The Spirit Engine 2 Original Soundtrack
A New Story
August 1, 2008
Buy at Official Site
Released in 2008, The Spirit Engine 2 was rightfully hailed as a darling of the indie game scene. Developed, designed, illustrated, programmed, and conceived by Mark Pay (who incidentally released The Spirit Engine in 2003), everything about the game was meant to appeal to fans of old school linear RPGs. The one aspect of both games that Mark Pay did not have a direct hand in creating was the soundtrack. This aspect of both games was handled by Josh Whelchel, who churned out a mammoth, 101 track, 4-disc set for The Spirit Engine 2 that has a run time of just over three-and-a-half hours. This soundtrack has been pointed to by Whelchel’s supporters as proof of his compositional prowess, and the reason why he is widely regarded as one of the most gifted indie composers active in the industry. But is the hype surrounding the soundtrack merited? And can a soundtrack written by a 21-year-old really be as complex and rewarding as it has been made out to be?
The answer to both of the above questions in an emphatic, and unreserved, “Yes”, and the sheer variety of tracks and themes present on The Spirit Engine II are staggering. If you run a tabletop roleplaying game, stop reading this review now and buy the soundtrack (but bookmark it and promise to return to it later so my editor doesn’t yell at me!). Whelchel covers enough thematic ground in the 101 tracks of The Spirit Engine 2 to provide you with perfect background music for nearly any scene you and your group of players might encounter. Facing a tough battle? “Adjanti Warcry” is your go-to track. Are your players standing on the threshold of a particularly heroic moment? Cue up “We Are One People” (with its harp, percussion, and backing vocals… some of which are in English!) and watch the smiles spread across your gaming group’s faces. Simply put, there literally is something for everyone to enjoy on this encyclopedic example of what modern gaming soundtracks should aspire to be.
In previous interviews, Whelchel has stated that the score to The Spirit Engine 2 was his attempt to pay homage to the sounds of the older RPGs that had influenced him in the past, and there are certainly examples of this influence throughout the score. “A Lost Dream” is Whelchel’s hat tip to the iconic Final Fantasy prologue, and “Porto Vale” recalls the slow, meandering guitar music of the original Final Fantasy‘s “Town” track perfectly. His “Out on the Town” recalls the lighthearted scores of 8-bit games, layering music playfully over sound effects while the militaristic snare and brass of “Great Hall Longreach” would be at home in the castle town of any NES-era RPG. Or, rather, at least it would be until the multiple layers and countermelodies pick up at the 0:40 mark. Yet despite the better technology behind the composition of the music, Whelchel keeps pure to his stated objective and establishes a traditional fantasy mood expertly.
One way in which Whelchel shows his younger age is with the action tracks, which never really capture the traditional, repetitious feel of earlier RPGs. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as he is able to employ a more developed cinematic sound interspersed with unexpected techno/electronica battle tracks. This change is, I think, something that all of us hardcore RPG fans would agree is a marked improvement over the alternative. “The Battle for West Ascension” is a wonderful example of Whelchel’s cinematic sound, with its changing meters creating a feeling of urgency and unease in the listener as the themes struggle to resolve themselves. “Confrontation at the Mind’s Core” and “Demonic Rage” both of which have instantly recognizable themes by contrast, and incorporate elements of Whelchel’s cinematic and electronic sound. On the purely techno side, “The Fiercest” is not to be missed, with its repeated synthesizer melody recalling some of Uematsu’s brighter work with The Black Mages. “Clash at the Dragon’s Gate” stands as the preeminent techno action track on the album, right down to its featured simulated siren that is so trashy you’ll love it despite its somewhat grating tone.
Outside of homages and action tracks, The Spirit Engine 2 still has volumes (literally!) to offer to fans of video game music. “A Trader’s Song” clips along wonderfully with a quasi-Arabian feel and will likely be an instant favorite to many listeners. “Waking up at the Inn” features a delicate glockenspiel melody that I found more relaxing than invigorating but still quite enjoyable. “Seaside Village” and “Seaside Circus” stand as a pair of quirky, jazz-inspired tracks that showcase Whelchel’s versatility and mercurial side in a way unlike any of the other 99 tracks present on the albums. Equally enjoyable to the lighter tracks are The Spirit Engine II’s darker, more ominous offerings. “Dark Omen” is, predictably, the most traditional of these with a driving melody similar to Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets”. The lamenting female vocals that dominate “Hymn of Death” are a terrific prologue for the muted percussion line that drives the second half of the piece but it is “Calling of Fate” which stands out as my personal favorite of the ominous tracks for its driving percussion and bent pitches- which help add a modern flair to a more traditional feel.
The soundtrack is not without its few missteps, however. Many of the shorter ambient tracks are too muted or subtle to distinguish themselves from one another. “Hollow Whispers in the Deep” and “Echoes in the Darkest Heaven” are the most noticeable examples of this. The longer ambient tracks — “On the Snowy Plains”, “Misty Hollows”, and “At the Bottom of Despair” — are every bit as enjoyable as the more upbeat and exciting tracks on the album but the shorter ones might serve to interrupt an otherwise well-shuffled playlist of this soundtrack.
Many fans of The Spirit Engine2 cited Whelchel’s surprisingly complex music as the reason for they found the game so compelling. Indie games, with their smaller budgets, are rarely known for their soundtracks but Whelchel managed to take a small project and turn it into one of the most polished and diverse scores to hit the RPG scene in years. To call him a true innovator might seem a bit effusive, but if The Spirit Engine 2 is any indication where the future of gaming music lies, I know it’s in good — and extremely talented — hands.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Matt Diener. Last modified on August 1, 2012.