Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Piano Cover: I Am The One

For those of you who read my last post, you've heard me shower approbation upon Inon Zur's soundtrack for the 2009 video game Dragon Age: Origins. Turns out my blog post inspired me to listen to the soundtrack more, and I once again fell in love with the piece "I Am The One," featured in the game's credits. There's something about the way the voice melds with the slow orchestra and driving (guitar? I think), evoking something simultaneously pure and dark that gives me shivers. I decided I'd do a piano cover of the piece while it was running around relentlessly in my head. Check out the YouTube link for Inon Zur's original source:

And here's my arrangement:

I Am The One: Piano Cover

Composer: Inon Zur
Date Completed: 2010-07-28
Number of Takes: like, 8 >_<
Software: Audacity, Sound Recorder
Instrumentation: Piano

First of all, my sincere apologies to those with perfect pitch and others who are bothered by this sort of thing; I decided to take my arrangement up a whole-step because I was too lazy to learn the verses in the original B-flat. If I decide to re-record this piece at some point, I'll probably take it in its original key, since B-flat is by no means a particularly difficult key area.

Oh, and speaking of recording, I don't have access to recording equipment (or a flawless piano, now that I mention it), so this was recorded using Sound Recorder on my somewhat out-of-tune piano at home, then cleaned up a bit with Audacity. Unfortunately, this is nowhere near as effective as just having a decent recording studio, since removing background noise from the recording also has the unfortunate side effect of attenuating some of the piano's natural harmonics, hence the somewhat synthetic/metallic sound of the piano and the occasional weird harmonics. In addition, I had to boost up the volume of the recording significantly, resulting in some clipping issues during the louder sections. If I get around to it and/or enough people suggest it, I'll try to re-record this piece in better quality. Maybe even put it up on YouTube or something. We'll see.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that! Look for more covers coming in the near future!

A hui hou,


Monday, July 19, 2010

Overlooked VG Music #2: The Battle of Lothering Village

For our newest entry in the "Overlooked Video Game Music" collection, I've decided to choose something a bit more current. BioWare's epic fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins, released in November 2009, enjoyed great success and critical acclaim. As a game, it doesn't stray far from the classic BioWare formula present in many of the Canadian developer's games, with diverse (and romance-able) party members, mountains of dialogue, and a branching story with much freedom. If it ain't broken, don't try to fix it, right?

Dragon Age's score was written by the prolific composer Inon Zur, known for his work on a variety of scores from television shows (Power Rangers, Digimon, Escaflowne) to video games (Baldur's Gate II, Icewind Dale II, Prince of Persia) to a few smaller films. The Dragon Age soundtrack has already received critical acclaim, with the score winning "Best Video Game Score" at the Movie Music UK Awards and the main theme winning "Best Original Song – Video Game" at the Hollywood Music In Media Awards. Even with such a well-received soundtrack, however, occasionally things slip through the cracks.

"The Battle of Lothering Village," track 26 in the official Dragon Age soundtrack, is one such piece. The track plays only in an area called (appropriately enough) Lothering Village, a small portion of the game that, unlike other areas, the player cannot return to past a certain part of the game. The track name itself is also a wee bit misleading. There is no "Battle of Lothering Village"; rather, the track plays during the few fights that occur in Lothering's outskirts. Nonetheless, this piece is one of my favorite role-playing game battle themes. Throughout my playthough of Dragon Age: Origins, I'd kept my ears peeled in hopes of hearing the music once more, but alas, I never encountered it again past Lothering. Anyway, I'll let you listen to the piece before I speak more of it:

Hopefully you enjoyed listening to the piece as much as I did. In my opinion, it's the perfect blend of cacophony and majesty, with an added touch of melancholy for good measure. The piece starts out like a more typical battle piece, with lots of brass and dissonance, but then the strings enter at 1:27 and the mood goes out the roof. I still remember my jaw dropping the first time I encountered that part of the tune; it really made that much of an impression on me. Inon Zur is noted for saying that rather than compose music to fit a setting in a game, he composes it instead to evoke an emotion he believes the player should feel at that moment. I can really see that philosophy come to life in this piece. I imagine Mr. Zur sought to inspire both conflict and tragedy, which is perfect for Lothering, embattled and distressed but still proud. Quite the masterpiece.

That concludes this edition of "Overlooked Video Game Music." If you get a chance, head over to Inon Zur's site and take a gander, or check out the rest of the Dragon Age soundtrack; I promise it'll be enjoyable. :) Please leave comments: about my critique, about the music, about the game, anything, really. If there are other pieces you'd like to suggest, send 'em my way and I'll take a listen; I'm always open to discovering great new music.



Thursday, July 8, 2010

Game Review: Silent Hill 4

Silent Hill 4: The Room and I first met on a cold winter evening in late 2009. Shortly thereafter, a period of having-absolutely-no-free-time hit my life, and I was forced to abandon my nervous wanderings around Silent Hill for the even harsher realities of fluid mechanics and advanced circuit design. When my much-needed summer break finally hit in May, I breathed a sigh of relief before allowing Silent Hill 4 to scare my breath away once more. I'm happy to report that, months after beginning my journey, I finally completed the game a few weeks ago. The only thing left is to convince you to do the same. :)

For those who might be unfamiliar with the Silent Hill franchise, here's a quick bit of background. Konami debuted the series in 1999 on the PlayStation, and so far, six subsequent games have so far been released. The Silent Hill series focuses around the titular small town of Silent Hill, a place where psychological forces often take physical shape. Perception of Silent Hill is distorted according to the psychological state of the viewer, typically manifesting itself in either a fairly normal, populated town, an abandoned, foggy town, or a hellish, decaying town known as the Otherworld. Silent Hill games typically take place in this town, with altered characteristics depending on the character behind the screen.

