Jade Empire (Jack Wall)

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Following the massive success of their licensed RPGs, Bioware chose to create their first original game in that genre with 2005’s Jade Empire. After flirting with Michael Hoenig and Jeremy Soule for most of their previous games, Bioware settled on Jack Wall to spearhead the music for their next generation of titles. Wall — no stranger to game music with titles like Myst and Splinter Cell under his belt — set out to create a soundscape that matched the new game’s mythical Far East setting.

Wall certainly nailed the overall sound of the game: high quality performances samples of Eastern instruments, an overall Asian classical sound, and nods to more recent scores like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon abound throughout the work. There is a classical Western orchestral ensemble mixed in as well, but the focus is firmly on creating an Asian feeling throughout. The game’s main theme is perhaps the best example of this, with a collection of Far Eastern instruments sweeping over a background of more traditional horns, strings, and a wordless singer.

The album does feature some very pretty moments, typically when the mood is light and summery. Suites like “Hills and Fields” and themes like “Dawn Star” combine the overarching mood of the score with melodies and textures that create a pleasing whole. There are many such moments over the course of the album, though the themes tend to be rather subtle to nonexistent elsewhere.

Battle music and the score’s darker music tends toward length percussion romps, largely devoid of melody or anything save clanking metal and wood. While this music creates an appropriately rambunctious mood at first, it can be wearying in the extended doses that the music throws at listeners. “Fury Hammer and Tongs” is perhaps the most outstanding example of this style, varying the endless percussion hits with Halo-esque runs. The sinister themes tend to be rather underplayed as well, mired in rather dull Chinese-style ambiance.

The major drawback of the music is also its major strength. A laserlike focus on an oriental sound means that the cues can easily become tiring for someone accustomed to a more Western sound or for whom densely Asian music is something best appreciated in small doses. Wall’s music does exactly what it sets out to do, yet this may turn many listeners off.

Released by Sumthing Else in 2005, the official album includes 75 minutes of Wall’s music and is easily obtainable in stores or online. The music is heartily recommended to fans of Asian classical stylings, with a more lukewarm recommendation to people for whom the style is less tolerable. If nothing else, the music is absolutely perfect in-game and complements the setting and action peerlessly.

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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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Mass Effect (Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, and David Kates)

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Released in 2007 to widespread acclaim, BioWare’s Mass Effect was the latest in a new era of original IP’s for the company, long famous for its games based on long-established fictional worlds. Along for the ride was composer Jack Wall, who had written the score for Jade Empire, BioWare’s previous game. As the head of a team that included Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, and David Kates, Wall was called on to provide hours’ worth of music on the canvas of a vast space opera.

Interestingly, the stated influence wasn’t the standard space opera sound established by Star Wars, but rather the far more electronic (and eclectic) scores for Blade Runner and Dune. While the music is far less meandering than Vangelis and far less rock-oriented than Toto, it nevertheless has a strongly synthetic sound, with electric pulses serving as a unifying sound throughout the music.

Mass Effect isn’t a strongly thematic work, though a very subtle motif is introduced in the titular “Mass Effect Theme” and alluded to elsewhere. Instead, the electronics provide a consistent soundscape for the music which is developed in a variety of interesting ways. Upbeat dance-influenced tracks like “Criminal Element” and “Virmire Ride” accompany some of the more notable action sequences in the game and are highlights with strong melody and drive. Ambient songs are also a strong presence, with the “Uncharted Worlds” map theme and gentle “Vigil” (which serves as the game’s main title).

The majority of tracks, however, are suites which feature driving action or suspense music. Propelled along by synth pulses, pieces like “Battle at Eden Prime” and the latter half of “A Very Dangerous Place” explode with aggressive rhythms and electronic melodies. Much of this music accompanies cutscenes in-game, and as such is highly structured and often features a choral element as the music builds to its climax. No real instruments were used, though, giving the non-electronic parts of the score a distinctly tinny feel.

An official soundtrack disc was put out by Sumthing Else, onetime champions of Western game music on CD, around the game’s release. It’s a good representation of the in-game music overall, though not without some annoyances. A few dull tracks like “Saren’s Base” made the cut, and some of the more atmospheric music wound up melded to action-packed tracks in the form of suites. None of the music is looped, constrained as it was to a single disc, and some of the finest action sequences were left off the disc (in particular the Matriarch Benezia battle and Virmire base infiltration), with a dull rock song at the end taking up nearly ten minutes on disc. Several fan-made music rips are available which alleviate the problem, however.

All in all, Mass Effect is quite impressive, taking a nontraditional approach to its genre that feels both original and appropriate. While the music suffers a bit on disc from being short, awkwardly edited, or missing, it’s still a good purchase, especially for people who find Western game music too symphonic for their tastes. That tracks from this album continued to crop up in Mass Effect‘s acclaimed and controversial sequels is perhaps the best testament to its ongoing strengths.

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