2019 has been a year of ups and downs for the video game industry but one aspect that has been consistently excellent is the quality of soundtracks in gaming. The bar is constantly being raised in regard to the standard of music in games, with gaming soundtracks becoming as iconic as film and television scores. There has been a huge amount of amazing video game soundtracks this year so I’m going to be counting down twenty of the best soundtracks from 2019 from across the gaming world. Before we do so, let’s start with some honourable mentions. There are a few games that had brilliant soundtracks that I just couldn’t fit into the main list. Cutting them was a painful process so I thought I would give them and their composers a shout out.
Anthem- Sarah Schachner
Anthem may have received a lukewarm response upon its release in February but one element of the game that cannot be faulted is the soundtrack. Perfectly capturing the futuristic, sci-fi nature of the game, the Anthem score is an achievement that deserves to be acknowledged. It is also great to see a female composer make her mark in an industry dominated by male composers. Schachner clearly understands the world of Anthem and brings it to life excellently.
The Outer Worlds- Justin E. Bell
A recent game that became a hit, The Outer Worlds is another sci-fi style game that allows players to explore various planets and become a helping hand or a terrorising force to the inhabitants. Bell is able to capture the epic science fiction nature of the game, but he blends it with differing genres to create a unique sound. The most noticeable is the nod to the Western genre, reflecting the player’s travels through the vast wilderness of space.
Little Town Hero- Toby Fox
Cutting this one hurt as I really love this soundtrack but with so much great competition this year, unfortunately I couldn’t justify its place. Though the game itself received mixed reviews, Fox’s score oozes with charm. Fox has carved out a place for himself in the gaming world and his soundtracks are always vibrant and bubbly with a hint of powerful emotion. Although Little Town Hero doesn’t have quite the same depth as the scores for Undertale or even Deltarune: Chapter 1, Fox has crafted a little gem that is brimming with personality.
Borderlands 3- Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann and Finishing Move Inc.
When it comes to pure, unadulterated video game fun, Borderlands is the franchise to go to. The long awaited third game released in September and it had a surprisingly varied soundtrack. The eclectic combination of styles comes about thanks to the three separate composers. They each bring a different feel to each world and provide more depth than one might expect from Borderlands.
Metro Exodus- Alexei Omelchuk
The music from this game is incredibly powerful, perfectly reflecting the post-apocalyptic nature of the story. Based on the Metro book series which is set in Russia after a devastating nuclear war, the game is a first-person shooter with a strong narrative aspect. Ukrainian composer Alexei Omelchuk creates an eerie and haunting soundtrack that also invokes a great deal of emotion for important story moments and gripping tension for action scenes. His music could easily go toe to toe with a film soundtrack, and it would probably win.
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Remake)- Ryo Nagamatsu
Ryo Nagamatsu truly hits the nail on the head with his remake score. Bursting with cuteness and personality, the Link’s Awakening remake soundtrack cleverly combines an 8-bit musical style with orchestrated pieces. This invokes an element of nostalgia whilst also bringing the game into the contemporary video game scene.
These honourable mentions deserved a moment to be recognised and praised but now let’s get into the list. I’ll be listing entries twenty to eleven in this instalment, with part two coming afterwards.
20. Untitled Goose Game: Dan Golding
A surprise hit of 2019 was the indie game centred on the player controlling a slightly dastardly goose aptly named Untitled Goose Game. The game was praised widely and quickly became an internet sensation due to the passive aggressive nature of said goose. Interestingly enough, developers House House weren’t actually planning on having a prominent soundtrack. This soon changed following the release of the games trailer in 2017. Classical piece “Prelude No. 12: Minstrels” by Debussy was used to highlight the silly antics of the playable goose. The music was edited in a way that it almost seemed like it was framed around the goose’s behaviour, adding an extra layer of humour to an already pretty funny premise. The popularity of the trailer led to the decision to include music, but not just as a background element. The music of the game is situational in that it changes based on the actions of the player. Golding went through an elaborate process to bring this to life, but it was well worth the effort. As the goose lurks around its victims, the music will feel more low energy, but it perks up as soon as the player’s dastardly deeds are being committed. The piano tunes that follow your naughty goose around are all variations of six Debussy Preludes, with some original music from Golding also appearing on the radio in game. Due to this incredibly smart decision to include reactive music, I had to put Untitled Goose Game on this list even if the soundtrack itself is only half the length of some of the other entries here. Creative, unique and wonderfully executed, Untitled Goose Game succeeds in creating a soundtrack that reacts to your various devilish goose deeds.
