Heroes of Might and Magic II Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
The first Heroes of Might and Magic had proven a success with gamers and critics alike, so developer New World Computing was only too happy to turn this extension of their Might and Magic franchise into a series of its own. Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars was released only a year after its predecessor. But while the game didn't change the first title's addictive core gameplay much, it added a wealth of characters classes, terrain types, artefacts and other content. Reactions to the game were enthusiastic, as reviewers proclaimed it to be even stronger than its already accomplished predecessor. Gaming magazine PC Gamer even voted it the sixth-best PC game of all time in 1997. Heroes of Might and Magic II turned out to be the franchise's breakthrough and still today, the game and its expansion pack The Price of Loyalty are fondly remembered by many PC gamers as the zenith of the series, often together with Heroes of Might and Magic III.
After providing a thoroughly delightful score for Heroes of Might and Magic, Rob King and Paul Anthony Romero returned for the sequel soundtrack. They were joined by King's bandmate Steve Baca, songwriter and guitarist of alternative rock band Red Delicious. The composers decided to push the envelope with this new project by including operatic vocal soli an idea unheard of for an original game score in 1996. In interviews, King recalled how he had to fight for this new artistic direction: "Many people at the time thought I was crazy for wanting to put opera in a video game." The motivation behind this decision, according to King, was to "add some magic to the experience" and underscore the franchise's individuality on a musical level. Although Heroes of Might and Magic II's developers ultimately went along with this unique approach, a certain amount of cautiousness must have still prevailed, as the game offered three sound settings: MIDI, Stereo with Opera, and Stereo without Opera.
The concerns about the operatic nature of the soundtrack turned out to be unfounded, as reviewers frequently praised the score's quality while most fans embraced the music's classical inclinations. Not only that, but when Heroes of Might and Magic III was released, gamers complained about the lack of vocals in the new title, according to King. In time, operatic soli would become one of the trademarks of the subseries, at least until 2011's Might and Magic Heroes VI. Clearly encouraged by the success of their experiments, the composing trio continued to expand the stylistic boundaries of the fantasy score genre and added an alto saxophone to the ensemble on The Price of Loyalty. But as with Heroes of Might and Magic, no soundtrack release was forthcoming until GOG.com made the music of the game and its expansion pack available as a free bonus item of its digital release of Heroes of Might and Magic II: Gold Edition.
Usually, the term 'operatic' is used rather loosely in game and film soundtrack reviews and discussions. If it's applied to vocal soli, it's mostly deployed to describe a type of melody that has a classical feeling to it (as opposed to being based in rock, pop, folk etc.). When used to describe a score's character in generally, 'operatic' usually refers to the music's grand and symphonic nature and its highly emotional demeanour. Rarely however is the term 'operatic' used to refer to music that is actually operatic in the truest sense of the word: compositions that sound like what you would hear in an opera. And that's of course because game and film soundtracks rarely sound like operas, particularly for any sustained period of their running time. But that's exactly what you get with Heroes of Might and Magic II: a series of full-blown opera arias that just happen to be written for a game soundtrack and backed by a synthesised orchestra. Not only that: what you hear on this album is a series of magnificent, moving arias that have few, if any equals in the realm of original game scores.
Of course, the use of music that is as emotionally charged as opera won't be to everybody's liking. There are no doubt some listeners who will find Heroes of Might and Magic II's arias intrusive in an in-game context (there's your reason for the "without Opera" setting), and overblown and pretentious on album. That view is no sign of poor aesthetic sensibilities, but simply a matter of taste and expectations of what a game score should sound like. However, there's an argument to be made that the application of opera arias to a fantasy game like Heroes of Might and Magic II is hardly inappropriate. Among game score genres, fantasy and RPG soundtracks have always shown a particular interest in emulating and adopting features of classical music to create an immersive sense of grandeur. Including operatic soli only seems like a logic extension of that ambition. While opera arias are thus certainly appropriate for a fantasy score like this one, the trickier question to answer is in how far they accurately portray the game's locations. There's no doubt that the German vocal melodies on "Barbarian Castle (Expansion)" are deeply touching (yes, the arias are sung in German if you give your score a Wagnerian sheen, you might as well go all the way). But without having played the game, it's anybody's guess why the soprano and bass soloists' lyrics have to quote Johannes Brahms' German Requiem(!) to portray a barbarian's castle.
