Darkspore Original Videogame Score
Darkspore Original Videogame Score
April 19, 2011
Download at iTunes
It would be pretty easy to assume that Darkspore is similar to 2008’s much-hyped Spore: both were games developed by Maxis and share not only a similar title, but also some gameplay mechanics. But that’s were the semblances end, as Darkspore is a traditional action RPG where hunting and collecting loot is reason enough to spent hours and hours on end in various dungeons. Or at least that must have been the developers’ plan. But upon release in April 2011, Darkspore was only met with generally positive, if hardly enthusiastic reviews.
The game’s soundtrack was provided by Dutch musician Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL). Best known for his chart-topping remix of Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” in 2002, Holkenborg has made a name for himself in video gamer circles by contributing to a large number of EA sport games, among them the FIFA and Need for Speed franchises. Holkenborg’s artist background certainly put him in a good position to tackle the task of underscoring Darkspore’s futuristic world.
Darkspore may be set in the future, but to many score collectors, Holkenborg’s approach will sound like a blast from the past. Holkenborg certainly sets himself up for comparisons with Vangelis’ Blade Runner right away: deep electronic pulses open the album on “Darkspore Theme”, before spectral, glistening synth layers in a very wet mix gently enwrap the listener. Floating on these serene textures is a melancholic synth lead that enters at 0:43 and is taken right out of Blade Runner‘s main titles. It’s somewhat ironic that thirty year old sounds can still be such a powerful template for how the future has to sound, and these sounds’ prominent occurrence on Darkspore is certainly not a sign of originality. Then again, even after all this time, their simple application doesn’t fail to create a vast, yet mysterious sonic world. The same goes for the tinkling three-note melody that later echoes in the track’s wide open soundscape: it’s familiar, but effective.
The majority of Darkspore follows this template of providing soothing, cool layers of synth washes. Holkenborg often works with quite minimalist ingredients, but his usually ambient pieces are always greatly atmospheric. An intriguing feeling of otherworldliness permeates the score, particularly on the score’s standout track “The Poison Forest”, which adds ethereal, female synth vocals to the mix and occasionally sounds downright wondrous. A recurring arpegiatted chiptune sound effect is skillfully applied and doesn’t disturb the tranquil nature of the music. On the contrary, these archaic sounds only help to paint the image of a barren, crystalline place that resonates with the calls of the strange creatures roaming it. “Elemental Planes” works with similar means: airy electronic textures, wistful melody synth leads, tinkling chimes and delicate synth vocals create quite a mesmerising atmosphere. “Epilogue” fittingly ends things on an upbeat note with elevating, voluminous synth washes over a warm, soft beat that easily conjures a sense of closure and fulfilment.
Relatively ambient music such as this always walks a thin line between hypnotic attraction and mere repetitiveness. And while it’s true that most tracks on Darkspore are happy to establish an attractive mood and leave it at that without developing a great deal, Holkenborg does create enough of a calm ebb and flow within his pieces to carry the listener from track to track — witness how the gentle climax “The Poison Forest” works its way towards in its second half. Or there’s the change of the “Darkspore Theme” to sparser, foreboding textures in its middle section, before the piece returns to brighter sounds at the end, courtesy of another tinkling melody against synth choir chords. Holkenborg also knows how to sufficiently vary his electronic textures, despite their inherently static nature. And he always knows when to throw in a new idea to keep his compositions interesting. Like “Darkspore Theme”, “Verdanth” runs for more than six minutes and it also features less rich synth layers than other tracks. But that’s not a hindrance, as Holdenborg marries these languid textures with a bed of creatively applied, gentle beats which not only complement the track’s melodic elements perfectly, but are also quite catchy in their own right. And just when this tension between melodic and rhythmic bits becomes a bit tiring, Holdenborg adds a silvery electric piano accompaniment that is is just chromatic enough to hold the listener’s interest and to beautifully cap off the piece. On “Prologue”, a forsaken sounding, chiming three-note guitar figure is enough to keep this short track from sounding stale.
Some tracks are more driving, although they make less of an impact than their more atmospheric brethren on the album. At less than thirty seconds, “The Destructors” relatively heavy and aggressive beats — at least by the standards of Darkspore‘s general mellowness — have no time to go anywhere. “Magnetic Master” is a bit longer and ratchets up the tension a bit with some dissonant sound bits. But its sound effects-heavy, fragmented soundscape never quite comes together and becomes actually dramatic. “Spatial Reason” is quite a bit longer, but also more intriguing. The cue is basically a four-minute collection of a wide array of varied beats and rhythms, some of them with a distinct, quite charming chiptune edge. The track’s occasionally syncopated rhythms and its mischievous playfulness aren’t quite enough to carry the whole composition on their own, but it’s still fun to listen to. And the use of those chiptunes sounds of old on this and other tracks, together with the recurring Blade Runner-esque synth leads, make you think that maybe Holdenborg doesn’t just rip off the old masters but instead tips his hat to them and their achievements.
Darkspore isn’t going to win any points for outstanding originality in the way it portrays a futuristic world, as the sounds Holkenborg works with here are well familiar from similar soundtracks. But then again, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel if the music gets the job done, and that’s certainly the case here. Darkspore‘s soothing, inviting soundscapes are never less than atmospheric and occasionally turn quite enchanting, for example on “The Poison Forest”. Holkenborg shapes his ambient compositions well enough to avoid them sliding into tedium. Instead his pieces gently carry the listener through the album’s half-hour running time. Darkspore‘s more propulsive compositions don’t quite measure up to the rest of the score, but they too short to disrupt the album flow. It probably won’t rock your world, but Darkspore is a fun, unchallenging listen throughout. At a price of only $4, this enjoyable soundtrack is recommended to anybody interested in atmospheric electronica.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.