Top Track: The Garden
It is difficult to highlight actual tracks from the game due to the reactive nature of the music but the piano piece that is used as you annoy the gardener in the game’s first level-The Garden- is my favourite. It is an example of Golding fantastically adapting Debussy, but it also somehow manages to reflect the actions of a wayward goose. The scheming of the goose; the irritable nature of his victims; the bad behaviour with no rhyme or reason; it is all captured perfectly in “The Garden”. It encapsulates everything the goose represents: being a bit of a nuisance.
19. Astral Chain: Satoshi Igarashi
Nintendo title Astral Chain is a game that unexpectedly rose to prominence upon its release in August 2019. An entirely original IP, Astral Chain is a hack and slash adventure game centred on a world known as “The Ark” and a police force known as “Neuron” who the player is a detective for. The music is a dynamic aspect of the game as it regularly fluctuates between three distinctive genres: metal, orchestral and electronica. The score boasts a range of tracks and it is impressive how Igarashi- who previously scored Bayonetta 2– manages to switch so easily between them. You get a feel for how a scene in the game is playing out just by listening to the soundtrack due to Igarashi’s masterful manipulation of the various genres. In a developer blog by PlatinumGames, Igarashi gives some credit where it is due to two other composers who helped out on the game, Naofumi Harada and Hitomi Kurokawa, as well as two outside composers who were also involved, Masahiro Aoki and Satoshi Setsune. Igarashi also includes a graph on this blog depicting the music genres used in the game and how they reflect certain moods during the game such as tense and calm. This shows the importance of maintaining the three genre structure and how Igarashi and his colleagues went about enforcing this method throughout the game. Not only does the score juggle three separate genres, it does it incredibly well. This versatile nature of the score is what makes Astral Chain one of the best soundtracks this year.
Top Track: Dark Hero- Female Version- sung by Beverly
Despite the brilliant tracks throughout, it is one of the actual songs from the game that I have chosen for the best of the soundtrack. There are two different versions of this song, a male and a female version. I chose the female version as Beverly-the artist who sings it- has an incredible voice that amps up the epic nature of the song. The male version is still good, but it is incredibly auto tuned. This does actually fit in with the Astral Chain world with its robotic sound, but Beverly’s version is still the more enjoyable. The song is a perfect encapsulation of both metal and electronica and sounds like it was ripped straight out of a mainstream anime. With great vocals and awesome instrumentals, the song is fabulously over the top and stands out significantly.
18.Sea of Solitude: Guy Jackson
Berlin based indie game developers Jo-Mei Games released the adventure game Sea of Solitude in the summer of 2019. The game centres on a girl named Kay who has turned into a monster. As she traverses through a submerged city on a boat, she encounters various creatures and other monsters as she goes about trying to become human again. Sea of Solitude acts as metaphor for depression, loneliness, fear and battling your inner demons and the musical score is a reflection of Kay’s fight against her personal darkness. Composer Guy Jackson was brought on to score the game after he demonstrated some melancholy pieces of music he had been working on in his spare time during a meeting with CEO of Jo-Mei games Cornelia Geppert. The score has moments that reflect a significant amount of emotion, from anger to pain to desolate sadness. Jackson captures each emotion perfectly with his simple yet raw and powerful music. The game itself may have received mixed reviews, but there is no faulting Jackson’s carefully crafted score which stemmed from a folder of sad music on his computer. This is why I believe Sea of Solitude has one of the best soundtracks of the year. From humble and unpolished beginnings, Jackson managed to create a perfect score to represent the tumultuous traversal of mental health issues that we all deal with at some point.
Top Track: I Picture You Before Me- sung by Stella Angelika
“I Picture You Before Me” kind of acts as the games main theme as it appears at the beginning and at the end of the game. There is an instrumental version of it but the version I have chosen is a version sung by Stella Angelika with Guy Jackson accompanying her on the piano. The unique nature of the song’s inception is intriguing, as they did not begin recording with the song completely finished. Jackson referred to the state of the song as a “sketch” when he and Angelika began recording. He began playing the piano and whilst Angelika sang some lyrics she had written on her phone, it was mostly an improvised composition. Although the final version was given some fine tuning, the improvisation was kept. This improvised style reflects the true emotion of those involved, especially Stella Angelika who stated that the lyrics she had written on her phone to aid her with her improve were written during “the darkest time”. She went on to say that “The things that I was feeling really went into this little sketch”. This raw emotion is what makes this track a stand out on the album, reflecting the nature of the game as well as capturing real human emotion within the artist. It is a unique way of creating a song, but Jackson and Angelika really nailed it with “I Picture You Before Me”.
