The Drag-on Dragoon series (“Drakengard” in North America and Europe) has come along in a most unconventional way. Square Enix acted as publisher as developer Cavia put together the first game, a multi-genre mix of Panzer Dragoon, Dynasty Warriors, and more. The game’s music was a strange and cacophonous mix of sound, wherein composers Nobuyoshi “Denji” Sano and others sampled famous orchestral works alongside electronic beats and tons of effects.
The second game didn’t seem worthwhile to Square Enix to publish in North America, but Ubisoft brought it in their place. Arguably the most lackluster title in the series, it served as a direct sequel to the first game’s “canon” path (Ending B), taking the formula from the first game and attempting to refine it and put together a somewhat more linear experience. It, too, sported multiple endings. Its music was more palatable than its predecessor; some found it underwhelming and less memorable with Yoshiki Aoi at the helm. However, it did have a very beautiful continuation of the vocal theme “Exhaustion” (sometimes rendered “Exhausted”) by Nobuyoshi Sano.
Due to the sequel’s poor sales, many fans and industry experts alike were left to assume that this little series was over. Then, out of nowhere, Cavia announced “NieR.” NieR was a side-game in the Drakengard universe, tangentially connected via the exquisitely absurd “Ending E” from the first game, wherein the fantasy-world hero and his dragon ended up in modern-day Tokyo. 1300 years after that event, we got a taste of something strange and wonderful in “NieR.” Musically, it was a huge step forward. It was my favorite soundtrack of 2010, and it was one of Square Enix’s best-selling soundtracks: so much so that they went on to release three separate arranged albums (Nightmare DLC/Arrange, “echo,” and a Piano Collection). The MONACA sound team hit it out of the park, and the extensive vocals from Emi Evans thrust her into the spotlight for VGM fans the world over.
Despite NieR’s aural successes, the game itself became a cult classic at best, without the sheer sales figures to keep Cavia afloat. They disbanded, and many of us, once again, considered the series to be dead in the water.
That is, until Square Enix announced Drag-on Dragoon 3, which was developed by Access Games. Team members from Drakengard and NieR returned, as did NieR’s sound team MONACA studios, including the venerable Keiichi Okabe and Keigo Hoashi. Emi Evans also made a return, though only for four songs (as opposed to the dozen or more she’d done for NieR).
This soundtrack, though it may not in the end turn out to be my top pick of 2014, deserves its own accolade as being the smartest soundtrack of 2014. I challenge anyone to come up with a better example.
You see, Drag-on Dragoon 3 serves as a prequel to the original title, and it included story elements that would wind their way into NieR. It was only reasonable, then, that the soundscape would respect both Drag-on Dragoon and NieR. The composers did just that, and they did it in a way I didn’t know possible!
First and foremost, there are the irregular time signatures. We’re talking about 5s, 6s, 7s, and various combinations thereof (such as 11 or 13). These odd rhythms catch our ears off-guard, and they force us to mentally “catch up” with the rhythm that we expected to be in a common 4/4 time signature.
And, while the team chose not to reference the works of Bartok, Mahler, or Wagner as they had in the first game’s soundtrack, they do use orchestral loops and samples to create the cacophony of sounds so famous from DOD1.
Yet, the vocal-heavy influence of NieR also found its way into DOD3. For starters, Nobuyoshi Sano returns to create a third incarnation of “Exhaustion,” this time with vocalist Maaya Uchida. The intense 3/4 rhythm is back, and the mix of singing and whispering is here as well. It’s certainly not the dulcet experience of DOD2, nor is it the simple structure of DOD1. It’s muddy, and while I found this at times frustrating, I also found it the exact analog that fits DOD3 with its siblings.
Other vocals include the theme song “Kuroiuta” (translated “Black Song”) by Eri Aoi, as well as the “International Version” of said song by Emi Evans. The Int’l Version doesn’t change the language to English, it’s just featuring another singer and the song is made a little more orchestra-pop, especially in the latter half. The original version is instead a little rock heavy, but for the most part the songs share instrumental backings. Both versions are beautiful, with a slow, somewhat soulful piano introduction setting up for the push into pure ballad before transitioning to “peppy ballad” (as opposed to the traditional “power ballad”).
Emi Evans has a few more feature tracks I’d like to touch on. Early in the soundtrack is “Descendeus,” a wonderfully slow song not unlike the slower version’s of Kaine’s or Emil’s Themes from NieR. The melody is perfect for Emi’s range, especially for those big melodic jumps (7ths, even full octaves or 9ths, are not outside her reach, and Keigo Hoashi takes advantage of this skill in “Descendeus”). Evans has another solo piece on disc one in “Aethervox.” The primary accompanying instrument here is guitar, and this sound is so wonderfully similar to the NieR OST that fans of that soundtrack will be over the moon when hearing this one. I am reminded of “Grandma” or the slower versions of “Song of the Ancients” here. A lovely, soothing ballad, to be sure.
