The Witcher 2 -Assassins of Kings- Original Soundtrack
The Witcher 2 -Assassins of Kings- Original Soundtrack
May 17, 2011
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In retrospect The Witcher was quite a remarkable game — not just because it was a well-designed, relatively fresh take on the fantasy action-RPG formula. Created by Polish developer CD Projekt, The Witcher also put the East European country on the map for many PC gamers and was yet another example of the increasing internationalisation of the gaming industry. Selling more than a million copies, The Witcher was primed to generate a sequel, which arrived on PCs amidst considerable pre-release buzz in 2011. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings built on the first game’s strengths and once more presented a rich fantasy world which the player had to navigate by making morally ambiguous choices that would impact the course of the adventure. Reviews were even stronger than for the first game and impressive sales greeted the title even before its ports hit home consoles.
One of the strengths of The Witcher had been its Celtic-tinged score. Co-composer Adam Skorupa returned for the sequel soundtrack, this time teaming up with Krzysztof Wierzynkiewicz. A veteran of the 90’s Polish Amiga demoscene, Wierzynkiewicz had already contributed to The Witcher and in 2011 had his breakthrough, not only working on The Witcher 2, but also on another AAA-title, Bulletstorm. Soundtrack fans eagerly awaited the release of the new game’s soundtrack, which according to Tomasz Gop, Lead Producer of The Witcher 2, would feature “new flavors making it more orchestral and cinematic.” As with The Witcher, the score was made available as a bonus disc accompanying various limited editions of the game.
If you enjoyed The Witcher‘s score, you’ll probably find yourself asking halfway through Assassins of Kings: “But where have the melodies gone?” Good question, and it’s one the soundtrack doesn’t answer throughout its more than 70 minutes. The Witcher‘s biggest strength was the sheer abundance of beautiful melodies, often performed on Celtic solo instruments like uillean pipes and recorders. These colourful orchestrations gave The Witcher a yearning, yet enrapturing tone. Unfortunately, The Witcher 2 ignores specialty instruments and at the same time is far less concerned with melody. One has to wonder if that’s the consequence of the music trying to sound “more orchestral and cinematic.” Whatever the aim was, there’s sadly no denying that The Witcher 2 isn’t nearly as captivating as its predecessor. Where there was once a score that made various ethnic sounds its own is now a soundtrack that embraces generic convention. The first track “Assassins of Kings” highlights this change early on, with its stereotypical fantasy bombast that includes the usual suspect in mighty percussion hits and a heroic brass melody, which turns out to be the score’s main theme. But while not original, the track is a suitably impressive opening and the new theme is strong enough to carry the short composition.
However, things go downhill from here. The orchestrations on the slower pieces on The Witcher 2 don’t share much of the first score’s lyric nature. Instead, the listener is served a grey soup of slow, flat string textures — with a focus on the lower registers — punctuated by brass calls, solemn choir chants filling the air, and the occasional rhythmic string ostinato movement. It’s all supposed to convey a feeling of very serious, even dramatic events perspiring. But the pieces are so lackadaisically composed, the musical material is so one-dimensional that the result is a bunch of stale mood pieces. It’s difficult to shake the impression that the composers thought a sense of gravitas would emerge all by itself if the music just focused on slow tempi and on the orchestra’s lower registers. If only. “Dreary Stronghold” is the worst offender, or maybe the composers just made sure to really nail that “dreary” bit the track title talks about. Relying exclusively on a string orchestra, the reduced orchestral colours expose the lack of counterpoint, melody or any degree of complexity. There are moments where you know the music wants you to be moved, but in the absence of any material that would actually stay with the listener, the piece only rambles on. “Souls in Ruin” makes a similar mistake, relying far too heavily on repetitive, carefully treading string motifs and downcast brass chord progressions as part of its lugubrious mood. A nocturnal atmosphere also pervades “Within the Mist” and “The Camp by Night”, which equally rely on lumbering, bland orchestrations. “The Camp by Night” and “An Army Lying in Waith” throw in militaristic elements and wailing middle-eastern vocals, which by now have turned into a score cliché — at least when used in such prosaic fashion. “Within the Mist” redeems itself somewhat by offsetting its dark mood with softer episodes and a rising choral melody that segues into a hopeful climax towards the end of the track. But by and large, these pieces at best function as perfunctory mood setters that may competently accompany what’s happening on the screen, but which hold little interest on a stand-alone basis.
