The Dark Eye: Drakensang Deluxe Edition Soundtrack
Drakensang Deluxe Edition Soundtrack
February 19, 2010
Download at iTunes
The Dark Eye: Drakensang was the fourth computer game spawned by The Dark Eye franchise. For the uninitiated (most likely pretty much everybody outside of Germany): The Dark Eye — or Das Schwarze Auge in its native territory — can be most easily summed up as the German version of Dungeons & Dragons. After three The Dark Eye computer games were released in 1992, 1994 and 1996 respectively, it took game developers until 2008 to publish another game based on the universe. The Dark Eye: Drakensang, a single player RPG, met with critical acclaim in Germany and garnered several awards, including one for “Best Soundtrack”, and the game’s success in its home country was likely a factor that contributed to The Dark Eye: Drakensang being given a US release in early 2009. This made a sequel all but inevitable, and in 2010, Drakensang: The River of Time found its way onto German store shelves.
The scores of both games were handled by German game sound production company Dynamedion, and their work on Drakensang brought the composers an award for “Best Soundtrack”, handed out by a German computer industry body. Both soundtracks were made available to the public at large in February 2010, coinciding with the release of Drakensang: The River of Time, when the scores were released as digital downloads in two different version: as stand-alone releases and combined on the Drakensang Deluxe Edition Soundtrack.
The Deluxe Edition’s album sequencing is a bit odd, in the sense that the tracks from Drakensang: The River of Time come first, followed by the first game’s compositions. Since the music for Drakensang: The River of Time is clearly superior to that of its predecessor, this has the unfortunate effect of providing an anticlimactic effect. Not that the score for Drakensang is objectively bad — it’s just that after an excellent first half, this soundtrack release settles into “good to very good, but slightly flawed” territory. To better sketch out the musical evolution that takes place between Drakensang and Drakensang: The River of Time, this review will go through the album’s content in chronological order. In order, let’s ignore the album sequencing and start with the soundtrack for Drakensang.
While several reviews of The Dark Eye: Drakensang did not fail to point out how much the game relies on fantasy clichés and stock characters, its soundtrack manages to set itself apart from other entries in this crowded genre. Instead of deploying that often slightly anaemic large-scale orchestral sound that so many fantasy titles rely on (and which plagued Dynamedion’s own BattleForge soundtrack to a certain degree), Drakensang puts the focus on smaller instrumental ensembles and an earthier, grittier overall tone. In an interview, lead composer Tilman Sillescu described the composing team’s approach as one that aimed at a more “European” sound, avoiding to generate another Hollywood-like score and instead incorporating folkloristic elements, such as flute, acoustic guitar and tambourine. And while the composers managed to skillfully integrate such medieval sounding influences into the score, what is even more striking are its generally dark tone, its absence of epic-style histrionics, and its focus on woodwind solo instruments. Despite some cracks in the soundtrack’s armour, all of these traits make for a refreshing and occasionally fascinating listen.
For example, the brass section rarely produces that well-known, heroic fantasy sound, but is rather deployed in its deeper registers to communicate menace. The first such composition, “Keller und Katakomben”, is one of the less remarkable tracks on the soundtrack, with its ambient underscore provided by layers of deep string and brass chords being effective, but hardly outstanding. However, later tracks of a similar ilk contribute some of the album’s signature cues and nicely set the tone for the whole album through their generally dark, but still richly layered moods. “Ratten und Bären” is somewhat similar to “Keller und Katakomben”, with its ambient strings and harp accompaniment, but proves more interesting through the inclusion of an eerie solo violin part. “Geister!” creates spookiness through well-known means, including nervous, layered string tremoli, ominous percussion (like all solo instruments recorded in a very dry acoustic) and tinkling vibraphone sounds, but the compositon also adds one of the few majestic horn melodies on the album, emphasising the heroes’ strive and creating an ear-catching tension between the melodic brass elements and the other, more unsettling instrumental sounds.
