Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Overlooked VG Music #1: Sedge Tree

Video game music has come a long way since the early days of gaming. Tunes have evolved from the simple electronic loops of the 8- and 16-bit era into grand, well-produced orchestral scores that rival, if not exceed, the quality of scores for many films. Still, for every instantly-recognizable Final Fantasy or Halo theme out there today, with legions of fanboys/girls screaming "OMG THIS IS LIEK MY FAVORITE SONG EVAR!!!!!1", there are hundreds of equally wonderful video game pieces that are unfairly overlooked. My intention with this series is to shed light on a few of the more obscure tunes in the video game universe, purely for public benefit. Great music is still great music, no matter where it's found, and deserves to be heard by as many people as possible.

The piece I'd like to share with you today is a piece from the 1999 Sega Dreamcast game Shenmue. Shenmue's in-game music, written by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi and a team of other talented composers, was largely synthesized, but an independent, special soundtrack was concurrently released. Known as the "Orchestra Version," this soundtrack featured many of the main tunes from the game beautifully arranged for full orchestra and recorded live. Although Shenmue itself failed to achieve much commercial success, its soundtrack went on to be performed at various venues, including the first Symphonic Game Music Concert in 2003 in Leizpig, Germany (which marked the first time a video game music concert had taken place outside of Japan). Check out the video below to hear Shenmue's main theme and Track 1 of the Orchestra Version soundtrack, "Sedge Tree."

If you enjoyed what you heard, I urge you to check out the in-game version of Sedge Tree, as well as the rest of the orchestral soundtrack. It's really an amazing score, and I'm firm in my belief that the Shenmue games wouldn't be half of what they are without the breathtaking music. Check out the links if you so choose; perhaps curiosity will get the better of you, and one day you'll even join us in the small but passionate Shenmue fanbase.

Until next time,


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Game Review: Dreamfall

With the end of the spring semester about a month and a half ago, I've finally found some time to sit back and actually get some gaming done after a hiatus of nearly a semester. One such game I've had the luxury of recently completing was Funcom's Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, sequel to the critically-acclaimed 1999 game The Longest Journey.

But wait, you may be wondering, wasn't Dreamfall released over four years ago, on the bulky original Xbox that's all but obsolete now? The answer to your question is, of course, yes. I happen to be one of the few gamers who chose not to invest in one of the next-gen consoles (are they even next-gen anymore?), deciding instead that there are plenty of great Xbox 1 games I have yet to enjoy. Accordingly, I've accumulated quite the collection of last-gen games over the past few years, picked up from eBay for a pittance. Sure, occasionally this configuration has its detriments, but my gaming time has been limited enough of late, and fortunately most of the games I really want to play (read: Bioware games) have been available on the PC as well. Thus, I've had little trouble biding my time until something I really want to play releases for a new system. Shenmue III, for example.

Now then, less about me, more about the game at hand. The Longest Journey series revolves around a set of complementary parallel worlds: Arcadia, which has evolved around magic, and Stark (essentially a futuristic Earth), focused on science and technology. Although the universes are technically independent, they are nonetheless inextricably tied in ways not fully understood. The star of Dreamfall is a young Stark native named Zoë Castillo, a recent college dropout who seems to have lost direction in life. Fortunately for her, things quickly take a turn for the interesting. A simple favor for her best friend turns up a sinister plot, propelling Zoë into a journey that takes her not only around the world, but also between them.

My description may sound clichéd, but I still feel the plot of Dreamfall is its strongest element. Strong voice-acting and good scripting add believability and memorability to each of the characters, and the the world(s) simply crawl with history and detail. The story is well-timed, switching between various story arcs at strategic points so as to create a continual atmosphere of tension and mystery. The choice of having three playable characters is a clever concept, particularly when the characters' paths inevitably cross. Still, the plot development is not without its flaws. Despite generally excellent writing, occasional segments of narrative seemed stilted or artificial. Although the concept of two worlds and playing as different characters is pretty neat, some of the transitions can be a little...stark (haha, see what I did there?), with characters often shrugging off their recent extraordinary experiences and simply picking up where they left off. Lastly, the ending was, to put it bluntly, unsatisfying. The last fifth or so of the game felt rather rushed, tying very loose ends to some main plot threads and leaving at least as many hanging. Reaching the end credits of the game was a real "WTF?" moment for me, as I felt the game could easily have accommodated a few more hours of storytelling.