17. Pokémon Sword and Shield: Minako Adachi and Go Ichinose featuring Toby Fox
Pokémon Sword and Shield is a game that has been getting some flack since its release in November. Despite praise from critics, fans have slated the animations, the incomplete Pokédex and the narrative. Once again, Sword and Shield is a game with outstanding music that outweighs the negative energy surrounding the actual game. The soundtrack represents the end of an era as Pokémon music aficionado Junichi Masuda is not involved. In an interview last year, Masuda stated that “it’s important to have the younger generation at Game Freak take over the development of Pokémon as a series”. Masuda has been involved in the series since the very first Red and Blue games. Whilst it is sad to see him depart, the new composers bring heaps of energy to the behemoth of a score (there are around 72 tracks) whilst maintaining the key elements that are the most recognisable from the series. The original music from the first games are referenced constantly throughout. The title screen theme is an homage to the main theme from Pokémon Red and Blue, which became a theme that most Pokémon media rallies under (it was even remixed brilliantly in the ending credits to Detective Pikachu). The Sword and Shield remix revitalises the theme to represent the new game, the new region and the new trainers ready to set out on their adventures. Other classic themes such as the “Pokémon Centre” music, the “Evolution theme” and the “Wild Pokémon Victory Theme” are included with a modernised sound but little else changed. As much as I loved the homages to classic Pokémon music, it was the new themes that particularly caught my attention. The soundtrack switches genres frequently, including funky electronica, cutesy pop, punkish metal and even a bit of country mixed in there with “Hulbury Town”. There is something for everyone and it is all extremely enjoyable to listen to. No matter how Pokémon Sword and Shield will be remembered in the grander scheme of the Pokémon franchise, the music will surely be remembered for its greatness.
Top Track: Battle! (Gym Leader)
Whilst Toby Fox’s “Battle! (Battle Tower)” theme that he created especially for the game is an enjoyable addition to the soundtrack, it is the “Gym Leader Battle” theme that truly steals the show here. The theme is bombastic, highly energetic and wouldn’t sound out of place in a nightclub. The excitement of Pokémon battles is highlighted in this track, particularly when the crowd cheers start to kick in about three quarters of the way through the song. Their chanting is reminiscent of those attending a real-life sports match and it is a clever feature to integrate into the music. The “Gym Leader Battle” theme is awesome and definitely a standout on the Sword and Shield soundtrack.
16. A Plague Tale: Innocence: Olivier Deriviere
Set in 14th century France, A Plague Tale: Innocence is mostly a stealth based game about a teenager named Amicia and her younger brother Hugo attempting to find a safe place after their home was invaded by the Inquisition. They must deal with various enemies as they navigate their war-torn homeland, most notably swarms of plague rats that devour everything in sight. As with many games where the narrative takes precedence, the soundtrack is an important element and one that is wonderfully executed by Deriviere whose previous video game work includes Remember Me and Vampyr.
Due to the time period in which the game is set, the main focus of the score is only on a few instruments. There is an emphasis on the strings section such as the violin, cello and guitar to encompass the medieval mood. The strings are used in both the action sequences and the quieter moments to great effect. In the tense moments where the player may find themselves sneaking around to avoid danger, the strings will screech in a deep and booming fashion such as in the track “The Inquisition”. They often start slow and build to something that goes from slightly unnerving to utter heart pounding tension. These segments reminded me strongly of music found in television, such as Bear McCreary’s The Walking Dead or Ramin Djawdi’s Game of Thrones scores. Both make great use of the strings for epic moments and Deriviere’s work here wouldn’t be out of place amongst them. The Soundtrack World website describes the intimidating string work perfectly, “…contains a pattern that keeps repeating, but instead of getting tedious, enough variation has been added to the pattern to keep the music interesting and gets progressively darker and builds to a broader sounding climax.” This is certainly the case for “The Inquisition”, and several other tracks, the ones Soundtrack World references including “Orphans” and “Escape”.
