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.
‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab
Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.
In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.
Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.
It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.
In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.
Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.
Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.
Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.
Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.
Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.
I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.
10 Years Later: ‘Mass Effect 2’ is An All-Time Sci-fi Classic
Mass Effect 2 didn’t just nail the formula for a successful sequel, it tied together one of the greatest science fiction tales ever.
Mass Effect launched in 2007 as the boldest science fiction project ever conceived for consoles. The complex mythology, history and the many alien races, each with their own political/religious beliefs offered a depth rarely seen in the medium. Only a game as ambitious as Mass Effect 2 could not only match the pedigree of such a massive project but surpass it in every single way imaginable.
Released 3 years after the original, a full decade ago, Mass Effect 2 set the benchmark for not just sequels but for science fiction gaming as well. Few sequels are able to overcome the weaknesses of their predecessors with such perfect accuracy while also doubling down on what made them good in the first place.
The first task that fell to Bioware was to refine the combat. The original game had more of a strategic angle to it but that strategy meant the game was constantly stopping and starting, stuttering the action and ruining the flow of the game. By streamlining the combat into more of an action RPG experience (emphasis on action), Mass Effect 2 created a much better sense of tension in battle sequences. Aiming, using techniques and issuing orders also flowed more smoothly with these changes.
Another major change was the removal of the Mako, an exploratory rover the player drove around alien planets with. While a novel idea, the Mako often lead to aimless wandering as the player sought out resources on the many planets of Mass Effect. Instead of driving to their destination, players were now warped directly to the area they would be exploring. Resource collection was overhauled as a result.
While few players will talk about the thrill of spinning a globe around and aiming a reticle in order to collect resources in Mass Effect 2, the simple speed by which this process was streamlined offered a hefty margin of improvement over the original game. Resources that might have taken a half-hour to collect in the first game could now be found in 1/10 of that time. Resource collection, while a vital part of the game, was never meant to be the time sink it was in the original Mass Effect, and by speeding up this process, Mass Effect 2 allowed players to get back to the meat of the game: doing missions and exploring the galaxy.
Of course, these aren’t necessarily the most significant changes that players will recall from their time with Mass Effect 2. The story and character roster were also expanded considerably from the first game, and these are without a doubt the biggest improvements that this sequel is able to mount.
While Mass Effect had seven playable characters, Mass Effect 2 expanded that to twelve. Not only was the amount of characters an improvement, though, the quality of the characters on offer was also much stronger this time around. A full nine new characters were introduced for players to utilize in combat, strategize with and get to know throughout the game. Among them were badass assassin Thane Krios, dangerous convict Jack, morally dubious Miranda Lawson, and hivemind robot Legion.
In fact, the cast of Mass Effect 2 is so good that it has rightfully become a benchmark for the creation of a compelling cast of characters in RPGs, and video games, in general. The sheer diversity on display in the looks, personalities and movesets allowed for the cast is awe-inspiring, and this is without even considering the trump card that Mass Effect 2 flashed throughout the experience of playing the game.
The monumental suicide mission to raid the Collectors’ base and save humanity is the impetus for the entire plot of Mass Effect 2, and the reason for which the player is recruiting the baddest mother fuckers from all over the galaxy in hopes of success. It isn’t just a suicide mission in name either, many, or even all, of the cast can die during the completion of this mission, adding a layer of suspense and finality to the final stage of Mass Effect 2 that few other games can match.
To this end, players were encouraged to get to know their crew through loyalty missions specific to each cast member. By undertaking these optional missions and completing them in a way that would impress or endear themselves to the character in question, players were able to ascertain the unquestioned respect and loyalty of that character, ensuring they wouldn’t go rogue during the final mission.
Still, even passing these prerequisites with flying colors wasn’t a guarantee for success. Players also had to pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the characters when assigning tasks and making split-second decisions. Who you would leave to recon an area, repair a piece of equipment, or lock down a path, could make the difference as to who was going to survive the mission. Further complicating things, the characters you wanted to take with you to final branches of the mission might be the very people best suited for these earlier tasks.
“Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop”.
Getting everyone out alive is a truly Machiavellian task, requiring either a guide or multiple playthroughs in order to get it precisely right. To that end, my feeling is that it’s better to go at it honestly the first time around, dealing with the requisite losses that this experience entails. After all, it isn’t really a suicide mission without a couple of casualties right? Even with all of my preparations and foresight, I lost Tali and Legion in the final mission, but for the fate of the human race, these losses were an acceptable cost.
Even outside the strength of this fantastic cast and the monumental undertaking of planning and executing this final mission, there were other key characters and elements introduced as well. The Illusive Man, voiced by the great Martin Sheen, emerged as a necessary evil, saving Commander Shepard from death but asking morally complex decisions to be made as the cost of doing business. The relationship with, and the choices the player makes, in regard to The Illusive Man have far-reaching consequences for the remainder of the series, and as he emerged to become a primary antagonist in the final game of the trilogy, the considerations to be made were vast and insidious by their very definition.
With so many factors working in its favor, Mass Effect 2 is the rare game that is so perfectly designed that both its predecessor and sequel suffer by comparison as a result. While the improvements of ME2 make it hard to go back to the original game, the scope and ambition of an entire cast that could be alive or dead at the end of the journey also neutered the third game, causing many of the best characters in the trilogy to be excised from the final leg of the trip.
Truly, Mass Effect 2 isn’t just one of the greatest science fiction games of all time, but one of the best science fiction experiences in any medium, full stop. Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, Mass Effect 2 is the best exemplar of its universe and what makes it compelling and worthwhile in general.
PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Speaking Simulator,’ ‘Iron Danger,’ and ‘Wildermyth’
PAX South brought an extremely diverse lineup of games to San Antonio, and in this next roundup, it’s time to look at another diverse assortment of titles. These include Speaking Simulator, the surrealist take on the art of speaking, Wildermyth, a beautiful new RPG based on D&D, and Iron Danger, a surprisingly player-friendly take on roleplaying.
When asked why he was inspired to develop Speaking Simulator, the developer promptly responded, “I don’t know!” That was exactly what I felt while playing its demo at PAX. It left me mystified, amazed that it exists, overwhelmed by its complexity, and delighted with its absurdity. Speaking Simulator follows a highly advanced android tasked with assimilating into human society in order to gain world domination – and to do that, he’ll need to learn how to speak first. Players are thus tasked with controlling every aspect of this android’s face and guiding it through increasingly difficult social situations.
Speaking is an awkward art for many people (including myself), and Speaking Simulator is just that: awkward. You can control nearly every aspect of the android’s face. You can move its tongue with the left stick and its jaw with the right, while manipulating its facial expression, eyebrows, and more with other buttons. This leads to a delicate balancing act where complete control feels just barely out of reach so that you must always be alert and able to sufficiently direct your mechanical face.
During each conversation, you’ll have so many different moving parts to consider. You’ll have to follow prompts about where to move your tongue, how to adjust your mouth, how your face should look, and so on. The more complex the conversation, the trickier it is to speak. Scenarios during my demo included a date, a job interview, and the most normal social situation of all, speaking to a man while he’s using the toilet. And of course, if you don’t perform adequately in these conversations, then your face will start to explode – which is only natural for awkward conversations, after all.
Speaking Simulator is the definition of controlled chaos. It shows just how difficult it really is to be a human – controlling the face alone was far more than I could handle, as my frequent face explosions during my demo showed me. Playing Speaking Simulator was an equally hilarious and surreal experience, one that I can’t wait to experience in full when it releases on Switch and PC at the end of January.
Iron Danger was one of my biggest surprises at PAX South. When I arrived at the Daedalic Entertainment booth for my appointment with Iron Danger, I didn’t expect to enjoy it half as much as I did. As a western-styled, point and click RPG, Iron Danger was outside my comfort zone. Yet the game is explicitly designed for players like me, who can feel intimidated by the immense amount of strategies and decisions that the genre requires. This is thanks to its core mechanic: time reversal. Perhaps this mechanic isn’t entirely unheard of in RPGs (Fire Emblem: Three Houses comes to mind as a recent example), but the way it’s implemented in Iron Danger makes all the difference.
It begins simply enough for an RPG. Your village is under attack, and as you attempt to escape to safety, you have the misfortune of dying. But death is only the beginning: just as you fall, a mysterious being blesses you with the ability to rewind time at any moment you’d like. That means that if you ever make a wrong move during combat, then you can reverse that decision and try something else. Time is divided up into “heartbeats,” which are measured in a bar at the bottom of the screen. If you want to go back in time, simply click on a previous heartbeat. There’s no limit on how often you can use this ability: battles become a process of trial and error, of slowly rewinding and progressing as you discover what works. If you end up walking into an enemy trap, simply click back to the heartbeat before the ambush, and try a different strategy.
Iron Danger takes the stress out of roleplaying. RPGs are all about making decisions, and typically, making the wrong decision comes at a high price. But thanks to the time-reversal mechanic, Iron Dungeon gives you the room to experiment without consequence. As the developers at the booth explained to me, the ability to undo your actions turns Iron Danger into more of a puzzle game than an RPG. It’s all about evaluating your situation, the abilities at your disposal, the locations and actions of different enemies, and so on. And if everything goes wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.
That doesn’t mean that Iron Danger will be too easy, however. Current indications point to the opposite. After I played through the tutorial, the developers took over and showed me an advanced, extremely complex level from later in the game, filled with deadly enemies and dynamic environments to consider, with fields that can catch on fire and explosive barrels to throw at enemies. You’ll have to constantly skip forward and backward in time only to survive. This combination of player-friendly mechanics and hardcore roleplaying combat is an exciting mix, extremely appealing for someone like myself who loves RPGs but doesn’t enjoy the stress that often comes with them.
In addition to video games, PAX South also had a substantial portion of the exhibit hall devoted to tabletop games – including, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. But if you wanted to experience D&D-style action without leaving the video game section of the expo, then Wildermyth perfectly fits the bill.
This new RPG is a hybrid between DnD storytelling and worldbuilding with XCOM-esque combat. Like D&D, it allows players to forge their own adventures and stories. Decisions during story events can impact everything from the way the larger story plays out to the weapons your character can use in each battle. Story sequences play out randomly, with events occurring differently depending on which enemies you’ve faced, which characters are in your party, which regions you’ve explored, and so on. It’s an extremely variable story, but with such adaptable writing, each story sequence feels natural, despite its apparent randomness. Instead, it should encourage replayability, to experience every possible story beat there is.
Combat plays out in a grid-based strategy style, similar to games like XCOM. Each character is decked out with unique abilities of their own, and can interact with their environment dynamically. My favorite ability to experiment with was with the mage character, who can imbue environmental objects with magical abilities, such as attacking enemies who get close or inhibiting nearby enemies with status debuffs. I loved exploiting my surroundings and constructing the best strategies during my demo, and cleverly using special abilities like these will likely be key to strategically mastering combat later in the full game.
Like so many other games at PAX, Wildermyth also boasts of a visually distinct art style. The entire game is framed as a storybook; narrative sequences play out in comic book-like illustrations, and environments and characters consist of flat paper cut-outs in 3D surroundings. Pair this with a muted color palette and a simple, hand-drawn style, and Wildermyth has a quaint, comfortable art style that really supports the fairytale feel of the whole game. Currently available on Steam Early Access, the full game is set to release later this year.
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