The wonderful soundscapes of a compelling fantasy world
A sweeping, involving soundtrack with somber lows and energetic highs. Largely inspired by the work of the Baldur’s Gate series, these compositions delicately dance between paying homage, and forging its own identity as a boundless piece of artistry.
Game: Pillars of Eternity
Artist: Justin E. Bell
Released: March 24, 2015
Genre: Classical (?)
Back in May and June I was playing the CRPG, Pillars of Eternity. What is a CRPG you ask? It’s a role-playing game featuring an isometric point of view, usually involving pausable real time combat and lots of clicking and stats. Some classic examples would be the likes of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, some of my favourite adventures of all time.
Why did it take me 5 years to play this? I have absolutely no idea.
I am however glad I did. I absolutely loved this game, and became sucked into the original world that Obsidian Entertainment crafted. The characters, combat and story ticked all the boxes for me. In particular I loved the religious themes that are central to the plot.
One specific aspect of the game stood out to me right away was the intricate soundtrack. From the opening few notes of the main theme, I knew I was in for something special. To this day, the music featured here is on regular rotation for me. From the uplifting nature of the theme song, to the more frantic pacing of the combat music, there is something here for every mood and that is why it has become such a cornerstone of my more recent listening.
A review of the game would have been an obvious step to take, but this time I wanted to take a look at one aspect—the soundtrack.
First impressions are important
The opening notes of the main theme song, the first track, titled “Eora” immediately exuded a sense of a heroic journey. It starts calmly and slowly builds upon itself, adding more layers to the sound. With the gentle refrain found at about the 40 second mark, I knew there was going to be a swell in the track and I was not wrong. The remainder of the track is marked by pensive quiet sections, countered by intensified highs.
After one track, I knew it was going to be great. This created the perfect first impression. In it’s 2 and a half minute runtime, it said a lot about what I could expect from the rest of the soundtrack.
Following on from this are the tracks “Encampment” and “The Harbinger’s Doom,” which would win the award for Most Metal Sounding Song Title. “Encampment” creates a sense of mournful mystery, which is fitting for the part of the game in which it features. “The Harbinger’s Doom” is the first combat track. It’s got great pacing and fits really well for combat as a result of that. It does suffer due to it’s barely one minute length—some battles can be long and this track especially can become repetitive quickly.
So far, so good.
Wanderlust-ing with all my friends and supplies
One of my favourite tracks on the album is “Dyrwood.” This is used in-game when wandering different maps and not in combat. It’s not intrusive and continues to explore that epic feel with some sinister undertones. “Gilded Vale” continues this, albeit with a more sorrowful tone. These two songs crossover well as some great listening if you’re going for a walk. For me they have proven to be calming and useful in reducing feelings of anxiety.
“The Lover Cried Out” is a great change of pace. It’s an acoustic number, and it’s very relaxing. I immediately thought of graduation ceremonies at prestigious colleges when I heard it—it’s elegant and sticks out to me at least as a nice interlude of sorts on the album.
The track “Skaen” is one of my favourites, and it features a wonderful tonal change. The first two minutes or so are melancholic, slowly giving way to a dark, menacing twist at the halfway mark. The tonal shift immediately conjured thoughts of heroes lost, who have fallen to the other side—think Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side if, ya know, it was handled better. The baleful change found at the midpoint, slowly returns to the lighter, sad sound of the first half. The dark turn of the music is insidious, and disappears without a trace.
The album so far is offering music that is very likely inspired by the Baldur’s Gate series, which is in no way a bad quality. It presents the listener with a huge sounding theme song, accompanied by some tender, gentle balladry and wanderlust-inducing tracks, fit for exploration. Pillars of Eternity as a game, overall, looks to grasp the nostalgia of the players and this is accomplished successfully, with much of the credit being owed to the soundtrack that supports this fantasy adventure.
The soundtrack continues along the same course that we have heard thus far—many tonal changes, and a great mix of more frantic battle music and sombre tracks.
