After Drakensang had successfully revived the German pen & paper RPG franchise The Dark Eye on computers in 2008, a sequel to the critically acclaimed game was inevitable. In early 2010, Drakensang: The River of Time found its way onto German store shelves. Only time will tell if the game — like its predecessor — will receive a release in other countries as well, but judging by the positive reception Drakensang: The River of Time received among local critics, the game might find success beyond the borders of its homeland.
For Drakensang, German game sound production company Dynamedion had crafted an atmospheric soundtrack that caught the listener's ear with its dark mood and a certain low-key charm that worked well with the game's comparatively gritty, down-to-earth aesthetics. While not without its flaws, Dynamedion's work on the title garnered an award for "Best Soundtrack" handed out by a German computer industry body. It was hardly surprising then that the same composing team would tackle the music for Drakensang: The River of Time as well. Upon the game's release, the soundtrack was made available in three forms: as part of the title's limited "Personal Edition", as a stand-alone digital download, and on the Drakensang Deluxe Edition Soundtrack album, coupled with the first game's soundtrack. How then does this sequel score compare to its acclaimed predecessor?
To break the good news right away: Drakensang: The River of Time's soundtrack is the fortunate case of a sequel that does away with most its predecessor's weaknesses and improves upon the previous title's strengths. The most obvious positive change from the first game's score is the improved sample and recording quality. Drakensang's soundtrack made use of what Dynamedion calls "mixed mode music" — essentially a combination of live instruments and samples. In the case of Drakensang, this approach worked relatively well, but was plagued by two problems: particularly the samples representing higher-pitched orchestra instruments (for example the violins) sounded flimsy, while the solo instruments sometimes seemed as if they had been recorded in a completely different acoustic environment than the rest of the ensemble.
Drakensang: The River of Time uses the "mixed mode music" as well, but with much more polished results. The overall soundscape is far more coherent, with no instruments standing out uncomfortably. Equally, the orchestra samples used this time sound a lot better: when the violins get to sing their melody at the beginning of "Im Kosch", they produce a convincing, rich sound. There's still the occasional sound issue: when the full choir enters in the two "Freunde" tracks or in "Potpourri", the orchestral textures quickly sound muddy and require greater crispness. And "Eilfis Flusspiraten" opens with a choir that quickly reveals its sampled nature through its hollow sound. But fortunately, these remain the only occasions on which the album's sound and recording quality becomes an issue.
To the same degree that particularly Drakensang's action tracks suffered from a thin orchestral sound, now it's the score's combat material that benefits most from the improved sample quality. Composition-wise these tracks are still not mind-blowing and offer not much in terms of memorable melodies, but this time around, at least they sound appropriately dramatic and powerful. Most of these compositions provide exactly the sonic material that one would expect from such cues: rasping brass, an array of percussion instruments (their thundering sound vividly captured), resolute strings, pounding march rhythms and a general emphasis of the orchestra's lower registers. But while they're rather hackneyed, these tracks work well, not only due to the improved recording and sample quality, but also because the composers skillfully vary a composition's intensity, as well the limited number of timbres they work with during the course of each cue. And there are some nice touches which imbue parts of the action material with a measure of personality: "Zu den Waffen" briefly lightens up during a short duo for two flutes in its middle part. "Aufruhr!" is unexpectedly injected with some emotion when woodwind soli temper the martial atmosphere. "Es ruft das Schwert" even features some harp notes. And "Kaltenstein" provides string counterpoint and what turns out one of the composers' most interesting ideas: the inclusion of tenor voices, whose hushed, rhythmically pronounced words convey a sense of both danger and mystery outstandingly well (and fortunately will return for the soundtrack's climax).
