Might and Magic Heroes III -Complete Edition- Original Soundtrack
Heroes of Might and Magic III -Complete Edition- Original Soundtrack
Good Old Games
August 25, 2009
Download with Game at GOG
After the success of Heroes of Might and Magic II, this offshoot of the popular Might and Magic game series had confirmed its elevated place in the turn-based strategy genre and had turned into a franchise of its own. For Heroes of Might and Magic III: The Restoration of Erathia, developer New World Computing once more decided not to tinker too much with the winning Heroes of Might and Magic gameplay formula. And while some reviewers noted that there wasn’t much separating Heroes of Might and Magic III‘s core mechanics from earlier franchise games, critics also noted the numerous game design refinements. Once more, critical and popular acclaim was very strong and like its predecessor, the title became a classic of its genre that seasoned players would still wax about nostalgically years later. Two expansion packs, Armageddon’s Blade and The Shadow of Death, were released soon after in 1999 and 2000 respectively.
One of Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s most outstanding aspects was its truly operatic soundtrack. Bringing back the composing trio of Rob King, Paul Anthony Romero (both now series regulars) and Steve Baca was a no-brainer then. However, the operatic vocal soli that distinguished the previous score from pretty much everything else out there didn’t make a return on this sequel soundtrack. According to King, this decision was met with disappointment by some of the franchise’s fans — the main reason for the return of the vocal soli on Heroes of Might and Magic IV. On album, Heroes of Might and Magic III has a more complicated history than its predecessors. Some Polish editions of The Shadow of Death contained the game’s soundtrack, which likely consisted mostly of music written for the original, but predictably, copies of that release were soon extremely difficult to come by. And since that CD’s lossless files were made from a lossy source, score fans were better served getting the music right out of the game’s folders once they had installed Heroes of Might and Magic III on their hard drive. Fortunately, GOG.com gave the soundtrack a belated release a good decade later when it made Heroes of Might and Magic III and its expansion packs available as digital downloads, with the scores included as a free bonus item.
Now that those attention-grabbing operatic soli are gone, what’s left for the listener? Quite a lot actually. You might not get Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s stunning outbursts of emotionality, but that doesn’t mean that Heroes of Might and Magic III is any less intricately composed. And in several aspects, it actually improves upon its brilliant, if slightly flawed predecessor. Out of the first four scores of the Heroes subseries, this soundtrack conforms most closely to the general conventions of the fantasy score genre. The orchestrations and harmonies are colourful and deeply steeped in Romantic classical music (with an occasional touch of world music), the melodies are expansive and graceful, and the music has a sense of both breadth and magic that is most attractive. So even though the score doesn’t push boundaries in the way that its predecessor did, it’s an immensely enjoyable score from start to finish.
To a great degree, that’s due to the same strengths that already characterised Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s orchestral material. Textures are lush and lovingly shaped with an acute ear for effective counterpoint that always enriches the music without clogging up the pieces. Cues develop marvellously and pack more diversity into two minutes then other composers’ tracks manage in three times that running time. And the neverending flow of beautiful melodies is probably the score’s strongest point. It’s all these qualities that make Heroes of Might and Magic III‘s adherence to genre stereotypes entirely forgivable, as it fills the fantasy formula with life and excitement. Certainly, the emotional expression of tracks like “Castle Town”, “Stronghold” and “Good Theme” is what you would expect it to be. “Castle Town” balances feelings of homeliness and majesty through its glowing, yet stately violin melody that crescendoes over snare drums; “Stronghold” is appropriately regal, while “Good Theme” sounds… well, good, with its disarmingly pretty woodwind soli. But while none of these tracks push the envelope in any way, they’re so well-composed and so endearing that their lack of innovation, compared to their predecessor, is never an issue.
It helps that, although the compositions are still admirably dense and detailed, their textures feel a bit less crammed than on Heroes of Might and Magic II. The composers temper down the youthful exuberance that saw then tossing as many ideas as possible into the castle themes on the predecessor. On this soundtrack, they sound more relaxed and self-assured, less reliant on the previous score’s bombast, keenly aware how to create elaborate compositions that give their ideas and melodies enough room to breath. This less agitated mood is of course due to the lack of emotionally charged arias, but it also reflects the score’s generally warm atmosphere — another trait that makes Heroes of Might and Magic III such a wonderful experience. In its mostly sunny nature, this soundtrack reaches back to the first Heroes of Might and Magic score. Right from the start of the album, “AI Theme 00” and “AI Theme 01” illustrate this orientation with their idyllic cello and clarinet soli. “Main Menu” is another clear indication of the soundtrack’s optimistic disposition, with a cheery harpsichord melody and soli for cello and woodwind welcoming the player into the game. The instrumental soli are another enduring series trademark and one of the elements that give the first four Heroes of Might and Magic scores their characteristic, finely-detailed sound.
