Welcome to my critique of the music supplied with Unreal and Return to Na Pali, presented to you on a track by track basis. These comments were written whilst listening to the relevant tracks / song sections, so that I could get into the mood of the track. The comments attempt to convey the feelings the tracks provoke, and I have also included a variety of extra information: the true title and composer of the track where available, levels in which the track is used, and an arbitrary "star" rating that is scaled relatively and based entirely on the repertoire available, with no external factors included. Star ratings are out of five and describe how much I enjoy listening to the track in question.
(Editorial note: For the new site, this article is being split into three parts: the first half of Unreal, the second half of Unreal, and the RtNP tracks. You will find the links at the end of the article.)
"Flightcastle" by Alexander Brandon
Nali Castle (intro), Nali Castle (RtNP intro)
The dramatic cymbal clash that opens the Unreal castle flyby welcomes players to the Unreal universe with a sense of power and space. The rhythmic track that follows carries suspense and wonder as the new player is flown around the dramatic Nali Castle exterior with shining floors, water mist, burning torches and fluttering flags. The track also makes an effective return as the flyby to the new Nali Castle at the start of Return to Na Pali. All in all, while short, it does everything it needs to do as the opening track.
"Vortex Rikers" by Alexander Brandon
"Vortex Rikers" is a very moody track quite unlike most of the other Unreal music, although resembling a more harmonic version of Opal. The majority of the track is in song section 0, which combines an ambient sound backing with a slow, gentle foreground harmonic theme. Later on in the section, the track erupts into high drama with the addition of a powerful bass motif. It tells the tale of the player's exploration of his crippled prison ship, with one gruesome discovery after another in the claustrophobic confines. And for the tensest moment, a heated battle just out of view behind a partly sealed door, song section 1 is introduced, the sound of a quiet heartbeat. Truly an amazingly atmospheric piece.
"Dusk Horizon" by Alexander Brandon
NyLeve's Falls, Sacred Passage
The sound of a gentle wind opens song section 0 of the throbbing track that marks the player's first exploration of the surface of this beautiful planet. As he steps out of the crashed ship onto a mountain plateau, a song of majestic chords and vibrant harmonies surrounds him. The deep bass chords and high floating melody that ensue are perfectly in tune with the sight of a deep canyon where a waterfall cascades into a lake below. But within the cliffs of the serene environment a dark menace lurks, and as the first Brute emerges from a mining bunker, flinging a human carcass out of the way as it goes, enter song section 1 - an electric, heavy action piece symbolising the player's first real challenge and fight. The adventure is just beginning.
"Dig - Shareware Version" by Alexander Brandon
Rrajigar Mine, Depths of Rrajigar
As the player enters the confines of a huge underground mining facility, song section 2 of this track accompanies him. This introductory piece is a sad song with an added element of tension that guides the player through the upper levels of the facility, as the minor key backing is mixed with a floating harmony and the occasional complementary twang. But the mood this instils does not last for long, for it is not long before the player finds himself locked in a dark passage...
Enter song section 1. With field generator power disrupted, a Skaarj Scout leaps out on the unsuspecting player and he finds himself duking it out with an agile, menacing foe amidst red strobing lights and a fast, action reel in stark contrast to the gentle strumming of the previous section of the track. Rapid beat mingles with occasional slower harmonies as the player enters the deeper levels.
Within the depths of the facility after a period of silence, song section 0 finally makes its appearance. A slow piece with a strong beat and high, drawn out synthetic harmonies gives the player a sense of progress, that they are travelling some kind of journey. And so they are, for the track is very evocative of the tunnels and chambers of the mining facility. Truly a track with a lot to offer.
"Chizra" by Michiel Van Den Bos and Alexander Brandon
Chizra - Nali Water God
The player steps into an ancient Nali temple nestled within the cliffs of a small mountain plateau. An aura of hush descends as the gentle panpipe theme of "Chizra" intertwines with his auditory senses. With a harmonious, throbbing bass, the track takes the player through images of serenity, mysticism, and gods of ages old in these torch lit sandstone chambers. As the track moves on, in comes the drama as the song approaches its resonant climax, which is signified by a culmination of the harmony played by the bass part. The frogs, torches and running water of the temple blend seamlessly with this masterful score of music leaving the player totally immersed in the setting around him. One of my favourite tracks in all of Unreal.