The calmer moments of the soundtrack are equally powerful but it invokes more soothing emotions. The soft pluck of the guitar strings is calming, despite the stressful situation that Amicia and Hugo find themselves in. They act as peaceful interludes amongst the violence and decimation within the game and Deriviere composes these pieces beautifully.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a perfect example of how a simple soundtrack made up of only a handful of instruments can be just as effective as a complex one. Deriviere keeps the soundtrack firmly grounded in the 14th century game setting whilst also breathing life into this plague infested world. Amicia and Hugo’s journey is often without music in-game but when the soundtrack does kick in, the fear, violence and life or death scenarios feel all the more real.
Top Track: Father
I was torn between this track and “Beyond the Horizon” here. “Beyond the Horizon” is unique in that it is the only song that makes use of a different style and different instruments, including an organ and some male vocals. However, I believe that “Father” has a stronger emotional impact. “Father” is the second track on the soundtrack and it encompasses the childlike innocence of Amicia and the connection between her and her father before her world is turned upside down. It represents that which a great deal of us still cling to: optimism and hope. It is a simple guitar piece with a small strings section kicking in about halfway through. Beautiful and hopeful, the song suggests a peaceful life. Although this peace is ultimately shattered, it reflects a happier time for the siblings. Sometimes being able to reflect on these happier moments is what keeps us going, making this piece feel incredibly human.
15. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab
When it comes to franchises, Star Wars is one of the most iconic of them all. Anyone who is able to work on anything even remotely to do with it- films, games, television, terrible holiday specials- is sure to be subject to criticism and intense scrutiny by the hordes of dedicated Star Wars fans. This goes for the music of the franchise too. John Williams created one of the most iconic and beloved film scores of all time. Other composers have chipped in via the various spin off movies and television shows (most recently Ludwig Göransson in his incredible music for The Mandalorian). It’s a hefty task but when it came to score the music for the latest Star Wars game, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab took up the challenge and did amazingly well.
With John Williams’s soundtracks, he captured the feel of a completely fictional sci-fi world whilst maintaining some relatability and humanity with tracks such as “Princess Leia’s Theme” and “The Force Theme”. Barton and Haab are able to do the same here, blending bombastic, orchestral action pieces with softer pieces that are equally orchestral but make use of the woodwind section to create a soothing sci-fi atmosphere. The score is so convincing at times that I honestly wondered if John Williams had a hand in it in some way. The inspiration that Barton and Haab took from Williams is incredibly clear to anyone, even those who may have only heard the main Star Wars theme. However, there is an interesting use of music in Fallen Order that does separate it somewhat from Williams’s orchestral inspiration.
The opening of the game has a fascinating use of music that hasn’t really been seen in the Star Wars universe before. A strange, alien sounding song can be heard and as we focus in on playable protagonist Cal Kestis, we realise that this song is actually music that he is listening to on his headphones. The use of music within the Star Wars universe itself is rarely delved into (except the weird cantina acts) and-correct me if I’m wrong internet- I’m pretty sure that no one has ever been shown just listening to a recorded artist on a music player. It is an interesting place to start the game, with an alien song rather than an orchestral score. We all know the intense and mind-blowing way that the movies open, so I found this opening a brilliant twist on the use of music to introduce us to a Star Wars adventure. Oh, and fun fact, the alien band that Cal is listening to is actually a Mongolian heavy metal band who use throat chanting in their songs. You’re welcome for that titbit.
The soundtrack has not been officially released so I’m not even entirely certain of the names of all the tracks despite my research. There are a few dotted around out there, mostly based on the names of the various planets that you visit such as Kashyyk and Dathomir. There’s even a petition to get the soundtrack officially released which I’ll link here if you are interested. Though I can’t be specific with titles from the soundtrack, it is clear that Barton and Haab had a clear understanding of the Star Wars universe as their music slots straight into it without a second glance. There are moments of brilliance that feel ripped straight from the movies as well as quieter moments that are equally strong. There is no doubting that Barton and Haab succeeded in pulling the player into a galaxy far, far away with their brilliant music.
