Fable II (Russell Shaw)

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2008’s Fable II stepped up to the plate with diminished expectations. Few of the original’s lofty promises were met, and anticipation has been rather muted, especially in the face of a game shipping with some of its primary features still unfinished. Still, it managed to overcome much of that skepticism to meet a warm reception, and remains the series title that comes closest to the developer’s goal. The project did allow a second collaboration between Russell Shaw and Danny Elfman, though, which was tantalizing in view of the impressive (but somewhat untapped) potential evident in the first game.

The original Fable disc was undermined by some questionable choices (such as devoting nearly a third of its running time to dull Gregorian chants), but had some very strong cues, headlined by a muscular Danny Elfman theme. Unfortunately, Elfman doesn’t provide a new theme for this outing; while his original was perhaps a bit too superhero style in its straightforward presentation, Russell Shaw’s softer and more lyrical arrangements really brought out the best in it.

Nor is there any large-scale presentation of the original Fable theme. It’s heard only in fragments in two tracks. Despite this, the opening “Fable Theme” promises a great deal; a music-box fragment of Elfman’s theme leads into an explosive choral section that sports just the right hint of 19th century flair for the game’s setting.

“Bowerlake” introduces a strong Celtic aspect into the game’s soundscape, though without resorting to a whirligig sword dance and with an emphasis on mood and texture. That same sort of magic is extended in “Westcliff,” which also offers one of the few robust statements of Shaw’s new theme in its darker second half. “Marcus Memorial” is cut from largely the same cloth, but refreshingly also offers an arrangement of one of the original game’s best themes.

Still, there’s a considerable amount of filler to be found. “Shadow of Evil” is little more than five minutes of choral moaning, while “Wraithmarsh” is little but churning and empty ambiance, with only another music box snippet of Elfman’s theme to liven it up.

In the end, Shaw doesn’t use Elfman’s theme much, and despite a promising start, fails to produce a new one to take its place. This means that the thematic backbone which anchored the previous score is broken; while certain textures are carried over, the music feels less cohesive than the original. As with the first score, many of the tracks impress, but the music still fails to hold together as a cohesive listening experience — one step forward, and one step back.

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