"SETI" by Michiel Van Den Bos
The Ceremonial Chambers
Drama, deep within the temple of Chizra. The defilement of the sacred building by the Skaarj and the Slith becomes all the more prominent, as does the shameless slaughter of the Nali. Played on some kind of mystical vibraphone backed by a techno bass, song section 0 of this track evokes tension, fear and a plethora of emotions in sharp contrast to the serenity of the previous track. With fast and slow movements, it reflects the diversity of the locales in the ceremonial chambers; sandstone rooms, passages of water, and a huge outdoor canyon. The section accompanies the scene throughout, great for the atmosphere, but such a shame in a way that song section 1 goes unused. The moment of highest drama in the track, a fast bass tension theme accompanied by a synthetic harmony later on to complete the mood, which creates a whole new set of feelings for the listener. All in all, a great track.
"Nali Chant" by Alexander Brandon
Dark Arena, The Eldora Well (RtNP)
A haunting triplet welcomes the player to a barren valley within which looms the darkest of Nali structures, the evil dark arena. The sound of Nali monks chanting backs the start of song section 0, which soon gives way to an up-tempo tension song with a synthetic bass providing a slow melody and plucked strings for a foreground harmony. With moments of a synthetic foreground providing contrast, this diverse track accompanies well the barren valley, dungeons beneath the arena and the upper ring of passageways and galleries. There is suspense... a feeling of something ghastly to come... something that lies within the centre of the arena perhaps.
And so you're here... the arena... the central gantry rises and huge doors open around you... and out bursts a gigantic Titan, to the accompaniment of the dramatic song section 1. A fast bass foreground with drawn out backing chords and other tension reels has the adrenalin pumping as you fight the gigantic beast within the confined space. Ideally suited to the dark arena level, song section 0 is revisited in the Eldora well level of the mission pack, but not to the same effect. Let a great atmospheric track rest in peace.
"Hub 2" by Michiel Van Den Bos
Harobed Village, Glathriel Village (RtNP)
The dark arena was a horrifying scene, and so to follow it come the gentle strains of song section 0 of this magical evening themed track. With a gentle, plucked backing that makes no strong demands on the senses and a floating, high melodic track, this track allows the player to relax a little in the open spaces of the Harobed Village valley. Later on we get a derivative of the track's main theme in the bass part. A slow, soothing section, which is sharply contrasted when the player is ambushed by a Skaarj at the village's abbey to the sudden drama of song section 2 - the gentle bass is suddenly replaced by a fast-paced tension beat accentuated by bursts of sound in another part. No great melody, but a short-lived action piece to break the spell of the serene environment.
The odd section out in the track has to be the unused song section 1, which doesn't entirely fit in with the feel of the scene as either an ambient or an action part. A strumming, faster piece with a quiet synthetic harmony in the higher range that has a feel of movement but no real purpose.
The relaxation of song section 0 is welcome and makes its return as the main theme for Glathriel Village in the mission pack, a night time town for which it is also well suited.
"Nightvision" by Sandman
Terraniux Underground, Terraniux
A fast techno reel welcomes the player to a high-tech Mercenary ship with song section 0 of this powerful action track. The reel soon gives way to a strong beat that is accompanied by a fast foreground which gives way to a synthetic harmony later on. The beat is kept prominently going throughout except for two short sections, one of which has a bouncy, intermittent bass and the other of which is a lot gentler, having just the synthetic harmony and a few extra sound effects, but the rhythm is soon back with a vengeance. Overall, a diverse track which passes through a variety of moods but is always upbeat. For the more prolonged battles, we have the short song section 1 - a more monotonous rhythm section with a repetitive bass and a few more interesting synthetic sounds in the upper part to give it depth.
"Hub 4" by Michiel Van Den Bos
It seems to be at this point that the ambience of Unreal takes a darker turn. You're back in the wilderness, but night has begun to fall and, in the shadow of the gigantic Terraniux facility, it's not so sunny any more. Song section 0 of this track guides you through the valley: a sinister, ominous track with the melody played at first in the resounding bass voice, with moments of harmony in the upper part used as accent. Later on, we get a slow, haunting melody in the upper registers answering the call of the bass part. And so the track alternates and loops seamlessly, with a moment of a different bass melody at the end of the repeated section for drama.
