Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV Soundtrack (PC-98), Jun Nagao, 1994
As with Nobunaga’s Ambition, developer KOEI tended to make only incremental changes to the gameplay formula of its other flagship series, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Heavy on strategising, resource management and processing stats while set in feudal China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV: Wall of Fire differed little from its franchise predecessors of historical turn-based strategy titles. Still, reviewers agreed that as long as you were tuned into this particular kind of games that favoured depth over action and fancy visuals, Wall of Fire provided addictive entertainment. As was common during the early 1990s, the game was ported to several computer and console platforms (even the 32X!) – not that there was much perceivable difference between the ports, with the 32-bit versions of the game looking virtually identical to their 16-bit brethren.
However, there was one component of Wall of Fire’s presentation that quickly stood out – and that was the soundtrack of the PC-98’s Soundware version. In the years before Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV, KOEI had begun to revolutionise game music. After all, this was the company that commissioned the first orchestral game score (Hiroshi Miyagawa’s Pacific Theatre of Operations in 1989). It also launched Yoko Kanno’s astonishing career with a series of game score recordings using live ensembles. In 1992, for the first time, Kanno had been given access to a standard-sized orchestra to record Nobunaga’s Ambition: Haouden and KOEI must have liked what they heard.
While previous Romance of the Three Kingdoms scores had only sparsely used classical elements (RoTK 2 and 3 even went for synth-rock), Wall of Fire dramatically changed the franchise’s musical direction. It became the first Japanese orchestral game score to be recorded overseas. The ensemble in question was the ‘Hungary Philharmony Orchestra’ (according to the liner notes – likely a mistranslation that might refer to the Hungarian National Philharmonic?), recording the soundtrack in December 1993. KOEI’s choice of composer for this groundbreaking undertaking was intriguing: young classically-trained composer Jun Nagao, who delivered his first and only game score with the Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV soundtrack. Focusing otherwise on his career as a classical composer, Nagao also worked as an orchestrator on Joe Hisaishi’s Le petit poucet, and none other than monster hit Spirited Away.
Keeping Nagao’s artistic background in mind is crucial when processing the unrestrained splendour of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV soundtrack. In short, no other game soundtrack feels so much like a piece of (brilliantly conceived) classical music. In fact, it seems that Nagao treats this scoring assignment as an excuse to write a series of short concert pieces. Generally speaking, his style is that of post-Straussian opulence. He elicits a head-spinning riot of orchestral colours from the ensemble while moving further and further away from traditional tonality – but without entirely forsaking it (Alexander Scriabin or Frederick Delius make for fitting points of comparison).
The result is a work whose harmonic language and orchestrations reach a level of refinement virtually unmatched in the realm of game music. Think of the most luscious and virtuosically scored portions of an already masterful score like EverQuest II (such as “Antonica”). Then imagine this degree of compositional sophistication taken up another notch and sustained across an entire album, such is the mind-boggling excellence of this score. Upon its release, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV soundtrack did nothing less than set a new standard for orchestral game scores – one which might well remain unmatched to this day.
Put simply, every composition on this score is an embarrassment of riches. Despite his orchestrations’ opulence, Nagao largely avoids overt displays of militarism or forceful bombast – although when he does go there, the results are jaw-dropping. “Opening: Soaring Heaven” does its name proud – intricately arranged brass fanfares backed by layers and layers of trilling woodwinds and soaring strings turn the piece’s beginning into the most spectacular curtain-raiser. From here on, Nagao develops the cue into a truly epic concert overture, encapsulating an entire world within less than six minutes, organically moving from one gorgeously scored passage to the next. The piece culminates in appropriately stunning fashion when ascending strings push the brass section from one heroic fanfare to the next, surrounded by swirling harps.
“Dragon Fortress ~ Blazing Hope ~ A Glorious Death ~ Field of Death” is more single-minded. After its monolithic start, the cue transforms its initially sparse material into an animated battle track of always high drama, whipping the music forward at levels of breathless intensity reached by hardly any other orchestral game score. “Sea God ~ Dark River ~ Funeral” brings its action material more in line with the soundtrack’s supremely colourful expressiveness, before segueing into a terser episode of understated tension that recalls the nocturnal passages of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. It makes for a most fitting prelude to the cue’s funereal close, full of sombre pathos and showing how Nagao can also work wonders with more fractured melodic material.
The majority of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV soundtrack luxuriates in more pastoral moods, with each cue unearthing another individualistic approach. “Bamboo Hermit” highlights how Nagao manages to evoke the game’s exotic settings through creative orchestrations that don’t require Chinese instruments. In this case, it’s a cor anglais solo with gentle folk touches that conjures the cue’s required Eastern atmosphere, supported by wooden xylophone and harp. What’s more, Nagao’s orchestral colours subtly invoke a location ever so slightly removed from our world, accommodating yet full of mystery. “Green Ripple” achieves a similarly heady effect. The composition surrounds its dramatically undulating cello and flute soli with a busy, continually attacking dulcimer line on one stereo channel and a relentlessly forward-pushing piano rhythm on the other. And “Balmy Breeze” emerges as nothing less than a fully-fledged, absolutely delectable chamber music trio for French horn, piano and violin.
Other compositions on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV soundtrack combine these more romantic strains with the breadth and gravitas exhibited so convincingly on “Opening: Soaring Heavens”. “Hazy Stream ~ Uprising ~ Heaven” is as dazzlingly multi-faceted as the album opener. At times it enters piano concerto territory and delivers the score’s most heart-meltingly beautiful melodies before it ultimately climaxes with a finale worthy of a grand symphony when various orchestral lines and melodies pile up to utterly triumphant effect. “Flower Banquet ~ Ending: Horizon of Light” concludes the soundtrack with as much sweeping emotion and reminiscing as one could hope for – it truly is as majestic and melodically ravishing as the best Golden Age movie score closing cues.
However, it’s “Purple Swallow Palace” which might be the score’s most striking piece – and that’s saying something. Applying the soundtrack’s romanticism to the cue’s imperial location, Nagao creates an almost exhaustingly monumental effect by contrasting his ostinato string material’s rigid nature with its peerlessly varied treatment. The resulting textural density becomes more complex still, thanks to the surprising warmth of the cue’s orchestrations and melodies. After such an intense first half, the music relaxes briefly, only for the piano to push the piece forward again into ebbing and swelling crescendi and decrescendi of Ravel-like colours. Finally, the stunning conclusion: a trumpet solo gliding over bubbling and roiling orchestral dissonances, as if bringing order to cosmic chaos. What could be more fitting to underscore an emperor’s might? Not much – and there’s undoubtedly also no better proof of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms IV soundtrack’s breathtaking brilliance.
- 01 - Opening: Soaring Heaven Nagao, Jun 5:39
- 02 - Bamboo Hermit Nagao, Jun 3:04
- 03 - Hazy Stream ~ Uprising ~ Heaven Nagao, Jun 6:57
- 04 - Purple Swallow Palace Nagao, Jun 3:18
- 05 - Drunk Moon Nagao, Jun 3:27
- 06 - Dragon Fortress ~ Blazing Horse ~ A Glorious Death ~ Field of Battle Nagao, Jun 4:45
- 07 - Balmy Breeze Nagao, Jun 2:53
- 08 - Green Ripple Nagao, Jun 3:10
- 09 - Sea God ~ Dark River ~ Funeral Nagao, Jun 5:46
- 10 - Diaochan Nagao, Jun 3:34
- 11 - Flower Banquest ~ Ending: Horizon of Light Nagao, Jun 4:52