This week’s VGM is going to be quite a doozy. Shadowlord is in my top 5 for best RPG final boss themes, up there with Dancing Mad, The Battle for Everyone’s Souls, Hopes and Dreams, and… okay I don’t know what the fifth one is yet. I do hope that I have made it abundantly clear at this point that I am a huge fan of both NieR titles. Even though there were a few qualms I had with the original, it was still such a powerful experience that I would easily play it again some day. I will admit that having an amazing soundtrack always helps, and NieR has one of the best I’ve ever seen (for those wondering, my favorite game OST is Undertale, which is why there has been such a focus on it, even though it is beaten out by both NieR Automata and Earthbound in terms of favorite game overall).
The last VGM I have covered from NieR was the hauntingly beautiful and sad “Emil Spoiler in Title” and I also touched upon the end credits theme “Ashes of Dreams” in my countdown of the most Beautiful JRPG Ending Credits Themes, so this isn’t the first time I’ve covered this series music wise. However, I will need to go into some plot details to fully explain the use of this music so SPOILERS AHEAD for NieR.
Just to clear things up, the lyrics don’t mean anything, they’re just gibberish, as with most of the music in NieR. Technically, they are meant to sound similar to how various real world languages would evolve into over the course of several millennia. If I recall correctly, I have heard that the English language as far back as 300 years ago would sound unintelligible to most fluent English speakers of today, so I can only imagine what it would sound like in 4000 AD. Unfortunately I am no language scholar so I am unable to try and decipher a meaning based on the roots of these words, but it would be nice if we got someone who was to do so. Some of it does sound kinda like Latin to me, but supposedly every modern language has some Latin roots so it may be a moot point.
Anyway, the song start out sounding peaceful with just a choir, and companies the cutscene of our heroes entering the room of the Shadowlord and where Nier’s daughter (or younger sister if you’re playing the Japanese version) Yonah lays sleeping. As he approaches, the Shadowlord appears out of a portal in the ground with the chorus changing and the organ being introduced. After he makes his badass boss entrance, the drums get introduced and SCREAM final showdown.
Already, the track is unique in that the song starts playing in the cutscene before the boss and continue on into the actual fight (note, I always love it when games do that). Worth noting that in the first cutscene, the first and second verses of the chorus don’t loop, and the third verse is skipped. As for the song itself, it, like most NieR tracks, has multiple layers involved that come and go depending on the stage of the fight.
One of the greatest strengths of NieR’s OST is the sheer amount of versatility of the vocals, and how they can take different tones depending on their instrumental accompaniment. There are multiple tracks that use the same vocals but different instrumentals, yet all will sound like they were composed with said vocals in mind. The calm portion gives off a very divine and mystical feeling through its use of the organ bearing noticeable resemblance to a church hymn. Of course, it would at first be assumed to be just the usual JRPG tradition of over blowing the final boss by equating them to be a god (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I mean what do you expect when your villain is literally named “The Shadowlord.” That’s about as cliche a name for a villain as “The Dark Lord,” “The Forbidden One,” or “The God Emperor.” What were you expecting subtlety? If you did then… well you’ll actually get it for once.
Yoko Taro’s games are known for being very subversive in regards to traditional video game tropes. Drakengard, for instance, was a game where the main character is a bloodthirsty sociopath, and Yoko Taro said he got the idea when thinking of how games basically reward you for killing as much as possible, and how they are often treated as accomplishments. As for NieR, Taro said that he got the inspiration for the game based on the after math of fucking 9/11 Anyway, this is your LAST WARNING for major NieR SPOILERS.
As for NieR’s big twist, the shades, those being the the demonic shadow creatures that you’ve been fighting the whole game, the ones that Nier wants to ruthless murder all of out of revenge? They are humans, or rather, they are what are left of humanity. After the failed experiment “Project Gestalt” the remaining humans lose their grip on their sanity and mutate into these horrific demon like beings. Some of them seemed to have just lost their senses completely and will just attack people randomly, but others, IE most of the game’s major boss monsters, are still sentient and were only action in self defense.
As for Nier and his friends, they are simply clones known as “Replicants,” and they were never intended to become sentient. In fact, it was because the Replicants became sentient that the shades became hostile. Project Gestalt was meant to separate human souls from their bodies in order to battle the deadly white chlorination virus that occurred as a result of the final battle of Drakengard’s E Route. The replicants were created so that the gestalts (IE human souls) could return to their bodies after the white chlorination syndrome was eradicated. Unfortunately, the replicants becoming sentient prevents the gestalts from returning, which causes their detached souls to turn into shades and for most to lose sentience. The “black Scrawl” disease that Yonah was afflicted with, it is what happens as a result of a “relapse,” which occurs when a replicant becomes sentient and their corresponding gestalt is unable to fuse with them. This causes the gestalt to go insane, and the replicant to slowly succumb to the scrawl until they die
As for the Shadowlord, he’s Nier, or more appropriately, he’s the original Nier, and the one you’ve been playing as is his replicant. Nier became the first gestalt/shade to retain sentience, hence being the Shadowlord, and thus was linked to all shades, in exchange for the government helping him to try to save Yonah. The reason that the Shadowlord kidnapped Yonah was because that plan failed, and he wants to bring her back, and save humanity in the process. And he would have done it to, if it weren’t for you meddling replicants and your dumb book!