The most interesting aspect of Drakensang's soundtrack was its atmosphere, which set the score apart from other fantasy game soundtracks through its focus on smaller ensembles and a generally earthy tone. This sound — described by both games' lead composer Tilman Sillescu as rather "European" — is still evident in the sequel's score, but has been significantly tweaked. The soundtrack retains its feeling of grittiness, but provides greater instrumental variety and denser orchestral textures. This makes for a more expansive, but not necessarily bigger overall sound. The larger array of orchestral timbres impacts upon another forte of Drakensang's music: the intriguing mix of different moods and atmospheres. While not heavy on hummable melodies, Drakensang: The River of Time more than makes up for this through compositions which only rarely present a particular atmosphere in a straightforward manner, but instead take a number of twists and turns and constantly surprise the listener in a pleasant way. The result are a number of compositions which create an atmosphere that's still generally dark, but at the same time more colourful than before, and whose sometimes heady mixture of orchestral sounds recalls early 20th century composer Karol Szymanowski and his lush, intoxicating works.
There are numerous examples for this compositional development: "Das Moor" and "Die Bosparanische Ruine" include ethnic woodwind into an already varied soundscape. In the case of "Das Moor", this includes droning strings, male choir and short outbursts of dissonant violins, whose dreading sounds are contrasted with an alluringly melancholic atmosphere, courtesy of the aforementioned woodwind and grave brass chords. "Die Bosparanische Ruine" showcases even greater creativity in its orchestration: the location's both mystical and haunting quality is superbly communicated through an assortment of tingling exotic percussion instruments, pensive strings and particularly a second half which pits a distant soprano and tenor choir and a number of colourful, brief orchestral effects against pounding percussion.
Lighter sonic elements are introduced to great effect in "Madas Licht" and "Boronsacker": the first cue places a harp against an ominous orchestral backdrop, before the harp duets — unaccompanied by the rest of the ensemble — with a music box. Their introspective, touching sound is later combined with hand percussion, woodwind soli and swelling cello chords. "Boronsacker" makes the ominous atmosphere it portrays through echoing percussion instruments and violin tremoli more intriguing by including a tinkling vibraphone. "Nacht" scores points for its intimately recorded, yearning flute solo, which reaches its emotional zenith when accompanied by high-pitched violin chords — a sole light in the dark night indeed, the latter portrayed through deep string chords. And even though "Nadoret" and "Rückkehr nach Nadoret", with their fuller orchestration and graciously flowing string chords, aim to evoke images of grandeur, the compositions also allow for more intimate sounds, for example a flute solo and acoustic guitar overlays. Speaking of which, Drakensang's folkloristic elements — hand percussion, tambourine, acoustic guitar — are used much more sparingly this time around, and hardly ever to achieve that archetypal "medieval" sound. Here as well, the composers display greater originality than is the norm: the inevitable dance tune of "Tavernenlied" (it's a medieval tavern, after all) is played on a solo accordion, which is just as successful in creating an appropriately folksy atmosphere.
However, while all these improvements are more than welcome, Drakensang: The River of Time's most intriguing and musically satisfying feature lies in its unusually strong thematic coherency. There are no less than three different motifs woven throughout the soundtrack, all of them presented in "Potpourri" (which in this context translates to "Medley"). The first one is a gently swaying five note motif, here on display in its most bombastic rendition, sung by the choir and backed by the strings and brass. Of all three motifs, this one is taken up most frequently in the course of the soundtrack and thus becomes its main motif — also because it concludes the album, played as a charming oboe solo in "Extro", before warm woodwinds and horns provide an emotionally satisfying close to the score. Indeed, this five note motif comes to mark the soundtrack's calmer, lyrical moments, as found on the two "Freunde" tracks. The first of these opens with the motif played by the clarinet, before the choir joins in (and clogs up the musical textures somewhat). Soon however, the music takes a detour and sways off into a more playful section for pizzicato strings and flute, and later takes some of that light-hearted lilt into the following, more full-bodied passage for full orchestra.
The warm feeling of companionship is communicated here as well as it is in the second "Freunde" cue, which is essentially a lighter, more folksy re-arrangement of the first track, with the motif and the string pizzicati rhythms now played by a vibraphone. "Finale 2" follows a similar blue-print: emotionally charged reprises of the main motif, now supported by bells and a brief cello solo for the soundtrack's climax, are interrupted by a middle-section full of delightful pizzicato rhythms. On other occasions, the main motif takes on a less merry quality: "Gerling, Jaakon and Fayris" features the motif on flute, surrounded by ambiguous orchestral material, such as a droll bassoon set against a foreboding musical backdrop. "Böse Begegnung" incorporates the motif into an otherwise standard action track.
