Best Game Soundtracks May 2018
Greetings, friends! Nate Ewert-Krocker here, again, ready to -- oof -- let me just swing this comically oversized sack of new game soundtracks off my shoulder, and -- wow, there really are a lot of them this month, aren’t there -- [The sack tumbles to the ground and albums go skittering across the floorboards.] Um. Let’s… let’s go ahead and sift through these, shall we?
Here’s a holdover from the tail end of April! The Swords of Ditto is an adorable, cartoony dungeon crawl from developer One Bit Beyond. It’s a spin on The Legend of Zelda with procedurally-generated elements, couch co-op, and a Saturday-morning visual aesthetic sort of like the one from the new Thundercats that has nerds’ dander up. It’s got a sweet, mellow synth soundtrack from Swedish composer Niklas “Salkinitzor” Ström -- lots of chiptune elements here, and even a few kazoo tracks thrown in for good measure! Who can be mad at a soundtrack which prominently features a kazoo? I really enjoy this one.
I’ll be honest, there’s a part of me that is terribly depressed that Rock Band no longer has the cultural cache that it once did. That part of me is delighted by the existence of Double Kick Heroes, a rhythm game about a metal band slaying hordes of wasteland monsters with their music from the back of a muscle car. It just hit Early Access in April, which means I can’t really vouch for how close it is to completion, but the soundtrack is fully intact and available already. It’s done by Frederic “Elmobo” Motte, a French composer whose credits include… the Nightmare Creatures games, from the early ‘90s? In any case, there are some great riffs here, and plenty of different flavors of metal for anybody who enjoys a good thrashing. Give it a listen and see if it gets your head banging.
This month saw the release of Wizard of Legend, a dungeon crawler with fast-paced combat and lovely pixel art that give it an almost Hyper Light Drifter vibe, which is of course a comparison that anyone should read as a compliment. The soundtrack to this one is done by Dale North, something of a legend himself (I first heard his work over at OC ReMix almost twenty years ago!). North’s score mixes energetic orchestra work with synths to create songs that drive the action forward and are tremendous fun to listen to. If you dig his sound, he’s written up some extremely extensive liner notes that detail his creative process. An excellent peek behind the curtain! Absolutely do not sleep on this album.
If you’re looking for something quirky and heart-warming, please look no farther than the soundtrack to Homo Machina, a small and satisfying puzzle game for mobile based on the work of Fritz Kahn. I don’t like the notion of my existence being played out as a series of small mechanical inputs governed by tiny factory workers inside my vital systems, because goodness gracious they would have to be overwhelmed all the time. It’s a good thing this game’s soundtrack, by French composer Xavier Thiry, is so soothing. It features some electronic samples along with some live clarinet and violin, and the combined effect is quite charming.
I’m always impressed when a game composer puts out more than one soundtrack within a year, but when that composer is as talented as Lena Raine, it’s doubly a gift. Raine gave us one of this year’s best soundtracks in January with Celeste, and now she’s back with the score for ESC, an interactive novel which she also wrote and programmed! Like her score for Celeste, this album ranges from chill to intense, but the music in ESC is crunchier, glitchier, more raw. Even the mellow tracks with soothing piano have a hint of hiss and crackle about them. Raine does some things with this album that remind me of Rich Vreeland’s score for Hyper Light Drifter. (And yes, I do remember that I made a comparison to that game two paragraphs ago. It’s a very good game.) If you liked that album, or the soundtrack to Celeste, you should absolutely give the entirety of ESCISM a listen.
Appearing suddenly out of the shadows this month was Castlevania Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, the 8-bit prequel spinoff to Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, Koji Igarashi’s kickstarted return to gothic castles, ancient evils, and miserable little piles of secrets. Let’s just lay it on the table: Curse of the Moon is basically a successor to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. If it were produced by Square Enix, they would call it Castlevania III-2. I think this is marvelous. Dracula’s Curse is a superb game, and from everything I’ve read about Curse of the Moon, it manages to capture the spirit of its predecessor while making a handful of concessions to modern expectations. And really, who ever thought that an 8-bit spinoff game conceived as one of twenty-nine stretch goals for a crowd-funded project would turn out to be great? There’s no official release for Curse of the Moon’s OST, but I had to include it because it’s got tracks from storied composers like Michiru Yamane, Ippo Yamada, and Jake Kaufman. Have a listen!
In the middle of the month, Choice Provisions released the latest in its long-running BIT.TRIP series, Runner3. I don’t know much about the BIT.TRIP games other than that their protagonist, “Commander Video,” looks like an extra from the music video for “Around the World.” There are worse things in the world than to crib your style from Daft Punk, I suppose. I’m glad that I had cause to check out Matthew Harwood’s soundtrack to Runner3, though, because it meant that I went back to sample his work on all of the other BIT.TRIP games, and: It’s excellent! What a lot of great, chippy, funk-heavy music. Even if you’re not a fan of running, or tripping, or bits, you can probably find a beat to groove to on this album. Highly recommended.
