The Long Return is about a lost cub that is retracing the last journey with his mother, which is to say that it’s a game about memory and longing. It would be easy to make dark, trying music to fit the theme, but Dale North takes, instead, the route that many a great Japanese composer has taken when it comes to melancholy in games: a mix of Romantic and Impressionist music.
While it’s hard to pinpoint a singular origin for this tradition, the imprint of Joe Hisaishi’s early cinematic work is hard to avoid, reflected in all sorts of epic fantasy soundtracks, from Nobuo Uematsu’s numerous Final Fantasy OSTs (1987-) or Yasunori Mitsuda’s Chrono Trigger (1995), all the way up to Yasunori Nishiki’s Octopath Traveler (2018). Where (generally speaking) Western composers of fantasy epics emphasize the late-Romantic bombast of sweeping melodies and grand orchestration to build a sense of Wagnerian heroism and myth, Japanese composers like those mentioned above tend to strike a middle-note. In the balance between the rallying cries of romance and the inner life of characters they develop grand orchestrations with quiet and long lyrical ballads of an impressionist sort.
North effectively synthesizes this popular formula into a fantasy narrative that draws its stakes entirely into the realm of the personal, giving listeners inner turmoil as bright harmony, longing not as a dark well but as the brief sight of a shooting star. It permeates the romance of the orchestration, taming its bombast into succinct emotional states. These sentiments do not tear the world apart, nor are their scope cosmic: they are heartfelt and earnest, free of universe-shattering dissonance. That does not mean they are not profound, but that their depth lies within the infinite vagueness of recollection instead of the limits of reason. The main theme, which repeats all across the album, helps anchor every piece to the fundamental sincerity of these feelings, as sweet (“The Playful (Zone 2)”) as they can be wistful (“The Worried (Zone 6)”).
The Long Return’s melancholy is a playful creature, changing its colors at dawn and dusk, as expansive as the forest in which it is set. The epic associations of the style are put to work by North towards making the journey of a lost cub one of great significance; it is in the quietness of melody, in the blurred harmonics of piano, where we will find the intensity of his longing, the true nature of his (personal) legend in which a world is reconciled. And what a musical world it is – it fits so much beauty and passion in 20 minutes it’s hard not to press the replay button time and again. (David Murrieta Flores)