and a short cutscene between Hope and Vanille. The area itself, especially taken with the music, is a lovely place to spend an hour or two of game time. But it’s also a reminder that while Lightning and the gang are wandering around Pulse, sheer terror is affecting Cocoon, with Dysley carefully watching over the world like a hawk. So sure, why not stop and smell the flowers?
Not awash with synths — the game is set in a recognizable near future. Motorcycles can fly and anti-grav devices exist, but there are still limits to the technological advances of Cocoon. And considering the glistening, floating planetoid is paired with Pulse, which features tech closer to the industrial revolution than modern day, the Final Fantasy XIII OST had to temper its use of overly grand compositions.
The track “Those for the Purge” is emblematic of Hamauzu knowing when to soften the instrumentation. The track starts as a dirge of sorts only to progress into an almost mechanical melody, metered by the timely ringing of bells. When it plays as the theme for the military that’s out to hunt the main cast, it’s a fitting theme, regimented like the soldiers and their training. Of course, halfway through, Hamauzu opens the melody for pulsating synths that climb like they are reaching for salvation. It’s the tale of two songs in one, and the complex composition allows the soundtrack to mix and match pieces of tracks to perfectly suit the mood.
Hamauzu touched on the idea of making catchy tunes, particularly when it comes to the battle music.
“For example the likes of normal battle music ought to be fine to listen for like 1000 times in a single RPG, isn’t it? Even when you thought like “Oh, cool” when you instantly heard it for the first time, if the song made you bored after listening to it about 100 times it would become bothersome.” Via Final Fantasy Union
Setting out to compose timelessly enjoyable music, Hamauzu succeeds with the main battle theme, blinded by the light. The multilayered orchestrated track features competing instruments that vy for attention as players rifle through menus to optimize their battle strategy. The steady cello rhythm is a reminder to plan every move carefully, only to make a misstep and have to improvise. That’s when the entire song swells into an all out jam, the bass and percussion pushing the tempo only to be reset by the crash of a cymbal.
Though Final Fantasy XIII is light on battle themes compared to its future installments, limited to a handful beyond the main song, I’m particularly partial to “Fighting Fate.” In contrast to the heavily string and piano melodies that favor the main cast, the music for Barthandelus, the main boss and primary antagonist of the game is imperial in nature. Strings are merely an accent here, the melody guided by Latin singing and heavy handed horn sections that represent the overarching oppression of the game’s governing body. Fal’Cie like Barthandelus are the progenitors of all life on Cocoon and Pulse, and themes like “Fighting Fate’’ are a reminder that the will of the Gods supersedes any victories humans might try to cobble together.
At the risk of being any more long winded, I want to stress that Final Fantasy XIII’s soundtrack doesn’t make up for all of the games faults. For fans who weren’t into getting the game’s lore and backstory from an unappealing datalog, the soundtrack meant nothing. Honestly I never go back to read the datalog unless I’m trying to clear out the dastardly exclamation point that hangs out in the menu to remind you you didn’t read the damn thing.
Beyond that, the lack of compelling side quests or world building beyond the main characters is enough to turn off potential players. And I won’t disavow those critiques. I never really have much a reason to care about saving Cocoon since I spend so little time actively engaging with it. Sure, there are meaningful scenes at Hope’s house and on the beach of Bodhum, but they aren’t enough to make saving the world feel like something worth doing.
Masashi Hamauzu’s music, however, is enough of a motivating factor to see the game through. He effortlessly matches the changing states of the cast and pace of the story to compel me to finish the game, time and time again. Final Fantasy XIII’s soundtrack is a powerhouse, leaving a positive imprint on the series’ first foray into High Definition gaming.