The Chinaman might be the most stereotypical Asian portrayal I've ever seen in a game.

As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, the best way I can describe it is a giant fetch-quest game with some tacked-on combat, puzzle, and stealth elements. Most of the game will involve piloting a character from Point A to Point B, realizing at Point B that you need some item from Point C, going to Point C to retrieve said item, and so forth. Admittedly, the puzzle elements may be more than "tacked-on"; nearly every area has a few challenges that must be completed before advancement, but most can be solved by examining the immediate vicinity for important items or by placing a call to Zoë's friend Liv. The combat elements, however, are less refined; fighting is limited to only a few areas, and can easily be completed using cheap tricks that the enemy AI can't seem to figure out for the life of them. Likewise, the stealth elements are also localized to small portions of the game and usually end up being more irksome than exciting. Certain features like the Focus Field, while interesting in concept, are used so rarely in the game that they're easy to forget about, leading to large amounts of frustration during the game sections in which they're actually necessary.

I've focused much on the negative aspects, but I do want to emphasize that Dreamfall is, in fact, an enjoyable game. Despite its shortcomings, Dreamfall's imaginative world, great cast of characters, gripping story, and lavish attention to detail still allows the game to shine, and shine well. Still, it's important to note that Dreamfall is essentially an interactive story, and even then not without . Even as a self-proclaimed fan of high-story, low-gameplay titles (Shenmue II, anyone?), I found myself wishing, at the end of hours of enthralling narrative, that Dreamfall might have been just a tiny bit more enjoyable.

Final Score: 3.5/5


Friday, June 18, 2010

VGMusic Submission: Paternal Horn

So it's been a while since I've submitted something to the mighty VGMusic.Com, home to the vast collection of MIDIs by composers of all skill levels. My previous entry was near two years ago, and despite wrestling with a number of ideas, I've seen a precious lack of new material since that time. That, however, comes to an end today.

The piece I chose to arrange this time around is from the soundtrack to the video game NiGHTS Into Dreams, arguably one of the best games that nobody's played. Even during its heyday, its mother console Sega Saturn was ever overshadowed by the powerful PlayStation and the innovative Nintendo 64. The fact that NiGHTS hardly achieved commercial success is somewhat of a shame, as many critics agree that the game is one of developer Sonic Team's finest.

The game's soundtrack (born from the talented minds of composers Naofumi Hataya, Tomoko Sasaki, and Fumie Kumatani) is, simply put, incredible. Although I've never played NiGHTS Into Dreams, the music sorely tempts me to track down a Saturn and do so; I find that to be quite the compliment. The soundtrack is rife with enchanting level themes, groovy boss music, and a slew of improvisatory solos that would make a jazz pianist weep with glee. The specific track I chose to get to know better was Paternal Horn: Spring Valley, the music behind one of the game's beautiful early stages. You can watch some gameplay of the tune in context here. So, with no further ado:

Paternal Horn: Spring Valley ~the IDEAL~

Date Submitted: 2010-06-19
Time: ~6 hours
Software: Finale 2008
MIDI Tracks: Glockenspiel, Celesta, String Ensemble 1, English Horn, French Horn, Brass Section, Electric Grand Piano, Electric Bass (finger), Percussion

This was a fun piece to arrange; the tune was generally straightforward enough for me to deduce by ear in a reasonable time (hey, six hours is good for me, OKAY? :P), and it's just so damn catchy. Admittedly, instrument-matching was a bit of a pain; I'm still skeptical about the chosen synths for the beginning ostinato. There was also a touch of guesswork involved with some of the softer synths, but overall I'm pretty satisfied with the result.

Anyway, how'd I do? Feel free to comment with any critique and/or suggestions you may have about this MIDI, or even if you'd like to request another piece of video game literature. With respect to the latter, though, I'll admit I already find myself leaning in this direction...