May was curiously light on “AAA” game releases, you may have noticed, but one release that fits that bill is State of Decay 2, the second installment of Undead Labs’ zombie survival series. I’ve heard the original praised for its procedurally generated characters and emphasis on communal resources, and it looks like those elements were carried forward here -- although, if reviews are to be believed, so have the lack of polish and the high number of bugs. The game’s soundtrack is by good ol’ Jesper Kyd, who has lent his talents to so many other AAA franchises (from Borderlands to Assassin’s Creed and more). Kyd’s music for State of Decay 2 is, appropriately, oppressive and atmospheric, with low bass lines and echoey, wispy electronic elements. Kyd also includes plenty of guitar and other strings, which often feature prominently in his work. If you liked Kyd’s work for the games I mentioned above, give this album a spin.
I’m very curious about Prime Mover, an “open-ended” puzzle game from Norwegian developer 4Bit Games, which appears to be about designing circuit boards in order to solve puzzles. It makes me think of games like Infinifactory and Spacechem, games that are catnip to people who like to find the most efficient method possible of solving a problem. (That’s not me, of course. I like to try and find the most languorous way to solve something.) The soundtrack to Prime Mover is by Jonathan Geer, the fellow who was responsible for the score to 2016’s Owlboy. This score is a little darker, a little moodier, a little less… flighty, but it’s definitely worth digging into, especially if you like ambient electronica.
I like to troll the “video game music” tag on Bandcamp as part of my regimen for staying up to date with soundtrack releases, and it always pays dividends in soundtracks of smaller games that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. Case in point with Horizon Chase Turbo, an arcade throwback by Aquiris Game Studio that has its sights squarely set on OutRun. I like OutRun as much as the next guy, but I really have to be careful not to show this one to my three-year-old, or else that’s all he’ll want to do for the next several months. Horizon Chase Turbo has a retro-inspired electronic soundtrack by composer Barry Leitch, who has also billed it as “work out music” via the tag system on Bandcamp. Your mileage may vary there.
Speaking of “work out music,” here’s the soundtrack to Spartan Fist, a game about punching dudes so hard that they explode. If that’s not the sort of premise that would go well with your daily gym routine, I’m not sure that you and I have the same feelings about working out. Spartan Fist has a soundtrack by Nathan Madsen, and it has an energetic electro-punk vibe that reminds me heavily of Karl Flodin’s OST for Clustertruck, which, if you haven’t heard, there’s a treat for your afternoon. If you are having a frustrating day and feel like punching someone, Spartan Fist seems like the kind of game that could help you work that out without getting arrested for it.
It feels like it was just a couple days ago that my wife seized me by the collar, pulled me in close, and demanded “What do you know about Moonlighter?!” It showed up on her radar, I suppose, because she once harbored a fierce addiction to Recettear, a game that was equal parts dungeon delving and item shop management. Moonlighter, released this month by 11 bit Studios and developed by Digital Sun, features that same delicious combo. Acquire loot from dangerous locales! Find the optimal price at which to sell it to villagers! The soundtrack to Moonlighter is by David Fenn, whose work you might know from Titan Souls. It’s faux-orchestral, with frequent piano melodies -- just the sort of soundtrack one wants for acquiring and selling goods. In the words of Recettear’s protagonist: “Capitalism, hooooo!”
One more tiny morsel before I depart for the month: Voyageur, a “literary RPG” by Bruno Dias, is a game that came out on mobile devices last year -- but it’s just received a release on PC, as well, and with it a soundtrack release by composer Priscilla Snow (AKA “Ghoulnoise”). It’s only six tracks long, but it’s all wonderful, crackly, ambient electronica, absolutely worth listening to.
There were a couple of big games that released this month without independent soundtrack releases: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire has a soundtrack that you can only get by buying a special edition of the game (for the moment, anyway; other Pillars of Eternity soundtracks have seen wider release a few months out from their games launching). Detroit: Become Human has the interesting conceit of assigning each of its three protagonists their own composer (here’s a brief video exploring this decision), but there’s no official soundtrack release yet outside of -- you guessed it -- a special edition version of the game.
Have you been waiting for that sweet, sweet Xenoblade Chronicles 2 soundtrack to release on iTunes, with its bevy of new tracks by Yasunori Mitsuda? Well, wait no longer, my friend.
This month also saw some exciting vinyl releases! You might not have played Syberia 3, but its score is by Inon Zur, whose name you no doubt recognize as being the talent behind the music of Dragon Age: Origins and Fallout 4, among others. That’s getting a vinyl release from Black Screen Records. The arcade classic Space Harrier is the latest offering from retro vinyl peddlers DATA DISCS. Check out the lovely green vinyl on this one! And last, but not least, the bardic adventure Wandersong is getting a 7” EP release from The Yetee.
That’s all for May! I’ll be back at the end of June, when no doubt another mountain of wonderful albums will have stacked up for us to sort through together. In the meantime, happy listening!