Might and Magic VI -The Mandate of Heaven- Original Soundtrack
Might and Magic VI -The Mandate of Heaven- Original Soundtrack
Good Old Games
September 3, 2009
Download with Game at GOG
1998 saw the PC RPG genre in a transitional state. Just a bit more than a year ago, Blizzard had released Diablo, which turned out to be an unexpected game changer. Diablo arguably ushered in the era of the action RPG, a type of RPGs more concerned with fast-paced point-and-click gameplay than with deep character customisation and the explorations of vast fantasy worlds. The quick rewards that action RPGs offered and their increased accessibility brought droves of new gamers to the RPG genre. But the rising popularity of such titles also alienated long-time RPG fans who considered this new breed of games a watered-down offspring of their favourite genre, stripping it of all complexity until only frantic mouse clicking was left.
In this climate, Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven was met by many gamers with open arms. Five years had passed since the last instalment of this venerable RPG franchise, and The Mandate of Heaven felt like a potent reminder why this more classic style of RPG had attracted so many followers in the first place. However, the title marked the arrival of several changes to the franchise. The most significant modification was the switch from 2D sprites to real-time 3D graphics, which had become the new genre standard following Bethesda’s first two Elder Scrolls titles Arena and Daggerfall. The long wait between The Mandate of Heaven and its predecessor Darkside of Xeen also meant that previous series composer Tim Tully would be replaced. In his stead, developer New World Computing hired the team of artists who had proven themselves on the offspring Heroes of Might and Magic and its sequel: Paul Anthony Romero, Rob King and Steve Baca. They were joined by Jennifer Wang, for whom The Mandate of Heaven turned out to be the only scoring credit. As with most of the series’ soundtracks, The Mandate of Heaven‘s score was only released years later by GOG.com, in this case as a free bonus item of their downloadable compilation of Might and Magic I-VI.
Let’s get one technicality out of the way before we proceed: yes, like some of their Heroes of Might and Magic releases, GOG.com presents this score in 128 kb MP3 quality. And as argued in my reviews of those other scores, this is less of an issue than it might seem. Sure, hearing Redbook Audio files in 128 kb MP3 quality isn’t ideal, but existing limitations in sound quality are much more likely due to the quality of late-90’s chip synthesis rather than low bitrates. As long as you keep the soundtrack’s origin and date of creation in mind, you should be reasonably satisfied with the sound quality this release offers.
With The Mandate of Heaven‘s soundtrack composed only one year after the operatic wonder of Heroes of Might and Magic II and with the same composers on board, you’d expect something similarly ambitious and grandiose. If so, The Mandate of Heaven will take you by surprise and not always in a good way. The team of composers establishes a sound that quite distinct from the sophistication of Heroes of Might and Magic II. Orchestrations are a lot less dense while textures are more monophonic, highlighting a single melody voice against a relatively simple supporting backdrop, as opposed to the web of instrumental lines that characterised its cousin. Most tracks aren’t based on gorgeously long-winded melody lines, but instead are built around the repetition of shorter melodic motifs. This leaves most compositions with limited chances to develop as thoroughly as their cousins on the Heroes of Might and Magic scores. That being said, most tracks still vary their dynamics sufficiently to keep monotony at arm’s length. In short, The Mandate of Heaven sounds more like late-90s game music rather than like symphonic compositions that happen to be written for a PC RPG.
All these traits are established early on the album’s three adventuring/town exploration tracks. They are all idyllic, Baroque-inspired compositions that charm the listener with their harpsichord backing and pastoral woodwind leads that are quite simple, but fetching enough to hold the listener’s interest throughout a piece’s running time. But “Adventuring/Town Exploration 2” and “Adventuring/Town Exploration 3” also feel static and repetitive, even though the latter composition adds a whiff of mystical allure through the inclusion of a silvery glockenspiel motif and an ethnic, reedy woodwind solo. “Adventuring/Town Exploration 1” is more satisfying, with its lovely flute lead segueing into a more full-bodied melodic statement provided by strings and bells that adds a bit of gravitas to what’s otherwise an introspective, light composition. The compositions’ character as pleasant background music that establishes an Arcadian mood is underlined by the addition of various nature sound effects. As on Heroes of Might and Magic II, these sound effects can be intrusive though, particularly on “Adventuring/Town Exploration 2”, where they cover an attractive oboe melody that is mixed too far into the background.
