Continuing on from part one, I’m counting down the best video game soundtracks of 2019 from ten to one.
10. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice- Yuka Kitamura
One of the better games released in 2019 was Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, an action title set in a fictional version of the war torn Sengoku period of Japan. This version of this time frame includes magic but there is still a sense of accuracy in regards to the general tone of the game, making strong reference to actual locations and buildings in Japan. The music is just one element that makes the world of Sekiro come to life as it is full to the brim with authenticity.
Yuka Kitamura- known for her work on the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne– adapts a slightly different style than her usual work. In an interview with Game Informer, Kitamura explains how there was more focus on fantasy style and grandiose music in the other games- likely due to the entirely fantastical settings. The setting of Sekiro required a certain element of “wildness” as it was grounded within the bloody Sengoku period. Despite the challenges that Kitamura and her team ( she also worked with various external composers) faced with creating a style that could capture both the brutal nature of the Sengoku time with the fantasy of the magic within Sekiro, they pulled it off fantastically and the music seems to flawlessly blend with the game environment.
The use of authentic Japanese instruments is a perfectly executed component of the soundtrack, such as the Taiko (Japanese drum), the Shamisen (a three-stringed tradition Japanese instrument) and the Biwa (a lute). My personal favourites are the tracks that feature the Shinboe, the Japanese flute. I love the almost contradicting nature of the soothing flute with the violence of the Sekiro world. Kitamura describes the more peaceful sounds of the soundtrack as an attempt to encapsulate “ancient Japanese beauty and a sort of time- honoured tradition and religious aspects.” The inclusion of cultural elements of ancient Japan makes this soundtrack stand out as you can tell that a significant amount of the music is influenced by real history and Japanese tradition.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice boasts an incredibly well-crafted soundtrack. Kitamura clearly set out to try and capture the Sengoku period accurately whilst maintaining ancient Japanese culture with authentic instruments. Whilst she was mostly confined to boss battle music with her work on Dark Souls, she is able to do far more here. The result is a stunning soundtrack with moments of intensity and beauty that perfectly captures the essence of Sekiro.
Top Track: End of a Vicious Struggle
There is plenty of amazing boss battle music in the Sekiro soundtrack- such as “Divine Dragon” and “The Owl”- but the piece I have chosen as my top track is “End of a Vicious Struggle” as it is a perfect culmination of events of the game. The piece plays at the end of the game when (and if) the player actually manages to make it there. The game is known for its difficult and sometimes brutal nature so if it is completed, there is a definite sense of accomplishment there. “End of a Vicious Struggle” not only has a perfect title, it almost sounds like a reward for getting there. Combining various traditional Japanese instruments with an orchestra, the piece perfectly closes the game.
9. Katana Zero- LudoWic, Bill Kiley, DJ Electrohead, Justin Stander and Tunç Çakır
The indie game scene is becoming more and more dominant when it comes to amazing gaming soundtracks. 2-D neo noir action platformer Katana Zero is no exception in this, providing one of the best video game soundtracks this year.
The soundtrack is made of up tracks split between five different artists, though Bill Kiley and LudoWic take on the bulk of it. The music is a blend of a few similar genres, the most prevalent being 80’s style synthwave, techno and electronica. There are definite similarities with 2012’s Hotline Miami here, both in terms of gameplay and the music. The player takes on the role of an assassin and the game plays out in similar 2-D style to Hotline Miami but from a side scrolling perspective rather than top down. NewRetroWave.com describes the soundtrack as “perfectly moody and drenched in dark neon tones” and this is certainly true. These “neon tones” also reflect the 80’s vibe that permeates throughout the game. You can almost hear the bright neon lights and tacky outfits. Certain tracks stand out for their incorporation of this 80’s style, such as the boss battle theme “All For Now” which sounds like it was ripped straight from the Blade Runner universe. The artists do an incredible job of pushing the synthwave style to the limit and seamlessly blending it with a more modern electro sound.
Games that both look and sound perfectly retro have become something of a cliché in the contemporary gaming world, even more so within indie games. It can be difficult for titles that adapt this style to stand out, but the soundtrack of Katana Zero successfully navigates these clichés and reworks them into something truly fantastic. Managing to sound both futuristic and retro, Katana Zero successfully makes its mark within the gaming world.
Top Track: Snow
“Hit the Floor” is an amazing club bop and “Katana Zero” encapsulates the moody neon style that the game is going for but I’ve chosen “Snow” as my top track as it brings something a little different to the soundtrack. Calmer and smoother than most of the other tracks, “Snow” uses the synthwave genre a little differently here. Rather than creating techno, science fiction like tones, it creates a sense of ease and solitude whilst maintaining the retro feel. Bill Kiley- the composer for “Snow”- creates a piece that is relaxing but doesn’t take you out of the world entirely. The unique feel of “Snow” is what made it stand out to me.
8. Outer Wilds- Andrew Prahlow
Another indie game that took the gaming community by storm was Outer Wilds. Not to be confused with The Outer Worlds, Outer Wilds is an indie space adventure game from Mobius Digital and Annapurna Interactive. The music here is interesting as it is homely and comforting despite the intergalactic setting.
Prahlow was given the description “backpacking adventure in space” by friend Alex Beachum (from Mobius Digital Games) when he was first told about Outer Wilds. This is what led him towards the banjo, which has become the most iconic element of the Outer Wilds score. The banjo tune is most prevalent when the player finds themselves sitting around a campfire, plucking at the strings of said banjo. This “homely ensemble of guitar, banjo and harmonica” creates a feel of cosiness to the music that can’t help but make the player feel at home. This is a pretty unusual choice for a game set in space. Usually, the whole point of being in a galaxy far, far away is for there to be a sense of the unknown. No matter what kind of media you look at- film, television or books- when you get to space there is a sense of feeling very alien (pun very much intended). You are away from everything that you know so you might as well suspend any disbelief. That is why science fiction soundtracks can sound so otherworldly (I have space puns for days). But the choice to go for a musical style that is so inviting and comforting immediately sets a different kind of mood. It suggests a home, a place of safety and comfort. This is what the game instils when you find yourself around that campfire. Despite being placed in a world that is millions or possibly billions of light years away from our own, Prahlow’s music immediately puts you are at peace. I absolutely love this decision and I think it makes Outer Wilds one of the more unique soundtracks this year.