Finally, Evans sings on “The Last Song,” which I cannot help but label a misnomer, since it is the second-to-last song on the soundtrack. This piece follows a very memorable chord progression that NieR fans will instantly recognize. However, the chime-heavy instrumentation is something strange and new for MONACA/Evans fans. Running at nearly 8 minutes, this song runs the risk of overstaying its welcome. It straddles a tempo that can be considered either fast or slow depending on which instrument you’re listening most closely to. The tempo does change at different times as well, and Okabe-san keeps the song as fresh as he can as the music progresses. For example, there’s an incredible guitar solo starting at the 3 minute mark, and the heavy drums in the five minute-ish reprisal of the first melodic strain changes up the sound entirely. This is a cool track, but one must be patient to really enjoy it all.
The true final vocal piece is “This Silence Is Mine,” sung by Chihiro Onitsuka. Onitsuka-san uses an intentionally strained vocal technique that expresses a pain and sorrow that fits the tone of this game (and series) extremely well. Furthermore, Onitsuka mixes Japanese and English lyrics here, whereas the rest of the vocals on this soundtrack are in Japanese only. “This tattoo / this, this preview / this heartbeat […] where is my gear? / Where, where are my stairs? / Where is heartbeat? / This silence is mine.” Strange, yes, but deep, and the delivery is superb. The production around this song is very smart as well, with MONACA’s Keiichi Okabe at the helm of instrumentation.
Having covered the bulk of the “special” vocal tracks, it’s worth noting here that there is an obvious split in the content (and style) of the soundtrack’s two discs. Disc one features battleground music — exploration combined with flight- and ground-based combat. The second disc is all about the boss battles — Zero facing off against the other numbered individuals and their supportive monsters/minions, etc. Let’s start by talking about the battleground tracks.
Things get off to a great start with “Thundervalor.” While it generally proceeds in a 6/8 time signature, what we might call the “chorus” of the piece runs in a group time signature of 23/8 — 3 measures of 6, and then a surprise measure of 5. This is what I was talking about earlier, throwing the listener off and forcing them to catch up. The strings, brass, winds, and booming percussion create a fully symphonic experience worthy of live performance (which, by the way, I’d pay good money to experience). For the second half of the piece, Keigo Hoashi adds vocals from performer Nami Nakagawa (who had also performed for NieR). Nakagawa-san’s voice is less breathy and a little deeper in tone than Emi Evans, which makes her voice a great fit for this and many of the other battleground tracks (though personally I would’ve been happy to hear Nami Nakagawa and Emi Evans singing in tandem for some of these battleground pieces).
A handful of the Battleground tracks are composed/arranged by MONACA newcomer Kuniyuki Takahashi. Among his contributions, I believe I appreciated track 16, “Companthem,” the most. It includes a triplet-rhythm chromatic descent in the brass that I cannot help but believe is an homage to Nobuo Uematsu’s classic “Opening ~ Bombing Mission” from Final Fantasy VII.
One more battlefield track I want to touch on is “Pulchregeist” by Keigo Hoashi. Why? Because marimbas are awesome, that’s why. Hoashi uses marimba to wondrous effect, keeping right in step with the orchestra ensemble, never stopping even as the dissonant brass and wind samples are scattered atop the beautiful, trance-inducing loop. Eventually, a true “melody” is introduced to the piece, and it’s a good one! But it’s that marimba background that really drew me to the piece in the first place. As I said about much of this soundtrack, it’s “smart.”
Now then, disc two… a horse of a different color!
All of the boss battles have lyrical vocals, and there are (for most of them) two forms of each. You’ll see, for example, that there are two Blissade tracks: Egregori and Raphael. They will have the same lyrics and vocal performer, but the background music and tempo and effects will all be significantly changed.
The styles across these boss tracks don’t change much. There is dubstep-fused rock (Exvulsion / Phanuel), and then there’s just straight J-rock (Blissade / Egregori). There is some electronic rock as well, such as in “Companthem / Gabriel,” but the electronic base loop has the detrimental effect of overpowering the vocals (most of these boss battle vocals are by one “YoRHa,” who doesn’t seem to have any past work in the field of game music).
Given the choice, I much prefer the first disc to the second. But the second disc isn’t without merit. These boss battle tracks have their own appeal, and I suspect there are VGM fans out there that will indeed prefer the second disc. My personal preference is for “more of the same” MONACA, which cleverly blended the soundscapes of DOD1 and NieR in a way I didn’t know was possible: totally genius, right there.
Whether you played/enjoyed Drakengard 3 or not, this soundtrack is at least worth the time to listen to some audio samples. If you enjoyed NieR’s glorious OST, you’re likely to enjoy this as well, though perhaps for different reasons. I myself know where I stand, and I’ve already made my opinions known above. This soundtrack is “smart,” no doubt about it. The composers, arrangers, producers, and vocalists all stuck to a common vision and executed it properly. I can’t wait to hear what MONACA does next. Maybe a sequel or prequel to NieR? Maybe a new side-story based on a “non-canonical” ending of one of these four games? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I now have over four hours of MONACA-based goodness to listen to on lengthy commutes. Huzzah!