Silent Hill 4, however, deviates from the previous three entries in that it is the first not to take place in the town of Silent Hill. The story begins in an unassuming apartment building in South Ashfield, a town adjacent to Silent Hill. The protagonist of the story, Henry Townshend, wakes up one day to find that he cannot leave his room. His door has been secured with numerous chains and locks, his electronics are dead, his windows can't be opened, and the outside world is completely obvious of his existence. After exploring around and realizing that nothing he tries will allow him to escape the room, Henry discovers a small hole that has opened up in his bathroom wall. And of course, like all good horror stories, Henry decides to climb through the hole in hopes of escaping his apartment, Room 302.

Trust me on this suggestion: grab a close buddy or two, wait until after 9 PM or so, and then cut out all the lights in the room before you play. I've played every Silent Hill I've gotten the opportunity to pick up in this manner, and let me tell ya, nothing beats the camaraderie that comes from being scared shitless together. The atmosphere of Silent Hill 4: The Room is spectacular. Rather than relying on cheap, sudden frights like some horror games, Silent Hill 4 manages to evoke a constant feeling of dread. The ominous background noises and omnipresent shadows make the player apprehensive of each approaching corner might be hiding, and the grainy filter only enhances the effect. Surprisingly, Room 302 itself is one of the creepiest parts of the game; although it's well-lit and resembles a typical apartment, there is unease to be found from its suffocating silence and occasional slight modifications. As pieces of the puzzle begin to reveal themselves and the sinister truth is slowly pieced together, the feeling of mystery and dawning realization rivals that of good suspense films.

As good as the atmosphere is, though, I can't help comparing it to Silent Hill 2, said by many to be the pinnacle of the series (and I wouldn't disagree). On the whole, Silent Hill 4 is much more predictable than its ancestor. The plot and level structure are rather linear; the game is split into a series of different worlds, most of which begin and end in the same fashion and many of which even repeat a second time. The monsters you'll encounter are noticeably less interesting than the Silent Hill 2 guys, with more obvious symbolism and only one or two inspiring genuine awe. Nonetheless, Silent Hill 4's environment is still fantastic, and makes the game worth playing in its own right.

The gameplay of Silent Hill 4 manifests itself in two different "modes" of sorts: a first-person perspective used to control Henry when he is exploring his apartment room, and a third-person perspective during Henry's visits to the plethora of alternate worlds into which his bathroom hole delivers him. While in Henry's room, the player typically walks around to examine objects, deposit and retrieve items from his inventory, utilize the game's sole save point, and (as the game progresses), interact with the changing state of the room. While in the other worlds, the player will continue to engage in exploration and item-finding, but with an added combat element for the occasional enemies that Henry will encounter and need to dispose of. The two areas are linked by a system of portals that resemble the hole in Henry's bathroom; unfortunately, this further adds to the predictability of the game by creating a methodical "okay, let's go back to the room and save" system that (in my opinion) compares unfavorably to the tension of Silent Hill 2's "omfg where's the next save point gonna be?" feel.

Discussion of the gameplay necessarily leads us to most of the game's biggest problems. Simply put, the gameplay, particularly the combat elements, leaves much to be desired. The control scheme works well enough for the exploring and item-finding, but is exceptionally awkward for the combat sequences, making combat much more frustrating than it needs to be. For example, Henry must stomp on a fallen enemy in order to properly "finish" it and prevent it from getting back up. However, that button combination is mapped to the same buttons as a normal attack, and the combat system forces Henry to lock onto any nearby enemies as a first priority. Consequently, many a monster will get back up not because the player forgets to finish it, but because the engine forces Henry to continue attacking nearby enemies rather than finishing downed ones. Even apart from that, the combat system isn't particularly exciting in itself, usually boiling down to whacking an enemy with a melee weapon before it has time to respond (firearms are all but useless in this game). The combat system is clearly the weakest element of Silent Hill 4, and a cleaner system would have aided its enjoyability considerably.

Silent Hill words of wisdom: No matter how dead enemies look, always stomp them to be sure.

A few other weaknesses merit some discussion; although these didn't bother me quite so much, I can imagine them being real thorns in other players' sides. The inventory system can feel unnecessarily restricting at times. Henry can only hold a limited number of items at any given time; if he runs out of slots, the player must either consume items (the ones that can be consumed, at least), or run back to Henry's room through a portal and deposit items into a chest. This system does add an extra layer of strategy to the game, as the player must choose the items he carries very carefully, but admittedly does result in multiple trips back to the apartment for no reason but to switch out items. This system contributes to the near-uselessness of firearms as well, since each round of bullets takes up a valuable slot in the inventory, and the weapons aren't powerful enough to make the lost space worthwhile. Another possible source of frustration exists in the character who joins Henry in his travels around halfway through the game; it is Henry's job to escort her around and keep her in good health. Unfortunately, she moves painfully slowly, often senselessly attacks large groups of enemies, and has a tendency to take damage if Henry moves too quickly or suddenly while in her proximity. My frustration was partially mitigated by the fact that, with the right upgrades, she can be made into a veritable killing machine, and that I actually felt some attachment to her character. Nonetheless, she will undoubtedly still be irritating at times.

Despite the mentioned faults, I still believe that Silent Hill 4: The Room is an experience not to be missed. I admit I might be rating it on the high side; it takes a certain kind of person to play horror games in the first place, and many will undoubtedly be turned off by the gameplay issues. In the end, however, the games are few and far between that make you look upon a ticking clock with fear and dread. Perhaps it would be wise to first begin with Silent Hill 2, but if you enjoy that game (and you should, it's one of my favorites ever), chances are high that you will enjoy braving the perils of The Room as well.

Final Score: 4/5