Sacred 2: Fallen Angel Audio CD
The hack-and-slash role-playing game Sacred turned out to the most successful German PC title of 2004, selling bucket loads of copies not only in its homeland, but also abroad. Additionally, Sacred and its expansion Sacred Underworld went on to garner three German Developer Awards in 2005. In other words: a sequel was inevitable, and so Sacred 2: Fallen Angel was released in 2008 on PC, and in early 2009 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Just like with its predecessor, the critical reception was rather lukewarm, but that didn't stop the game from claiming the Audience Award as Best International Console Game at the German Developer Awards 2009.
The soundtrack for Sacred 2 made waves early on, due to an announcement by developer Ascaron that popular German power metal band Blind Guardian would contribute an exclusive song to the game. Even better: after the gamer would finish a particular side quest, he'd be treated to a six minute cutscene of the motion captured band performing the song to an audience of orcs, elves and other fantasy creatures. However, due to the band's plans to release the song as a single at some point (a scenario which by June 2010 hasn't eventuated yet), it was always clear that their composition wouldn't make it on the Sacred 2 soundtrack release. The game's score, handled by German game sound production company Dynamedion, was made available to the public — like so many other Dynamedion works — as part of the game's limited Collector's Edition.
Soundtrack collectors looking for a faithful reproduction of the aural component of Sacred 2 will be in for a surprise. The metal elements that were credited by a number of reviewers for setting the game's sonic backdrop apart from so many other fantasy-style RPGs are almost completely missing from the soundtrack release of the game. Without having played the game, it's difficult to ascertain the reason for this. Was this material composed by or licensed from Blind Guardian as well, and then left off due to licensing issues? In any case, don't expect to hear too much of those head-banging drums and distorted guitars — the latter do appear briefly on "Main Menu Theme" and "Big Machine", but they are deployed in just about the most unimaginative fashion possible, playing the same tedious chords over and over again, while lacking sufficient punch due to the lacklustre recording.
In fact, not only are there hardly any metal elements on the soundtrack, but the general tone of the music couldn't be further removed from that particular genre's sound. In short: this is some of the most low-key, non-thematic, ambient music that Dynamedion has ever produced, and it stands in stark contrast to the company's trademark, lavish orchestral works. Certainly, Dynamedion's soundtrack for Drakensang focused on solo instruments as well and sported a rather earthy overall tone, but Sacred 2 takes this stylistic approach to new extremes, partly due to a different application of the company's "mixed music" model. While the live solo instruments in Drakensang were combined with orchestral samples, here the solo instruments are pitted against atmospheric washes of droning synth pads. This results in considerably sparser textures and a much more ambient feeling permeating from the soundtrack.
There's nothing wrong with such an approach, but its execution is unfortunately seriously flawed. Two factors are to blame for this: firstly, as so often with ambient material, the pieces lack focus and sooner rather than later begin to ramble. This unfortunate occurrence becomes obvious right away on the album's opening title, "Main Menu Theme". For the first few minutes, the piece switches between competently layered percussion and passages for nondescript synth pads. The cue reaches a nice climax around 2:30, and later adds a wordless choir, suspended string notes, those boredom-inducing guitars and a piano, playing a very simple chord progression, to gradually increase the volume of the composition and finish it off with a bang. That's about all the development taking place during the piece's five minute running time: it gets louder and more frenetic towards the end, but that's hardly enough to carry the composition all the way through. The fact that none of the musical elements that the composition uses are particularly interesting doesn't help.
These problems are exacerbated by the fact that a large amount of the music is organised in lengthy suites of five to almost eight minutes. And unfortunately, hardly any of these suites manage to constantly hold the listener's attention. "High Elves Day Suite" charms the listener initially with a relaxed, medieval flair, conveyed through nicely intertwining melodies and layers, which are provided by various solo instruments, including tambourine, flute, acoustic guitar and piano. After some minutes, the gently flowing music seemingly takes a turn for the ominous, with the piano and the light percussion now given a more cavernous sound, and the ubiquitous droning synth pads occasionally sounding more menacing, but essentially, the feeling of the music doesn't change much and increasingly, the cue struggles to justify its extended running time of more than seven minutes. Some additions towards the end — ethnic woodwind and a soft, wordless male choir — are nice, but inconsequential.
However, "High Elves Day Suite" isn't the worst offender when it comes to repetitiveness. "Orcs Day Suite" scores the orcs' savage nature with heavy percussion and a solo for ethnic flute, conveying a certain 'jungle' atmosphere. The percussion patterns and layers change a number of times throughout the composition, but never become truly interesting, and while the track's lack of structure wouldn't be an issue as long as the music generated some intriguing textures and an interesting mood, this is hardly ever the case here. Some additional elements — wooden percussion and an ostinato figure for deep strings — are added later, but they both suffer from a muddy, distant sound. "Swamp Day Suite" is even more ambient, but achieves slightly better results, due to its attempts to create a spooky soundscape through vaguely haunting synth pads and a glockenspiel. Still, this uncanny musical aura grows old rather quickly, due to a lack of variation, leaving the listener with another piece that would have been from having its running time halved. "Dryads Day Suite" uses the same ethnic solo flute as "Orcs Day Suite" and pitches it against a rhythmic backdrop of hand percussion instruments. There's the occasional engaging moment — when emotional synth pads enter at 0:45, or when the strings play some melodic material at 1:25 (even though it's just a short chord progression) — but ultimately, the piece meanders aimlessly for five minutes without sustaining any particular, compelling atmosphere. These problems also characterise some of the soundtrack's shorter tracks, for example "Orcs Camp", with its plucked string instrument and solo flute playing repetitive figures and chord progressions against a humdrum percussive backdrop. Equally, the sudden, uninspired fade-out on 'big machine' betrays the piece's lack of direction and the fact that it's going nowhere.