The Witcher 2 addresses one of the problems that plagued the first game’s soundtrack: the somewhat disjointed album flow, with pieces that were either one or six minutes long. But the fact that many cues on The Witcher run for a solid three to five minutes turns into a disadvantage through the lack of structure in almost all pieces. True, structural complexity wasn’t The Witcher‘s strong suit either, but its melodies were strong enough to tie a composition together and prevent it from falling apart. But on The Witcher 2, these melodies are gone and the pieces start to meander. Not surprisingly, this tendency is strongly felt on the score’s longer compositions, which tend more towards ambient background music than their brethren on The Witcher. “Dwarven Stone upon Dwarven Stone” and “Vergen by Night” are similar in that they are extended compositions carried by one solo instrument, which in turn is backed by varying, but rarely dense accompaniments. On “Dwarven Stone upon Dwarven Stone”, the dry sounds of a contemplative acoustic guitar solo are set against a barren synth background. Other solo instruments join in briefly, but it’s mostly up to the acoustic guitar to hold the listener’s attention. And while the instrument convincingly conveys the sense of beholding a deserted landscape, its melodic material is too predictable and the cue’s orchestration too sparse and monotonous to justify a running time of more than seven minutes. “Vergen by Night” achieves slightly better results, with the guitar’s now light and soothing melody echoing in the depths of night in a quite village. There’s a greater amount of counterpoint here through the inclusion of soli for uillean pipes and flute. But until the end of the cue, these instruments are placed too backwardly to interact with the guitar solo. When they do finally emerge and the instruments’ melodies intertwine, it’s a captivating moment — and it makes you painfully aware of how few such moments you find on The Witcher 2.
The unabashed melodicism of The Witcher returns only on a handful of tracks. “A Nearly Peaceful Place” almost exactly repeats the winning formula of similarly romantic compositions on The Witcher: enchanting soli for recorder, uillean pipes and acoustic guitar set against a warm string background. The instruments’ sounds still aren’t as clearly defined as one would ideally wish for, but it’s an improvement on The Witcher‘s quite muddy mix and it certainly doesn’t distract from the composition’s attractive nature. “A Quiet Corner” takes a similar approach and features a flute solo that’s as moving as its counterparts on The Witcher. However, the addition of a boy soprano over pizzicato strings pushes the track uncomfortably close to saccharine sentiment at one point. That feeling of forced emotions unfortunately comes to dominate “Regicide”, which handles its supposedly sorrowful violin material with the same dullness that characterises the melodic invention of so many other cues.
The action tracks on The Witcher 2 have only slightly changed from those on the earlier album. They’re still short outbursts of energy rather than fully-developed compositions. Mostly, their function then is to vary the album’s quite languid pace. What has changed is the fact that the battle cues are even shorter this time around. And while their general approach of impressing the listener with big, propulsive sounds is still the same, these compositions are even more focused on powerful, almost tribal rhythms. It would have helped though if those rhythms were not quite as straightforward and surprise-free as they are. Skorupa and Wierzynkiewicz try to make up for this by adding an electric guitar to the action tracks, with varying degrees of success. On “The Path of a Kingslayer” and “Easier Said Than Killed”, the guitar is mixed too far in the background to provide more than just another layer to the bombastic sounds. When the guitar finally takes centre stage on “The Wild Hunt”, its juicy riffs aren’t exactly original, but their visceral nature makes the piece a lot more immediate. Still, while these cues may work reasonably well within the frame of their short running time, it’s difficult to imagine their quite simplistic grandiloquence being able to carry more substantial compositions. Easily the best of the pack is “Howl of the White Wolf”, which for once allows for some changes of rhythm and also features the most colourful orchestration of all action tracks.
Another factor that could potentially work in favour of The Witcher 2 and instead ends up being a double-edged sword is the score’s thematic structure. While The Witcher was a free-flowing suite of pieces that were held together only by their general mood, this score actually features a recurring main theme. As pointed out above, it’s first presented on opening track “Assassins of Kings” as a pompous musical idea on heroic brass — something you would expect to hear in your standard ‘epic’ fantasy score. It works well in this context, but what’s arguably more interesting is how well the theme adapts to other moods. When reappearing on “A Nearly Peaceful Place”, it takes on a dreamy quality that suits the composition perfectly. “Souls in Ruin” reworks the once proud theme into an expression of doubt and fear and “Sorceresses” gives the melody a downright wicked twist. Tellingly, these clever manipulations of the main theme are the two latter cues’ only noteworthy aspects.
But outside of these few compositions, the theme doesn’t shape the score as much as it could, disappearing for most of the score. True, it makes an appearance on “Through the Underworld” and “Regicide”, but in both cases the theme is only heard briefly at the end of each track, tacked on without any connection to the music that has proceeded it. And the second half of “A Nearly Peaceful Place” does manage to repeat the lovely theme often enough to almost run it into the ground. During the bulk of the soundtrack then, sub-motifs that occur within one or two pieces form the main thematic material, although none of it is particularly interesting. Representative of this trend is a generic “call to war” horn motif on “An Army Lying in Wait” that is repeated way too often on that track and unfortunately returns on “The Camp by Night”.
Simply put, the soundtrack to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a considerable disappointment. Whereas the first score just narrowly missed out on being an all-round winner, The Witcher 2 struggles to rise above mediocrity. On The Witcher, you got a never-ending flow of beautiful melodies. On The Witcher 2, they have been replaced by dreary, portentous pieces that rarely make an actual effort to evoke emotions and instead think that relying on slow-moving, deep orchestral textures will get the job done. As a result, the orchestrations are markedly less creative, and the brief battle tracks remain footnotes. It’s true that The Witcher 2 sports a better sound quality than The Witcher, but that advantage is rarely put to much use on the often dull compositions. At least there’s more thematic coherency to this score and the music is never less than functional, while some pieces are still pleasing or even moving. But that’s not enough to recommend hunting down this promotional release.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on August 1, 2012.