Best Game Soundtracks June 2018
Now that June has given way to July and the dog days of summer are upon us, we are forced to seek solace in the cool sounds of new videogame albums. I mean, that’s what I’m doing, anyway. I figured as long as I was beating the heat with extremely chill grooves, I might do you all the favor of sharing my spoils! Here are a dozen or so new game soundtracks to sample -- why not have a listen and see if you can find something to your taste?
Last month, Quantic Dream released Detroit: Become Human, another of its narrative games with aspirations of cinematic glory. The critical consensus seems to be that Detroit has polished presentation but nothing interesting to say, which is a bit of a disappointment (but perhaps not a surprise, if you’ve followed the previous work of studio head David Cage). The game makes the interesting choice to have a different composer for each of its three protagonists: Philip Sheppard’s cello-heavy score creates a warmer sound for caretaker Kara, compared to Nima Fakhrara’s primarily electronic score for android cop Connor. John Paesano provides a more traditionally orchestral score for Markus, the third character. It’s a good hook that makes the soundtrack worth checking out.
At the beginning of the month, developer Hollow Tree Games released Shape of the World, a meditative exploration game in which the world appears to generate itself as you wander through it. If you’re a fan of Proteus, or other games which are just about existing in places, this one looks like it might be well up your alley. It has the two primary ingredients you’d want out of an experience like this: an arresting visual style and a compelling score, in this case an ambient electronic soundscape by Brent Silk. If it’s too hot to go outside and explore the actual world, it seems like hunkering down in a dark, air-conditioned room with some headphones and exploring Shape of the World might be a good alternative.
Also releasing at the beginning of the month was Dontnod’s latest experiment, Vampyr, a dark adventure about the defining struggle of modern times: whether or not to kill and eat the people you work with as a doctor in post-WWI London. It’s a story that we can all see ourselves in, really. I’m continually impressed with how many original ideas Dontnod has been allowed to bring to the table, and doubly impressed that they seem to be able to (mostly) pull them off each time. Give me a studio that delivers 85% of the potential of their original ideas over one that delivers 100% of their staid, boring ideas any day. Vampyr’s soundtrack is by Olivier Deriviere, whose work you may recognize from Dontnod’s Remember Me or the exceptional soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry. Did you read our interview with him from several weeks back when the game released? You should! Then give the score a listen. Haunting cello rebounds off the sounds of industrial London -- supremely effective.
It seems like everybody on my Twitter timeline has been recommending Slay the Spire, the game that mixes rogue-like dungeon delving with card-based combat and deck building, ever since it entered Early Access six months ago. I still haven’t gotten around to it myself, but I was delighted to see the soundtrack pop up on Bandcamp this month -- and more delighted to discover that it was by Clark Aboud, whose lovely orchestral score to Make Sail I found so charming when it released in March! Aboud’s score for Slay the Spire is, fittingly, more intense and urgent, but it shows the same kind of proficiency in its arrangement and composition. I have a few dungeon masters in mind to whom I’ll recommend this album as mood-setting music for their next tabletop adventures...
Perhaps in this summer heat you’d like to cool down with some chillwave? Sarah Mancuso’s soundtrack to Subserial Network is happy to oblige. (It may also qualify as lo-fi trip hop, which I understand are the sort of beats one is meant to relax/study to.) Subserial Network is a mostly-text game about tracking down synthetic life forms that are modifying themselves to become less human, so if you were looking for the interesting commentary on the difference between human and synthetic life that was missing from Detroit, this might be a good place to start. The soundtrack has just as many synths as the game does, and they sound wonderful, from light and airy samples to sweeping synths that give it just a hint of that ol’ Vangelis-Blade Runner darkness.
Though it’s only six tracks long, I wanted to make sure to highlight the soundtrack to Way of the Passive Fist: New Dawn, because I somehow missed the soundtrack to the original game when it released earlier this year! In both cases, composer Orie Falconer blends an eclectic mix of styles, from dance music to electronic rock to chiptune, and creates a flavor that feels like an updated form of classic 16-bit game music. If you’re the sort of person who used to make your own mixtapes of Sega Genesis tunes, Falconer’s music might be to your tastes.
There may be no more aptly named game than Just Shapes & Beats, a long-standing darling of the convention circuit which has finally seen wider release. Berzerk Studios’ intense, geometric attack on the senses feels like a more expansive take on the demanding play of Super Hexagon, and has a soundtrack to match: This is a collection of some of the best electronica, dubstep, and chiptune artists working in games at the moment. Chipzel, Jimmy “Big Giant Circles” Hinson, Danimal Cannon, Sabrepulse, and more -- I insist that you browse this Spotify playlist, find a new favorite artist, and then go explore their discography. There’s unbelievable energy in these tracks.
Sometimes a soundtrack comes along that is just bottled cheer; such is the case with Jesse Harlin’s music for Yoku’s Island Express. It’s got guitars, ukulele, plenty of choral work, some record scratches, harmonica, you name it. I’m not sure what I expected a game that combines pinball and Metroidvania-style exploration to sound like, but I wouldn’t have predicted this bundle of bass lines and tropical percussion. Apparently the game is also a delight; I’ve heard nothing but good things from those who’ve played it. Don’t sleep on this one!
Ready yourselves, friends: there’s a new Austin Wintory score, and it’s somethin’ else. Pode is a cooperative puzzle game by indie team Henchman & Goon, and Mr. Wintory has provided music for it that once more demonstrates his range. With strong emphasis on atmospheric strings (in particular a pair of fiddles), Wintory crafts a meditative, melancholy soundscape that conjures intense feelings even absent the game it accompanies. If there’s a previous work of his to compare it to, it’s Abzu -- it drifts between calm and powerfully emotive in much the same manner. Highly recommended.
As always, in these roundups I tend to pass over games that don’t get official soundtrack releases -- unless, of course, the composer is so notable that I can’t help but share. In this case, the game is Mario Tennis Aces, and the composer is Motoi Sakuraba. Sakuraba is responsible for some of my favorite JRPG battle themes, including those from the Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, Tales, and Dark Souls series. He might seem an odd choice for a sports game, then, but Sakuraba’s contribution to Mario Tennis Aces is to make every match feel like a high-octane boss battle. There’s not likely to be an official soundtrack release here, but I want everybody to hear these amazing jams even if they don’t pick up a virtual racket.
Though the game itself came out last year (and even then, to mixed reviews), the soundtrack to space strategy game Aven Colony only received a wide release this month. It’s done by Alexander Brandon, who composed the original Deus Ex, so it’s definitely worth your attention. It uses the same mix of electronic and organic elements that helped to make the Deus Ex soundtrack so compelling. Why not give it a listen now that it’s available in various places?
Just a couple more things worth bringing to your attention this month: The wonderful soundtrack to Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, composed by the legendary Joe Hisaishi, is finally getting an official release over at Wayo. Also, HAL Laboratories have finally seen fit to put some music from the Kirby games up on iTunes and Spotify! You should check out the soundtrack to Planet Robobot (Spotify | iTunes), the 25th Anniversary Concert (Spotify | iTunes), and this awesome Memorial Arrangements album (Spotify | iTunes). Maybe this will open the door to more of Nintendo’s back catalog being available digitally!
With that, I leave you to return to my darkened office, where the AC is on full blast and so are my headphones. Check back in next month, where we’ll likely see soundtracks for Octopath Traveller, The Banner Saga 3, and who knows what else! Until then, happy listening.