Ending themes have become a staple of modern role-playing games. Part of the joy in grinding all those levels to finally overcome the final villain is enjoying the iconic songs accompanying the ending sequence and credits. They are songs encapsulating the emotions of your journey in succinct lyrical verse.
Shulk and Fiora’s friendship from
Xenoblade Chronicles can always be remembered when “Beyond the Sky” plays. Ni no Kuni’s “Pieces of a Broken Heart” recalls of the young boy Ollie’s journey to save his mother. Final Fantasy X-2 ends with “1000 Words,” reflecting on Lenne and Shuyin’s romantic struggle.
With the soundtrack for
Final Fantasy XIII-2 the trio of Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta and Mitsuto Suzuki vocalized the game’s music to the extent of no game that came before. The emotional lyrics typical of ending themes became the essence woven throughout the game’s entire score, adding a whole new level of emotion to the experience. The effect was stunning.
Those who played the game’s prequel,
Final Fantasy XIII, will be familiar with Leona Lewis’s “My Hands,” the powerful ending theme to the original game. While still relevant and applicable, it was not an original composition and so remained distant compared to the Japanese theme “Kimi ga Iru Kara” (Because You’re Here).
It was not in the game’s ending theme, but rather in its titular theme, that
XIII began the vocalization that became standard for XIII-2. “The Promise” was a piece of music remixed and repeated throughout XIII with altering lyrics, appearing also as “Serah’s Theme” and “Sunleth Waterscape.”
The moments “The Promise” played in the background of gameplay brought a serene beauty. Often times gamers will pause and take a moment to examine the game world and environment, in this case, it was to listen to the music and its lyrics.
The soundtrack was musically rich in
XIII, but adding vocals to gameplay tracks added further complexity and emotion. “The Promise” piano rendition could bring a tear to the eye; but also hearing the soft lyrics “hate will not heal you” while the characters face that very struggle is so much more.
This was the beauty that
XIII-2 wholly embraced within its soundtrack. At first it was daunting that it took this vocalisation to the extreme. People were understandably concerned, as if done wrong, it could alienate players from the experience by being abrasive to their music tastes. However, XIII-2 found the perfect balance, rich with a variety of styles.
Early on, the track “New Bodhum” introduces XIII-2’s vocal flavor. In those opening moments the setting and story direction are all a tad confusing. Players and the protagonist Serah have no idea what’s going on, but the background soundtrack provides some answers and some comfort with the line “close your eyes to find yourself in a mystic timeline.” The score lets you know that uncertainty is exactly how you’re supposed to feel.
Later you begin your journey through time via the “Historia Crux” as it softly sings, “going on a trip to somewhere I’ve never been, across time and space.” In what is a narratively confusing game, the soundtrack is often grounding, providing context and setting the scene. It’s like background information, even subliminal insights on current events and character emotions.
In the village of Oerba, the track “Ruined Hometown” serves as a peaceful, yet poignant motivator. “Though prophecies foretell us of the end it doesn’t mean we have to believe them. . . I’ll conquer time, defeat it. I’ll change the past, my future.”
On the topic of motivation, the battle theme, “Limit Break!” sets the mood and gets you amped up for battle with its tempo, beat, and of course, its lyrics. Refreshingly, “Limit Break!” breaks more than the limit, shattering the fourth wall as it sings about “the protagonist in me.”
People trying to argue the
Final Fantasy series is in decline and has turned to trash since its golden days often cling to pointing out XIII-2’s prevalence of vocal tracks. The “Crazy Chocobo” theme bears the grunt of this, but the humor and fun evident in this composition by the guest composer, legendary Nubuo Uematsu, is evidently lost on them.
“Crazy Chocobo” is a metal-inspired track that surprises unsuspecting players as they innocently mount a chocobo. It’s a classic moment of gaming as it bellows, “so you think you can ride this chocobo?” The effort put into this track, which only serves as a minute moment of absurd fun, reveals the overall effort put into the soundtrack. Especially, it highlights the commitment to conveying a wide-range of emotions from the serious to the ridiculous.
Where the vocalized soundtrack truly shines is in the individual character themes. The much-loved villain Cauis’s theme encapsulates his nature with a deep male choir, singing in latin. The translated lyrics do justice to the complexity of Caius’s character: “Goddess of Death, I vowed that I would protect the most dear one.”
The seeress Yeul has a slow acoustic theme to encapsulate her sorrow, but it also tells of her acceptance of her fate; her calmness despite her curse. It explains her character’s selflessness, that her “loneliness is worth the price” as she sings to the world, and its people, whom she observes beyond the bounds of time, telling them “I will protect you with my life.”
The track “Memory” serves as the game’s title theme and also the main protagonist Serah’s personal theme. It sings of her sister Lightning and reminds us of her motive: to save her sister, “your strength gives me hope. Someday I’ll find you with open arms.”
No theme gives a more thorough insight into the character’s psyche than that of Noel. Hearing this beautiful piano piece as you explore the Dying Lands brings the realization that, despite his appearance, Noel has a backstory filled with depth and is not just some rejected design concept from a
Kingdom Hearts game. It’s lyrics tell the tear-inducing story of a boy “searching for future’s I’ve dreamed.” It sings of his personal moniker, “hearing that hope is futile only inspires me not to give up.”
Final Fantasy XIII-2 ends with a theme song even more powerful than “My Hands.” “New World” was an original song for the game and so Charice’s performance was more personal and applicable. Although, as many fans have pointed out, it would have been an even better ending song for Lightning Returns.
The third installment to the
Final Fantasy XIII Trilogy not only did away with the vocal direction of the score, other than a few buskers here and there, but also forewent a vocal ending theme. Lightning Returns reminds us that instrumental scores and leitmotif alone, without vocals, can still be very powerful. Music doesn’t need lyrics to convey emotion. We must remember that.
What the balance of
XIII-2 says, however, is that vocals can be, and should be, implemented as more than just the ace-in-the-hole ending theme. Lyrics and voice can be woven throughout the soundtrack like any other instrument to bring further depth and emotion to a game’s music. Other game composers should consider the shining example set by Final Fantasy XIII-2, and where it will enhance the experience, vocals should be openly embraced.