Might and Magic IX Original Soundtrack
Might and Magic IX Original Soundtrack
Good Old Games
November 3, 2011
Download with Game at GOG
There’s no chance that Might and Magic IX will ever be regarded as anything but the embarrassing end of the Might and Magic series, the game that finished a once mighty franchise. That’s not quite correct. It was rather publisher The 3DO Company’s bankruptcy that brought the Might and Magic series down, at least until Ubisoft bought the rights and continued the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise years later. But the fact remains that quality-wise, the title was the nadir of the Might and Magic saga. Lack of financial resources, staff cuts, and increasingly tight deadlines set by The 3DO Company — whose end was looming — resulted in the release of a game that its lead designer Tim Lang called “pre-alpha at best.” Not surprisingly, reviewers and gamers alike handed out scathing reviews, pointing out the game’s stripped-down content, less than impressive 3D graphics, and astonishing number of bugs. Adding insult to injury, these bugs were only partially fixed through a couple of patches before developer New World Computing had to close its gates, following the demise of its parent company The 3DO Company.
Paul Anthony Romero, Rob King and Steve Baca had been safely in the saddle as Might and Magic franchise composers since Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven. No surprise then that they returned for Might and Magic IX. They were joined on this occasion by Barry Blum who had worked on a number of other 3DO Company titles, particularly games in the Army Men franchise. The scores for the Might and Magic games had always received far less attention then their Heroes of Might and Magic counterparts, so given Might and Magic IX‘s fate, it’s no surprise that very few gamers remembered its soundtrack much. As with the other Might and Magic scores, GOG.com gave the title’s music its belated due when it released the soundtrack in 2011 as a free bonus item of the downloadable game.
Let’s get this quickly out of the way: GOG.com’s version of the Might and Magic IX is another score from this franchise that’s released as a 128kb MP3 album. And once more, the argument is the same. Any deficiencies in sound quality are more likely due to inherent technical limitations regarding chip synthesis rather than a low bitrate. And Might and Magic IX‘s troubled development history at least suggests that financial restrictions would have been another factor impacting the quality of this album’s sound. By the way, that album sound is certainly okay for a PC game released in 2002, but it doesn’t come close to the vibrancy of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, a game that was released three years earlier.
The trademark of Romero, King and Baca’s Might and Magic scores (as opposed to their Heroes of Might and Magic soundtracks) has always been their stylistic eclecticism, which came to a head on For Blood and Honor. Interestingly enough, that was also the only Might and Magic score that brought all its diverse components together in one coherent work. Might and Magic IX misses that crucial mark and actually feels like the most conflicted Might and Magic score release. Its stylistic jumble is different from Might and Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer and more akin to Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven: different styles of music don’t clash within one piece, but rather through the juxtaposition of whole cues that belong to quite different genres.
Like its predecessors, Might and Magic IX brings something new to the franchise’s music. In this case, it’s the use of Middle Eastern instruments, particularly during the album’s second half. It’s true that For Blood and Honor had already introduced such exotic elements, but these had been implemented through the use of particular harmonic scales rather than through world music instruments. The score deploys both methods and does an convincing job at creating Middle Eastern sounding music that exudes character while it avoids sounding like a generic Lawrence of Arabia imitation. The composing trio implements these exotic ingredients in an admirable number of different contexts. “Track 3” and “Track 5” feature carefully balanced interplay between the solo instruments performing the Arabian sounding material, and more expansive sections for full orchestra. Both tracks communicate a sense of exploring an unfamiliar, alluring location with consummate ease. These two cues also showcase how much more care the composers put into crafting the music’s development and textures than on Might and Magic IX. “Track 3” enchants with chromatic violin leads and equally fetching woodwind and brass harmonisations, while “Track 5” convincingly segues from introspective woodwind and plucked string soli into a more full-blown orchestral piece.