Top Track: Cal Kestis Theme
Whilst I couldn’t find an official upload of “Cal’s Theme”, a YouTuber by the name of Flash Music put together the pieces of Cal’s Theme that they could decipher throughout the game. Thanks Flash Music! “Cal’s Theme” is quite a whimsical number in its initial iterations, suggesting a character that has much to learn and has a great journey ahead of him. In this compilation, the theme gets more mature as the game progresses. I love when composers use a particular theme for a character that alters throughout as that character develops. That is exactly was Barton and Haab do for “Cal’s Theme” and it is a brilliant way to show that his path will not be an easy one and he may not come out the other side of it as the same person.” Cal’s Theme” easily stands up against other character themes throughout the Star Wars franchise, even one such as “Rey’s Theme” from the latest trilogy, and that is why I feel it is one of the best pieces from the soundtrack.
14. Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro and Inspion Izene Inc.
Catherine: Full Body is a remaster and extended version of the original Catherine game from eight years ago. The remaster includes 21 new tracks and this soundtrack is what I am putting on the list. The Catherine soundtrack was great at bringing together an eclectic group of music genres and somehow making them all work amazingly together. The Catherine: Full Body soundtrack continues this tradition with some awesome remixes of classical pieces, smooth and soothing jazz melodies and hip hop songs that sound ripped straight from the mainstream music charts. Composer Shoji Meguro- famous for his work on the Persona series– enlisted the help of Inspion Inzene Inc for the extended soundtrack due to their help on the sound design of the original title (I’m linking an interesting article in regards to Inspion’s involvement but be warned that the website is in Japanese!). This collaboration works well as there is a sense of familiarity regarding the soundtrack but a fresh new set of tracks to distinguish the new material from the original content.
The Catherine: Full Body soundtrack is just as creative, eclectic, unique and quirky as the soundtrack for Catherine was, with just the right combination of various genres. It makes for an interesting listen that offers up a bit of something for everyone whilst expanding the already brilliant original material.
Top Track: Tomorrow (Rin’s Theme)
For all its varying genres of music, the piece that stood out to me the most was the simple yet beautifully performed “Tomorrow.” Acting as a theme for the new character in Full Body Qatherine- known as Rin- the theme is simple and sweet and incredibly soothing. Rin is a new neighbour who befriends Vincent in the game. The tune is played by Rin on the piano and acts as a tool for helping Vincent during his nightmares. This helpful nature is reflected in the melody of the song, which echoes with a benevolent nature. Despite there being some amazing remixes of classical music involved in the soundtrack (the “Ride of the Valkyries” remix is my personal favourite) “Tomorrow” is a lovely tune that brings some sweetness to the game.
13. Afterparty: scntfc
Following the success of their first game Oxenfree, indie game developers Night School Studio continued to demonstrate their strength in the indie game field with their recent release Afterparty. Afterparty follows Milo and Lola, two best friends who find themselves suddenly in Hell with no recollection as to how they died. Composer Andrew Rohrmann- known by his stage name scntfc- returns to score Afterparty following his work on Oxenfree. The score is a unique mix of booming club style electronica and creeping, atmospheric, organ heavy tunes that embodies a theme worthy of the underworld.
Whilst there are other elements that pop up throughout, the game mostly revolves around the premise drinking and partying and this is reflected well in the soundtrack. Milo and Lola find out that the only way to escape from Hell is to out-drink Satan himself, making getting wasted pretty important to the plot. The music encompasses a techno vibe that would be associated with a party heavy environment. It’s fun to listen to and is easy to imagine a bunch of drunken party goers dancing uneasily to the infectious beats.
The electronic techno music is definitely an element that makes this soundtrack one of the best this year, but the ability to infuse it with a different style completely is what makes it great. I would say that the other style of music is a crossover of rock and religion. I’ll use the track, “Your Own, Personal Demon” as an example. It begins with an organ and develops with choral voices, drumbeats and eventually includes the electric guitar. There is an element of music that one may think of when considering Heaven, Hell or religious matters (organs and a chorus of singers) then it merges with the style that reflects the badass that is Satan in Afterparty. After all, he is the Lord of the Underworld who throws 24/7 parties. A cool guitar riff would suit him nicely. With this mashup of musical styles, scntfc creates an interesting music combination that is both clever and enjoyable.
The music of Afterparty is proof that taking musical risks- such as merging styles that may not seem compatible- can really pay off. There has clearly been a lot of thought put into which musical genres reflect the games premise and characters best and it all comes together nicely. With Afterparty, scntfc has scored another incredible soundtrack for Night School Studios. Here’s hoping they continue their collaboration in the future.
