Disgaea: Heart of Darkness Soundtrack, 2003, Tenpei Sato
It’s always fun to cheer on the little game that could and see it not only succeed, but turn into a burgeoning franchise selling millions of copies – without losing its charmingly eccentric character. Before the release of Disgaea: Hour of Darkness, developer Nippon Ichi had been releasing one game a year, constantly on the precipice of closure should that game fail. All that was about to change with Hour of Darkness, a zany strategy RPG starring Laharl, son of King Krichevskoy, overlord of the Netherworld – who passed away while Laharl was sleeping for a couple of years. Setting Laharl’s quest to reclaim the throne in a setting like the Demon Netherworld gave the developers liberty to apply an “anything goes” approach, according to producer Sohei Niikawa. The result was a strategy RPG that was as deep as it was irreverent (not many RPGs can claim exploding penguins as their mascots).
Like for Nippon Ichi, Hour of Darkness was also the breakthrough success for its composer Tenpei Sato. Although he had been composing game music for 15 years by the time he worked on Hour of Darkness, Sato had remained relatively little-known outside of Japan. His most notable work had been the soundtracks for Nippon Ichi’s Marl Kingdom franchise. Those scores had effectively been fully-fledged musicals – to this day a rare sight in the world of game music. Sato’s music for Hour of Darkness took the same idiosyncratic approach to the game’s demonic setting as Disgaea’s visuals and writing. As Sato put it in an interview: “[…] in contrast to one’s dark image of a demon world, the music is comical, lively, enthusiastic and intense.” Sato immensely enjoyed the scoring assignment – “Sohei Niikawa asked that I write unique music, so I was able to compose freely and playfully.”
All of the above adjectives describe the Disgaea: Hour of Darkness soundtrack perfectly – except “unique”. That might come as a surprise, given the franchise’s reputation for producing quirky music. However, that quality is much more prevalent from Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories onwards. On the other hand, Hour of Darkness turns out to be stylistically more traditional than one might expect. Yes, compared to a high-fantasy strategy RPG like Final Fantasy Tactics, Hour of Darkness is undeniably a wilder combination of different musical influences. However, ultimately Hour of Darkness isn’t a stranger bird than your average JRPG – it’s a mostly (synth)orchestral affair, with a few genre experiments thrown in for good measure. And of course, there’s a handful of musical numbers, which are the one aspect that really set the score apart – although they also firmly tie Hour of Darkness in with Sato’s previous work on the Marl Kingdom games.
Of course, none of that is a problem per se – it just highlights that Sato is one of the 32-bit era’s most talented orchestral composers. His writing for the ensemble is first-rate – fluid and constantly involving all sections of the orchestra, while also providing enough substance in the shape of melodies and counterpoint to underpin the deliciously colourful compositions. The natural result is a lively, varied soundtrack with an immense expressive range – from sincere yet still fun bombast to giggling mischievousness and dreamy calm without losing a beat.
In fact, what might be most surprising about the Disgaea: Hour of Darkness soundtrack is how much of its run time is dedicated to orchestral pieces that meander idyllically. “Flowerbed”, “Angel Smile”, and “Dear Friends” drop one gorgeous string and woodwind melody after the other. At the same time, Sato gives each piece its individual character – be it the swooning melodic outburst capping off “Flowerbed”, the mandolin accompaniment on “Angel Smile”, or the acoustic guitar duo on “Dear Friends”.
Sato also effortlessly spins the melodic grace of these modestly-proportioned pieces into larger statements that are as moving and stirring as PS2 orchestral scores come. “Eternal Melody” is a wonderfully well-constructed string adagio that ends the soundtrack’s instrumental portion on as majestic a note as one could hope for. “Flower of Happiness” goes one better still – it’s simply one of gaming’s greatest vocal ending tracks, a contented ballad for female solo singer, solo strings, acoustic guitar and piano. Its transparent orchestrations and delicate tone colours are lovely changes of pace after “Eternal Melody”’s uplifting gravitas and allow the dense contrapuntal lines to shine through. Sato beautifully mimics a shower of falling pedals at the cue’s end when he layers vocalist Sakurako Matsuura’s blissfully charming la-la-la vocals into a gentle wall of sound that envelopes and beguiles listeners.
Such creativity and attention to detail serve Sato well on the entire Disgaea: Hour of Darkness soundtrack. Of course, given the game’s narrative and generally comical mood, much of his orchestral material leans into The Nightmare Before Christmas-style, light-hearted mock-Gothic tones – without ever veering into outright silliness or parody. “Hell’s Whisper” turns from a simple music box tune into a darkly elegant waltz with a lightly comical undercurrent – while delivering some of the 32-bit era’s most appealing and complex orchestrations. “A Dark Race Becomes Magnificent” follows suit and does its title proud, while “Mischievous Demon’s Footfall” and “Beauty Baron” delight in their mock-seriousness, prancing tempi, agile woodwind soli – and bountiful musical material. “Rosen Queen Co., Underworld Branch” is the soundtrack’s most overtly carnivalesque track, yet doesn’t test listeners’ patience – and the cue still has space for original ideas like sitar leads.
