Best Game Soundtracks February 2018
February, being the shortest month of the year (and by many accounts, one of the worst), should be a relative dry spell for new album releases. As it turns out, however: NOPE! This month’s soundtrack roundup is crammed full of exciting, surprising, and wonderful scores! Without further ado, let me begin by bringing to your attention some of the hold-overs from January:
If you’re anything like me, you’ve barely had any time to dig into February’s games because you’re still hip-deep in Monster Hunter: World, slaying Anjanaths and capturing Paolumus by the score. Well, as promised, Capcom has made the game’s rousing orchestral soundtrack available for purchase -- if you can’t be bothered to import the 3-CD set from Japan, it’s easily available on the American iTunes store. The soundtrack is replete with exhilarating battle themes, but I purchased my copy in the hopes that I could finally purge my brain of the earworm that is the hub town music. I’m never going to be able to ask my local smithy to forge me an insect glaive without hearing this music in my head.
If you’re a fan of “Metroidvanias,” if that is in fact a real genre, then last month you may have picked up Joakim Sandberg’s Iconoclasts, a side-scroller about a sprightly young mechanic with a giant wrench. We had to wait a couple weeks for Sandberg to release his score to the game, but it’s here now -- and it’s delightful! (I continue to shake my head in disbelief and admiration any time a game is developed by a single person. I can barely write a roundup and listen to all the music, and these folks do art, programming, and compose the darn things?) Cruise on over to Sandberg’s Bandcamp and give this one a listen.
That brings us into February proper. One of the first games to catch my ear this month was the lovely, surreal All Our Asias, a game about family identity and memory from Sean Han Tani, one of the folks behind Anodyne and Even the Ocean. It’s got a visual style akin to early PS1 games, an aesthetic I hope we see more of in the coming years, and more than one person has compared it stylistically to Shin Megami Tensei. The game’s score, which Sean Han Tani also composed, is an ambient soundscape by turns welcoming and alienating. The game is free to play, both on Steam and Itch.io, so you’ve got nothing to lose by sampling its vibe.
If these first two months are any indication, 2018 promises to positively bury us in beautiful side-scrollers. To last month’s Iconoclasts and Celeste we can add Dandara, the freshman effort from developer Long Hat House. Dandara boasts a unique system of movement that sees you warping your eponymous protagonist from place to place without running or jumping in the traditional sense. The game’s score, by Brazilian composer Thommaz Kauffman, is moody, dreamy, and organic, filled with lengthy tracks that meander and evolve. Absolutely give this one a listen.
My face always lights up when I discover that Jimmy “Big Giant Circles” Hinson has released a new album. This time it’s the soundtrack to Octogeddon, a patently ridiculous game about a giant octopus that grows various other animals as its eight appendages. Ever wonder what an octopus looks like with a snake, a chicken, a penguin, and a snapping turtle instead of arms? Me neither, but the folks behind Plants Vs. Zombies have decided to give it to us anyway. Hinson’s music is usually very synth-heavy, with pounding beats and wailing guitars, and that’s the style he brings to bear. The music is just as over-the-top as the game’s concept, which makes for a wonderful collection of tracks. When you’re done with this tentacled wonder, go sample some of Hinson’s other work at his Bandcamp -- like this lovely, pay-what-you-want collection of Mass Effect remixes!
This month, two of my favorite things happened concurrently: There is new Civilization music, and a game’s expansion received an official soundtrack release. Civilization VI: Rise & Fall came out this month, bringing with it a host of new music in the styles of different world cultures. It might be worth it to click through to YouTube here and check out the variety of civilizations that composers Geoff Knorr and Roland Rizzo try to represent in this expansion -- along with the various performers they employ! Rise & Fall aims to complicate the traditional assumptions underlying classic Civilization games, although whether this complication succeeds or fails may be up to interpretation. In any case, the music is impressive!
February saw the release of Dynasty Warriors 9, the latest historical brawler from Koei Tecmo, and unfortunately the critical consensus has been pretty poor -- not to mention the game’s 3,000+ “Overwhelmingly Negative” reviews on Steam. Woof! Musou games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it sounds like this one is a real let-down for even hardcore fans! I’m here to sift the gold from the rubbish, however: Dynasty Warriors 9 has a soundtrack packed to the gills with wailing guitars, and so if you are looking for some tunes to help you power through at the gym or accompany a montage of you training to become a prizefighter, go sample this score immediately.