Another choice piece from this middle section of the album has to be “Oldsong.” The string arrangement here is heart-on-the-sleeve melancholy with a dash of innocence thrown in as well. This is certainly one of the more affecting songs on this soundtrack. The piece “Defiance Bay,” named after the city of the same name in the game, is the epitome of the pre-renaissance style folk that inhabits the soundtrack from start to finish, and has one of the most memorable central melodies on the album. I can also, for whatever reason, imagine a metal guitar cover of the song working really well.
“The Fox and the Farmer” is a jaunty and upbeat affair, found in the tavern of the same name. “Ondra’s Gift” is of a similar vein to “Defiance Bay” and “Oldsong” in it’s near-Medieval stylings. A highlight of the middle portion of this album has to be “Brackenbury.” This isn’t a song as such but more of an interlude containing haunted, distorted voices and the tolling of bells. It’s a fittingly atmospheric piece, and its use location-wise in-game is very appropriate. This works as a nice breath of fresh air, in between some more “proper” songs.
Moving along we hear some familiar audio styles in “Crashed Upon the Shield” with it’s vocal-heavy fight music and with “Dyrford” we get to hear some more wonderful music that’s fitting for exploration, with a much more uplifting tone in parts.”Woedica” is pretty much what you would expect stylistically at this point.
One noteworthy point about “Woedica” is that the opening 30 seconds sound exactly like something that would fit in perfectly on one of John Williams Star Wars compositions. You know at the start of every one of the Skywalker Saga movies, where the camera pans down to a planet or to a ship, after the intro scrolling text?
Yeah, you won’t be able to not visualise that now.
Garden of sound
Coming up to the latter section of the soundtrack, the musical identity that has been established so far reinforced. The one-two punch of “Twin Elms” and “Elmshore” is as emotional as anything we have heard so far, with a tinge of influence from The Lord of the Rings. “Burial Isle” features some more expressive strings, acting as a reprise of sorts to the earlier “Oldsong.”
“The Dragon Thrashed and Wailed” isn’t just the best Ronnie James Dio song title that never was, it’s also one of the more memorable pieces of combat music. It also suffers from the same issue that the previous tracks have, in that it is way too short for its own good. It’s long enough so that there is time for its own musical distinctiveness to be shaped but in longer battles, late game, prepare for it to be stuck in your head but not necessarily in the most positive way possible.
The following tracks—”Shadow of the Sun” and “Engwith”— are late game tracks which present themselves in the last few sections of the game. They are once again emotional, atmospheric and mysterious. Great songs in their own right but nothing outside of the confines of what we have heard so far, stylistically speaking.
“The Endless Paths I” and “The Endless Paths II,” are well, obviously partnered with each other. I like how unobtrusive they are. They’re used in a section of the game called The Endless Paths of Caed Nua, which is a massive dungeon featuring 15 or so different levels. Not quite so endless though, are they? Sounds familiar.
The penultimate composition is “Come Soft Winds of Death,” another arrangement used when in the heat of battle. There isn’t much else to say here other than it’s another great example of the tonal shifts Bell employs to make the combat feel more distinctive.
The final song, “Road to Eternity,” is a huge, epic song that wouldn’t be out of place if it was found in the Lord of the Rings during the Bridge of Khazad-dum sequence. As it progresses, it begins to incorporate audio motifs we’ve heard earlier and acts as a bit of a medley as well. This is a great closer, and manages to succinctly amalgamate so many emotional expressions.
This is an album you could listen to outside of the context of the game, and it’s something I regularly do. It’s an effective emotional work, featuring everything from soft, ambient works to larger, typically fantasy affairs. With one finger in the Baldur’s Gate pie, Justin E. Bell takes this as a template and expands upon it, leaving his own signature on a tried and true RPG soundscape. The effort and love that went into crafting the game as a whole is well represented here, as a conscientious offering which aims to indulge the nostalgia of players and listeners, without ever becoming too mired in the past.
Image one taken from the Pillars of Eternity press kit here
All remaining images taken from the Pillars of Eternity: Complete Edition press kit here
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