Might and Magic -Clouds of Xeen- Original Soundtrack
Might and Magic -Clouds of Xeen- Original Soundtrack
Good Old Games
September 3, 2009
Download with Game at GOG
Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen began a new chapter within the classic Might and Magic franchise and would be followed by Might and Magic V: Darkside of Xeen and Might and Magic VI: Swords of Xeen. Gameplay-wise however, Clouds of Xeen didn’t offer anything new, using the same engine as its predecessor Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra. What set the game apart though was the fact that it could be combined with its sequel to create one big game called World of Xeen. The composite game combined the other two games’ areas and made available new locations that weren’t accessible on the standalone titles. Released in 1992, Clouds of Xeen was one of the first CD-based PC games, which allowed for the playback of recorded voice samples so that characters in the game would actually ‘speak’ to the protagonists. The game’s soundtrack was written by Tim Tully, who would continue to work on the other Xeen titles of the Might and Magic series as well. His score received a belated and surprising release when GOG.com made it available as a bonus of the Might and Magic I-VI compilation that is sold as a digital copy on their website.
Don’t let above mention of CD-based games and voice samples fool you into thinking you’ll get to hear a Redbook Audio-enhanced soundtrack. The first thing that will strike you upon listening to “Introduction” is the poor synth quality that is miles below comparable fantasy scores released in the same year like Das Schwarze Auge: Blade of Destiny. Don’t expect the synths on Clouds of Xeen to resemble any kind of real-life instrument, apart from some very rare occasions. Rarely do the score’s 1980s synth bleeps and layers create any kind of atmosphere apart from spectral eerieness.
Sometimes, that approach actually yields interesting, if genre-atypical results. Don’t think “Town Theme” conjures the image of a welcoming country village that so many other RPGs paint. Instead, what you get are slightly unsettling synth layers and motifs and an eerie, tinkling ostinato figure underneath these textures. It’s one of the creepier town themes in RPGs history — and there’s reason to doubt that this was the intended effect — but taken on its own, “Town Theme” does a decent job at establishing its bizarre atmosphere. “World Theme” puts a slightly less ghostly spin on another RPG staple, the overworld map theme. The piece evokes a curious sense of wonder through its distorted gong strokes, bell-like melody and later with a passage for noble brass whose wholesome sense of adventure is countered by eerie bell chimes.
But that’s about all the positive things one can say about Clouds of Xeen‘s instrumentations. Much more often than not, they are distracting or worse still, actively annoying. “World Theme” unorthodox atmosphere is marred briefly through the gratuitous inclusion of grating sound effects around the one minute mark. “Castle Theme” works its way towards its climax over buzzing, oppressive synth layers and a spiraling, tinkling melody lead that gets more obnoxious the higher it climbs up the scale. And “Ending Theme” features a piercing shriek that’s probably meant to simulate a sustained high-pitched violin note, but it simply sounds awful. Sure, as any 8bit-loving Chiptune fan knows, less than up-to-date synth quality doesn’t spell doom for a soundtrack, but can even increase its charm. But that argument will carry a soundtrack only so far, and in the case of Clouds of Xeen, it fails. No matter how limited the chip synthesis on the original Final Fantasy‘s “Ending Theme” was, you got the idea that this was the cheerful conclusion of a great adventure. The march rhythms and supposedly triumphant fanfares on Clouds of Xeen‘s own “Ending Theme” are clearly meant to evoke similar emotions, but the intended effect falls flat due to the instruments’ inappropriately muted sounds that never create a sense of occasion.
Even if the synth quality was better though, Clouds of Xeen‘s compositions would still struggle with other issues. Memorable melodies are another way of working around the issue of technological limitations, but there’s nary a melodic thought worthy of note on this soundtrack. As mentioned, “World Theme” has some interesting melodic passages and “Title Theme” features a soothing, bright melody that’s quite pleasing, but that’s about it. Elsewhere, the supposedly melodic content is simply completely indistinct or even surprisingly inept. The melody leads on “Cave Theme” and “Dungeon Theme” sound like randomly generated strings of notes. This melodic deficiency that characterises the whole score carries over into the aimless nature of the compositions on Clouds of Xeen. “Introduction” makes the listener quickly familiar with this quality, as the piece meanders throughout its whole running time, never developing any structure or sense of direction. And like “Introduction”, several other tracks on Clouds of Xeen feel curiously amorphous and unfinished — you’re trying to somehow get a grip on the music, but its utter lack of substance means there’s nothing to hang on to.
For an RPG score of the early 1990s, Clouds of Xeen showcases a surprising amount of counterpointal structures — most of the time, at least two melody and/or rhythms lines are heard at the same volume and with equal prominence. But there’s good counterpointal writing and bad counterpointal writing, and Clouds of Xeen unsurprisingly falls into the second category. When “Cave Theme” adds a high-pitched melody some time into the cue, this happens without any regard for the textures and rhythms the piece has already established, with predictably disorienting results. Similarly, “Dungeon Theme” occasionally adds an off-beat synth rhythm that simply doesn’t work and makes the piece sound disjointed. On other tracks, counterpoint is less obnoxious, but almost always undistinguished.
Might and Magic IV: Clouds of Xeen is a curiosity, but not more than that. Its chip synthesis is underwhelming and creates an album with a weirdly eerie, almost nightmarish sound that would be more fitting for a horror game than for an RPG. The music is utterly lacking in structure, melody, atmosphere or just about anything that would make it memorable or worthwhile. And while there’s a good amount of counterpointal writing, it’s only proof not all counterpoint is good counterpoint. The music bears no resemblance to Rob King and Paul Anthony Romero’s later Might and Magic scores that would bring the franchise musical fame, or Masaharu Iwata’s earlier soundtrack for the Might and Magic console port, so don’t hope to unearth any previously hidden stylistic continuity. Unless you’re a very serious Might and Magic completionist, you can safely skip this soundtrack.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.