Might and Magic Heroes V Original Soundtrack
Heroes of Might and Magic V Original Soundtrack
December 23, 2007
Buy Used Copy
In 2002, it looked as if the once mighty Might and Magic franchise had crashed and burned. Might and Magic developer New World Computing had to close its gates after its parent company The 3DO Compnay filed for bankruptcy. The saviour in this situation turned out to be Ubisoft, which bought the rights to the Might and Magic franchise in 2003, giving PC gamers hope that this seminal series of PC RPGs wasn’t dead yet. Interestingly enough, Ubisoft decided not to continue the main Might and Magic series of games. Instead, they rejuvenated the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise, which had originated as a spin-off of the Might and Magic line of titles. In 2006, four years after the release of Heroes of Might and Magic IV, gamers could finally lay hands on Heroes of Might and Magic V, the first game in the franchise to feature 3D graphics. While critical and popular reception wasn’t as positive as with series highlights, feedback was positive enough to indicate that there was still some life left in this franchise. This point was underscored by the release of two expansion packs for the title, Hammers of Fate and Tribes of the East.
While Heroes of Might and Magic V introduced several changes to the franchise’s gameplay and graphics, Ubisoft made the wise decision to stick with the two composers that had scored all previous Heroes of Might and Magic games: Paul Anthony Romero and Rob King (Steve Baca didn’t return for this score). Justly famed for the operatic beauty and classical grace of their previous scores in the series, Romero and King had to live up to high expectations when they tackled this long-awaited franchise reboot. The two composers ended up producing two hours worth of music for Heroes of Might and Magic V and then proceeded to create substantial numbers of new pieces for the game’s expansion packs. While earlier scores in the franchise hadn’t seen an album release, Heroes of Might and Magic V broke that dry spell with a three-disc set that held 170 minutes of music from the game and expansion packs. This mammoth collection came with as a bonus item with 2007’s Heroes of Might and Magic: Complete Edition. Unfortunately, some of the enthusiasm triggered by this lavish release was tempered by the fact that the tracks on this physical release were actually only upconverted 128kb MP3s.
While the creative minds behind this soundtrack are the same as on previous Heroes of Might and Magic scores, it’s no surprise that the change of publisher and developer is felt in the game’s music. Long-time fans of the franchise’s music will have mixed feelings about these changes, given that they alter one characteristic that made previous scores in the series so popular: the sheer endless supply of long-winded, gorgeous melody lines that gave these scores a most attractive classical sheen. On Heroes of Might and Magic V, the nature of the melodies, pleasing as they still are, is different. The melodic elements are shorter, taking on the form of motifs that are used repeatedly throughout one piece, as opposed to the never-ending stream of new melodies on previous soundtracks. This reliance on repetitive elements means that the music loses some the exuberantly melodic nature of previous scores and that there are fewer discoveries to be made once a piece has established its building blocks. The result is a score that sounds like a well-composed example of the fantasy game score genre, but it’s hard not to miss the mad ambition of Heroes of Might and Magic II‘s opera-in-a-video-game experiment.
This move away from more expansive melodic structures allows Romero and King to focus more on semi-ambient structures and textures. While the terrain cues on Heroes of Might and Magic soundtracks always tended to be more subdued than the city compositions, that difference becomes more pronounced here. “Terrain – Dirt” establishes the terrain tracks’ ethereal inclinations and at the same time highlights that a diminished focus on inviting melodies doesn’t necessary result in a weaker composition. Throughout the series’ scores, but particularly on their Might and Magic works, Romero and King have not only displayed their melodic skills, but also their ability to concoct original sounds and textures. This skill serves them well on “Terrain – Dirt”, with its versatile orchestrations that change from martellando strings and a traipsing bassoon figure to wordless choir and acoustic guitar. Similarly impressive are the lush, yet challengingly stark timbres of “Terrain – Sand” and the mix of elation and foreboding danger on “Terrain – Water”, which combines a light women’s choir with guttural solo bassoon and an uneasy cello melody.
