October 2, 2009
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Risen was a spinoff from the German-developed Gothic series that was released to reasonable sales in 2009. Like Gothic 3 before it, Kai Rosenkranz took a leading role in the entire game production and one of his responsibilities was the score. Rather than producing another orchestral accompaniment to the game, Rosenkranz opted to take a more ambient route by blending a range of acoustic, ethnic, and percussive foces to portray the scenery and battles of the expansive game. While likely to disappoint those looking for a symphonic successor to Gothic 3, the resultant soundtrack is still a fine achievement in its own right. The soundtrack disc was packaged in with the game for consumers to enjoy as a stand-alone experience.
Risen immediately exerts its high production values with its title theme — a short, typical, but ultimately well-produced cinematic cue dominated by ethnic woodwinds and percussion. Subsequent tracks such as “The Beach” demonstrate the more individualistic sound Kai Rosenkranz has developed for the game. It is a highly ambient theme that is almost ‘new age’ in nature, yet it remains immersive nonetheless. Rosenkranz develops some stunning soundscapes by combining flute ululations, wandering piano passages, rustic guitar parts, and dense suspended strings. It develops fluidly over its five minute playtime, contrasting the beautiful interplay of the woodwinds with the occasional percussion thud, climaxing in a dark and tragic section from the four minute mark. Such a composition is ideal for representing a location that is simultaneously beautiful yet wartorn. It also exposes the memorable main theme for the game that is arranged several other times over the course of the soundtrack.
Much of the rest of the soundtrack is dedicated to portraying the other scenery of the game. “The Island” features many of the elements of “Beach”, but ultimately feels more expansive, thanks to both the heartrending successions of solos and the dense string counterpoint. “The Harbor Town” meanwhile emphasises the more folksy influence of the soundtrack with its acoustic guitar focus, yet still blends elegantly with the rest of the soundscape. Also charming are the ‘At Night’ variations of these themes, which provide a somewhat more ethereal ambience to the score, while still staying faithful to the core features of their originals. Evidently, Rosenkranz’s approach to organic and ethnic soundscaping is among the finest in the games industry.
Towards the end of the listening experience, there are a number of much darker cues. “The Great Swamp” and “The Gyrger Island” are two of the score’s reprises of the main theme; both are spine-tingling variations dominated by woodwind wails and tribal percussion, entirely fitting the sinister shift of the scenario. Perhaps my favourite of the score, “The Volcanic Fortress” is a fascinating twist on the typical ‘fortress infiltration’ theme featured on game soundtracks; it portrays the face of evil by blending all sorts of sinister elements — male chorus, prepared strings, pipe organs, bell rings, and more — in an entirely novel way. Also impressive is “The Dungeon” series at the end of the soundtrack. There is an evolution in the atmosphere portrayed in each of these themes, due both to the seamless dark soundscaping and the menacing rhythmic development, giving a sense of the ultimate foe looming just ahead.
Rosenkranz also offered a number of action themes on the score. To achieve this, he arranged five of the setting themes of the game, “The Beach”, “The Volcanic Fortress”, “The Don’s Camp”, “The Great Fortress”, and “The Gyrger Island”, in more intense variations. Though his approach was by no means formulaic, he generally achieves this by increasing the tempo, loudening the treble, and introducing far more percussion. Indeed, it is the tribal percussion use that makes these themes so effective in and out of context; it’s rare to hear a game composer have such a strong sense of both rhythm and articulation as Rosenkranz here. The final cue, “Showdown”, is potentially anticlimactic due to its continuing ambient focus. However, it seems to be a natural evolution of the elements featured in “The Dungeon” series and captures both the desperation of the protagonist and the malice of the foe without being melodramatic. In some respects, this subtlety is mature and refreshing.
Those expecting another epic symphonic score from Kai Rosenkranz will be disappointed by Risen. It’s very different from Gothic 3, focusing on smaller ensembles and ambient soundscapes, rather than outwardly dramatic cues. That said, it is entirely wonderful for what it is. Rosenkranz did a wonderful job offering a fitting and emotional accompaniment to Risen‘s settings and battles here, and the more subtle approach was certainly the right one in context. For stand-alone listening, the score is potentially unattractive due to its ambient qualities, but it will be an immersive and fulfilling listen for those who enjoy scores that have an atmospheric focus. For such listeners, this soundtrack is a highly recommended listen and a welcome bonus with the game.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on August 1, 2012.