Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories, Tenpei Sato, 2006
Nippon Ichi struck gold with Disgaea: Hour of Darkness – quite unexpectedly, given its niche nature as a strategy RPG with strong parody elements and a ton of anime and manga references. What was even more surprising was that Hour of Darkness sold even better in the United States than in Japan! For the sequel Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories, Nippon Ichi understandably chose to tweak and polish – rather than significantly alter – Hour of Darkness‘ formula. The result was another hugely in-depth strategy game that reviewers and genre fans welcomed with open arms – some even regarding it as a better title than Hour of Darkness.
Tenpei Sato had delivered one of his greatest works with the Hour of Darkness soundtrack. It was a joyous and refined orchestral score that playfully paid tribute to the game’s Halloween-esque setting, while also throwing in a few stylistic curve balls and show-stopping musical numbers. Cursed Memories featured a new cast of characters and was no longer set in Hour of Darkness’ demon underworld. As a result, Cursed Memories moved away from its predecessor’s The Nightmare Before Christmas inspirations. According to Sato, Cursed Memories’ new sound director also contributed to the score’s stylistic change, with a greater focus on rock music – “many of the tracks are fast and intense”, as Sato put it in an interview.
That description is partially correct – yes, the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack is a more full-on experience than its predecessor, although it’s not all that heavy on rock music. Instead, Sato shifts his focus away from the orchestral strains that dominated Hour of Darkness and launches head-first into the kind of genre-bending experiments that would set up the Disgaea franchise’s reputation for joyfully eclectic music. Importantly though, Sato never pushes the score’s zany, borderline silly nature – that’s an unfortunate trait that would creep into the franchise from Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice onwards. On Cursed Memories, irreverence naturally emerges from the score’s wild genre mixes, with Sato never having to push too hard for humorous effect. In any case, while the game itself didn’t shake things up all that much, its soundtrack is more ambitious and took the franchise in a new musical direction.
What hasn’t changed is the torrent of fresh ideas that Sato pours into almost every cue on the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack. His genre hybrids are no less carefully sculpted and agile than their rich orchestral counterparts on Hour of Darkness. And as much as Sato likes to jump between styles, he does add a few binding elements to the score. One is the prominent use of a solo violin, often placed in a large, echoing acoustic space. Considering the technical limitations of the PS2 sound chip, that’s a bold choice – but thanks to some excellent work by Cursed Memories’ sound designers, the instrument sounds sufficiently authentic, leading the melodic charge on several compositions.
Take “Visual Sensation” and “Daybreak Crying”. Both cues are probably the closest that the soundtrack comes to replicating Hour of Darkness’ Gothic mood – but with some changes to the formula. On “Visual Sensation”, the solo violin is backed by snappy strings and irregular electronic rhythms to create complex melodic and rhythmic progressions. “Daybreak Crying” is a fascinating slow-burner that combines dramatic solo violin with plodding rhythms, a busy electronic bass, choral vocals and rock drums – a mix constantly on the verge of violently erupting. Sato equally features the solo violin prominently as the soundtrack reaches its grand finale. On “Disgaea Rhapsody”, it leads a rock/orchestra/electro-flavoured final boss track that’s as bombastic as it is surprisingly experimental, thanks to its constant rhythmic changes and ghostly wailing vocals. And “Rosalin’s Palace” celebrates victory not as a triumphant orchestral piece, but by mixing its elegant solo violin with a smooth, laid-back electronic groove.
What’s so striking about the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack is how organic almost all of its genre experiments feel, no matter how unlikely their components – such is Sato’s skill at bringing his divergent inspirations together. For example, a trio of compositions – “Magnificent Dark Family ‘05”, “AKUMA Drops HG”, and “Secret Circle” – seamlessly merges Arabian string and woodwind melodies with a web of acoustic and electronic rhythms (and in the case of “AKUMA Drops HG”, a brief medieval dance interlude). “Shinobi Dance” and “1st Samurai” look further east for inspiration, drawing upon traditional Japanese music for inspiration, as shakuhachi leads and koto accompaniment meet electric guitars, funky brass fanfares, stomping rock orchestrations and yet more electronics. “Spread Your Wings”’s orchestral rock essentially consists of one extended, soaring guitar solo pushed higher and higher by surprisingly intricate drumming and proud brass fanfares.
Evidently, the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack puts a much larger emphasis on electronica than its predecessor, and so it’s no surprise that some tracks put this style front and centre. “Cyber Dance” is the most elaborate synth-driven piece, packed with off-kilter melodies and polyrhythmic beats that somehow don’t lose their strident groove – while still building into a catchy chorus. Other tracks in this vein just go for a straightforward endorphin rush. “Prinny My Love” might be the whole franchise’s most ebullient track, mixing irrepressibly joyful beats with outrageous brass fanfares for one of game music’s happiest raves. “Overdriver” isn’t as overwhelmingly enthusiastic, but it’s still exuberant enough to endear itself with its energising rock percussion. On the other end of the spectrum, “Night Head”s warped synths and jarring electronica come together to form a mesmerising, surreal piece held together by creepy violin and woodwind melodies.
