2018 has been a pretty good year for video games in general but also an impressive one for video game soundtracks. Join us as we take a look back on the past year and start counting down the top 20 soundtracks from video games.
Kicking off the list we have Mulaka, an independent game by Mexican indie developer Lienzo for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows. The titular character is a shaman-like figure and gameplay focuses mostly on combat and puzzle solving. Mulaka is a game rich in Mexican culture and tradition and the soundtrack very much reflects this. The game is heavily inspired by the Tarahumara, an indigenous group who dwell in Chihuahua in Northern Mexico. The game has full narration in the native Tarahumara language and the music is also inspired by them. Lienzo worked with musician Diego Borja and poet and musician Martin Makawi on the soundtrack. They used traditional Tarahumara instruments to truly capture the essence of the Tarahumara culture and folklore, in which music is an incredibly important element. Lienzo fully engrosses the player in a culture that they may not necessarily be familiar with or even aware of and the music is a crucial part of this, pulling the player into the Tarahumara mythology.
Top Track- “Against the Beast of the Desert” – high octane and exciting, this track makes full use of a variety of instruments to create an exciting battle theme which also captures the spirit of Mexican culture.
19- Into the Breach
Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy game developed by Subset Games about mankind’s battle for survival against giant monsters known as the Vek. The player’s role in the game is to control a giant mech, piloted by a soldier, to not only defeat the Vek but also protect structures and various buildings so that the power grid which supports the mechs remains stable. The music for Into the Breach is composed by Ben Prunty, who creates a soundtrack which successfully conveys the apocalyptic themes by utilizing somber, sweeping tracks. Prunty also infuses this dystopian sound with a futuristic sci-fi style to make the game world of mechs and monsters come to life. The music is particularly impressive for a turn-based game, where music can often be of a softer nature. But Into the Breach defies this convention. In an interview with PC Gamer, Prunty discussed this change of tactic for a strategy game, “As a group, we decided to throw out the idea that strategy game music should be quiet, and for each new track I just kept iterating and refining the concept I built with the trailer music. I kept it more energetic, and stopped relying on synthesizers.” Using this method, Prunty creates something truly unique to the turn-based genre and a soundtrack on par with games such as Fallout.
Top Track- Old War Machines– Of all the tracks from Into the Breach, “Old War Machines” best conveys the desperation and the determination of humanity against the Vek and the struggle for survival. It’s a high powered track with an edge of sorrow in its mournful violins. “Old War Machines” shows that Ben Prunty succeeds in capturing a dystopian video game world that won’t go down without a fight.
18- Guacamelee! 2
The DrinkBox Studios sequel to the original Guacamelee! game comes with a fun and flamboyant soundtrack with a mariachi-inspired theme. Guacamelee! 2 was released on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows this year with a release for the Xbox One due in January 2019. The game returns to its Mexican roots, following Juan Agucate the luchador. What I love about this soundtrack is the blend of classic Mexican mariachi band music with the chiptune video game music style. It’s a choice that merges well the vivid and colourful aesthetics and animation and the cartoonish, beat em up, Metroidvania gameplay. The game is full of charm and personality, and the soundtrack is equally effervescent.
Top Track- “Guacamelee! 2 Theme (Main Menu)” – The game’s main theme is a perfect blend of traditional Mexican mariachi music with techno chiptune riffs. It introduces the player to the games fun and lively manner immediately before you’ve even pressed start, making the tune stand out.
17-Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
The latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise came out this year on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Microsoft Windows. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey delivered another impressive soundtrack, this one composed by Ivor Novello award-winning musicians Alexis Smith and Joe Henson, who make up the band The Flight. The game is set in Ancient Greece and is as epic in scale as is expected. In an interview done with Ubisoft for the game’s release, The Flight discussed the feeling that they wanted to get across with the soundtrack, “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is about family, betrayal , nd war; it’s a proper Greek tragedy. We wanted the music to reflect that, to be able to go from tender and tragic, human and fragile to full-on epic battle.” This is one of the most powerful aspects of the soundtrack, its ability to switch between the epic and the personal. Music for the large action sequences fits well with the quieter pieces for character and narrative driven sequences, such as Odyssey, a melodious song sung in Greek which introduces the player character. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always had a pretty good record of quality music, and Odyssey is no exception. The Flight captures the sound of war and it echoes throughout, but the softer moments are what really stand out here.
