Nora and the Engraving Studio: The Witch of the Misty Forest is the latest DS RPG from the Atlus, made by developers behind the Atelier and Etrian Odyssey series. Rather than rely on in-house composers, Atlus decided to hire a freelance composer for this game. Surprisingly, the composer in question turned out to be Michiko Naruke, who has not composed an entire RPG by herself since Wild Arms 3 and has only had supporting roles in recent years, as an arranger and songwriter. How does Naruke's return to scoring entire soundtracks fare and does her style of music fit within the Gust universe?
The album opens up with the vocal theme, "The Days I'm Now Weaving," sung by Wild Arms veteran Kaori Asoh. Upon starting the theme, a youthful sound becomes very apparent through the children chants; however, don't let that steer you away. The rest of the theme is much deeper, fusing together that classic Naruke spaghetti western sound with the jovial nature of many Atelier vocal themes. The way the acoustic guitar and violin are incorporated into the theme make for an extremely pleasant listen and really accompany the vocalist. In addition, the violin solo heard in the theme really manages to capture that classic Naruke sound and really helps strengthen an already solid offering. Immediately after the vocal theme, an instrumental version of "The Days I'm Now Weaving" can be heard. "Workshop of Time," for those who do not enjoy Japanese vocals, is definitely more anime-flavoured in approach. All the elements of the vocal theme are present in this theme, sans the acoustic guitar, as well as organic instrumentation, such as woodwinds, accordion, and woodblock percussion. It's an extremely memorable tune and easily one of Naruke's best themes in her career.
There are many area themes associated with the game, ranging from the town theme to the various dungeons one encounters during the game. The town theme, "At a Lakeside Town," is another excellent example of Wild Arms meets Atelier style, featuring beautiful woodwind and violin work that goes very well with the acoustic guitar in the accompaniment. "Deep in the Misty Forest" is one of the more mysterious area themes, focusing on woodwinds, stunning brass harmonies, piano, and strings to create an aura of fogginess. It's a great example of Naruke emulating the works of Ken Nakagawa and it really manages to capture the magic of many Atelier themes in the past. "Breeze Crossing the Lake" is another fantastic example of Atelier emulation. There is banjo in the accompaniment, plenty of festive woodwind work, solemn strings work, and some renaissance like percussion.
When one thinks of Michiko Naruke, more often than not, the word "whistling" comes to mind. She is famous for incorporating whistling into various themes in the Wild Arms theme, helping simulate that spaghetti western sound for which she is often associated. In "Lying in the Grass," one of the best area themes in the game, in my opinion, she manages to fuse together her Western sound with unlikely instrumentation in a way that is just marvelous. The whistling instantly becomes infectious with its marvelous melody and acoustic guitar and brass accompaniment; however, what truly makes this theme stand out from Naruke's typical western approaches is how the B section in the theme becomes a much more European affair, through the use of strings and accordion. It's a thoughtful composition that really manages to hit all the right notes.
Before moving onto some more successful area themes, there is one theme that, while working wonderfully in game, may not engage the listener as much on a standalone listen. "Ruin Whispers" evokes an eerie, desolate environment through its focus on ambient noise, ominous bell tones, and distorted instrumentation. It's a truly creative theme, and not like something I've heard from Naruke before, but for those listeners looking for a more melodic hook, there is none to be found in this track. Other tracks that give off that "underground" vibe include "The Abandoned Veins" and "On the Other Side of the White Crystals;" however, I feel these themes manage to engage the listener on a deeper level. The former features intense percussions, frenetic strings, a worldly sound, and some stunning piano accompaniment that helps give off a bit of a pop vibe. The other theme features a smoky atmosphere, through its beautiful strings work, crystalline synthesizer tones, vocal samples, piano, industrial percussion, and the enchanting woodwind melody. It's one of my favorite atmospheric themes on the soundtrack.
"Ancient Sea of Trees" is an extremely evocative piece of music. While always present in the piece, the air of mystery certainly intensifies as the theme goes on. The woodwind melody against the simplistic accompaniment of crystalline, ethereal synthesizer really makes an empty, yet fulfilling sound; however, once additional instrumentation is incorporated into the piece, such as strings and piano, these elements help to add an extremely sinister and brooding tone to the piece. This is a fine example of how you can still be atmospheric and engage the listener. My favorite area theme of the game is, without a doubt, "Rainbow Colored Geyser." It is everything that I love about spaghetti Western inspired Naruke with a touch of Gust. It features high pitched woodwind work that helps simulate the whistling effect; however, the true star of the show is the violin work that serves as the B section of the theme. It has a very rustic sound to it and really has that quality Wild Arms sound to it, although the nuances in the violin performance and the solo really help to accentuate that overall environment. The bridge before the loop manages to sound inspired as well, combining uplifting brass and piano.
"Men of Valor in the Ruined Capital" features a bit of a smoky jazz atmosphere, similar to something you might hear from GEM Impact, and it works well with the ethnic soundscape and sinister tones in the accompaniment. There is a sense of tension that really manages to make the track succeed, as it is one of the less melodically focused area themes on the soundtrack. "Gazing at the Mountain Peaks" features a Japanese soundscape full of heroic and adventurous tones, something attributed to the beautiful brass and woodwind work. The bridge itself is quite graceful, focusing solely on woodwinds, and really helps tie together the more heroic aspects of the theme.