As Mercenaries ambush the player, a harsh opening sound cues song section 1. A fast, high-tension track, which inherits the same bass voice as the ambient section but playing a faster, less static tune. The upper part accents the bass and ample percussion is included to heighten the drama. Later, a much higher voice plays a few tension triplets and the bass responds, before the song section returns to a more normal sound, and then for final flourish the two parts work together to create some final tension harmonies. Then the track loops.
"Unreal Crypt" by unknown
Temple of Vandora, Velora Temple (RtNP)
The mystical vibes of Seti return to provide the opening "bong" of song section 0 of this cleverly written temple track. There follows a slow melody played on a kind of arcane, ghostly call. From there the track builds up voices; more vibes, a sitar-esque string, quiet monk voices and then a synthetic bass. As the track picks up speed, more voices work together to a great overall effect. A medium paced track with a good sense of movement with a pleasing theme tune when the track reaches full strength. After it's played its melodies, the voices die down again and it returns to the ethereal beginning of the section. A very atmospheric whole. And so it's all the more shocking when the player is ambushed to the suddenly accelerated refrain of song section 1. While unremarkable in itself, this song section with percussion, bass and a synthetic tune in the upper registers ups the tension enough for the fight.
Song section 0 is revisited by the Velora Temple level in the mission pack, but again it doesn't have quite the same effect as in the superior Temple of Vandora.
"Hub 5" by Michiel Van Den Bos
Darkness is descending on the Nali planet as the player reaches a rough earth trench carved out by the crashing arrival of the ill-fated Terran vessel ISV-Kran. In this unnatural valley where only the wind breaks the silence, the player is stalked by airborne Gasbags and gigantic Titans. It's a cold, sinister picture, and so song section 0 of this unnerving piece of work has a lot of ambience and not a great deal of melody. A quiet, static bass is accompanied by a slow, uneasy synthetic harmony with occasional upper register quadruplets and other tension-making effects. And so it continues throughout... until the player is spotted, whereupon the ambience quickly transfers to the action of song section 1. Whilst true to the ambient section in overall feel, this section is a faster, more musical piece with a much more active bass and some complimentary sounds in the upper registers that takes a moment to get going, but doesn't let up when it does. It does the job well.
"Unreal #9" by Michiel Van Den Bos
ISV-Kran Deck 4
The gentle, throbbing bass of this quiet theme tune welcomes the player to the shattered hulk of an Earth ship infested with Skaarj. Song section 0 is just the bass at first, but a familiar quadruplet brings in a slow, vibrating synthetic tune in the upper register. The voice shortly gets a double and gives way to a synthetic strings voice, and the two then end up in chorus to complete the piece. While it has tense moments, it's basically a sad piece of music that hints at shattered dreams and the terrible disaster of the ship crash-landing on the planet's surface and being invaded by the Skaarj.
All the better for contrast when a claxon is set off, and with a powerful if conventional flourish, song section 1 takes over as the player has to take on one Skaarj after another until a ventilation duct finally opens and he can proceed. The bass part gains more percussion and life, and the synthetic strings play a short tension track in the upper register, after which it loops back to a period of just the tension beat. Overall, a good piece of music.
"Unreal #9" by Michiel Van Den Bos
ISV-Kran Decks 3 and 2
This track is nothing more than a remix of Newmca9, but song section 0 has a much lighter bass and sounds quite different as a result, with a greater emphasis on the upper register melody - besides that, the only noticeable change is a quiet swooping noise at the opening of the track. But, for a variation on the theme, it does the job well enough.
As to song section 1, it's much the same as before, but with a slightly less conventional opening sound effect. There's not a lot more to say that I haven't covered above.
"Unreal #9" by Michiel Van Den Bos
ISV-Kran Deck 1
This track is another remix of Newmca9, but is probably my favourite of the three. Song section 0 has the same theme tune but with another new bass that's somewhere between the thunkiness of Newmca9 and the twanginess of Kran32. And, as the melody builds up more strength, it is joined by a couple of new harmonies in the upper register that really accentuate the mood that the track is trying to set forwards.
As to song section 1, well, it's the same as in Newmca9, just with a slightly different opening and some slightly more tense chords. It still does the job well enough, although maybe it's becoming a little familiar by this stage.
This concludes the review of the first half of Unreal's soundtrack. The review series continues in part 2.