This mix of moods and atmospheres is most aptly displayed several tracks that successfully juxtapose musical material of quite different character. “Gefährlicher Handel” displays brief hints of dissonant string figures flashing by, together with menacing low brass chords and drums that seem to resonate from long stretched cave walls, before this collection of scary musical material is interrupted by a lyrical harp interlude. Thundering drums and a very deep bassoon cut short this injection of melody into the track, only for the harp, playing a variation of the main theme, to return. Both the harp and the following clarinet solo are pitted against a dissonant string backdrop, before the percussion closes the piece by hammering it into submission. “Dunkle Geheimnisse” adds female and male choir and deploys them intelligently by interweaving a lighter, but still ominous melody for female choir with plodding accompaniment by the male choir and percussion instruments. The track’s second half, which mixes tinkling chimes and vibraphone with low brass and string chords, woodwind ostinati and ethereal female choir syllables, produces the soundtrack’s most intoxicating moments. “Elfengeist und Nekromant”, finally, conveys an alluring mixture of menace, mystery and melancholy by coupling a plucked metal instrument and metal percussion that sounds like distant bells tolling with with deep percussion, strings and woodwinds, and at a later point with a poignant oboe solo.
As mentioned above, the record combines solo instruments recorded live and closely in a dry acoustic with sampled brass and strings, and for the most part, this approach works fairly well: while the strings and brass often lack presence and punch in the higher registers, this is not too much of an issue, given that the music rarely ever goes for the jugulars, and instead remains moody and subdued. Predictably however, the samples’ not completely satisfying quality does become apparent during the soundtrack’s action material, when the strings and brass have to carry a composition by conveying drama and urgency. The string ostinati in both “Blitzende Klingen” and “Tief unter Murolosch” should drive these pieces forward, but sound way too feeble to actually achieve that effect. It doesn’t help that “Tief unter Murolosch” is too short to go anywhere — a problem that also plagues “Ruine Blutberge” — and that “Blitzende Klingen” never takes shape and aimlessly meanders during its running time, never providing anything in terms of melody or rousing rhythm. Other battle tracks, such as “Schild und Schwert” und “Schild und Speer” are more successfully in firing up the gamer for combat by focusing more on deep string ostinati and pounding percussion than on wimpy violins. “Orks!” provides the expected percussion and string accents, but is made a lot more interesting by overlaying this action material with a haunting flute solo — another example of the composers’ ingenuity when it comes to the pieces’ instrumentation.
While it’s often preferable to use live instruments instead of samples, combining the two requires careful recording and mixing to bring the two elements together in a coherent soundscape. Most of the time, Drakensang pulls this feat off successfully, demonstrated best on “Prehnshain”, likely the game’s end credits tracks. Several solo woodwind instruments and an acoustic guitar successively play variations of the main theme against a delicate harp accompaniment and a string backdrop that at different times provides lighter textures or a weightier accompaniment. The closely miked solo instruments and the warm, intimate sound they produce are a joy to listen to. Instead of feelings of triumph, the track provides a sense of contemplative, calm closure to utterly enchanting effect.
On a few occasions though, orchestra and solo instruments mesh less well: the percussion in “Geister!” stands out too much from the rest of the ensemble, simply because of its much drier, vibrant sound. The same goes for the tambourine and acoustic guitar in “Tief im Kosch” — these instruments are a great addition to the composition and provide earthiness to what otherwise would have merely been expertly composed, ambient material dominated by sustained deep string chords and harp arpeggios. But while elevating the composition, the tambourine and the guitar also disrupt the carefully built up atmosphere by being placed much more forwardly in the recording than the orchestra, with the result that a single acoustic guitar sounds a lot louder than the whole string section. And why the performance noises between 1:25 and 1:30 and at 2:42 made it into the final mix is a bit puzzling.
Drakensang: The River of Time then turns out to be the fortunate case of a sequel that does away with most its predecessor’s weaknesses and improves upon the previous title’s strengths. The most obvious positive change from the first game’s score is the improved sample and recording quality. The overall soundscape is far more coherent, with no instruments standing out uncomfortably. Equally, the orchestra samples used this time sound a lot better: when the violins get to sing their melody at the beginning of “Im Kosch”, they produce a convincing, rich sound. There’s still the occasional sound issue: when the full choir enters in the two “Freunde” tracks or in “Potpourri”, the orchestral textures quickly sound muddy and require greater crispness. But fortunately, these remain the only occasions on which the album’s sound and recording quality becomes an issue.