Top Track- Hades Gonna Hate
“Schoolyard Strangler” is a perfect representation of how the various genres combine to create one unique track that reflects the (under) world of Afterparty perfectly. However, I just couldn’t resist putting “Hades Gonna Hate” as the top track as it is pure electronic enjoyment. It seriously sounds like a song in the mainstream music charts today with its awesome techno beats and addictive riffs. I dare you not to at least tap your foot whilst listening to this one.
12. Code Vein: Go Shiina
When I first started listening to the Code Vein soundtrack, I was struck by how dramatic and powerful the first track alone was. Honestly, the sudden choral voices made me jump a little. Booming and harmonic in style, the soundtrack is incredibly epic and shockingly well done. Despite having licensed music included, I’ll be focusing on the musical score of the game.
Code Vein is a role playing game set in a post-apocalyptic society where a terrible and mysterious event led to the destruction of humanity. Whilst many games have dystopian settings, few of them go as bombastic with their music as Code Vein does. The score is highly orchestral, making the game come alive. It is hard not to feel something when a swelling chorus and orchestra bursts to life as you play. The player battles various monsters and vampiric creatures throughout the game and the music plays a key part. Fights can quickly become more effective once the music begins to intensify and the score alters with player decisions. This dynamic approach to the soundtrack did cause issues for the composer though, as Go Shiina suggests this in a behind the scenes video on the game where he states, “the music needs to be composed in a way that allows for change at any time without undercutting the track, and these changes aren’t necessarily limited to dark sounds that match the backing.” It was clearly a struggle to include reactive music but Shiina pulls it off to the point where even the most tedious of battles can be uplifted by the power of the soundtrack.
Code Vein is another game that received mixed reviews upon release but as with the other entries on this list with the same issue, the soundtrack is far from mediocre. Shiina was given a fair amount of freedom on the project, “They basically let me do what I wanted with the composition”, he says in the BTS video. I personally think this was a great move on behalf of Bandai Namco. They clearly placed a lot of trust in Shiina, likely due to his previous work with them on games such as the God Eater series. They were right to do so, despite his Code Vein work being “very strong and hard compared to the (God Eater) music”. This hardness is apparent throughout, with certain tracks literally booming. “Main Theme” is a great example of this (the one I first listened to that gave me a slight scare). It immediately opens up with a chanting chorus of voices followed quickly by a bellowing organ before the full orchestra kicks in. A review from Shack News accurately describes the singing as an “almost-Gregorian monk-chanting piece”. This is such a unique way to introduce the player to the game. Don’t forget, this is only the main menu. This kind of introduction is important as it is the first impression that the player gets. This intro indicates that the player is certainly in for an epic journey.
Code Vein manages to inflict some serious damage with its astounding music that begins as soon as the game is started up. It doesn’t let up throughout and can uplift the player during battle due to the interactivity and intensity of the score. Code Vein is yet another fantastic soundtrack that may not have gotten the credit it deserved due to the reaction from critics.
Top Track: Memory of the Lost
I know I’ve been heaping praise on the “Main Theme” of Code Vein but for my top track, I have to choose the melancholy “Memory of the Lost”. Played during a sequence in the game that delves into a certain character’s memories, “Memory of the Lost” is an emotionally charged piece of music. Starting off with the string section, the piece then begins to include a piano and a female vocal performance. The composition of the song screams anime and that is definitely not a bad thing. Anime has some of most inspiring and beautiful soundtracks and this track is certainly the best that Code Vein offers.
11. Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead
PlayStation 4 exclusive Days Gone was released to mixed reviews in April of 2019 but the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard this year. Acting as a composer for films and television as well as video games, Nathan Whitehead has created a score that sucks you into rural post-apocalyptic Oregon and doesn’t let go. In Days Gone the player takes on the role of Deacon St John, a biker who is surviving alone after a pandemic turned people into “Freakers” (basically fast zombies). The score is a versatile collection that ranges from terror inducing themes for the Freakers and softer numbers for emotional moments in the story.