Another surprise that the Disgaea: Hour of Darkness has in store is its capacity to deliver full-bodied orchestral grandeur. As you would expect, some of it is laced with comedic undertones – take “Welcome to the Overlord’s Castle” and “Portrait of the Underworld”, which poke fun at the presumed grandiosity of their locations while still delivering robust orchestral opulence. More commonly, though, Sato’s grander orchestral pieces are straight-faced barnstormers. “Witch Hunting” and “Fancy Ball” show the composer’s knack for orchestral action material that layers its urgent bombast carefully to give it depth, while mixing it with strong melody hooks. In fact, Sato’s masters this particular emotional register so well that he can even convincingly venture into space opera grandiloquence on “Galaxy Wars” and “March of the Planet Earth”. “Galaxy Wars” works a treat thanks to its Star Trek-inspired brass material – less focused on counterpoint and more on monolithic melodic statements.
Of course, the Disgaea: Hour of Darkness soundtrack’s reputation for eccentricity isn’t entirely unjustified. Much of that is due to its songs, which heighten the score’s expressiveness so much that the music turns into perfectly executed parody. “Marionette of Tragedy” – true to its title – delightfully wallows in Gothic stereotypes, but also joyously undermines all that seriousness via unexpected additions such as mandolin and accordion. “Ah, My Magnificent Life” plays to the rafters as a full-blown operatic Tenor aria (sung in Italian, of course) that couldn’t be any more passionately overwrought. Meanwhile, “My Comrade” surprises as an upbeat Western ballad full of riding rhythms, acoustic guitar and sweeping strings. Finally, “Lord Laharl’s Hymn” and “Etna Boogie” are sassy, jazzy pieces. Sato writes them as spectacular, fully-fledged musical numbers with all the irresistible swagger of Broadway-style curtain-raisers – a testament to both the talent and irreverence Sato brings to this score.
Finally, Sato does play with different genre combinations on several tracks, although a few end up trying too hard to be humorous and self-consciously quirky – but there are still some gems to be found here. “Ray of Light to the Future” mixes orchestral and pop music, building the latter’s catchiness into the cue’s violin melodies so they can soar magnificently above the dignified brass. “Underworld” achieves a genre blend that’s just as convincing, milking every bit of drama out of its power metal stylings that combine finely crafted orchestrations with powerful guitar riffs and enthusiastic note-shredding. Most creative of all are “You Go Girl” – with its 1960s rock influences, zany electronics and mariachi-style trumpet lead – and “The Great Wild”, which dabbles in Arabian sounds on an animated, colourful piece that bounds along to zesty rhythms. Indeed, it’s hard to overstate the joyful brilliance of the Disgaea: Hour of Darkness soundtrack.
- 01 - Lord Laharl's Hymn Sato, Tenpei 2:48
- 02 - Hell's Whisper Sato, Tenpei 1:46
- 03 - Welcome to the Overlord's Castle Sato, Tenpei 1:46
- 04 - Ghost Descent Sato, Tenpei 2:21
- 05 - Flowerbed Sato, Tenpei 2:18
- 06 - Etna Boogie Sato, Tenpei 2:11
- 07 - AKUMA Drops Sato, Tenpei 1:37
- 08 - Angel Smile Sato, Tenpei 2:20
- 09 - Mischevious Demon's Footfall Sato, Tenpei 1:21
- 10 - Hysteric Kingdom Sato, Tenpei 1:49
- 11 - Ah, My Magnificent Life Sato, Tenpei 3:39
- 12 - A Dark Race Becomes Magnificient Sato, Tenpei 1:43
- 13 - Dear Friends Sato, Tenpei 3:15
- 14 - Witch Hunting Sato, Tenpei 1:59
- 15 - The Anthem of Braves Sato, Tenpei 1:49
- 16 - Marionette of Tragedy Sato, Tenpei 3:12
- 17 - Beauty Baron Sato, Tenpei 1:46
- 18 - Beautiful Round Dance Sato, Tenpei 1:37
- 19 - You Go Girl Sato, Tenpei 1:25
- 20 - Portrait of the Underworld Sato, Tenpei 1:21
- 21 - My Comrade Sato, Tenpei 2:07
- 22 - Ray of Light to the Future Sato, Tenpei 1:53
- 23 - Underworld Sato, Tenpei 1:58
- 24 - The Great Wild Sato, Tenpei 2:00
- 25 - Rosen Queen Co., Underworld Branch Sato, Tenpei 1:41
- 26 - Fancy Ball Sato, Tenpei 1:41
- 27 - Galaxy Wars Sato, Tenpei 2:36
- 28 - March of the Planet Earth Sato, Tenpei 1:50
- 29 - Eternal Melody Sato, Tenpei 4:18
- 30 - Flower of Happiness Sato, Tenpei 5:51