Kessen Soundtrack, Reijiro Koroku, 2000
Since their inception in the mid-80s, Koei’s many historical strategy games had always been more of an insider proposition. It felt a bit like series such as Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms were reserved for those gamers who were willing to spend hours parsing menus and stats, while carefully planning their next move. Several of these titles had made it to the US market but never turned into eye-catching best-sellers. That changed with Kessen, one of the PlayStation 2’s launch titles. Set once more in feudal Japan, Kessen emphasised spectacular visuals and battlefield action, attracting far more attention internationally than any previous Koei game. Ultimately, Kessen was successful enough to spawn two sequels. However, several contemporary reviewers pointed out that the game lacked the usual complexity and depth of a Koei strategy game, making for an entertaining but shallow experience.
Kessen’s producer Kou Shibusawa had created the game with cinematic ambitions in mind – which had direct implications for the Kessen soundtrack. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, Koei had consistently raised the bar for the production values of orchestral game scores – even recording Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Tenshouki with overseas symphony orchestras. However, in the following years, Koei reverted to using smaller domestic ensembles or even just synthesisers. Kessen turned this development around, recorded once again overseas – this time by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (who had recently made waves with their demonstration-quality recording of Outcast the year prior).
Considering Shibusawa’s vision to create a movie-like experience, drafting a film composer to write the Kessen soundtrack almost seemed like a foregone conclusion. As with Pacific Theatre of Operations a decade earlier, Koei treated the game like a prestige project, settling on Reijiro Koroku as the game’s composer. Having started out in the mid-70s as an arranger, Koroku had built a successful composing career, with numerous assignments across movies, TV and anime. Career highlights included his score for franchise reboot The Return of Godzilla and NHK Taiga Drama Hideyoshi.
All of the above – a talented composer with an impressive resume and a developer happy to spend on high production values – bodes well for the Kessen soundtrack and Koroku’s score does not disappoint. This is a soundtrack that feels “old-fashioned” in the best possible way. There is a romantic glow to Koroku’s velvety melodies, clad in heavy yet elegant orchestrations, that is immediately appealing. Sure, you will find a decent amount of action material on this score. Still, most of the time, Koroku seems to underscore this game in the vein of a Hollywood Golden Age historical epic, writing sumptuous melodies that proudly wear their heart on their sleeve – but without ever feeling overwrought or merely tear-jerking.
It helps that Koroku adds just the right amount of counterpoint to his pieces – never enough to distract from the passion of their melody lines, yet still sufficient to add substance and class to these compositions. In fact, comparing Kessen with later Koei scores in the Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms franchises proves instructive. While those works embrace a similar orchestral style – slow tempi, a general air of portentous solemnity, string-heavy orchestrations – Kessen surpasses its competition in several ways. Its melodic invention is far superior – Koroku writes organically developing, expansive melodies instead of the shorter, repetitive melody bits other Koei scores use. Add to that Kessen’s unabashed sentimentality, a much greater willingness to wring every bit of emotion from its slowly advancing notes, and you have a far more engaging and just plain moving work.
If you need proof of the Kessen soundtrack’s sheer melodic beauty, one listen to closing track “Denouement – Ending of Victory” should seal the deal. It’s a gloriously emotional outpouring of elation, nothing less than one continuously developing, gorgeous string melody adorned with proudly reflective brass inserts, dramatically rising and falling with the poignancy of an operatic overture.
It’s the score’s most rousing moment, but there are many more pieces that proudly showcase their broadly flowing, instantly attractive melodies. The warm pathos of “Ieyasu” recalls both James Horner’s brand of Americana on Legends of the Fall, as well as classic World War II scores during an episode for solo trumpet. “Yodogimi” adds to the soundtrack’s palette with a swooning clarinet solo, while the hesitant melodic progression of “Echoes of Sorrow – Theme of Sadness” poignantly communicates the music’s will to gather all the strength it can muster and carry on. Here and elsewhere, the material Koroku writes isn’t necessarily very complex or densely arranged. However, that matters little, as his unfailing sense for melodies that are heart-rending and expressive easily carries the music.
Of course, this being the score for a game that sees massive armies clashing on the battlefield, martial sounds play an important role on the Kessen soundtrack – but maybe not as much as one might think. “Kessen – Opening” beautifully encapsulates the duality Koroku achieves on this score. After an immensely ominous opening – extended double bass drones, sinister timpani strikes, cymbal crescendi – Koroku unleashes a succession of well-composed, suitably stirring brass fanfares to call gamers to war. However, the surprise lies in the track’s mid-section, which features the first showing of those plush string melodies that will later dominate the score. “Battle at Sekigahara” continues this mix of emotions. After a sombre opening for grave brass fanfares and a heavy march, the cue truly opens up. Continually developing, “Battle at Sekigahara” turns into one of the soundtrack’s most substantial pieces, at turns patriotic, nostalgic and ultimately uplifting.
Not surprisingly, on these battle cues, the brass section makes its most significant contribution, adding further heft to the score’s already prevailing sense of gravity and importance. Once again though, the music never feels needlessly heavy – while the score might be drenched in melodrama, Koroku has the melodic chops and orchestrational creativity to pull off his gamble. Just listen to how the brusque brass fanfares opening “The Eastern Army” give way to a contemplative clarinet solo, or the beguiling second half of “The Sweat of Battle – Battlefield – Superior Power”, with its nocturnal oboe lead against hushed triangle strikes and quivering strings. Make no mistake though – when Koroku decides to let rip on a cue like “Western War Front – Battlefield – Western Army”, the brassy bombast he conjures is earth-shattering. Indeed, the Kessen soundtrack is a worthy successor to the classic orchestral Koei scores that have preceded it.
- 01 - Kessen - Opening Koroku, Reijiro 2:27
- 02 - Battle at Sekigahara Koroku, Reijiro 4:42
- 03 - Shadow - Shadow of Nobunaga - Ieyasu's Decision Koroku, Reijiro 1:31
- 04 - The Eastern Army Koroku, Reijiro 1:56
- 05 - Ieyasu Koroku, Reijiro 2:05
- 06 - The Western Army Koroku, Reijiro 1:38
- 07 - Yodogimi Koroku, Reijiro 2:25
- 08 - Garasha Koroku, Reijiro 1:56
- 09 - Koumura Koroku, Reijiro 2:29
- 10 - Western War Front - Battlefield - Western Army Koroku, Reijiro 2:10
- 11 - War Merits - Battlefield - Superior Power Koroku, Reijiro 4:13
- 12 - The Sweat of Battle - Battlefield - Superior Power Koroku, Reijiro 2:03
- 13 - Conclusion - Ending of Defeat Koroku, Reijiro 2:28
- 14 - Echoes of Sorrow - Theme of Sadness Koroku, Reijiro 1:57
- 15 - The Final Battle Koroku, Reijiro 2:23
- 16 - Denouement - Ending of Victory Koroku, Reijiro 2:38