Through their pastoral melodies, the terrain tracks on previous Heroes of Might and Magic scores painted the image of an inviting world. However, the compositions on Heroes of Might and Magic V describe a more mysterious, transient realm. Even “Terrain – Grass”, after a warm beginning for recorder against harp and harmonious strings, leaves this idyllic atmosphere behind and segues into a gossamery segment for glockenspiel, a light flute melody and the sounds of a distant women’s choir. This move away from vivid oil colours to subtle water colourings works well as long as the composers keep the pieces’ orchestral colours and moods intriguing enough. Unfortunately, their track record in this department is patchier than on previous franchise scores. “Terrain – Rough”, “Terrain – Swamp” and “Terrain – Underground” are all tight-lipped, generically oppressive mood pieces that suffer to various degrees from a lack of substance and in the case of “Terrain – Swamp” from the repetitive nature of its melodic material that wears itself thin before the track finishes. This unfortunate characteristic is found throughout the soundtrack album – for example “Heroes – Duncan” and “Heroes – Freyda” on the second disc are equally confined to limited melodic material that overstays its welcome. Working with fewer, short motifs as opposed to longer melody lines is no disadvantage in itself. But it puts those melodic elements that there are all the more under the spotlight — and the melodic cells on Heroes of Might and Magic V don’t always convince when examined up close.
What’s interesting to observe throughout this multi-disc release is how the more ambient elements of the music are modified after the first disc and become more and more intriguing as a result. The album’s second disc holds the music for expansion pack Hammers of War and not only gives greater room to the first disc’s removed, elusive musings. The composers also put their music’s textural orientation to better use than before. The composers now dare to give freer reign to their experimental tendencies, conjuring sounds and textures that are amorphous yet fascinating, sometimes even dream-like. Again, not every mood setter is a winner, but there are more than enough moments of originality on the second disc to make up for such let downs. Lumbering tuba figures and aggressively slurred brass accents combine with shouted male choir vocals on “Heroes – Wulfstan” and are intriguingly contrasted with glockenspiel and high-pitched xylophone accents. Hollow, unsettling female vocals haunt “Campaign – Dungeon”, while the music at the same time finds solace through an optimistic horn melody halfway through. And “Campaign – Haven” marries melodic and textural tendencies perfectly through the combination of nostalgic melodies with sampled background vocals and a strange chromatic alto sax motif.
Interestingly enough, the composers’ exploration of unusual timbres rears its head not only on these quieter pieces, but also on some of the second disc’s battle cues. “Combat – Fortress”, “Siege – Fortress” and “Siege – Renegade” all feature some creative brass playing techniques that give the massive war sounds on these pieces a surprisingly surreal slant. “Siege – Fortress” increases this tendency further with its nightmarish, drifting textures. This doesn’t mean though that colourful orchestrations alone can turn these pieces into unqualified successes, as “Combat – Fortress” and “Siege – Fortress” struggle to decide in which direction to go.
Moving into the third disc (Tribes of the East), the music still becomes more heady with the introduction of world music elements, and it is only now that Heroes of Might and Magic V‘s textural focus and floating character reap the greatest benefits. Working with a bigger and more exotic range of sounds gives Romero and King even more chances to live out their compositional creativity. This results in a run of intoxicating compositions that have considerably more charm and character than most of their brethren on the first disc. While most compositions on the first half of disc three maintain a generally eerie atmosphere and interest in minor-key constructs, this is the atmospherically most varied and nuanced portion of the whole soundtrack.
The Middle-Eastern elements that already permeated Romero and King’s work on Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor and Might and Magic IX return here in various forms, be it the hand percussion and zither-like instrument at the end of “Main Menu”, the Arabian-sounding alto sax motif of “Heroes – Zehir” or the shifty, uneasy mood of “AI – Necromancer”. The new tone colours usually merge perfectly with the those of the Western orchestra – only on “Town Theme – Stronghold” do the sultry Middle-Eastern notes clash with the piece’s Gothic pomp. Other pieces incorporate East Asian instruments and sounds, again in a surprising variety of emotional contexts. There are the Taiko drums of “Heroes – Gotai”, used in combination with monolithic brass chords to make a stern, heroic statement; the multi-faceted “Heroes – Jujin”, which mixes Eastern and Western instruments (including the alto sax) in impressive, constantly evolving fashion; and “Environment – Taiga”, which projects its lonesome demeanour by combining soli for trumpet and ethnic flute.