To the same degree that particularly Drakensang‘s action tracks suffered from a thin orchestral sound, now it’s the score’s combat material that benefits most from the improved sample quality. Composition-wise, these tracks are still not mind-blowing and offer not much in terms of memorable melodies, but this time around, at least they sound appropriately dramatic and powerful. Most of these compositions provide exactly the sonic material that one would expect from such cues: rasping brass, an array of percussion instruments, resolute strings, pounding march rhythms and a general emphasis of the orchestra’s lower registers. But while they’re rather hackneyed, these tracks work well, not only due to the improved recording and sample quality, but also because the composers skillfully vary a composition’s intensity, as well the limited number of timbres they work with during the course of each cue. And there are some nice touches that imbue parts of the action material with a measure of personality, such as the flute duo in the middle section of “Zu den Waffen” or the hushed, rhythmically pronounced tenor vocals in “Kaltenstein”.
The first game’s particular down-to-earth sound is still evident in the sequel’s score, but has been significantly tweaked. The soundtrack retains its feeling of grittiness, but provides greater instrumental variety and denser orchestral textures. While not heavy on hummable melodies, Drakensang: The River of Time more than makes up for this through compositions which only rarely present a particular atmosphere in a straightforward manner, but instead take a number of twists and turns and constantly surprise the listener in a pleasant way. The result are a number of compositions which create an atmosphere that’s still generally dark, but at the same time more colourful than before, and whose sometimes heady mixture of orchestral sounds recalls early 20th century composer Karol Szymanowski and his lush, intoxicating works.
There are numerous examples for this compositional development: “Das Moor” and “Die Bosparanische Ruine” include ethnic woodwind into an already varied soundscape. In the case of “Das Moor”, this includes droning strings, male choir and short outbursts of dissonant violins, whose dreading sounds are contrasted with an alluringly melancholic atmosphere, courtesy of the aforementioned woodwind and grave brass chords. “Die Bosparanische Ruine” showcases even greater creativity in its orchestration: the location’s both mystical and haunting quality is superbly communicated through an assortment of tingling exotic percussion instruments, pensive strings and particularly a second half which pits a distant soprano and tenor choir and a number of colourful, brief orchestral effects against pounding percussion. Lighter sonic elements are introduced to great effect in “Madas Licht” and “Boronsacker”: the first cue places a harp against an ominous orchestral backdrop, before the harp duets — unaccompanied by the rest of the ensemble — with a music box. Their introspective, touching sound is later combined with hand percussion, woodwind soli and swelling cello chords. “Boronsacker” makes the ominous atmosphere it portrays through echoing percussion instruments and violin tremoli more intriguing by including a tinkling vibraphone. “Nacht” scores points for its intimately recorded, yearning flute solo, which reaches its emotional zenith when accompanied by high-pitched violin chords — a sole light in the dark night indeed, the latter portrayed through deep string chords.
However, while all these improvements are more than welcome, Drakensang: The River of Time‘s most intriguing and musically satisfying feature lies in its unusually strong thematic coherency. There are no less than three different motifs woven throughout the soundtrack, all of them presented in “Potpourri” (which in this context translates to “Medley”). The first one is a gently swaying five note motif, here on display in its most bombastic rendition, sung by the choir and backed by the strings and brass. Of all three motifs, this one is taken up most frequently in the course of the soundtrack and thus becomes its main motif — also because it concludes the album, played as a charming oboe solo in “Extro”, before warm woodwinds and horns provide an emotionally satisfying close to the score. Indeed, this five note motif comes to mark the soundtrack’s calmer, lyrical moments, as found on the two “Freunde” tracks. The first of these opens with the motif played by the clarinet, before the choir joins in. Soon however, the music takes a detour and sways off into a more playful section for pizzicato strings and flute, and later takes some of that light-hearted lilt into the following, more full-bodied passage for full orchestra. The warm feeling of companionship is communicated here as well as it is in the second “Freunde” cue, which is essentially a lighter, more folksy re-arrangement of the first track, with the motif and the string pizzicati rhythms now played by a vibraphone. On other occasions, the main motif takes on a less merry quality: “Gerling, Jaakon and Fayris” features the motif on flute, surrounded by ambiguous orchestral material, such as a droll bassoon set against a foreboding musical backdrop. “Böse Begegnung” incorporates the motif into an otherwise standard action track.