So yeah, the whole religious symbolism makes a bit of sense considering the fact that the Shadowlord is essentially trying to play god by having Yonah’s original soul return to her replicant’s body, and how the Shadowlord is basically the equivalent of a fallen angel. Of course, similar things can be said about replicant Nier, who unknowingly dooms humanity to extinction by killing the Shadowlord, and the nature of the replicants themselves. As a result, the intro portion foreshadows a very tragic and ironic end in addition to it sounding cool AF.
The first phase of the battle just has the drums, the vocals, and possible the organ, and in this phase, it is obvious that the game wants you to think this is your typical final battle. You have Grimoire Noir’s in battle taunt of “how can a mere tool like you hope to stand against the Shadowlord?” in his deliciously evil voice. After the first phase is over, you get another cutscene and the remaining instrumentation is added, which makes the song sound all the much more dire.
In addition to all the symbolic nonsense mentioned earlier, the addition of strings and horns adds a much stronger and heavier weight to the song, while the drums are fast paced and hectic, perfectly fitting for a showdown between two very powerful forces. The song, exudes the “fate of the world is at stake” but similarly to “Battle Against A True Hero” and “Megalovania” YOU’RE the final boss, not him.
Lastly, during the final phase, the Shadowlord has lost all hope once he realizes he can’t bring Yonah back, and the more damage he takes, the more layers get depleted, until you are left with a mere music box arrangement of the original song; representing how the Shadowlord is now weak and close too death, in addition to the fact that when people are dying, they often revert to childhood and wish to be near their mother. Lastly, there is always something about music box tunes that just gets me very emotional. The haunting silence and simplicity of them is always enough to bring a tear to one’s eye. Between this, Marle’s Theme, Mother’s Lullaby, and the Mother 3 Theme of Love, it may just be the saddest instrument ever (if it counts as one). It also has a higher quality arrangement on the NieR Gestalt & Replicant 15 Nightmares & Arrange Tracks album.
So there you have it. I was not kidding when I said this was one of the best. One of the most well composed, well arranged, well performed, intense, dark, haunting, and emotional tracks in all of video games, and I was somewhat disappointed it didn’t get remixed in NieR Automata. But wait, there’s more! Specifically, there are other arrangements.
Firstly, there is the unused Shadowlord theme. This one has a higher key and is in place of the lyrics an ethereal sounding hum. This song basically sounds like a MIDI version of the original, or more than likely this one WAS the original. It definitely gives off much more of an otherworldly vibe while also sounding somewhat heroic and optimistic, so naturally, that had no place in a final Yoko Taro product. A song like this would be much more befitting of a normal JRPG as this one sounds much more mystic and ghostly, while the final version also sounds haunting and mysterious, but in a much more human way; similar to the Shadowlord himself. Also there is a version that added the final version’s drums that someone uploaded on Youtube, which improves it seeing as how they are the same drums just with higher quality.
Then there is the Jazzy White Note Remix, included on the NieR Gestalt & Replicant Original Soundtrack album. Not really all that fitting for the fight itself, but it is nice to listen to. The way it opens up with the piano is nice, but I’m a bit iffy on how it keeps doing those fake outs with the chorus.
This one is “Shadowlord – Crying Yonah Version” and it plays in the “World of Recycled Vessel” DLC, and is included on the NieR Gestalt & Replicant 15 Nightmares & Arrange Tracks. This is a techno based remix that does not fit the world of NieR in the slightest, or maybe it does because the game is just that weird. In the DLC, I can only imagine that it is there to make things more odd and surreal, which Yoko Taro is always good at. It is still pretty groovy though, but I don’t really know what else to say about it.
This one is from the Piano Collections Nier Gestalt & Replicant album, and is simply titled “Shadowlord.” It’s exactly what it says on the box, a piano based arrangement of “Shadowlord.” This one tends to lean more towards the melodic and peaceful parts of the song and not the fast paced and hectic parts (which would require A LOT of skill and virtuosity to pull off, so I don’t blame them) and is very well performed and arranged. There is a great sense of harmony despite only using the piano, and everything compliments each other very well.
And lastly, there is “Penumbra” from the NieR Gestalt & Replicant: Jazz Arrange Version Vol. 2 album. This one is also more on the peaceful and mellow side, at least at first. The first part has a nice use of the acoustic guitar and bells and sounds nice. However, it really gets good about 3 minutes in, where it starts to take a light rock approach by adding drums, Hammond organs, and electric guitars. It is a very upbeat and catchy tune, and it is hard to think that it comes from a song as dark as the original. It makes me think of an alternate universe where Nier and his crew lived, society got rebuilt, and them playing this in Battery Park in front of a large crowd in a society that’s much like today’s except without all the racism and such (okay it would probably still be there since this is Yoko Taro after all).
Wait a minute, that sounds like an excellent idea. A music/rhythm game based off of NieR may be crazy enough to work, and hopefully one with an actual plot and not just Theathrhythm NieR (although I’d buy the crap out of that as well), if only to see how Yoko Taro would make it work (and you know he will). Well, Taro did say he’d make anything if enough money was thrown at him, so let’s let him hear it guys!
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