Top Track- “Assassin’s Creed” – Whilst the main theme of the game, “Legend of the Eagle Bearer”, is fantastic, I chose the familiar theme that runs through all of the Assassin’s Creed games. It returns in Odyssey with a slight reinterpretation, as do the themes in all the games, and it’s a beautiful take on the iconic music. It acts as the menu theme, immediately drawing players back in to the Assassin’s Creed world from the moment they open the game.
16- Donut County
A simple game with a simple premise, Donut County is an indie game developed by Ben Esposito and published by Annapurna Interactive which was released on Microsoft Windows and Nintendo Switch with an Xbox One version coming in mid-December. The player acts as a giant hole whose goal it is to swallow as many objects as possible. That’s it. Despite the simplicity, Donut County is a charming game with a great soundtrack to accompany it. The soundtrack was composed by Daniel Koestner, a friend and collaborator of Esposito. The ukulele is the star of the show here as some of the best tracks come from the cute, folk inspired riffs. The folk style blends well with the colourful and blocky cartoon visuals. In an interview with Vox, Esposito joked about the use of the ukulele, “Ukulele, to me, if I even say the word, I’m like, ‘Ugh’.” Despite the cheesiness that can be associated with it, Koestner and Esposito utilised the ukulele to create a delightful score full of charm. The simplicity of the game and the effortless musical accompaniment did not come about easily. In the same interview, Esposito said, “We kind of went back and forth and whittled it down, and this is the culmination of six-plus years of music that we figured out a feel and a vibe for together.” The effort that went into putting the soundtrack together is evident here and it pays off in the end result. Donut County’s brilliantly crafted soundtrack stands out as one of the best this year.
Top Track- “Garbage Day” – The laid back tones of “Garbage Day” is so relaxing and well done that the song wouldn’t sound out of place on a folk album. It’s a great way to initiate the game as the main menu music and it’s also a good indicator of the music to follow. It also helped to coin the phrase, “Have a Garbage Day!”. So there are only positives to be had here.
15- Life is Strange 2- Episode 1
The first Life is Strange game had a well-known and highly praised soundtrack so it’s no surprise that the first episode for the second outing, Life is Strange 2, would already be impressing gamers with both its choice of licensed music and the original score. There is still a significant amount of indie music woven into the soundtracks licensed songs with the likes of British band The Streets, Whitney and Phoenix making an appearance as well as more mainstream music such as a track from Bloc Party. The songs aren’t haphazardly thrown together to create an album that will appeal, they are carefully chosen to reflect the story and the characters journey just as they were in the first Life is Strange.
This time round, the focus is on two boys rather than Max and Chloe from the first game. Sean and Daniel are brothers who, after a devastating and tragic accident, end up alone and on the run, living on the road. Sean is a teenager, so he’s full of angst and is hurting from his losses whilst Daniel is still a child who is lost and confused due to Sean’s initial decision to hide the truth from him. The dynamic is completely different from the best friend relationship in the original Life is Strange but the soundtrack still manages to capture the essence of the brotherhood perfectly. The songs are what you might expect a teenage boy to have on his iPod; the moody “The Streets” is a particular stand out in this aspect and it was a great touch to have Sean mumbling along to it if you play it on the stereo in his room.
Jonathan Morali returns to score the sequel, otherwise known by his band name Syd Matters, and he does another excellent job with this one. The score for the first episode is only short, with three pieces of music, but this is to be expected. Each piece fantastically contributes when it comes to telling Sean and Daniels story just as his previous score told Max and Chloe’s.
The soundtrack for Life is Strange 2 is off to a brilliant start and I felt that it deserved a place on the best soundtracks list as it is only the very first episode. Jonathan Morali’s work on the score is impressive and the licensed songs are well thought out but not overkill. There is a lot of promise here for the upcoming episodes and I can’t wait to hear what the music will offer in the next episode.
Top Track- “Into the Woods” – I’ve chosen one of Jonathan Morali’s pieces of music for the best track rather than one of the licensed songs. “Into the Woods” manages to be both mellow and relaxing whilst also being haunting and isolating. It plays not long after Sean and Daniel go on the run. They find themselves in the woods, Sean having to take over as the parental figure and Daniel wanting to return to a home that no longer exists. Both are scared but for different reasons. It reflects the uncertain nature of the duo’s future but still manages to be a soothing piece of music, comforting like how the brothers are comforted by still having each other despite everything. It’s an affecting piece to listen to while you play.
