Best Game Soundtracks January 2018
Welcome, friends, to a new year of game soundtracks! It’s going to be difficult for 2018 to live up to its predecessor in terms of quality and sheer variety, but I’ve no doubt that the year has a plethora of delightful albums in store for us. This month mostly offers us a host of indie soundtracks, as the big-name headliners of late January won’t be seeing official soundtrack releases for a month or so.
But first, a couple holdovers from December! Last month saw the release of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, a colossal JRPG from Monolith Soft with a score by the supremely talented Yasunori Mitsuda. Mitsuda’s work on Chrono Cross and Xenogears remains some of my favorite in the entire medium, and so I am always happy when he puts out new work (even if I am almost certainly never going to have the time to play the game it’s attached to). Mitsuda has a penchant for dabbling in the music of different cultures, as he explains in this interview with Nintendo, so it should be no surprise to see him tap an Irish choral group for one of Xenoblade 2’s themes. (If you like this piece, you simply must check out the Celtic arranged album of Xenogears’ music.) Unfortunately, there’s still no word of an official release for Xenoblade 2’s music, though a sampler CD is available if you shell out the cash for the game’s special edition.
Also released last month was Gorogoa, the visually-stunning puzzle game developed by Jason Roberts. I’m always floored when I discover that a game is put together primarily by a single person, and something like Gorogoa is doubly impressive because of how clever it is, constructing its puzzles around framing and perception in a way that is sure to throw anyone for a loop. Its score is by Joel Corelitz, who was also responsible for the music for The Unfinished Swan. It’s low-key and meditative, which suits the game’s puzzles perfectly.
The last leftover from 2017 on my list is Never Stop Sneakin’, a stealth-lite action game from Humble Hearts, the developer behind Dust: An Elysian Tail. Never Stop Sneakin’ is a very clear Metal Gear pastiche, though its focus seems to be less on the “Sneakin’” of the title and more on the “Never Stop,” emphasizing continual forward progress over the patience and careful gameplay that usually characterize stealth games. The soundtrack, by the Irish duo HyperDuck Soundworks (responsible for the soundtracks to the aforementioned Dust and the more recent Cosmic Star Heroine), is squarely aimed at Metal Gear, right down to the faux-Bond-theme I’ve embedded above. I got a chuckle out of it, anyway.
And now, on to January itself! One of the most striking games released this month is the lovely-looking InnerSpace, a flying/exploration game with soft, pastel visuals and a loopy electronic score by Chris Miller, the composer for dev team PolyKnight Games. Those of you anticipating a ludic adaptation of the 1987 Dennis Quaid / Martin Short sci-fi film will be disappointed, but those of you searching for a meditative journey through a beautiful and alien skyscape are in for a treat. Miller’s score is playful and bouncy, avoiding clear melodies but never chilling out enough to truly feel ambient. It’s music to relax you that won’t put you to sleep.
I often pass over game scores that don’t yet have any kind of official release (or aren’t likely to get one), but there are certain composers I always want to bring to your attention -- for example, there’s no way to get a copy of the soundtrack to Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth - Hacker’s Memory, but I’ve developed a special fondness for the work of Masafumi Takada over the last couple years, so I have to at least mention it here. Takada’s wild, weird, electronic-jazzy sound was first brought to my attention when I listened to the Danganronpa soundtracks, and it’s on full display in this here Digimon game. I have never played a Digimon game and have little idea what they’re about, but if this soundtrack is any indication, they’re about a dance rave on the moon.
Here’s another one we’re not likely to see a soundtrack release for, but it features so many wailing guitars that I can’t fail to include it: Dragon Ball FighterZ dropped at the end of the month, and my Twitter feed instantly lit up with a thousand Kamehamehas. I wasn’t caught up in the wave of Dragon Ball fever that washed over the States at the end of the ‘90s (I was more of a Sailor Moon guy, myself), but I’m a sucker for anytime a game is slavishly devoted to its source material, and boy howdy does this Dragon Ball game deliver on that front. Arc System Works has discovered some sort of alchemical process by which 3D models are converted into pure anime, and they’ve brought it to bear here. The music is an assortment of pump-up jams; there are enough guitar solos here to turn your hair white (or blonde, as the case may be).
This month Square Enix released Tokyo RPG Factory’s sophomore effort, Lost Sphear, a spiritual follow-up to 2016’s I Am Setsuna. The general consensus seems to be that Sphear hews a little too closely to Setsuna for folks to get really excited about it, but as far as the game’s soundtrack is concerned, that’s a smart move: Setsuna’s soundtrack was a piano-only affair that did a good job selling the melancholy of its winter-bound world. Lost Sphear’s score, also by composer Tomoki Miyoshi, breaks free of the piano-only constraints and is the better for it: though it’s no longer quite as distinct, it’s got more dramatic oomph to it, and allows for flourishes like a more exciting battle theme (posted above). If you like JRPG soundtracks (and I do!), this is one worth checking out.
I was excited this month to discover that Cellar Door Games, the developer of Rogue Legacy, released their newest effort: Full Metal Furies, a co-op action RPG brawler that looks a little bit like their take on Castle Crashers. I was even more excited to discover that the soundtrack was composed by A Shell in the Pit, whose work on Okhlos two years ago ended up being one of my favorite OSTs of that year. Mr. in the Pit’s combination of acoustic and electronic rock is infectious, and I imagine that this album is going to end up getting as much play in my personal library as Okhlos’s did in 2016.
My favorite soundtrack of the month, however, has to be the score to Celeste, the mountain-climbing platformer from the developer of Towerfall. Everybody I know who has played the game sings its praises, both for the tightness of its controls and its gentle and humane attitude. My attention, of course, is drawn to the lovely, sometimes-haunting music composed by Lena Raine, which flows between low-key ambient electronica and intense, melodic tracks. One late-game piece, in particular, reminded me so much of the final battle theme of Xenogears that I was certain that Raine had been looking at my Secret Journal of Soundtrack Wishes for inspiration. As if the soundtrack itself wasn’t exciting enough, there’s also a remix album, with tracks by Ben Prunty, Christa Lee, 2 Mello, and more superb artists! Do not sleep on this one; you’ll be seeing it again in the 2018 soundtrack-of-the-year roundup, I’m sure.
There have been some big game releases this month that don’t yet have soundtracks available: Monster Hunter: World will get a soundtrack release on Valentine’s Day for all you lovebirds teaming up to take down Diablos, and Dissidia Final Fantasy NT will have a Blu-ray soundtrack release at the end of February for anybody who needs more arranged Final Fantasy music in their life (which, admittedly, might be me). Joakim Sandberg’s indie Metroidvania Iconoclasts doesn’t yet have a soundtrack available, but I’ll keep my ear to the ground for it.
For those of you who collect VGM vinyl, there were a couple announcements this month which might pique your interest: Life is Strange: Before the Storm, which has a score by indie rock trio Daughter, is getting a vinyl release which will ship in early March. Shadow of the Colossus, the remake of which was just released, has a very pretty vinyl coming out from iam8bit which you can also pre-order. The space piracy roguelike Flinthook is getting a vinyl release soon, and I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the beautiful vinyl Panzer Dragoon Saga arranged album that Fangamer is releasing in April.
That’s it for this month! I’ll be back at the end of February with more delightful albums to brighten your year.