It only took three notes from a guitar before the audience at Blizzcon 2008 knew what was coming. The familiar theme of Tristram from the original Diablo is about as iconic as video game music gets. It’s up there with the Zelda theme, the Prelude from Final Fantasy, and numerous other tracks from our childhood. It shows just how important video game music is to setting mood, atmosphere, and tone. But this can work both to a game’s advantage and detriment. The 15th Anniversary Soundtrack to Diablo represents the best and worst the series has to offer in terms of musical score.
The first six tracks come from Diablo 1, and they are certainly the best on the CD. The gothic brilliance is on full display, establishing both the dark nature of the Lord of Terror and the dilapidated state of Tristram and its inhabitants. Tristram’s theme mixes a semi-joyous opening with a true sense of manic foreboding. The guitar begins to solo and spiral out of control midway through, possibly mimicking the Mad King’s descent to the very depths of Hell. Better still are the tracks accompanying the journey into the bowels of the cathedral. “Dungeon” (probably the best named title in recent memory) mixes heavy drum beats and ungodly screams to great effect. You can’t help but feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with anticipation as you open the door to the blood-stained dwelling of The Butcher.
But while Diablo 1’s soundtrack is gothic and dark, Diablo 2 focuses on a more “high adventure” feel. Unfortunately, this music contrasts sharply with the diabolical creatures and abilities unleashed on the world. I feel more like I’m roaming the hills of The Shire instead of doing my best to destroy the Lord of Destruction. The expansion pack music is the worst offender in this area. While none of the music is bad, of course, it does little to enhance the gameplay and world of Sanctuary.
Also included on the soundtrack are several prototype tracks for Diablo 3, which feature a similar styling to D2. While this has me a bit concerned about the full game’s music, I can happily report that extensive time with the beta shows a styling more in line with the original game than the sequel. Hopefully this trend continues, though a little high fantasy added to the mix could certainly spice up the completed recipe of death.
The 15th Anniversary Soundtrack shows how music can enhance or detract from a video game experience. You wouldn’t want heavy metal music playing during a tender moment in a JRPG in much the same way you don’t want to feel like Frodo Baggins while passing through a slaughtered village. My personal preference is to stick with the music from the original Diablo, but don’t be afraid to play some D2 music while doing something other than hunting down the armies of Hell. I think “Ice Cave” might work well while baking a cake, for example.