When indie RPG Undertale was released in 2015, praised was heaped upon it for many reasons including its impressive soundtrack. When the follow-up Deltarune came out this October, the soundtrack was once again a brilliant addition with new music as well as leitmotifs that occur throughout, some of which reference Undertale’s soundtrack.
Deltarune isn’t exactly a sequel to Undertale, nor is it a prequel. Creator Toby Fox has said that the game is separate and takes place in another reality. There are differences, but there are also glaring similarities and the music is one of them. Once again, Fox was entirely responsible for the music as he was with Undertale. It’s impressive enough knowing that one person was able to compose a great video game soundtrack on their own, but Fox has managed it twice now. The music is again reminiscent of old NES games to give it a retro feel but there are also a few piano and guitar based tracks that break it up a bit. Deltarune builds on that with one of its major tunes “Don’t Forget”, a short but sweet song played entirely on the piano with a voice accompaniment from Laura Shigihara. The added vocal effect adds softness to the song whilst still maintaining what we loved about the Undertale soundtrack in the rest of the score.
The quality of the Deltarune soundtrack is a testament to Toby Fox’s talents as a game designer and musician. He is able to craft another soundtrack which reflects the characters and narrative of the game brilliantly whilst also making a soundtrack which is genuinely fun to listen to and play along to. Whilst Deltarune’s OST doesn’t necessarily live up to Undertale’s soundtrack (such as the grandeur that was “Megalovania” or the eccentric nature of “Dogsong”), Fox succeeds in creating another great original score. Deltarune is only Chapter 1 of what is sure to have more installments, so hopefully moving forward, he will continue his trend of making memorable music.
Top Track- “Friendship” – I was considering having “Fields of Hopes” and “Dreams” as my top pick or “Don’t Forget”, but I eventually settled on “Friendship” as I feel that it defines what makes Toby Fox’s music so charming. The song is an alternate version of “Don’t Forget” but it has the retro style that we knew from Undertale. It combines a beautifully crafted original melody with that classic video game sound that Fox has mastered. “Friendship” stood out upon my first listen and I’d say it’s still my favourite.
13-Monster Hunter World
Capcom’s Monster Hunter World has a soundtrack as monstrously large as its titular creatures. So much of the game is lovingly crafted and the music is a stand out element. The JRPG title is pretty much what you would expect, with the game putting the player in the shoes of a Hunter who must trap or kill a variety of monsters of all shapes and sizes. It’s not uncommon to have a sprawling soundtrack for an RPG game but Monster Hunter World goes above and beyond with its rousing musical themes.
Composer Akihiko Narita worked with Zhenlan Kang and other talented musicians to create an atmospheric album that combined several elements. The whimsy, the adventure, the danger and the fierce battles that the player must face are all captured within the music. Each monster has a different theme and each piece of music corresponds to the monsters nature. This makes the music feel in sync with the creatures on screen. Main battle melodies switch up in tempo and tone in comparison to music for smaller fights. For instance, the small monsters battle music for Rotten Vale is more upbeat and perkier in its tone than the main battle music for Rotten Vale, though they share the same general theme. The shift in tone affects the atmosphere of the game and the players experience in turn, which is a definitely a worthy achievement.
Monster Hunter World has provided us with an epic soundtrack worthy of fighting monsters. The score swells and sweeps as it follows the player through their journey, changing composition when needed and adapting to each monster as it goes. Narita has created a stunning JRPG soundtrack which is sure to go down as some of the best music of the genre.
Top Track- Main Theme- “Stars at Our Backs” – Monster Hunter World’s main theme is an incredible tune, beginning timidly and becoming more brazen as the theme surges with power and scope, suggesting an adventure of epic proportions. It characterizes everything great about action adventure role-playing games and brings it all into one epic theme. Also, check out “Meowscular Chef’s Custom Platter” a track featuring eighteen seconds of cats who are also chefs mixed with some fabulous guitar playing.
12- Detroit: Become Human
Quantic Dreams’ Detroit: Become Human, a game about androids and humans living amongst one another in a near future version of Detroit, was a somewhat polarising game upon release. It was met with generally positive reviews mixed with a few glaring issues that made many think the game was all style over substance. One element that can’t be knocked however is the soundtrack. Compelling, evocative and multifaceted, Detroit: Become Human had one of the most interesting musical arrangements of the year.
