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The stylistic curveball oddity of the discography: the Sonic Unleashed OST

14/10/2011

(sometimes I like to write big, serious things about video game music too)

Soundtracks are albums too. It sounds obvious but it’s a factoid that’s easy to forget due to the simple difference in their origins: whereas albums stand on their own, soundtracks have always been created together with another piece of work they’re meant to be bound with. We listen to and buy albums out of various reasons; we tend to do the same with soundtracks only after we’ve already built a relationship with the creation they’re supporting. It’s normal for us to talk about albums growing on us, having layers waiting to be peeled and hidden depths to be discovered, but with soundtracks we have the tendency to name our opinions after one listen or even before we actually hear the music separated from the visuals it accompanies. But sometimes they have layers waiting to grow too. In the past I’ve used the metaphor of the Sonic series being a band thanks to the regular appearance of a new album entry every year or two and the slight differences each soundtrack has in tone, mirroring the usual artistic evolution: if we stay on that path, Planetary Pieces is the oddball of the discography that first gets questioning glances directed at it but eventually the opinion begins to turn around.

Sonic Unleashed (or Sonic World Adventure as it’s known in Japan, hence the full name of its soundtrack release) is a game that has been creating confused opinions all the way from its release. Appropriately for its duality gameplay mechanics, it’s a game that in many ways screams of a classic Sonic game but then proceeds to take the series in completely uncharted, somewhat baffling waters at the very same time. It has ambitions to become the ultimate Sonic experience and in many ways pulls it off. The daytime stages where you control Sonic as we know and love him are the first game in the series that nails Sonic’s famous speed aspect perfectly and runs with it to create moments of sheer awesomeness that gets you giggling and smiling like a git because you’re finally experiencing how epic hi-speed action can be when you’re breezing through locales each which try to one-up another in terms of setpieces (running on the backs of giant whales! Launching into air surrounded by fireworks! Speeding down a gigantic clock tower!). Robotnik, the series’ affably evil villain finally shows what he’s made of, from actually succeeding in thwarting Sonic in the opening cutscene to finally building the empire city he’s been planning to for the series’ entire length. Even the token one-off character, an adorable purple little sweet-tooth called Chip, leaves a lasting impression because the developers have created an actual chemistry between him and Sonic, resulting in what feels like the first genuine friendship Sonic’s had in the whole series. And yet this is the game where you only spend half the time racing about as the blue blur as every night Sonic transforms into a hedgehog equivalent of a werewolf and switches gameplay from epic speeding to exceedingly repetetive (if still fun enough) full-on melee combat and awkward platforming, where Robotnik’s finally-realised city produces the worst level that has ever graced the series’ history, where every other character outside Sonic and Chip feels pointlessly dragged in and even somewhat annoying, and – to finally bring this to tackle the music – where the soundtrack takes a complete, sudden curve from the series’ trademark sound.

The explanation for the soundtrack’s nature is easy enough. Jun Senoue, the man behind the series’ music from the 90s, was too busy with other projects at the time so the main responsibility for Unleashed’s score was given to one Fumie Kumatani. Kumatani’s previous main contribution to the series was Rouge’s stage music all the way back in Sonic Adventure 2 which had a curious, slightly jazzy and somewhat calmer tone as opposed to the series’ more traditional high-energy guitar-and-synths approach. Unleashed’s soundtrack follows suit: acoustic instruments are more in the forefront and the only time the soundtrack gets somewhat faster is during Sonic’s daytime stages, otherwise preferring to rely on a smooth, calm groove or building a delicate mood – and even those faster moments have a lighter, softer tone to them. The various other composers helping Kumatani out carry on in a similar style, the sole exception being the orchestral cutscene moments which are, well, orchestral. It’s a Sonic soundtrack that’s not very Sonical in nature. It’s a band doing something completely different and rather unprecedented. For a game that nails down Sonic’s speed element perfectly, the completely off-the-path soundtrack sounds somewhat jarring.

But things grow on you and like so often with any other album, they seem to do it by surprise. I’ve been replaying Unleashed lately and I’ve done so while wearing headphones so as not to bother others. While my opinion on the game itself has always been on the more positive side, and in fact replaying the game emphasises how good the things it gets right really are, but it’s only now I’ve began to actually listen to the soundtrack properly. Kumatani et al do things differently and not everything is a success, but there is a lot to love in the Unleashed OST once you really begin to listen to it. The calmer, more ‘organic’ style in fact works excellently as something that you actually listen as opposed to simply letting the music run in the background and except it to take you away with it like in the previous games. Special mention goes out to the night time music: while the Werehog aspect is always going to be a contested side of the game, the score the nightly world gets offers a lot of the OST’s best parts, especially the hub music which often feel as soothing and relaxing like you’d expect the song of a sleeping world be like (special mention goes out to the beautiful winter lullaby heard in Holoska). Although that said, it’s a generalisation which holds a thorn on it as sometimes Kumatani and co slip into straight-up jazz with a few Werehog stages, resulting in fairly terrible dips in quality. Unleashed also takes a topsy-turvy stance in the series’ usual soundtrack flaw: while the orchestral music that tends to fill the sound of the games’ cinematics has always been the weaker part of each soundtrack before, in here they mostly actually stand out in a notably positive light. “The World Adventure“, the game’s orchestral theme, is a excellent song and its numerous variants and reprises are always great and the songs accompanying scenes focused on Sonic and Chip are downright heartwarming in tone and get straight-up beautifully sentimental towards the very end of the game. An emotion echoed in the ending vocal theme “Dear My Friend” which is pure cheese and syrup but actually rather damn lovely in all its soppy happiness, something akin Ben Folds writing a Disney song. The game’s main vocal theme “Endless Possibility” on the other hand is in fact one of the OST’s weaker moments and fails to catch the essence of past Sonic game main themes, especially when it transitions from being merely alright to straight up cringy with its random rap interval near the end; however, credit where credit’s due, the instrumental and partly orchestral version played over at the game’s final boss fight works rather excellently.

As it is often with soundtracks, it’s unlikely anyone who hasn’t been in touch with the source would care enough to actually check the score out nor is there really any genuine need for them to do so either in this case. The Unleashed score is an interesting case in the long line of Sonic scores but it’s doubtful anyone who has never felt any desire to look deeply into the music from a series starring a blue hedgehog would get anything out of this one either, regardless of its differences from the bulk of the series’ history. But for a fan, and as a fan, it’s something worth looking into further if the score left you cold before: it has its hidden depths and arguably the colourful action on the screen, be it zooming through setpieces in super speed or clobbering and clawing your way through them instead, often ends up covering and hiding it. While a great many Sonic soundtrack is a brilliant listen even outside the game, the Unleashed one is the only one that genuinely benefits from it. Sure, it’s not a great soundtrack overall, it pales in comparison to most of the series’ soundtracks and at three discs it’s somewhat dauntingly long, but it holds a lot of good, often even rather lovely things that you might have never paid much attention to before in the game and the overall experience is worth the time spent, even if just to compose your own “best of” playlist that nails down the great parts. Much like a lot of oddball curveballs in discographies, it may not be a genuinely essential experience when looking at the whole history of the band (or in this case, series) but it offers a different, intriguing take that richens up the catalogue.

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