And the more traditionally orchestrated pieces on disct three are equally fascinating, taking the darkly seductive atmosphere of For Blood and Honor and giving it an eerie, unsettling edge. Only the wholesome melodicism of “Stronghold Town Tavern” briefly reminds the listener of how different these atmospherically ambiguous pieces are from previous Heroes of Might and Magic scores. In fact, through its occasionally elusive nature and its mix of various musical styles — there’s even a good number of synth sounds and effects on the first disc — the title is more reminiscent of the composers’ Might and Magic scores than of their Heroes of Might and Magic soundtracks. Either way, it’s on the first half of Tribes of the East that the score finally realises the full potential of some of the innovations it introduces to the franchise.
Another wide-reaching change to the formula of previous Heroes of Might and Magic scores occurs on this soundtrack’s battle cues. On Heroes of Might and Magic II-IV, the combat tracks were always at odds with the rest of the score: supposedly tension-building mood pieces fuelled by South American percussion, clashing badly with the classical grandeur around them. On Heroes of Might and Magic V, there are not only a lot more battle cues than before, but they’ve also completely changed their character. Now they’re the lavish, brass-driven orchestral war cries that many listeners will expect from their fantasy game scores. Some series fans might decry this development as a sign of Romero and King relinquishing originality and following convention. But there’s also no doubt that the score is the most consistent franchise since Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest and all the better for it. No longer are the battle tracks an inconvenient footnote, but instead they form an integral part of the whole.
Romero and King aptly displayed their chops for creating full-bodied orchestral pieces on earlier franchise scores, so it’s no big surprise that the majority of battle cues on Heroes of Might and Magic V are strong compositions in and of themselves. Tying in with the diminished melodic orientation of the whole score, the combat pieces usually don’t win the listener over with their stirring melodies. Instead, the composers erect massive layers of brass and percussion textures that will test your speakers’ stamina. These compositions impress through volume more than anything else. Then again, most of the time that approach works well. From the first action track “Battle – Academy” onwards, these pieces pack an impressive punch and are dramatic enough to aptly underscore clashing armies battling out the fate of the world – a series first. The vivid hand percussion rhythms of “Town – Fortress”, the massive, steamrolling brass chords of “Combat – Inferno” and the convincingly melodramatic, towering brass material of “Siege – Stronghold” are all exciting examples of the sheer sonic power fuelling Heroes of Might and Magic V’s battle tracks.
Thankfully, all this doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of subtlety or variety. Many of these suitably bombastic compositions know when to quieten down for their B sections and throw in some calming woodwind soli before cranking up the volume again for an imposing climax. While most battle cues rely on their slowly rolling thunder, a few pieces like “Battle – Haven” and “Siege – Necromancer” deploy faster tempi and charge their martial tones with even more energy. In fact, they’re the most impressive battle tracks and make you wish more compositions would have followed in their path. While the combat cues don’t follow the same varied trajectory over the course of the three discs as the terrain tracks, the battle tracks know how to distinguish themselves – to a degree. There are the aforementioned creative brass playing techniques on parts of Hammers of War, the Gothic overtones of “Battle – Inferno” and “Battle – Necropolis”, or the liberal use of dissonances on “Combat – Fortress”.
The one thing that does diminish the enjoyment of these cues is that their magniloquence sometimes has to mask a lack of substance. This is particularly the case on those pieces where the melodic content is rather nondescript. The terrain tracks are sometimes to able to overcome this problem through creative timbres. However, the battle cues are not only more conventionally scored, but they’re also so in-your-face that its difficult to ignore the weak melodies on “Combat – Necromancer” or “Combat – Stronghold”. Truth be told, there are also tracks like “Battle – Haven” and “Town – Fortress” that delight the listener with their soaring melodies, set most effectively against the relentlessly pushing rhythmic background. But then there’s also the simple issue that like like the campaign, city and terrain cues, the battle tracks are all lumped together in groups on each of the three discs. And because the combat pieces are the most stylistically uniform — and just plain loudest — compositions here, their constant roaring and shouting becomes wearisome after a while. A less rigid approach to album sequencing would have worked wonders here.
