Dragon's Dogma Original Soundtrack :: Review by Chris
Capcom's Dragon's Dogma mixed aspects of action RPGs from both Japan and the West into a surprisingly immersive final product. Fittingly, the musical score for the game also combined talents from across the continents. Hoping to instil the magic of the Monster Hunter franchise into a fresh new IP, Capcom's Tadayoshi Makino was appointed lead composer of the game. He was joined by two reputed freelancers, Dragon Age's Inon Zur and Sengoku Basara's Rei Kondoh, whose trademark works also influenced the title's direction. Together, they produced a largely orchestral score that reflects the vastness of the game's open world and the intensity of its much-lauded combat. The large soundtrack was surprisingly published in a two disc album by the record label of one of Capcom's rivals, Square Enix. Despite some flaws in both its contents and presentation, the experience still largely impresses.
As with the game itself, the most impressive aspect of the score for Dragon's Dogma is its sheer magnitude. At the start of the game, players are thrust into an encounter with the gigantic titular dragon, to the "Forewarning of Destruction". The track undergoes a spectacular metamorphosis from a calming pastoral arrangement into a destructive action track. Tadayoshi Makino absolutely dominates the track with grandiose orchestration, percussive furore, and even some chanting. As far back as Breath of Fire, dragons have been invading the homelands of Capcom's protagonists, but never did it sound so raw and dramatic. The pace doesn't relent with subsequent battle themes dedicated to the Cyclops, Griffin, and Hydra. With the boost of orchestration from Merregnon Studios, the Sofia Film Orchestra under the baton of the esteemed Plamen Djouroff bring a further dimension of energy and brutality to these boss encounters. Every accent and dynamic shift can be strongly felt in these well-rehearsed, beautifully recorded performances. It is a score for an Eastern game that rivals even many Hollywood productions in both volume and quality.
While the score is often derivative, it is rarely boring or predictable. Take "Thing That Destroys Everything". With driving string ostinati, booming brass fanfares, and epic choral chants, it's components are nothing new for fantasy scores. Yet there is something exceptionally enpowering about its writing. It's impressive how Tadayoshi Makino maintains a strong rhythmical thrust, while keeping a focus on striking melodies. Rather than provide a bland description of the battle from afar, he takes an emotionally driven approach and truly strikes listeners. In that sense, the track appeals to me much more than those of Skyrim or Dragon Age ever did. "Normal Battle", by contrast, reflects the team taking a maturely understated approach. With its new age and ethnic influences, much of the track has a surreal effect in combination with the game's landscapes. However, the percussion rhythms keep propelling the encounters forward and the brief dabs of the main theme hint at the epic journey ahead. Harkening back to Makino's work on Monster Hunter 3, "Tension Battle" is a further percussive masterpiece and works convincingly in more gruelling combat situations.
Avoiding a mistake of many Western RPGs, Tadayoshi Makino ensures there is a strong thematic emphasis throughout the soundtrack. Almost operatic in its writing, the richly shaped main theme combines gallantry and spirituality suitable for the adventure of the Arisen. Its brief exposition on the title screen will split consumers some will be mesmerised by Aubrey Ashburn's angelic vocals, others will find it overblown and clichéd. However, its incorporation elsewhere in the soundtrack tends to be tastefully. The hints of the theme in various battle and setting themes bring an element of continuity to the quest, while still providing room for the tracks to breathe in their own right. The reprise at the peak of "Decisive Battle ~Dragon Battle~", in particular, provides the finishing touch to a delightfully self-indugent battle epic. In addition, there are a number of major arrangements of the theme used for the game's menu and events. Though many are too brief to make a stand-alone impact, the recapitulations of the theme for piano and orchestra at the end of the soundtrack bring a new layer of depth to the soundtrack and help to tie together the storyline.
The majority of the setting themes on the soundtrack also take a subdued approach. Some are firmly laid in earth, for instance "Encampment" which continues the tribal percussive undercurrent of the scoe. Others reach for the heavens, for instance "Cassardis" at the introduction and "Depths of the Underworld" at the closure. While the former is a disappointingly brief imitation of Monster Hunter's spiritual town themes, the latter is a gentle, melancholic reprise of the main theme laced with piano and oboe passages. Inon Zur further shows his magic with "Impure Mountain", which conveys religious symbolism with features such as lamenting vocals, stern organ passages, and more subtle underscore. Compared to these well-sampled tracks, the contributions from Rei Kondoh and Masayoshi Ishi sound surprisingly inadequate in the production department. A few such as "Blue Moon Tower" and "Breathing Spirit Gorge" have enough colour and emotion to make an impression, though don't provide an entirely cohesive tapestry of sounds. Others such as "Azure Limestone Cave" and "Pagan Underground Graveyard" feature such excessive reverb and noisy mastering that they detract from the mystical ambient soundscapes.
With many of the setting and event themes being brief or understated, it's left primarily to the action themes to drive the soundtrack towards its conclusion. Inon Zur tends to diverge from the thematic, emotionally driven approaches of Makino in favour of more muscular writing. Some of his early contributions, notably "Three Heads ~Chimera Battle~" and "Temptation from the Abyss", are typical of his Dragon Age sound. However, he displays more ambition with others such as "Strong Stone ~Golem Battle~" with its daring dissonances and irregular metre, and its contemporarised arrangement "One Who Protects the Forest". Though a rock component is alluded to as early as the character edit theme, it's only during the second half of the soundtrack that this comes to fruition. The battle themes with the Wight, "A Thing Clad in White Scales", and the aforementioned Dragon are particularly captivating mixing the dramatic performances of the Sofia Film Orchestra with blistering riffs and solos from Satoshi Miyashita's rock band. "Eternal Return ~Dragon's Dogma Main Theme~" brings all the threads of the score together the solo vocalist, orchestra, chorus, rock band, and, of course, the main theme into a satisfying finale. It's excessive in all respects, but what could be more fitting for this score?
As with the game itself, the Dragon's Dogma soundtrack has plenty of imperfections, yet it has so many assets that it is still worth a strong consideration. Its production values are generally on par with today's best scores and benefit from the combined experience of writers, performers, and engineers of East and West. In terms of the composition, the combat tracks are particularly satisfying among the most intense and emotional to feature in any game score. Furthermore, the orchestrations bring depth to the event scenes and the ambient underscore adds colour to several settings. However, many of these tracks are too brief or drab to make an impact on a stand-alone level. Unfortunately, Square Enix's music label didn't entirely do the score justice by compressing its 86 featured pieces into two discs leaving little time for most tracks to loop or breathe. However, the album experience is still a cinematic and dramatic one that captures the ethos of this ambitious game.
Overall Score: 8/10