Review Summary: Breathtaking.
I recently wrote a few college essays discussing how I'd consider modern video games "art" right alongside movies, music, and literature. I got agreements and refutations alike; the subject is still considered highly debatable, and people really don't seem to take it lightly. I was explaining everything like the cinematic elements, music, graphics, blah blah blah... but people still seemed to keep their points to themselves. Throughout all of this, all that kept coming to mind were some of the games that could be used as examples of this argument: the Final Fantasy series, the Metal Gear Solid series, and of course, the legendary Team Ico duo of games for the Playstation 2.
Team Ico, hailing from Japan and headed by game designer Fumito Ueda, have only made two games so far (ICO and Shadow of the Colossus) which have been exceptionally well-received and considered cult classics. To many, however, these games go beyond just being video games... they're considered examples of modern interactive art, as well as emotionally resonant with the majority of gamers who play them. One of the biggest factors in these statements is obviously the music of Shadow of the Colossus composed by Kow Otani, who is well-known for his scores to several monster movies. Unlike the music from that movie genre, however, this is much different. Imagine a fully-orchestrated Hollywood action score mixed with a Japanese new age and Romantic-era compositions; all of these elements collide to make the beautiful score known as Shadow of the Colossus: Roar of the Earth.
The orchestral moments that symbolize the climactic battles against the titular "Colossi" are absolutely superb, giving you a rush of energy when facing these great beasts. The two finest pieces in this category have to be "The Opened Way" and "A Despair-Filled Farewell"; the former is considered a standard in the world of game music, with the sweeping string arrangements combined with pound tribal drumbeats. Little embellishments here and there, such as descending violin runs and flute trills, add to the layered sound of the piece while other strings illustrate the musical backdrop. "A Despair-Filled Farewell" is even better, filling the player with a tense feeling as it plays out. Ascending and descending runs from the string section and flutes begin the song as the intro builds up and stops twice. After this, the song really begins; there's an assault of frantic outbursts from the brass instruments before the strings take over and have their say. The climax is the best part, with the choir coming in and making the piece even more epic and the strings now presiding over the once-mighty horns. The trombone does make a nice appearance near the end to close things out, though. The other fast-paced songs generally continue in the vein of these two song, with a few songs such as "Gatekeeper of the Castle Ruins" and "Grotesque Figures" also fleshing out slower arrangements to let the atmosphere build up around the player. Finally, the last one I'd like to mention of these pieces is "Silence." Aptly titled, the song is minimalism done right; starting with a few dissonant harmonies and stray melodies from the strings, the cellos start to build up the song in intensity before all the instruments drop out of the picture and the minimalist melody closes the piece out. In the game itself, this composition is generally used when a colossus is soaring above you and you can't reach it; once you latch onto the colossus, the music becomes one of the faster pieces to suit the battle.
The slower, more reflective songs are even better. This is where that "new age" influence kicks in, and it works wonderfully to represent the landscapes and overall tone of the game. "The Sunlit Earth" is my personal favorite, combining swift piano runs with soothing flute work; it really lives up to the title, suggesting hope at the end of the darkness that's surrounding the video game. The Epilogue piece is also fantastic, another minimalist piece that contrasts a sense of despair with a lighthearted string arrangement that brings a ray of light just as "The Sunlit Earth" does. The small pieces are great too; "Sanctuary" is a half-minute burst of strings and what sound like synthesizers, as the door to the final boss's environment opens before the player. "Lakeside" is a nice, soothing folk melody for introducing the vast lake that would hold one of the more entertaining bosses in the game, while "Green Hills" provides a more foreboding atmosphere with it's melancholic flute harmonies. Additionally, the way these songs contrast with the high-energy orchestral pieces is absolutely wonderful; in terms of track placement, the songs balance each other in a superb fashion. There's never too much of one style going on, and the score flows very well.
There are a few tiny problems, such as some unnecessary pieces (the reprise of "The Farthest Land" sounds almost identical to the original composition) and overlong runtimes, but they are very minor when compared to how great the score is as a whole. Kow Otani should be very proud, as these compositions are better than what you would hear on many of Hollywood's best works; plus, the combination of dynamic symphonic arrangements and emotionally-charged new age music is breathtaking. If you want a score that's extremely original and emotionally resonant, this is an absolute must! Oh, and buy the game while you're at it; that's wonderful too.