While these early tracks are agreeable enough, later melody-focused compositions are more original in conception, less one-dimensional in their moods, and they feature stronger musical material. “Moonlit Journey/Main Titles” is a prime example for melodic material that can withstand constant repetitions and still make an impact. Creating a beguiling nocturnal atmosphere, “Moonlit Journey/Main Titles” effectively plays off a hopeful woodwind melody lead against dark background orchestrations that include deep string figures and male choir. While the constant harpsichord ostinato becomes obnoxious after a while, the tension between the contrasting musical forces successfully paints the image of a wondrous, yet dangerous world. “Moonlit Snow Journey” twists the nocturnal demeanour of “Moonlit Journey/Main Titles” appropriately to depict its barren, icy location through a reflective acoustic guitar duet. Again, the melodic material is repetitive, but that only increases the composition’s stark, yet still emotionally accessible atmosphere, turning “Moonlit Snow Journey” into one of the Mandate of Heaven’s highlights.
“Sunlit Snow Journey” is less original in underscoring the same location, but its austere piano and harp fragments are again effectively pitted against the track’s warmer cello and oboe material. And “Further Exploring the Temple of Baa” is one of the best-developed pieces on the album and communicates religious wonder quite well through its omnipresent male choir, a solemn melody that easily carries the whole composition, and an elating finish for choir, full strings, organ and tolling bells. By the way, The Mandate of Heaven mirrors Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s classical ambition in one regard: a real choir was used for the recording of this soundtrack, a very rare occurrence for a 90s game score. However, the choir material on The Mandate of Heaven is simple — mostly just long, sustained chords — and you can’t help wondering if a sampled choir would have achieved pretty much the same effect. In any case, don’t expect this score to do for choir what its cousin did for operatic soli.
Between these two blocks of melody-centric tracks, the listener finds those compositions that are stylistically the furthest removed from the high-fantasy sound of the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise. A couple of these cues reflect the mixed fantasy/science fiction setting of the game and combines electronic with orchestral elements. The resulting hybrid compositions fit better into the album’s general flow than one might expect, even though their quality varies. “The Hive” creates an appealingly disorienting soundscape through its manipulated choir vocals and whooshing synthesised sounds that mix well with the occasional ethnic flute motif. Disappointingly, this spellbinding atmosphere is soon interrupted by a light electronic beat, which in combination with the resonant choir vocals makes “The Hive” sound like one of New Age group Enigma’s lesser songs. “Tomb of VARN” is atmospherically stronger and texturally intriguing in the way it combines bleeping and tinkling electronica with a chromatic, mistrusting organ melody to create ear-catchingly ambiguous moods. Still, the piece would benefit from further development to explore its intricacies.
The other, bigger slice of the non-classical material on The Mandate of Heaven is formed by the score’s ambient dungeon exploration tracks. Grouped together right after the adventuring/town exploration cues, the dungeon pieces’ subdued nature creates an early lull in the album’s flow before the soundtrack recovers towards its second half. Only “Dungeon Exploration 3” and “Exploring the Temple of Baa” manage to convince to a degree. The latter track features some exotic tone colours, while “Dungeon Exploration 3” captures the listener’s attention not in spite, but because of its sparse textures that are quite potent in their foreboding character. The problem with the other dungeon exploration tracks is not so much that they’re monotonous drones — although “Dungeon Exploration 4” comes close — but rather that their attempts at developing beyond standard tension material fails. The opening moody string chords and clandestine piano motif on “Dungeon Exploration 1” soon make way for hammering piano chords and orchestral stingers that are too melodramatic to convincingly inject life into this composition. And the climax that “Dungeon Exploration 5” builds into is led by a violin ostinato that’s too thin to carry the music as intended.
While composed by the same team just after Heroes of Might and Magic II, Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven is quite a different beast and establishes King, Romero and Baca’s Might and Magic soundtracks as the quirky little cousins of their more imposing Heroes of Might and Magic relatives. The melodies are simpler, but often still attractive enough to withstand constant repetition, and the composers don’t shy away from creating a couple of orchestral/electronic hybrids. Some of the tracks score their locations quite stereotypically and to varying degrees of success — more on the adventure/town exploration cues, less on the dungeon exploration tracks. But the second half of the album holds some appealing compositions that hint at the enrapturing mix of styles and atmospheres which Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor would perfect. Compared to that superior score, The Mandate of Heaven feels like a half-baked experiment that has trouble tying all of its ideas together into one coherent whole. This soundtrack generates enough convincing results to warrant a careful recommendation, but it’s also hampered by a mediocre album presentation that hurts the album’s flow through alphabetical track sequencing. Unless you’re a Might and Magic score collector, you can pass on this one in favour of For Blood and Honor and Might and Magic IX.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.