Some of the suites, while still inconsistent, fare better than their brethren though. "Desert Day Suite" is a nice example of the soundtrack's virtues and flaws: the piece features an impressive array of solo instruments to create an appropriately arid soundscape, including flute, acoustic guitar, distorted harmonica (for a slight spaghetti western touch), didgeridoo, xylophone and a saxophone! This hodgepodge of different timbres makes for a collection of fascinating, evocative moments; but unfortunately, it never really comes together as one coherent composition and mostly remains a succession of solos set against the usual characterless synth pads, without much interaction between the solo instruments and the acoustic background, or between the solo instruments themselves. "Humans Day Suite" offers some welcome bits of melody for a few, beautifully harmonising violins, before a medieval flute takes over the melody, accompanied by a solo cello. The melody is rather repeated than truly elaborated upon, but the created tone colours are still appealing. The piece is still too long for its own good and most of its material for acoustic guitar is quite monotonous, but the composition has its redeeming qualities.
The best of the suites — and the album's single highlight — is "Seraphim HQ Day Suite". Its opening for booming solo organ comes as a surprise after the previous tracks' subdued atmosphere, and its religious atmosphere is only heightened when its massive sound is reduced to light bells and a wordless female choir. The music's calm and serene presence is underscored further through another, softer organ solo, and for the first time, the background synths become a tad more interesting through some imaginative manipulation. The composition's middle part is rather repetitive, but intriguingly maintains an uneasy current of mysteriousness; thankfully, the composers don't translate 'ecclesiastical' into 'a bunch of little angels singing', but go for a more ambivalent sound. This ambiguity becomes more obvious when the male choir's later, suspended vowels are interrupted by violent slaps of percussion. For once, the different elements within a composition don't create disjointedness, but instead tension and conflict.
The soundtrack's second big problem is the album recording: the solo instruments are given an absolutely crystal clear sound, as well as tons of delay, which results in a hollow, echoey and ultimately cold recording that makes every single solo instrument sound as if it's portraying a vast, empty space. In the case of "Desert Town" and "Desert Day Suite", that particular aural quality is certainly welcome, but on other tracks, this 'empty concert hall' sound is downright troublesome. The recording robs the acoustic guitar on "Humans Town" of all warmth and makes it sound strangely removed. The result is a fitting portrayal of a ghost town — and that probably wasn't the composers' original intention. The problem becomes even more apparent on "Humans Love Day", which must be about unrequited love; because despite a yearning flute melody and a slightly fuller soundscape in the cue's second half, courtesy of some swelling strings, the track's frigid sound prohibits any romantic feelings from blossoming. And while "Canyon Suite" most of the time does a decent job at musically depicting a barren, rocky landscape, its spell is disrupted as soon as the acoustic guitar's abrasive, high-pitched notes make the listener wish he wasn't listening to this track on his headphones.
Not only does the album's sound, together with a lack of melodies, keep the listener at a safe distance, making it almost impossible to become emotionally engaged. By giving all solo instruments the same sound, the recording also undermines the composer's attempts to give each of the locations and races of Sacred 2 an individual sound. Sure, particular musical identities are still recognisable to a degree — the elves are represented by a light medieval tone, the humans by a more traditional orchestral sound, the orcs' tracks rely on percussion etc. But ultimately, these differences become nuances rather than distinctive features, and as a result, the languorous compositions start to blur into each other even more than they already do. To be fair though, the album recording very occasionally produces positive results: the wooden percussion and ethnic solo flute on "Dryads Town" sound way too much like being recorded on an empty concert stage to successfully portray a dense forest, but it's fascinating to hear every single nuance of the impassioned flute solo, which only gains in intensity throughout the cue's running time — you almost think the soloist is sitting right next to you. At the same time, when recorded that closely, you'll want to avoid performance noises like the ones heard at 2:21. Later on the album, "Island Day" brings some new sound problems, with its fuzzy solo strings that completely lack presence. At least the listener gets some hints of melody in the composition's opening bars and its derivative chord progressions.
Sacred 2: Fallen Angel is definitely an oddity in Dynamedion's output. Its ambient, quite repetitive nature and focus on organic orchestrations is somewhat reminiscent of Naoshi Mizuta's work for Final Fantasy XI, but the soundtrack suffers from a number of problems. The often lengthy, scattershot compositions fail to constantly engage the listener, and instead focus too much on repetitive, non-thematic material that's not terribly interesting to begin with. There are flashes of inspiration — for example the impressively colourful orchestration of "Desert Day Suite" and the equally elating and menacing sounds of "Seraphim HQ Day Suite" — but they are too far and few between to avoid boredom. Some serious editing of the album's 73 minutes down to about half its running time would improve the listening experience considerably.
However, even then the listener would still be stuck with a recording that renders the sound of the solo instruments, on which the compositions rely so much, arid and cold. For some compositions, this approach proves beneficial, but in most instances, the recording robs the pieces of their potential emotional impact, leaving only a hollow shell of what these tracks might have been. Cues like "Humans Town" and "Humans Love Day" practically beg for a warmer, more welcoming sound, but as it stands, not many listeners will find themselves attracted to these compositions. The concept behind the music on Sacred 2: Fallen Angel is certainly sound, but its execution is too flawed to make the result worthwhile.
main menu theme
highelves day suite
desert day suite
humans love day
humans day suite
dryads day suite
orcs day suite
seraphim hq day suite
swamp day suite
canyon day suite