If all this sounds quite different from the Heroes of Might and Magic scores of yore, don’t forget that the title is still recognisably the score for a fantasy game. And there are still flashes of the melodic grandeur and richly detailed orchestral tones that turned previous soundtracks into genre classics. Interestingly enough, these moments are mainly gathered on the city tracks right at the opening of the album. For example, “Main Menu” introduces that revered franchise favourite, operatic vocal soli. And while they appear far more rarely than on Heroes of Might and Magic II and IV, they still make their mark and elevate their compositions to new heights. This is most evident on “City Theme – Haven”, which segues seamlessly from the same peaceful mood as Heroes of Might and Magic IV‘s “The Haven” into a stunningly dramatic passage for bold march rhythms and a striking soprano solo. This composition is also the best example for the excellent development of the city tracks and other early cues on the album — another reminder of the strengths that characterised previous scores in the franchise. The soprano soloist leads “City Theme – Haven” to a ravishing climax that pits a soaring rendition of Heroes of Might and Magic V’s main theme on violins against forceful brass triplets, catapulting the music through the stratosphere. And there it stays, in outer space, gliding amongst the stars and soaking in the otherworldly atmosphere created by harp, solo violin and synth sounds, all layered in deliciously chromatic harmonies.
The mention of the term “main theme” will have surprised seasoned followers of the Heroes of Might and Magic soundtracks. This is the final innovation that the score introduces to a franchise that so far didn’t concern itself much with thematic structures. In an interview, King credited Ubisoft’s game producers with the idea of “having a ‘theme’-based score similar to film.” And indeed, the soundtrack’s main theme is introduced right at the beginning of opening track “Main Menu” as a lovely, graceful oboe melody. But the theme is much more malleable than its humble origins might suggest. King and Romero prove themselves apt at thematic reworking when the same main theme returns on “City Theme – Haven” in spectacular, almost military fashion. Later, on “City Theme – Necropolis”, the once mild theme reappears in a determined brass rendition and later on strings in surprisingly chromatic fashion, transforming itself with ease to fit the more menacing environment of the Necropolis. What a pity then that the theme isn’t used more often throughout the album, as its use on these few tracks bears all the hallmarks of impressive thematic writing. The theme returns briefly again as a delicate harp melody on “HoMM V – Campaign – Haven” and in another resolute brass rendition on “HoMM V – Campaign – Necropolis”. But that’s not enough to tie the score together on a structural level and give it some shape – something which would have certainly benefited a soundtrack as long as this.
There are two secondary themes on Heroes of Might and Magic V, but they suffer from the same problem: they’re attractive, yet underused. “Credits” introduces the first secondary theme, a folksy, gentle waltz melody, and the piece builds by passing the melody around the orchestra in increasingly dense and splendid textures. But the real showcase for this theme is “City Theme – Academy”, which after a forceful introduction turns into a series of variations of the melody, ranging from noble to tender to uplifting in admirably colourful, fluid orchestrations. And despite all these changes in mood, the piece still manages to convey a concise image of its location as a place with a rich and proud history. But again, the theme reappears way too rarely after this. Ditto for the other secondary theme, a somewhat Arabian-sounding woodwind motif that appears on “Battle – Academy” and “Battle – Dungeon”. Of the three themes, this one makes the least impact, but it still would have been nice to see it return more frequently.
Heroes of Might and Magic V is the first soundtrack in the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise that can be said to break with the series’ tradition. It’s still identifiably the score for a lavish fantasy game. But instead of the long-winded, marvellous melody lines of previous franchise scores, here Romero and King work with shorter and more repetitive melodic ideas that don’t develop quite the same enveloping effect. But there’s no question that the title does many things right. In its focus on textures rather than melodies, the score introduces a raft of new orchestral colours — often world music inspired — that are often absorbing. While it’s the timbrally most diverse Heroes of Might and Magic score so far, it’s curiously also the most consistent one, due to the now fully orchestral nature of the battle tracks. And Romero and King’s dabbling in thematic structures produces some wonderful melodies and variations.
Where Heroes of Might and Magic V falters in the consistently successful implementation and development of all its new ideas. The more ambient vibe of the score not only yields atmospherically strong pieces, but also some moody filler material. The now roaring battle tracks impress through sheer force and volume. But unfortunate album sequencing and an occasional lack of memorable melodies turns the combat cues more monotonous and samey than necessary, although they’re still enjoyable. And while the building stones for intelligent and involving thematic structures are there, the composers don’t make enough use of their themes once established. And let’s not forget some sound quality issues that are most likely related to the disappointingly low bit rate in which the album is presented. Through all this, Heroes of Might and Magic V becomes an intriguing, if not fully realised changing point in the franchise, falling somewhat short of its predecessors.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.