Fortunately, such potential incongruences matter more in the context of the game experience. In the isolated context of a score album, the question is rather if the various stylistic elements, no matter how unusual, come together to form a cohesive whole. Throughout most of Heroes of Might and Magic II, that's the case. It's one thing that the vocal melodies, all found on the score's castle tracks, are impeccably composed, with a real sense for operatic flair and deep understanding of this musical expression. And there's no doubt that the arias are performed to an impressive standard and that they run the gamut of emotions, covering the ethereal, almost new-agey soprano strains of "Sorceress Castle", the sinister bass bombast of "Necromancer Castle" and "Warlock Castle (Expansion)" and the restrained elation and triumph of "Barbarian Castle (Expansion)". But it's also important to note that these wonderful vocal melodies are backed by an orchestral backdrop that is just as marvellously lavish and emotional as these arias themselves. The importance of this interplay becomes obvious on those very rare instances when the instrumental background is less than convincing, usually due to poor chip synthesis. Hearing the majesty emotional urgency of the vocal melodies on "Knight Castle" and "Warlock Castle (Expansion)" against the backdrop of what sounds like toy trumpet fanfares is jarring. Why these particular instruments sound so much less convincing then on the first Might and Magic is puzzling.
But outside of these brief moments of irritation, the vocal and orchestral melodies work perfectly hand in hand and create a soundtrack as rich and diverse in sounds and moods as few others. While Heroes of Might and Magic was a mostly sunny affair, this soundtrack paints its rapturous images on a much wider canvas. On the castle tracks, the composers make full use of every single orchestra section and layer the instruments in ever more colourful textures that demand repeat listens to discover all of the music's melodic treasures and subtleties. Extended, classically-inspired parts for often melodramatic solo piano underpin the music's journey into gothic grandeur and are integrated seamlessly. Should you wonder if it was a wise idea to add an alto sax, head straight to the score's six last tracks and marvel at how perfectly its soulful, mourning, sometimes almost spiritual sounds support the compositions' mood. The triple meter of "Sorceress Castle" grounds the piece's floating, otherworldly drift and lends it a beguiling elegance. "Knight Castle" finds time for an almost goofy opening piano line and several light-hearted interludes, while "Wizard Castle (Expansion)" closes the album on a perfect note with its wholesome, pastoral, yet immense orchestral sweep. And just listen to how much more stirring and exciting the entry of the bass solo on "Warlock Castle (Expansion)" becomes when it begins over syncopated string rhythms that seem to battle the bass solo's rhythm.
If anything, it feels as if the composers, in their exuberant approach, sometimes overreach and try to cram too many ideas into one piece. "Warlock Castle" impressively builds momentum over a dark, insisting piano lead, agitated strings and synthesised choir vocals, only to be interrupted abruptly by a rousing solo bass melody that's backed by a soft background of almost yearning violins. This quieter passage, beautiful as it is, strongly feels at odds with the more imposing moments surrounding it. "Knight Castle" throws the aforementioned light-heartedness, fanfares, darker passages for church organ, extensively chromatic melodies and another dramatic soprano solo in one pot. But the various ideas, great as they are taken on their own, don't quite gel. These are hardly crippling deficiencies and these piece remain imminently listenable. But it's obvious that by the time Heroes of Might and Magic III came around, the composers had further refined and perfected their feeling for how to combine seemingly contracting moods in one composition.
But most of the time, Heroes of Might and Magic II's pieces are just as well-developed as their counterparts on its predecessor. While none of the tracks on this album are longer than four minutes, most piece are fully fleshed-out compositions that never stand still and constantly surprise with usually well-implemented changes of mood, texture or melody. You'll have to look hard to find orchestral pieces of equal symphonic depth on a game score, and Heroes of Might and Magic II's castle themes rival classic scores like Laura Kaufman's splendid EverQuest II soundtrack in this regard. Speaking of melodies: they were one of the best things about the original game, and they're just as good, if not better here. Heroes of Might and Magic II is a treasure trove of stunning melodies that keep on giving. All these qualities come together particularly well on the album's last six tracks, which were written for the game's expansion pack. The composers are audibly even more confident this time in handling the orchestral and vocal forces at hand and they create some castle themes that are even more ravishing than what has come before. The album's final 15 minutes are as strong as that of any other fantasy game score in fact, most any soundtrack, game or film, would die to finish on as a high a note as Heroes of Might and Magic II.
