It’s hard to talk about Spirit Blade without sounding like either a raving fanboy or a nitpicky hater. I purchased the first edition of this story to listen to it in the car on family vacation. I was immediately hooked. The audio design was wholly immersive, the music was resonant and complex, the lyrics were clearly extremely personal. I wound up buying copies for all of my friends and family (Christmas was conveniently near). Not satisfied with his original product, Paeter Frandsen (the creator at Spirit Blade Productions) remastered and released the Special Edition two years later, putting to good use the experience he gained in producing the sequel – Spirit Blade: Dark Ritual – and Pilgrim’s Progress: Similitude of a Dream.
The Special Edition makes everything that was good about the original into something truly remarkable, without actually fixing any of the flaws in the production. Even so, this is both the creator’s and this listener’s preferred production of this story.
Story (Pass/Fail) – Fail
The story of Spirit Blade is a bit silly at first glance. “In the world of the future, the quest for Truth has ended….” Frandsen, however, delivers it with such sincerity and gravitas that the listener immediately buys into the idea that Truth is something we need to discover, and that we have somehow lost the desire to do so. Aside from this surprisingly effective hook, little in this story is either original or compelling. The world is a generic cyberpunk sci-fi fantasy familiar to anyone who’s ever seen “Blade Runner”. The mission pits the Underground Liberation against the Evil Corporation – with a fantasy twist in the form of spirit beings. Story tropes and cliches abound, trotting out one after the other in a steady progression from plot point to plot point that executes in a familiar fashion, but without actually being original or engaging. The story fades into the background allowing theme and characterization to carry the story, but because it does so as a result of trope and cliche instead of by design this category receives a failing mark.
Characters (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Frandsen loves his characters, and it shows. Merikk, Raan, and Vincent are clearly very personal reflections of Frandsen’s own life journey, and the listener cannot help but empathize with them as they struggle with their foes and their own doubts. Unfortunately, nearly every other character in the play is a throwaway caricature designed solely to provide one of the three leads with their next plot point. Even so, the three primary characters undergo such a personal journey that the listener simply doesn’t care about the secondaries, but personalizes and internalizes the struggles of the leads.
Technical Merit (Pass/Fail) – Pass
The audio design of this production is both innovative and flawless. The dramatic portions include a perfect foley environment in incredibly immersive stereo. Music that was beautiful or exciting in the first edition has become downright haunting and compelling. More than any other aspect of the project, Frandsen shows his skill in audio design in a stunning display of perfectly timed music and sound effects. This is not just well-executed, it rises above and beyond any reasonable expectation to create a staggering standard of production quality unmatched by many professional studios. I actually wish my grading scale could give extra points for this.
Content (Pass/Fail) – Pass
Theme reigns supreme in this production. The personal journeys of the main characters are embodied in their every action and song. The Christian message is both unsubtle and unapologetic. The story is a quest for absolute Truth, and Frandsen delivers absolute Truth in the context of his story, based on orthodox Christianity. Once presented with the Truth, the characters must each come to terms with the implications. Merrik seeks personal fulfillment, “Give me a reason / a path I can follow…” Raan expresses the depth of his faith, “You are all and everything to me,” unaware of the trials that faith is about to undergo. Vincent struggles to understand why his personal strength is insufficient to the task at hand. Each one of these struggles is foiled against absolute Truth, leaving the listener with a desire to apply that Truth to his own life.
Shelf Life (Pass/Fail) – Pass
This audio drama has become one of my personal favorites. The music is so strong and so compelling that it carries emotional weight all by itself. Realizing this, Frandsen also released the music without the story in the “Song Bundle” currently only available through the Spirit Blade website. Divorced from the context of the story and characters, the music is merely remarkable and evocative. The package as a whole is something transformative. It made me want to share it with my friends and family, and I find the CDs in my stereo far more often than on my shelf. Combine this with the online community Frandsen has built around his IP, and I find myself continually involved in one way or another with those things pertaining to Spirit Blade.
Spirit Blade (Special Edition) occupies a special place in my collection of personal favorites. I listen to the music from the Song Bundles more often than the entire production, but without the context of the rest of the story, I don’t think I would enjoy the songs quite the same way. The storytelling is perhaps a bit uninspired, but the execution of theme and character make up for that failing. The quality of the audio is the compelling bit that really pushes this into overwhelming excellence; it’s a product I’m glad I purchased, and one I look forward to seeing continued and expanded.