Spanish indie dev studio Fourattic released Crossing Souls this month, an homage to the teenage thrillers of the 1980s. Whether it’s directly inspired by Stranger Things or not, that’s the vibe it gives off. It has some lovely pixel art, including some very detailed environments. The soundtrack is interesting because it’s very conspicuously bifurcated: About two-thirds of the tracks in the score are by Chris Köbke and evoke the music of Saturday morning cartoons, and the remaining songs are dark, synth-heavy, Vangelis-inspired tracks by Jordy “Timecop1983” Leenaerts. The latter are more in my wheelhouse, but it’s fascinating to click through the tracks on Bandcamp and see just how the two styles bounce off each other.
There’s been a bit of kerfuffle online surrounding Kingdom Come: Deliverance which is too complicated to summarize here, but even if I might caution against throwing your money at the game itself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring to your attention the (quite nice!) soundtrack. Jan Valta and Adam Sporka have done an excellent job crafting an orchestral score which alternately emphasizes strings and brass to create a sound which, if it isn’t authentically medieval, at least has a suitably ren-faire feel to it. This would be an excellent album to put in your headphones if you wanted to get excited about being a serf or paying tithes.
Funny story: I came across a used copy of Radiant Historia back in 2013 and snapped it up for the bargain price of $30. “I bet this’ll be hard to find soon!” I said. Flash forward to 2018 and the release of Radiant Historia Perfect Chronology, and that copy I bought is still sitting on my shelf, unopened. More’s the fool, me. It’s doubly embarrassing because I’m a professed devotee of Yoko Shimomura, and both Radiant Historia and its remake have scores done by her -- it may actually be her most slept-on album! Unfortunately, if you want to add it to your collection, you’ll have to import a physical copy on faith, as I can’t find any place to sample it -- but it’s only $30! That’s a bargain price!
Alright. It pains me to write this, but the remixed soundtrack that accompanies the new Secret of Mana is… not very good, on the whole. It does away with the original game’s occasional musical minimalism in the same way that the awkward 3D models do away with the clean sprite-work of the original. Square Enix cannot stop shooting itself in the foot when it comes to their treatment of beloved 16-bit properties. Nevertheless, because the new soundtrack is arranged by almost a dozen different composers, some tracks are better and more interesting than others. The one above, a remix of “Prophecy” (by artist Tsutomu Narita), has a kind of sonic maximalism that rubs me the wrong way but does retain some of the ominous flavor of the original.
The very last days of February dropped a pair of strong album-of-the-year contenders on us: The first, Ben Prunty’s score to Into the Breach, made me literally gasp a couple of times when I was listening to it. Prunty is probably best known for his work on Subset Games’ previous release, FTL: Faster Than Light (though he’s put out a handful of excellent scores since then, including Gravity Ghost and The Darkside Detective). The soundtrack to Into the Breach is more focused, more intense, and less ambient than the music in FTL, which fits the game’s mix of scales: it’s a game about giant fighting robots, but it’s also a game about single-screen tactics with a squad of only three fighters. I haven’t sat down to the game yet, but I hear also that it is not to be missed. Don’t sleep on this game; don’t sleep on this album.
The other album that’s a shoo-in for my end-of-the-year roundup is Ryan Ike’s soundtrack to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. I listened to this album and I felt like I was standing on a grassy hill at the edge of my parents’ farm, staring out at the cropland stretching out into the distance and hearing the mournful wail of a diesel engine as the boxcars rolled by along the tracks at the edge of the property. Ike is probably best known for his soundtrack to West of Loathing and being the central organizer of the Frog Fractions 2 OST, but now I’m going to remember him as the guy who plucked some mighty fine strings and made me have feelings about this dang country.
Disclosure: Laura Michet, formerly the Editor in Chief of ZAM.com, served as lead editor on this game.
There were a couple of games that dropped this month which have forthcoming soundtrack releases: Metal Gear Survive is supposed to get one near the end of March, and the lovely Fe will have a release in the near future. In addition, some of the recently-released stuff, like Into the Breach and Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, are likely to see release on other digital channels -- though I like to purchase through Bandcamp when I can, as it affords the artists a larger chunk of the profits!
This month wasn’t exactly a bounty of vinyl announcements, but boy howdy this After Burner II pressing offered by DATA DISCS looks lovely! Hooray for classic SEGA arcade titles!
That’s all for February. I’ll be back at the end of March with another collection of fabulous tracks to sample. Until then, happy listening!