The more I learn about The Travelers VGM, the more time I spend wondering why traditional folk music and RPG soundtracks don’t go together more often. After all, how much time in RPGs is spent traveling or exploring a new area or culture in a setting that doesn’t afford the heroes many modern conveniences? It’s easy to picture the residents of an RPG world learning and sharing music in small traveling groups or a town’s local tavern. This lends an air of authenticity to the projects that The Travelers VGM undertake, including Heart of the Forest, their latest album based on the beloved soundtrack to SNES classic Secret of Mana. Their mission is to arrange these themes and weave them in with arrangements of European folk music (though they appear to be gradually expanding the geographical range of the music they select).
Hiroki Kikuta’s Secret of Mana score is a particularly good target in this respect, as Kikuta himself drew inspiration from traditional South Asian music and dance for his compositions. Much of the music in the original game is polyrhythmic or has a lot of counterpoint and shifting between the various musical parts, making it a good candidate to change and combine with existing folk themes. Add the driving percussion and movement in the original music, and there is the potential for a stunning combination. At the very least, there is some beautiful instrumental and structural consistency between the original and this album, with percussion, strings, and winds whirling together in and out across each piece.
Heart of the Forest starts off with three very popular tunes from the original game: “Angel’s Fear,” “A Phantom and a Rose,” and “Into the Thick of It.” It is worth noting that these three pieces are strictly arranged without injecting well-known folk melodies. To be honest, starting the album with “Angel’s Fear” may have been an expected choice, but I never would have thought to start it with a mandolin. It makes for a jaunty and relatively loud arrangement, which does feel like it has lost a little of the awe-inspiring impact of the original. The piece is a bumpy, imperfect carriage ride, but it’s quite successful in that it makes the original more intimate and sets the tone for the rest of the album. There is also a nice payoff at the end where the mandolin and guitar duet the melody together. “A Phantom and a Rose” takes the original somber melody and adds rambling wind interludes to make it feel more expansive. This piece conveys a real sense of traveling, especially with the addition of the ocarina, whether it’s playing the melody or supporting the strings/guitar. The arrangement of “Into the Thick of It” is also rambling, in that it really utilizes the harmony parts at the beginning (with the melody starting almost a full minute into the piece), along with some strumming guitar and fast strings. It works, since this piece has always been a strange mix of traveling and battle music.
The early arrangements draw listeners into the album, adding a fresh twist to the still recognizable originals, but Heart of the Forest gets truly interesting during the group of tracks that include straight up folk music. These tracks are remarkably consistent with each other and with the simple arrangement tracks, allowing for an immersive overall tone. Whether listeners will enjoy the album is likely contingent on whether they enjoy the concept of folky video game music, but I personally got into it. Two pieces, “Dawn of the Mana Sword/An Dùn Mìorbhaileach/PM Donald MacLean of Lewis” and ” Mystic Invasion/Donncha Lynch’s (Ballydesmond Polka No. 1)/Maurice Manley’s (Ballydesmond Polka No. 2)/Tom Billy’s (Ballydesmond Polka No. 3),” go as far as incorporating multiple themes in with Kikuta’s melodies. “Dawn” is memorable because it takes the mellow, elegant palace theme and incorporates a march arranger and performer Ian Martyn wrote while taking a break from the game — “An Dùn Mìorbhaileach” — and another march that has been passed down among several musicians. Vocals represent the original game melody for the first section of the song, and the growth from that simple beginning to the marches is easy on the ears rather than jarring. “Mystic Invasion” embodies the best and worst this album has to offer, while maintaining a whole that’s easy to listen to and enjoy. There is a beautiful point around two minutes in where the game melody returns after the Donncha section, and the end of the polka elevates the wistful temple theme. Right after that, though, there is a transition into Polka 2 where all the parts mingle for a moment in a way that’s difficult to follow. For a simpler take on a folk mix, “It Happened on a Moonlit Night/The Kesh Jig” slows down the unruly dwarf village music into a jig, a fitting format, and pairs it with a traditional counterpart.
Some tracks also represent a risk — a departure from what The Travelers have done before. The main examples of this are “Secrets of the Arid Sands” and “Peramal Kematian Tiba.” Dudak, an Armenian instrument, forms the basis for the expansive arrangement of “Secret of the Arid Sands,” and it has a sound unlike anything else the group has done. It has a slow, drawn out pace compared to the rest of the album, but its placement between “Mystic Invasion” and “A Wish” allows it to flow relatively smoothly within the album. It certainly feels like you’re in the middle of the desert surrounded by a wide horizon. “Peramal Kematian Tiba” hearkens directly back to some musical traditions that inspired Kikuta himself. It’s truly exciting to have arrangers on this project with knowledge of these musical styles and the expertise to play several of the instruments. What’s more, the arrangement turns dissonant boss music into something more palatable and in line with the wanderer theme. It just might represent the uncertainty inherent in visiting an unfamiliar place.
There is a sense of beauty and the unknown that permeates Secret of Mana, and this album does a lot to capture a version of that same spirit. Getting carried away in songs like “Spirit of the Night,” “Flammie and I,” and “A Wish” is not difficult at all. These are among my favorite tracks on the album. Hearing the different parts of these familiar tunes in a raw state with such a collection of real instruments creates warmth and makes this an ideal listen for one’s own travels or creative projects that require both focus and momentum. Presenting a variety of styles and instruments also works in the album’s favor; I’d say the final product is accessible for those unfamiliar with The Travelers and one that existing fans should really appreciate (as long as you can go along with the occasional unexpected arrangement or instrument choice). The experience concludes with the subtle and slightly repeating “D’osscail Mo Shúile/Dhún Mo Shúile.” Not a bad way to end the album. The fire is going out, and the day’s travels are suspended in favor of rest.