Whitehead previously worked on some of the films in The Purge franchise so it is no surprise that he is incredibly well adept at invoking a feeling of suspense and imminent danger within his score. His piece “The Freakshow” is a haunting theme for the Freakers that immerses you in a deep feeling of dread. It is a perfect monster theme but there is also a touch of softness to it to remind the listener of the human that once resided within. When discussing his work on the PlayStation Blog, Whitehead mentions that this was essential for the theme, “It was…important to maintain a thread of humanity”. “The Freakshow” builds and builds until it becomes heavily reliant on the string section and the sense of tension that it can bring (the best example of utilising the strings like this is the theme from Psycho). There is an overall tone of fear but that small yet potent inclusion of something to reference the Freakers humanity is a nice touch that shows that Whitehead clearly went out of his way to bring some gravitas to this score.
Whilst the more harrowing and action-packed scores are exciting to listen to, I found myself drawn to the quieter pieces. Whitehead noted that his two biggest influences on the score are “Deacon…and the setting of the Pacific Northwest” and I found that this came across most powerfully in the softer moments of the score. There is a certain peaceful nature to the various guitar riffs, especially when combined with an orchestra. Whitehead wanted to create an “organic, lived-in sound with a touch of Americana” and this is particularly powerful in the guitar heavy tracks. You can’t help but hear the rural American countryside, although Whitehead did say that he didn’t want it to “sound too country”. I think he succeeds in this as there isn’t a permeating twang that you get with pure country scores. It represents the beauty of the environment that Deacon finds himself in during his travels whilst also reflecting Deacon as a character and his connection to nature.
The Days Gone soundtrack manages to invoke a plethora of emotions, from serenity to tension to fear and back again. Whitehead shows off his versatility as a composer whose score changes with the players actions, such as increasing in tension if Deacon happens to run into a pack of Freakers. There are similarities to Gustavo Santolalla’s The Last of Us soundtrack (one of my favourite game soundtracks of all time) in that the composer has perfectly managed to capture both the feeling of a desolate and dangerous world and the struggles of the last bastion of humanity. Despite other elements of Days Gone not being so well received, the soundtrack is easily one of the standout features of the game. Clearly a labour of love on Whitehead’s part, Days Gone is undoubtedly one of the best soundtracks in gaming this year.
Top Track: I Remember
One of the most affecting tracks of Days Gone is “I Remember”, a track about Deacon and his life before the outbreak that destroyed the world. It is a heartfelt track with a focus on the guitar, creating a soothing atmospheric tone. The theme acts as a reflection of Deacon’s past with hints of themes from his future. The piece slowly builds to a powerful orchestral theme before ending with the quiet guitar again. Whitehead said that the piece was meant to be “wistful and a little hopeful…to reflect Deacon’s resolve.” The lower guitar moments seem to represent the wistful elements, with the crescendo symbolising Deacon’s strength and “resolve.” Beautifully created and almost rustic in its tone, “I Remember” is the most striking piece from Days Gone that shows how game scores can be just as moving as movie scores.
‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season
Atelier Ryza excels at creating a sense of warmth and familiarity, and could be just what you need during the winter months.
The Atelier series is something of a unicorn in the JRPG genre. It isn’t known for its world-ending calamities or continent-spanning journeys; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The small-town feel and more intimate storytelling of Atelier games has made them some of the most consistently cozy experiences in gaming, and Ryza is no exception. No matter if it’s this winter or next, here’s why Atelier Ryza is the perfect type of RPG to warm your heart this winter.
Like a Warm Blanket
Unlike protagonists from other entries in the franchise, Reisalin Stout (or Ryza for short) has never stepped foot in an atelier or even heard of alchemy at the start of her game. Instead, she’s just a fun-loving and mischevious girl from the country who spends her days in search of adventure with her childhood pals Lent and Tao. It’s this thrill-seeking that eventually leads the trio to meet a mysterious wandering alchemist and learn the tricks of the trade.
The entirety of Atelier Ryza takes place during summer, and it’s clear that the visual design team at Gust had a field day with this theme. In-game mornings are brought to life through warm reds, yellows, and oranges, while the bright summer sun beams down incessantly in the afternoon and gives way to cool evenings flooded by shades of blue and the soft glow of lanterns. Ryza’s visual prowess is perhaps most noticeable in the lighting on its character models, which are often given a warm glow dependent on the time of day.
The cozy sensibilities of the countryside can be felt elsewhere as well. The farm Ryza’s family lives on aside, the majority of environments are lush with all manner of plant life, dirt roads, and rustic architecture. Menus feature lovely wooden and papercraft finishes that simulate notepads or photos on a desk. Townspeople will even stop Ryza to remark on how much she’s grown and ask about buying some of her father’s crops. Everything just excels at feeling down-to-earth homey.