The second theme presented in “Potpourri” only occasionally makes an appearance, but it opens the score in “Am Fluss der Zeit” and, performed by a light female choir against flowing violin chords, harp and flute, gives the track a mystical quality. This seven note motif becomes interesting through its secondary phrase, whose three notes, depending on the occasion, either ascend — and turn the piece into an elating call to adventure, as in “Am Fluss der Zeit” — or descend to speak of the dangers awaiting the heroes. “Potpourri” presents both versions of the theme, and it would have been nice to see its potential and versatility put to greater use throughout out soundtrack. As it stands, the only other track in which the motif features is “Eilfis Flusspiraten”, which opens with another rendition of the five note motif, before settling into a swash-buckling section for propulsive strings, frantic xylophone and the seven note motif, with the secondary phrase descending.
The most interesting of all three motifs shows up later in “Potpourri”. It’s a seemingly lighter, more mischievous set of five notes, presented in a waltz-rhythm, with some nice brass counterpoint. At first, the motif sounds somewhat comical when played by resolute, almost pompous strings. This contrast however foreshadows how the theme will be used at other points during the soundtrack. What’s more, it soon becomes clear that there’s a darker undercurrent to this music and that mischief may soon turn into menace when the motif is later accompanied by threatening brass chords. This musical ambivalence is beautifully highlighted in two later tracks: “Situs Blumfeld” begins with an ominous intro led by bassoon and vibraphone, before segueing into heavy, martial string and percussion rhythms — which are accompanied by the second five note motif, presented on quirky woodwinds. “Zollfeste Thurstein” displays the same kind of refreshing textural originality and pulls off the same trick, with its belligerent string rhythms juxtaposed by the motif on oboe and later rasping horns. In both cases, this unusual combination of musical tones greatly elevates the material. “Dajin von Nadoret” features the motif in the same form as “Potpourri” and adds a harpsichord to further underscore the motif’s capacity to stand in as both a light-weight castle theme and as a parody of overwrought grandiloquence. The mischievousness finally turns into an impressive portray of peril in “Finale 1”, when the motif turns more threatening than ever, coupled with a return of those hushed tenor vocals. The following section provides the soundtrack’s only — and all the more effective for it — moment of bombast, when the full choir and crashing cymbals take over. But darkness soon returns: the foreboding tenor make a comeback and the motif is played by deep strings against swirling, dissonant violins.
Drakensang‘s soundtrack is by no means perfect: some of the action material is severely lacking in appeal, and the balance between the live instruments and the orchestral samples isn’t always ideal, occasionally favouring the live instruments too much, while the orchestral sounds lack punch and presence in the higher registers. However, these shortcomings are ultimately compensated for through the dense atmosphere the soundtrack creates by way of creative instrumentation. Drakensang‘s focus on smaller ensembles, often highlighting contributions by the solo woodwinds, and its overall dark-hued mood create an intriguing soundworld that doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but certainly provides a breath of fresh air in the fantasy game genre.
While Drakensang‘s soundtrack felt a bit like a lost opportunity to fully realise the potential that’s inherent in Dynamedion’s original approach to fantasy scoring, its successor’s score fulfils this promise and delivers an ear-catching listening experience from start to finish. The improved quality of the orchestra samples and the way these are combined with the live instruments’ recording help to smoothen over the first soundtrack’s rough edges, and while some of that work’s scrubby charm is gone, the music remains fresh and inventive. The greater instrumental palette the composers deployed this time is used with even more skill and feeling for intoxicating timbres and should have fans of such scores reaching for their headphones. And here’s to hoping that more game score composers put as much emphasis on thematic coherency and development as Dynamedion’s team does on this soundtrack, particularly when the motifs are as deliciously multi-faceted and versatile as those presented here.
Given that the Drakensang Deluxe Edition Soundtrack only costs a fraction more than each of the stand-alone albums on both iTunes and Amazon, this is easily the definite release of these works, despite the somewhat odd sequencing. If you have any passing interest in fantasy game score, and are ready to explore some new musical territory, make sure to pick up this album.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on January 25, 2016.