Granblue Fantasy: Sounds of the Skydom

Japanese role-playing games have long been known for having some of the most memorable soundtracks in all of gaming. And, surprisingly, mobile takes on the genre are no exception.

The news that Cygames’ incredibly popular Granblue Fantasy has a fantastic soundtrack will probably not come as a surprise, however, given the incredibly strong pedigree of the talent behind it. The work of longstanding Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and his bandmate Tsutomo Narita from the Earthbound Papas, Granblue Fantasy’s soundtrack covers a surprisingly diverse range of musical styles, and is clearly one of the areas that has had the most love and attention lavished on it.

That sounds like a good excuse to enjoy some of its finest moments to me!

And where better to begin than with the main theme? Beginning with the gentle, delicate sounds of the flute and harp, the scene is set for a fantastic adventure, the deceptively calming opening of the piece reflecting the “humble beginnings” of protagonist Gran’s adventure. Then we move into driving percussion rhythms and a triumphant trumpet melody that forms one of the most well-known parts of this piece — largely due to it being frequently heard during regular events such as the “daily bonus”.

The relentless, ongoing percussion rhythm beneath the orchestral melodies and harmonies is a frequently used musical device in Japanese role-playing game soundtracks — particularly those by Uematsu and those inspired by his work — to represent airship travel. Similar motifs have been heard on a fairly regular basis throughout the Final Fantasy series, as well as in other titles where airships play a strong role such as Skies of Arcadia.

Granblue Fantasy’s main battle theme is excellent, and again quite characteristic of Uematsu’s past work. The driving syncopated rhythms that start the whole thing off are strongly reminiscent of the battle themes to Final Fantasy VII and VIII in particular, as is the combination of acoustic orchestral and modern electric instruments. Meanwhile, the “dynamic” nature of the track — in which the clear sections heard in this static version correspond to progress through a battle or quest — is quite similar to how the aforementioned Skies of Arcadia handled its battle themes.

The pounding bassline and rhythm guitar throughout brings one of Final Fantasy VIII’s finale tracks “Maybe I’m a Lion” to mind, but it’s also a fairly characteristic sound of Uematsu’s band The Earthbound Papas and their predecessors The Black Mages. The catchy, irregular rhythms combined with a clear, memorable melodic hook throughout help ensure that this piece — which regular players will hear a whole lot — doesn’t become tiresome, even after many hundreds of times hearing it.

This particularly lovely piece — heard upon reaching a particular area early in the game — is a strong example of Narita making use of influences from traditional Western orchestral “art music” to create a strong sense of time and place in the listener’s mind.

The opening, featuring a solo violin accompanied by deliciously concordant-sounding piano arpeggios, is strongly reminiscent of compositions from the Romantic period and early 20th century, and the use of compound time gives the whole thing a pleasingly relaxing lilt to it. When the piece shifts to a melancholy solo piano melody, it also moves back into simple time, marking a rather different feel to the whole thing; still relaxing, but now somewhat calmer and less energetic; perhaps the different between day and night in the region.

Here’s a good example of the diverse influences on Granblue Fantasy’s soundtrack as a whole. This boss battle theme combines both acoustic and electric instruments to create a distinctively Gothic-sounding track that gradually builds in intensity as the battle progresses. While we start with an orchestral opening to reflect the beginning of the confrontation, this is swiftly followed by jangly electric guitars and drums once the battle proper begins.

The piece then combines Baroque-style instruments such as the clavichord with Celtic fiddle and flute — the latter two being aspects heard sporadically throughout the whole soundtrack, reminding the player of Gran’s somewhat rustic, humble beginnings. As the intensity grows, the jangly guitar gives way to full-on distorted electric guitar, and the backing harmonies are filled out by the sounds of a choir, giving a strong “Gothic rock” feel to the piece, somewhat reminiscent of Michiru Yamane’s work on the Castlevania series prior to its controversial shift in direction with Lords of Shadow a shift which also saw its soundtrack move from its prior Gothic rock angle to a more conventionally “Western”-sounding orchestral soundtrack.

This track demonstrates the diversity of the soundtrack in a different way by going in a markedly contrasting direction rather reminiscent of Masashi Hamauzu’s soundtrack to Final Fantasy XIII. Combining driving ostinato rhythms in the lower strings and percussion with light, playful and occasionally discordant piano lines and strong melodies from the string section, this piece is effectively used in the game to mark significant, dramatic moments and battles — much as it was used in Final Fantasy XIII for its boss fights.

This track, which accompanies the battle in game against the “Rose Queen”, starts off by sounding like something from Sword Art Online’s soundtrack: a strong melody from the upper strings accompanied by close harmonies from the cellos and basses, followed up with some strong backing vocals — the discordant harmonies a little reminiscent of Gust’s treatment of the Reyvateils’ songs in the Ar Tonelico series — and a modern drum kit providing some energy.

The use of a vocal soloist — and the fact the orchestra moves into an accompanying role rather than being the main focus — gives this track a strong “anime” feel to it, rather reminiscent of the sort of thing you’d expect to hear in the opening titles to a popular series with a decent budget. (Granblue Fantasy does, in fact, have an anime, but it uses a different song for its title sequence.)

In other words, it’s pretty clear that this piece accompanies a very important, dramatic moment — though I must confess, I haven’t yet reached that point in the game myself as yet, so I’m looking forward to hearing it in context!

Granblue Fantasy’s soundtrack is pretty spectacular all round, and testament to the degree in which this humble mobile game has become a worldwide phenomenon. To date, since its launch in 2014, the game has spawned a spinoff anime, a series of web-based comics, three soundtrack CDs (including a spectacular disc of fully orchestrated arrangements) and, almost certainly, more doujinshi than you could possibly hope to consume in a lifetime.

With the game currently celebrating 15 million registered players across the world — though, cutting through the hyperbole, this doesn’t mean 15 million active players — it doesn’t look like it’s going away any time soon. And with music like this on offer, I hope it doesn’t go anywhere any time soon.

Thank you to all the YouTube users who have kindly uploaded tracks from the OSTs and rips from the game that were used in this article.

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