The second theme presented in "Potpourri" only occasionally makes an appearance, but it opens the score in "Am Fluss der Zeit" and, performed by a light female choir against flowing violin chords, harp and flute, gives the track a mystical quality. This seven note motif becomes interesting through its secondary phrase, whose three notes, depending on the occasion, either ascend — and turn the piece into an elating call to adventure, as in "Am Fluss der Zeit" — or descend to speak of the dangers awaiting the heroes. "Potpourri" presents both versions of the theme, and it would have been nice to see its potential and versatility put to greater use throughout out soundtrack. As it stands, the only other track in which the motif features is "Eilfis Flusspiraten", which opens with another rendition of the five note motif, before settling into a swash-buckling section for propulsive strings, frantic xylophone and the seven note motif, with the secondary phrase descending.
The most interesting of all three motifs shows up later in "Potpourri". It's a seemingly lighter, more mischievous set of five notes, presented in a waltz-rhythm, with some nice brass counterpoint. At first, the motif sounds somewhat comical when played by resolute, almost pompous strings. This contrast however foreshadows how the theme will be used at other points during the soundtrack. What's more, it soon becomes clear that there's a darker undercurrent to this music and that mischief may soon turn into menace when the motif is later accompanied by threatening brass chords. If this sounds to you a lot like Nobuo Uematsu's approach to scoring Kefka's theme for Final Fantasy VI, you're correct.
This musical ambivalence is beautifully highlighted in two later tracks: "Situs Blumfeld" begins with an ominous intro led by bassoon and vibraphone, before segueing into heavy, martial string and percussion rhythms, which are accompanied by the second five note motif, presented on quirky woodwinds. "Zollfeste Thurstein" displays the same kind of refreshing textural originality and pulls off the same trick, with its belligerent string rhythms juxtaposed by the motif on oboe and later rasping horns. In both cases, this unusual combination of musical tones greatly elevates the material. "Dajin von Nadoret" features the motif in the same form as "Potpourri" and adds a harpsichord to further underscore the motif's capacity to stand in as both a light-weight castle theme and as a parody of overwrought grandiloquence. "Kusliker Scherzo" reprises that particular atmosphere (in acoustics that produce too much echo) while elaborating upon the theme — and during its running time accelerates more and more, until the piece turns into a mad-cap, out-of-control waltz, complete with full choir and mighty brass to cap it all of: an astonishing display of musical derring-do that will generate a fair number of smiles and repeat listens. The mischievousness finally turns into an impressive portray of peril in "Finale 1", when the motif turns more threatening than ever, coupled with a return of those hushed tenor vocals. The following section provides the soundtrack's only — and all the more effective for it — moment of bombast, when the full choir and crashing cymbals take over. But darkness soon returns: the foreboding tenor make a comeback and the motif is played by deep strings against swirling, dissonant violins.
While Drakensang's soundtrack felt a bit like a lost opportunity to fully realise the potential that's inherent in Dynamedion's original approach to fantasy scoring, its successor's score fulfils this promise and delivers an ear-catching listening experience from start to finish. The improved quality of the orchestra samples and the way these are combined with the live instruments' recording help to smoothen over the first soundtrack's rough edges, and while some of that work's scrubby charm is gone, the music remains fresh and inventive. The greater instrumental palette the composers deployed this time is used with even more skill and feeling for intoxicating timbres and should have fans of such scores reaching for their headphones. And here's to hoping that more game score composers put as much emphasis on thematic coherency and development as Dynamedion's team does on this soundtrack — particularly when the motifs are as deliciously multi-faceted and versatile as those presented here. The adequate, but still a bit humdrum action tracks are the only thing that hold this soundtrack back really, but in no way enough to not warrant a very strong recommendation. As with Drakensang's score, this soundtrack is best purchased as part of the Drakensang Deluxe Edition Soundtrack; on iTunes, you pay just one dollar more for the Deluxe Edition (which includes the first game's score) than for the stand-alone release, and on Amazon, both albums cost the same! In more than one way then, this is a no-brainer.