What makes the music to Detroit so interesting is the fact that it has three separate soundtracks, each created by a different composer with a unique style. The music is split three ways thematically so that each of the main characters, Kara, Connor, and Markus, have their own distinct music to represent them individually. This is an interesting way to go about creating a game soundtrack and to me, it worked great. Each character has their personal story with paths that merge and the music reflects this. They have their own themes and styles of music that inevitably end up meeting and merging but they never lose their individuality. The themes flow well independently but they work well with one another’s themes too so there is no jarring disassociation that could come from having several pieces of music that don’t compliment each other.
Each of the playable characters in Detroit is an android and it’s interesting to see how each composer goes about creating a theme for each of them. Philip Sheppard is the composer of Kara’s music, Nima Fakhrara composes the tracks for Connor and John Paesano created the music for Markus. Sheppard opts for a more melancholy and emotional sound. As Kara has to take care of a little girl named Alice, there is more of an emotional element due to the bond that grows between Alice and Kara. Sheppard captures this well with quieter pieces that are almost like lullabies at times. Meanwhile, Fakhara’s theme for Connor features robotic synthetic sounds and melodies. Connor begins the game as an android that will do anything to complete his mission but, depending on the player choice, he can become more of an emotional being, able to feel and empathize. Fakhara’s theme does a good job of telling the story of an android who is at times questioning himself, as the music can become softer and more heartfelt at times even though the cold and unfeeling nature of Connor’s theme still runs throughout. Paesano’s theme for Markus also holds more emotional tones, with soft piano riffs making up most of his tracks. His music becomes more rousing and defiant as it continues, reflecting his journey as he becomes a voice for all androids in Detroit. Even as he rises through the ranks, his soft piano is still there. Paesano is able to convey the conflicting emotions that Markus can feel at times.
All three composers manage to excellently portray their characters with music that reflects each character and changes accordingly as they progress through the story. Detroit: Become Human may not have been an appeal to everyone’s tastes, but it certainly has a soundtrack that deserves to be appreciated.
Top Track- “Kara’s Theme” – Markus’s theme is brilliantly motivating as well as being oddly soothing to listen to. Connor’s theme is a futuristic joy that wouldn’t sound out of place in a movie like Blade Runner. But it’s Kara’s theme that stands out to me. The sadness that surrounds the song is captivating and you can almost feel Kara’s desperate desire to survive, to protect Alice and to be accepted as more than a machine as you listen. Phillip Sheppard does an incredible job here.
Indie games can be a goldmine of amazing music and RPG indie game Moonlighter from 11-bit studios has got such an endearing soundtrack that I had to add it to the list of best soundtracks. Moonlighter is a game where you maintain a shop by day and adventure into deep, dark dungeons by night. The mashup of business sim and dungeon explorer makes for a game full of charm, but the music adds even more heart to an already great game.
Much like the game, which switches between the calm reality of shopkeeping and the high octane bravery of battling dungeon dwelling nasties, the soundtrack also flits between music for exploration and adventure and music for casual relaxation. The drums echo and the strings ring out as the epic adventure music kicks in. The casual music is more carefree and loses the edge of the adventure music but doesn’t become any lesser for it. It’s a great way to show the difference in tone between the shop life and the dungeon life and David Fenn, the composer, balances it perfectly. He maintains the key theme throughout, which is one of the loveliest tunes to grace games this year.
Moonlighter as a whole, both in terms of the soundtrack and the game, shows that you don’t need a triple-A studio or an unlimited budget to create something beautiful and memorable. David Fenn’s music stayed with me long after listening, and it not only captured the essence of the game, it captured my spirits in a way that a lot of big name game soundtracks couldn’t.
Top Track- “Beyond the Gates” – this main theme just oozes charm, wonder, and brilliance whilst also being highly relaxing at the same time. I was actively looking forward to hearing the familiar sound of “Beyond the Gates” as I listened to the rest of the soundtrack and was happy when I could hear it expertly woven throughout the rest of the soundtrack. As far as indie game soundtracks go, Moonlighter is definitely one of my all-time favourites with “Beyond the Gates” now one of my favourite indie game themes.