Other Middle-Eastern flavoured pieces take a more intimate approach and highlight their warm, earthy textures and the immensely appealing nature of their melodies, usually performed by solo woodwind. However, while these compositions might all be smaller in scale than “Track 3” and “Track 5”, they still deliver in terms of atmospheric variety. “Track 9” has a nervous energy that’s most clearly articulated through its skittish string material, giving the usually quite pastoral Middle Eastern tones an unexpectedly nervy edge. That tendency becomes even more pronounced on “Track 15”, which turns out to be the album’s most original moment in its merging of electronic and ethnic layers. Harsher than all other melody-driven pieces on Might and Magic IX, “Track 15” puts an abrasive face on its Middle Eastern strains by presenting its ethnic melody lead as a high-strung, caustic woodwind melody set against a creepy march backdrop. Meanwhile the rest of the track is filled with expertly arranged orchestral fragments and sound effects that increase the music’s disquieting effect. On the other end of the spectrum, “Track 11” and “Track 12” deliver through their sweetly hypnotising melodies and rhythms. Their immediate effect on the listener is due to their constant repetition, showcasing how to pull off this technique without the music ever becoming tedious. Particularly “Track 12” fascinates with its syncopated dance rhythms that sound like a rhythmically complicated version of For Blood and Honor‘s equally lilting compositions.
Admittedly, not all of these world music-inspired tracks live up to such elevated standards. The attractive mood of “Track 10” is interrupted by insistent string rhythms that occupy the second half of the composition and don’t really go anywhere. Worse, “Track 7” shifts aimlessly between emotive, sorrowful string melodies and clichéd “Hurry!” material including an obnoxious, frantic string ostinato that not only feels forced, but also clashes with the cue’s melodic portions. But generally, the composers’ obvious skills in creating and implementing ethnic sounds generates Might and Magic IX‘s best compositions and is the main force behind the score’s individual character.
However, there’s also a number of stylistically quite different compositions on Might and Magic IX that mix things up — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Three tracks on this soundtrack are best described as sounds collages of almost exclusively electronic origin, filled with sound effects. “Track 6” is the longest of these, but the cue’s running time and ambient nature don’t diminish its effectiveness as its eerie synth pads and effects are quite intricately layered, providing a sufficient supply of new and involving textures. The spooky tendencies of “Track 6” are reprised on the slightly more repetitive electronic/orchestral hybrid “Track 14” and burst into the open on “Track 13”. Full of busy, scattered music splinters and creepy sound effects, “Track 13” focuses on the use of dissonances like no other piece in the Might and Magic canon and comes as a bit of a shock after the sultry Middle Eastern-inspired pieces.
Indeed, as mentioned, stylistic cohesion is Might and Magic IX‘s main problem, although the problem at hand isn’t as clear cut as it might seem. On first look, the contrast between the comparatively harsh sound collages and the pleasing orchestral/ethnic cues could hardly be greater. And indeed, going from a beautifully orchestrated cue like “Track 5” to a more experimental piece like “Track 6” within a matter of seconds is jarring. But arguably, the electronic compositions’ feeling of jittery, suppressed tension that occasionally erupts is palpable on many Middle Eastern tracks as well, due to their harmonically unresolved material and biting moments such as the melody lead on “Track 15”. Furthermore, both types of compositions share a generally subdued, somewhat claustrophobic nature that makes them offspring of the same extended family, if very different in personality.
But while such considerations might also account for the inclusion of some of the remaining tracks that haven’t been discussed so far, that doesn’t change the fact that these pieces are pretty uninteresting. “Track 1” and “Track 2” are mood setters, similar to their more aggressive brethren mentioned above. But they never muster up a similar sense of atmosphere, merely mixing together standard suspense elements: quiet hand percussion, deep string ostinati, moody synth pads, the occasional if ineffective melody lead. “Track 4” is a bit less nondescript, but still an oddity in this album’s context, as the composition develops solely through the aggregation of more and more minimalist, endlessly repeating orchestral figures. But since none of them are particularly interesting in their own right nor in combination, the piece feels more like a technical exercise rather than like a fully-fledged composition. And since these cues are obviously grouped together at the beginning of the album, they don’t produce an inviting first impression.
Maybe mirroring the state of the game that it accompanies, Might and Magic IX‘s score album feels like an oddly unfinished affair that could have achieved great heights with some more editorial care. It follows in the tradition of Romero, King and Baca’s previous Might and Magic scores that have always reinvented themselves with each new instalment. On this soundtrack, the Middle Eastern elements that For Blood and Honor deployed occasionally come to the fore and colour the music in exotic, magnetic tones that rival the best of the series for sheer attractiveness and accomplished implementation. But Might and Magic IX is less successful than that earlier score in bringing its different styles together. The spiky sound collage-like pieces that are interspersed throughout the album are atmospheric enough and make the score the darkest outing in the franchise, but their place on the album is debatable. Also, this score release opens to less than convincing effect with a number of anaemic mood setters. As with Might and Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven, Might and Magic IX warrants a cautious recommendation, but is hardly essential to anybody who’s not already a fan of the franchise.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.