An Intimate Take on Storytelling
Kurken Island and the surrounding mainland feel expansive as a whole but intimate in their design. This is partially due to the readily-accessible fast travel system that Atelier Ryza employs; instead of a seamless open world, most players will find themselves jumping from location to location to carry out quests and harvest ingredients for alchemy. However, there’s still strong incentive to explore the nearby town thanks to tons of random side quests and little cutscenes that trigger as players progress through the main story.
It’s an interesting way to tackle world-building. Instead of relying on intricate dialogue like The Outer Worlds or massive cinematic cutscenes like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Atelier Ryza lets players get a feel for its world rather naturally through everyday conversations. These scenes run the gamut from Ryza’s parents yelling at her to help more around the farm to running into and catching up with old friends who’d moved overseas. They’re unobtrusive and brief, but the sheer number of them gradually establishes a cast that feels alive and familiar.
Of course, post-holidays winter is also the season for more somber tales. The relationship between Lent and his alcoholic father is striking in its realistic depiction of how strained some father-son relationships can become.
The narrative escalates subtly: An early cutscene shows Mr. Marslink stumbling onto Ryza’s front lawn thinking it’s his. Then an event triggers where the neighborhood jerks tease Lent about being the son of the town drunk. Lent’s house is a small shack pulled back from the rest of the town, and visiting it triggers one of the few scenes where Ryza can actually talk to Mr. Marslink himself. The situation eventually reveals itself to be so bad that it completely explains why Lent is gung-ho about being out of the house whenever he can.
Though Lent’s general character motivation is wanting to get stronger and protect the town, it’s the heartfelt insights like these that make him much more relatable as a party member. Atelier Ryza features no grand theatrics or endless bits of exposition, but instead favors highlighting interpersonal conversations as Ryza continues to learn more about the people and world around her.
Cozy games rarely get enough credit. Just like the Animal Crossing series or Pokemon: Let’s Go provides players with a warmth that can stave off the harshest of winters, Atelier Ryza succeeds in being the lighthearted, touching JRPG fans wanted. It’s both aesthetically pleasing and heartwarming in the way it builds out its world and cast of characters, and seeing Ryza gradually grow more confident and capable is a joy unto itself. If you’re in need of a blanket until Animal Crossing: New Horizons comes out in March, you can’t go wrong here.
PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’
This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.
Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.
Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.
All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.
Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.
These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”
Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.
If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.
And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.
The Artful Escape
Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.
As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.
It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.
This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.
For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.
PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love
A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.
Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.
There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.
“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.
“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.
The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”
Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”
After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.
Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”
Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.
“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”
The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”
The Mid-Season Replacements Podcast Episode 3: “Big Space Energy”
Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: The First-Ever Tag Team Tables Match
‘Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet’ Levels Up Gaming’s TV Reputation
‘Atelier Ryza’ Warms the Heart No Matter the Season
PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’
Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H and Cactus Jack Street Fight
PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love
Bitores Mendez Teaches You the Politics of Pain in ‘Resident Evil 4’
‘Harpoon’ — A Nasty Thriller that Mostly Hits the Target
20 Years Later and How ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ Revolutionized the Sitcom
15 Years Ago, ‘Resident Evil 4’ Blew My Mind
My Love/Hate Affair With ‘Star Trek’
‘Banjo-Pilot’ Was One of Rare’s Difficult Steps Into a Nintendoless Future
The Best Episodes of ‘Malcolm in the Middle’
- Film4 weeks ago
25 Years Later: ‘Street Fighter’ is Oddly Entertaining and Often Hilarious
- Games2 weeks ago
Bitores Mendez Teaches You the Politics of Pain in ‘Resident Evil 4’
- Games3 weeks ago
The Best Games of the 2010s
- Fantasia Film Festival2 weeks ago
‘Harpoon’ — A Nasty Thriller that Mostly Hits the Target
- Anime4 weeks ago
The Best Anime of 2019
- Sordid Cinema2 weeks ago
The History of The Grudge: The Beginning of the Curse
- Anime3 weeks ago
The Best Anime of the Decade (Ranks 25-1)
- Games4 weeks ago
30 Years Later: From Nintendo to Netflix, ‘Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse’ Unfolds a New Legacy