Don’t assume for a second though that Sato has lost his knack for writing outstanding orchestral music – there’s still a fair amount of it to be found on the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack. “Wonder Castle” highlights the score’s humorous, carnivalesque side, while “R.P.G.” is simply spectacular. It’s as if Sato attempts to cram everything great about that beloved high-fantasy RPG sound into a single three-minute composition – and he succeeds with flying colours. The gushing wealth of musical details and ideas stuffed into every corner of the piece is jaw-dropping.
What’s most remarkable about the orchestral side of the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack is how utterly moving and deeply felt much of it is (in a game where penguins say ‘dood’ a lot – never judge a book by its cover). The 32-bit era has produced no denser choral writing than what we hear on “A Flock of Lambs”. The layered synth choir not only demonstrates Sato’s exemplary use of counterpoint, but through clever use of heady repetition turns into an intoxicating, impenetrable wall of sound. No other cue on the score matches “A Flock of Lambs”’ tragic yet graceful gravitas, but pieces like “Dawn Whisper”, “The Warmth of this Heart”, and “Elegy of the Tundra” all open up vast, empty spaces and fill them with delicate, gorgeous melodies. These compositions take Hour of Darkness’ idyllic, sun-lit inclinations and turn this introspective mood into something more exquisitely ethereal and searching.
And what about the songs? There aren’t as many musical numbers as on Hour of Darkness, and due to Cursed Memories’ diverse nature, they don’t stand out as much this time around, but they still maintain the score’s level of excellence. Closing ballad “Sparkle, to Become a Star” doesn’t reach the dizzying heights of “Flower of Happiness”, but still builds into an impressively sweeping orchestral power ballad during its six minutes. “Etna Rock” stays fairly close to “Etna Boogie” and does what its name suggests – but swings with maybe even more unbridled energy than before. It’s great to hear Sato having fun delivering the enthusiastic lead vocals on the 80s-inspired synth-rock anthem that is “White Tiger”, but ultimately, “Sinful Rose” is the standout. This brilliant, flamenco-infused pop song is as passionate as it is playful, with some virtuoso moments for Spanish guitar.
Does the Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories soundtrack come together as one consistent whole, just like its individual compositions do? More than you would think, considering just how frantically Sato jumps from genre to genre. However, crashing from the near-operatic grandeur of “A Flock of Lambs” into the fist-pumping dance moves of “White Tiger” is a jarring experience. That might mean that Hour of Darkness comes out just ahead of its successor – but taken on its own, almost every piece on Cursed Memories is a scintillating creation that dazzles with its inventive timbres and beguiling melodies.
- 01 - Sinful Rose Sato, Tenpei 4:16
- 02 - Magnificent Dark Family '05 Sato, Tenpei 2:55
- 03 - Wonder Castle Sato, Tenpei 2:19
- 04 - Cyber Dance Sato, Tenpei 3:11
- 05 - Dawn Whisper Sato, Tenpei 3:15
- 06 - Prinny My Love Sato, Tenpei 2:55
- 07 - Heroic Blues Sato, Tenpei 2:37
- 08 - AKUMA Drops HG Sato, Tenpei 2:45
- 09 - A Flock of Lambs Sato, Tenpei 3:37
- 10 - White Tiger Sato, Tenpei 3:16
- 11 - Brother & Sister Sato, Tenpei 2:06
- 12 - The Warmth of this Heart Sato, Tenpei 2:55
- 13 - Spread Your Wings Sato, Tenpei 2:18
- 14 - Night Head Sato, Tenpei 2:56
- 15 - Makai Station Sato, Tenpei 1:17
- 16 - Elegy of the Tundra Sato, Tenpei 3:17
- 17 - Visual Sensation Sato, Tenpei 2:17
- 18 - Daybreak Crying Sato, Tenpei 3:18
- 19 - Etna Rock Sato, Tenpei 3:27
- 20 - Shinobi Dance Sato, Tenpei 2:14
- 21 - Lonely Rosely Sato, Tenpei 1:47
- 22 - Over Driver Sato, Tenpei 2:45
- 23 - Makai Band Sato, Tenpei 2:31
- 24 - So Long... Sato, Tenpei 3:14
- 25 - 1st Samurai Sato, Tenpei 2:28
- 26 - Is It Admiration for Lord Laharl? Sato, Tenpei 1:38
- 27 - Secret Circle Sato, Tenpei 2:48
- 28 - R.P.G. Sato, Tenpei 2:50
- 29 - Holy Mansion Sato, Tenpei 2:42
- 30 - Disgaea Rhapsody Sato, Tenpei 4:09
- 31 - Rosalin's Palace Sato, Tenpei 2:50
- 32 - Sparkle, to Become a Star Sato, Tenpei 5:43