However, despite its less dramatic air, this soundtrack doesn’t give up the sense of scale and emotional diversity that its predecessor had accomplished. Taken as a whole, the score runs through almost as many varied emotions and moods as the predecessor’s score and some individual pieces even supersede their counterparts in richness. Even more so than on the previous soundtrack, the composers manage to seamlessly mix a wealth of disparate atmospheres and colours into one composition. Yet another sign of the compositions’ excellent development, this is particularly obvious on the album’s darker tracks. These pieces, despite all their gothic demeanour, have an underlying playfulness that ties them in with the soundtrack’s usually bright mood and makes them occasionally reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s brand of gothic whimsy à la The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even the gloomy depths of “Dungeon” remain relatively light-hearted with their traipsing string and brass rhythms and a moody oboe melody on top. Later the music builds to an imposing climax with hyperactive woodwind fluttering around dramatic brass and string statements, before the music effortlessly falls back into the opening’s mischievous mood. The haunted music stylings of “Dungeon” return on “Secret Theme”, while “Inferno Town” does a tremendous job at balancing the blithe sounds of a music box and a bouncy woodwind melody with the requisite ominous string tremoli and commanding brass. Only “Necro Town” feels a bit limited through its horror-style trappings, but it’s still suitably atmospheric.
This absorbing melange of moods is evident on many of the less sombre compositions as well. The charming opening of “Fortress Town” escalates unexpectedly into a grandiose episode full of building horn chords and driving violin and woodwind figures, capped off perfectly by a soaring motif. “Tower Town”, the soundtrack’s longest composition, is even better. The piece showcases the composers’ fondness for waltz rhythms that had dominated their music for Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, released in the same year. Taking the elegant triple meter rhythms as its basis, “Tower Town” moves through a ravishing wealth of melodies, moods and textures that makes the piece a wholly convincing miniature tone poem. Only on “Rampart” does the colourful mix not quite work. The inclusion of a zither-like instrument feels a bit forced, just like the cue’s climax.
GOG.com’s release sequences the tracks in alphabetical order, but this works surprisingly well, mixing up the castle and location cues that were separated on Heroes of Might and Magic II. Given these compositions’ quite different nature, that separation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. But on Heroes of Might and Magic III, the location tracks are lusher than on that earlier album. As a consequence, they also sound more similar to the predecessor’s castle themes, without giving up their individuality. And since these field cues are again a multicoloured bunch, they create a fluid, yet perfectly varied album flow when mixed with the castle compositions. Once more, the melodies and textures never cease to amaze. “Underground” and “Water” are completely enrapturing and addictive in their sheer beauty and lushness. “Swamp” features a cheeky, tumbling bassoon figure that remains charmingly unfazed by the oppressive, humid string atmosphere around it. The solitary cello melody on “Snow”, pitted against the sparse backdrop of some violins and wind effects, couldn’t speak more touchingly of loneliness.
It’s not the fuller sound though that elevates this score’s location themes over those on Heroes of Might and Magic II. There are two other factors that speak in favour of this soundtrack: the sound effects are less intrusive than on the predecessor’s sparser field cues, where they interfered too much with the solo instrument’s fragile sounds. On Heroes of Might and Magic III, the sound effects become part of the sonic tapestry and even increase a composition’s atmosphere, for example on “Snow”, “Swamp” and “Water”. Only “Grass” would have benefited from the exclusion of its animal sounds. The second plus is the greater musical substance these location tracks have. Just compare “Lava Theme” from the second game with “Lava” on this score. The first composition was a standard, albeit effective, brooding mood-setter. “Lava”, on the other hand, not only captures its location’s repressive atmosphere, but also manages to include a surprisingly emotional cello part over a slow horn and violin backdrop.
The last piece of the puzzle are the battle tracks, and in the tradition of all early Heroes of Might and Magic scores, they’re a jarring break from the rest of their album through their subdued, ambient manner. There aren’t many differences between the battle cues on this album and those on Heroes of Might and Magic II. They probably play well in-game with their South American percussion rhythms, ethnic flute figures, and suspended string pads, but they don’t leave too much of an impression on album. Again though, Heroes of Might and Magic III has the slight edge over its predecessor: the percussion sound is considerably more vivid here than on the predecessor. Particularly “Combat 03” sounds almost carnival-like with its lively percussion rhythms, although they are deserving of a more interesting accompaniment than the monotonously tense and moody string pads. “Combat 01” manages to even implement some development within its ambient textures by gradually adding more elements like swelling and ebbing French horn chords, a decisive string figure and a melodic clarinet idea to the already existing instruments. While this build-up ultimately leads no where, the piece’s layered, minimalist figures presage the dominance of these sounds on 2000’s Might and Magic VIII: Day of the Destroyer.
eroes of Might and Magic III might be the perfect starting point for any score fan new to this venerable franchise. You don’t get the predecessor’s operatic flashes of brilliance, but this album is a more even, balanced listen. It’s the most consistently excellent score in the franchise and its bright fantasy stylings that stick pretty closely to genre conventions will make it easily digestible for most listeners. The pieces here are shorter than on Heroes of Might and Magic II, but they pack so many ideas into their short running times and develop them in such convincing manner that this is never an issue. And of course, there are more gorgeous melodies on display here than you can count. The score manages to fuse Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s richly symphonic manner with Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor‘s impressive ability to mix manifold moods and emotions in one single composition. The result, despite the once more less convincing battle tracks, is a must-have for every lover of lushly orchestrated game music.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.