While the castle themes are easily the most impressive part of the soundtrack, they're certainly not the only thing worth mentioning. The game introduces one of the series' staples, the field themes (Snow Theme, Grass Theme, Dirt Theme etc.) Not only do these pieces increase the score's colourful nature by underscoring different terrains, but they also exhibit another facet of the composers' instrumentational strength. These field themes are considerably sparser orchestrated than the castle themes and a good more ambient in their nature than the field tracks on the third. A comparison between the serene "Ocean Theme" here, with its light flute melody carried mostly by a harp counterpoint, and the wafting orchestral layers of "Water" on the third game speaks volumes.
But the composers don't need symphonic bombast to catch your attention. Their outstanding talent for effective orchestrations also applies to smaller ensembles and ensures that the field themes, despite their more minimalist ensembles, paint vivid images of the locations that they underscore. "Snow Theme" conjures a fragile sense of wonder with its floating, reedy flute chords and a tinkling piano accompaniment. "Desert Theme" doesn't go for Lawrence of Arabia-style strings surges, but instead opts for an Arabian-tinged woodwind melody against string pizzicati and restrained hand percussion in static, yet flexible textures that convey the vastness of the desert. The inclusion of Middle Eastern tones is done with an assured hand and points towards the composers's score for Might and Magic IX. It helps that the melodies on the field cues, although they are less prominent than on the castle themes, are still strong and captivating. And while less melodic tracks like the barren, jumbled "Wasteland Theme" or the predictably oppressive "Lava Theme" are not among the score's highlights, they're appropriately atmospheric. The bassoon line that menacingly rolls through the soundscape on "Wasteland Theme" is yet another example of the composers' creativity and ear for details.
However, there's one issue that holds the field tracks back, and that is the inclusion of locations-specific sound effects. This is a bigger issue than on Heroes of Might and Magic III, where the sound effects are marginalised by the fuller orchestral sounds. On Heroes of Might and Magic II, sound effects and music often play at the same volume, so that the delicate orchestrations are unnecessarily overshadowed and the pieces' atmosphere is disrupted rather than enhanced. This is a bigger issue on some tracks than on others, but it remains a nuisance on pieces like "Swamp Theme" and "Dirt Theme", which are filled with intrusive animal sounds the dreamy interplay between woodwind soli, acoustic guitar and warm strings on "Swamp Theme" is marred by what sounds like a quaking duck.
Another blemish on Heroes of Might and Magic II's shining white vest are the battle tracks. As in its predecessor, these action cues a distinct break from the symphonic nature of the rest of the album. They rather function as mood pieces that would set a tense atmosphere during the game's fights, without drawing too much attention towards themselves. Suspended string and synth chords are the subdued foil against which the music pits layers of South American hand percussion, as well as the occasional ethnic flute ornament and male war chant. The compositions are atmospheric enough and on "Battle (3)", the battle music leaves its moody nature behind and actually turns quite joyful and entertaining. But when compared against the standard set by the other pieces on the album, the battle tracks fall short, and particularly the hand percussion rhythms sound a lot more anaemic here than on Heroes of Might and Magic. And since they're grouped together at the beginning of the album, the soundtrack is off to a slightly slow start. Then again, these combat cues only amount to a good six minutes on Heroes of Might and Magic II and would only become a significant issue on later franchise scores.
The ambition and creativity that King and Romero had exhibited on the first spinoff explode on Heroes of Might and Magic II, one of the boldest experiments of 1990's Western game music. Opera arias may be an acquired taste, but there's no doubt that the ones found on this soundtrack are magnificently composed and just stunningly beautiful and emotional. It's refreshing to see a game score that expands the limits of what's usually perceived as game music. But it's even better to see such experimentation pulled off with both so much finesse and panache. Most cues on Heroes of Might and Magic II are small masterpieces that proudly wear their classical, symphonic nature on their sleeve. If you like your fantasy scores on a shamelessly grand scale and filled with gorgeous melodies, you'll listen to this album again and again.
True, despite its recurring brilliance, Heroes of Might and Magic II can be a bit rough around the edges. The battle tracks are rather humdrum, the sound effects on the location tracks can be intrusive, and not every composition perfectly integrates the marvellous wealth of ideas that the composers throw around. But when this score shines and it does so most of the time it shines brighter than anything else out there in the realm of game scores. It's not the most consistent album of the franchise, but it's easily the most exuberant and daring one. It's about time this soundtrack takes its rightful place in the annals of Western game music.
Overall Score: 9/10