Final Fantasy XI was Square-Enix’s first large-scale venture into the massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) market, though inexplicably the developer chose to make the game an actual, numbered Final Fantasy as opposed to a side title or gaiden. The resulting game completely gutted the famous narrative drive of the series in favor of a repetitive online quest structure with an odd, if innovative, auto-translation feature to allow Japanese and foreign audiences to play on the same servers. Released in 2002-2003 and thereby beating rival World of Warcraft to the market by over a year, the game required extensive additional hardware for the PS2, an internet connection, and a monthly subscription to play; its concurrent release on Microsoft platforms made it one of Square-Enix’s first multiplatform releases as well. Despite its total abandonment of all but the most superficial aspects of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XI performed fairly well in the marketplace and remains online and available; many longtime series fans were disappointed by the new format, though, and Square-Enix wouldn’t produce an all-new single-player Final Fantasy for five years.
One benefit of making Final Fantasy XI a part of the main series was that it gave series composer Nobuo Uematsu the opportunity to write music for the game. Uematsu was in the midst of winding down his involvement with Square-Enix at the time, and alongside Hanjuku Hero 3D Final Fantasy XI would represent his last large-scale work with the company before leaving it to become a freelancer. As such, like Final Fantasy X before it, Uematsu chose to collaborate with other Square-Enix staff composers Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka for the score. Mizuta was perhaps best known for stepping into Yoko Shimomura’s shoes with mixed success on Parasite Eve II, but had worked for Capcom for years beforehand; with the departure of many of Square-Enix’s superstar 80s and 90s composers in the 2000s, he would become one of the company’s most prominent staff musicians. Tanioka had done some work for Square’s Chocobo’s Dungeon spinoff series, but she would be best known for her subsequent work on the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series for Nintendo platforms.
Uematsu’s contribution was far, far more limited than in Final Fantasy X: he wrote only ten tracks of music, and only nine original pieces if one discounts his adaptation of the preexisting “Prelude.” Tanioka wrote a comparable twelve tracks, leaving the remaining twenty-eight to Mizuta, who would go on to write the music for all subsequent Final Fantasy XI expansions, leaving him the dominant musical voice in the game.
This is a pity, as Mizuta is simply unable to create music as interesting or varied as his co-composers. There are some highlights, notably the heroic march he provides for “Hume Male” and the Mitsuda-esque “Voyager,” performed on an acoustic guitar. But most of the remaining tracks are forgettable, and tend to fall into predictable patterns–acoustic guitar backing with woodwind melodies. Mizuta’s battle themes are slightly more effective but still very perfunctory, with the requisite brass and percussion but little in the way of melodic development or character, which is especially appalling considering the series’ strong record in that area. The nadir of Mizuta’s work is the unbearable “Castle Zvahl,” a ponderous nine minute gothic piece that utterly fails to justify its running time. Mizuta also fails to adapt Uematsu’s main theme–or any of the veteran composer’s themes, for that matter–preferring instead to mix “The Prelude” into some of his tracks.
Kumi Tanioka comes off much stronger, particularly in the suite of town music she writes. “The Republic of Bastok” is an album highlight, mixing claves and percussion with a lively woodwind theme to create a bustling and industrious atmosphere. “Metalworks” is a more subdued take on the same idea, and is similarly strong. Tanioka also adapts Uematsu’s main theme in “Fury,” a strong arrangement that emphasizes brass and percussion and adds an electronic beat. She pens her share of dull tracks too, such as the plodding “Gustaberg,” and several of her pieces seem inappropriate–note the heavy electronic backbeat in “Elvaan Female.” Though not without significant weaknesses, Tanioka distinguished herself well; fans will note strong stylistic similarities between her work on Final Fantasy XI and her strong later scores for the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series.
Uematsu’s musical contribution is by far the strongest, which is unsurprising given his greater experience. His main theme, which is fully orchestrated with a live choir and Esperanto lyrics, is far and away the album’s best piece, opening it in such a spectacular style that everything that comes after is something of a letdown. The theme is so strong that Mizuta’s refusal to adapt is it perplexing, though Uematsu contributes several strong variations of his own in “Recollection” and “Repression.” “Ronfaure,” familiar to many people because of its inclusion in the Dear Friends concert series, is also noteworthy, especially the melancholy second half. And “Airship,” an emotional and wistful piece for acoustic guitar and electronics is sublime, among the composer’s best tracks–appropriate, since was virtually the final airship song Uematsu ever wrote. Uematsu would return to Final Fantasy and MMORPGs with his score to the dire Final Fantasy XIV, though that product’s horrible reception and eventual reboot meant that most of his contribution was minimized and no comprehensive soundtrack album was ever released.
Final Fantasy XI is therefore decidedly mixed; Naoshi Mizuta’s work is generally dreadful, while Kumi Tanioka provides some excellent tracks and Uematsu gives a solid effort with several songs that can stand proudly alongside his finest. As with all Final Fantasy albums, Final Fantasy XI is most easily available through an importer on an online download, and acquiring a new or legitimate copy can be an expensive proposition–whether it is worth the cost or not will have to be left up to individual buyers. Its a few excellent tracks may be enough to make you overlook the dullest and most forgettable Final Fantasy score yet.