There are also many themes that play when you are out and about the town or that serve as event themes. "Everyday Lifestyle" is another theme in the vein of classic Naruke mixed with a hint of that classic Gust sound, combining Western accompaniment and percussion with strings and accordion. "Set Off, Boy Adventurer!" is another example of this, featuring accordion, strings, and jazzy piano chords in the A section, while the B section focuses on pizzicato strings and heroic brass, giving off a very adventurous, yet personal, endearing quality as well. "A Small Weapon Shop" is a tune that gives off two very distinctive flavors. While initially cutesy with piano and woodwind sounds, the B section is a bit melancholy and contemplative, focusing richer woodwind sounds and more romantic piano passages. Overall, however, it captures the jovial nature of many of Gust shop themes. Similarly, "The Pure Aroma at the Herbalist" offers a much more captivating experience, relying on magical piano passages and new age style woodwind work. It's not a long theme, nor one with a lot of complexity, but it really manages to succeed in capturing the idea of a small town shop.
"A Girl Looking for Her Memories" has a very mysterious, yet endearing, sound to it, focusing on harp and woodwinds to convey a sense of something missing. However, at the same time, the progression of the theme definitely captures the personality of an individual as well. I'm not sure if it's related or not, but "Dusk Colored Memory" manages to capture some of the similar qualities of the aforementioned track. There is a real sense of happiness heard in the theme, especially due to the piano and woodwind, but at the same time, I also sense some painful soundscapes, particularly in the B section, when the acoustic guitar is featured a bit more. "Two Gazes Meet" is a very romantic soundscape, focusing on piano, glockenspiel, and woodwinds to convey a sense of love in the air. This is accentuated by the subtle, yet romantic, strings work in the accompaniment. "Tale of Long Ago" features the main theme arranged in a few ways. Although it opens with a music box rendition, it quickly moves into a more full-fledged instrumental take, featuring harpsichord, accordion, and strings.
Of course, you can't have an RPG without battle themes as well and Naruke's five battle themes on the album are all quite different. The normal battle theme, "A Time to Fight," is one of my favorites featuring a very Gust like lead with instrumentation such as violin and accordion, with some Wild Arms influence thrown into the mix, particularly in the accompaniment. I think it's a nice fusion of styles that really manages to capture the intensity of battles. While it may not give off as powerful an aura as those Gust battle themes featuring rock, it does manage to surpass the similarly styled battle themes from Atelier Rorona and the sequels.
"Join Forces!" is classic Naruke through and through. It has that very heroic Wild Arms sound, particularly in the accompaniment, that combines quite nicely with the woodwind and strings focused melody line. At times, there is a bit of an ethnic tinge, especially during the stringed sections. It's a wonderful theme that really manages to match some of Naruke's best Wild Arms battle themes. My favorite battle theme on the soundtrack, however, is "Encounter with a Wandering Knight." It also carries with it a Wild Arms tone, albeit some of the latter games in the series, particularly with the strings accompaniment, the electronic tones, and the heroic brass that combine quite nicely with the rock riffs and electric guitar leads. The highlight of the theme, however, is the violin lead, as it plays a very chaotic melody that really lends itself well to creating that sense of tension as the theme opens.
"Spirits from the Underworld" is definitely the most experimental of the battle themes, focusing on a lot on a variety of styles that really don't seem like they would fit together, but in the end, really manage to work. From the focus on industrial percussion in the beginning, to the more progressive rock influenced sections, to the haunting choral and orchestral sections, it seems to be a melting pot of music styles. It may not impress everyone, and it is probably the weakest of the battle themes on the album, but it does work, despite the strange progression. The final battle theme, "Flame Dragon," is an epic orchestral theme focusing on powerful choral tones, sinister brass notes, frenetic strings, and a slight industrial accompaniment. It really manages to capture that final boss theme quite well, throwing in the main theme just at the right moment to break the tension and give off a sense of hope. It's a truly exquisite theme and one of Naruke's best battle themes in her repertoire.
The other vocal theme on the album, "Lights of Town," ends the album. Kaori Asoh returns as vocalist; however, unlike the opening theme, which was composed and arranged by Michiko Naruke, Noriyuki Iwadare collaborates on the album and serves as the arranger for the theme. The ending theme, as expected, takes a ballad approach, but it does a wonderful job at closing the album. Iwadare makes sure to accentuates some of the classic Naruke staples, such as acoustic guitar, which serves as an exquisite accompaniment at times, adding a bit of flair to the theme. The harmonies between the brass, strings, piano, and the vocalist are superbly done and the end result is extremely pleasing.
In the end, the Nora and the Engraving Studio -The Witch of the Misty Forest- Original Soundtrack is a fantastic revival of Michiko Naruke, given this is her first solo score in a long time. She manages to capture the essence of her Wild Arms work and manages to stay true to a more traditional acoustic sound at times, while combining their influences where appropriate. The sampling and sound quality is also excellent for a DS game. I highly recommend this soundtrack for fans of organic RPG soundtracks.