Once the player leaves the comfort of the campfire, the sound changes to one a little more concurrent to the usual science fiction sound. The introduction of synths creates the traditional sci-fi alien sound but that banjo never truly leaves your side as you are constantly pulled back to the games main theme. “Into the Wilds” is a great example of this. It starts off with the banjo before skyrocketing into an out of this world style synthwave sound, suggesting a traveller bound for discovery and adventure in the wide open galaxy. It then comes back down to the homely banjo theme, grounding you in that comforting place beside the campfire roasting marshmallows. There is also a theme for an alien race called the Nomai which is more piano based, synthetic sounds that continue during the player’s exploration of space and even a brief but lovely song called “Morning” which features David Tangney on the cello. No matter where the soundtrack goes to, it always comes back to that comforting theme.
Outer Wilds is an amazing take on a sci-fi soundtrack. The rustic themes work incredibly well and blend with the synth based sounds to create a soundtrack that reinvents the sound of space travel.
Top Track- Travelers (All Instruments)
Towards the end of the game, there is a moment when all of the instruments come together and join the banjo to create a fully-fledged song. The “Travelers” song even includes whistling performed the aforementioned Alex Beachum from Mobius Digital Games. The song represents a collective coming together of the space travellers, bound together by the music despite the dangerous surroundings. Without going into too much detail the player finds themselves in a time loop under dangerous circumstances, constantly trying to solve a certain problem before it is too late. No matter how precarious the situation is and how deep you find yourself in the darkness of space, “Travelers” instils a sense of hope, camaraderie and home that sticks with you even after the game ends.
7. Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng and Linnea Olsson
In most cases, video games tend to shape the soundtrack around the games narrative, mechanics and general structure. However, in the case of Sayonara Wild Hearts the music is the basis on which the whole game is formed. Basically, the music IS the game. Unique, unusual and electrifying, Sayonara Wild Hearts boasts and incredible soundtrack that blasts most mainstream music out of the water.
Developed by Swedish game developers Simogo with help from Annapurna Interactive, Sayonara Wild Hearts is described on the official website as “A pop album video game”. The structure of the game is very similar to an album as it focuses on short, punchy levels. The player takes on the role of a young woman whose experience with a broken heart leads her on a path to discover larger meaning in the universe. Gameplay is on rails as the woman traverses the levels via various methods of transportation such as motorcycle and skateboard. Combat ranges from shooting lasers to dance battles. Enemies in the game- fabulously stylish ones at that- can be defeated by pressing buttons in time with the music. Every aspect of the game is tied into the music, making the soundtrack one of the most –if not the absolute most- important elements of the entire game.
Heavily pop influenced, the soundtrack is bubbly, kitschy and as vibrant as the games visuals. The inspiration behind the album is varied, with Simogo referring to the game and music as “a soup made of pop culture”. Just a few of the artists they were inspired by included Carly Rae Jepsen, Sia, Charli XCX and Blümchen whilst some of their gaming and media inspirations ranged from Sailor Moon to Tron, WarioWare and Punch Out. You can certainly hear all these pop culture influences within the soundtrack oddly enough. The creative way in which the music was formed makes for a sound that is both unique and familiar.
Sayonara Wild Hearts is one of the most creative games released in 2019 and the same can be said for the soundtrack. The music is hugely important to the game and it ends up being one of the best aspects of it. The soundtrack is as good- if not better- than music in the charts today with Linnea Olsson giving a vocal performance as impressive as many female artists out there. Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng have crafted a soundtrack that reflects the charming, neon pop nature of the game that is also brilliant in its own right.
Top Track: A Place I Don’t Know
Whilst I adored the remix of “Clare de Lune” that was created for the game, it seemed unfair not to pick one of the many fantastic original songs for my top track. Not quite as energetic as some of the other tracks “A Place I Don’t Know” plays at the games conclusion and is a song that could be considered a theme for those who have experienced the pain of heartbreak. The game’s narrative centres on a woman whose heart is broken so it is no surprise that this comes across so well in the music. The song is a peaceful but sad entry. It never crosses the line into too morose or morbid, maintaining a chipper feeling with the inclusion of whistles. “A Place I Don’t Know” manages to capture the essence of what it feels like to lose direction in life. No matter how that loss comes about, everyone can relate to having felt it at some point.
6. Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda: Danny Baranowsky
Spin off/crossover game Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necromancer is similar to Sayonara Wild Hearts in that music is an essential element to the overall game. Cadence of Hyrule is a rhythm game and so the player must alter their play style to sync up with the music. The game manages to perfectly intertwine music and gameplay whilst throwing in some incredible Legend of Zelda remixes.
Cadence of Hyrule composer Danny Baranowsky worked with an eclectic team of musicians on the soundtrack, including Jules Conroy (better known by his YouTube handle of FamilyJules7x) who provided all the guitar segments in the soundtrack, vocalist Adriana Figueroa, game composer Riley Koneig, violinist and otamatone connoisseur Michaela Nachtigall, woodwind specialist Kate Letournea and Power Up Audio and their creative director Kevin Regamey. With so much talent, it is no surprise that Baranowsky was able to put together such an amazing soundtrack. What I find interesting is these are all very much contemporary artists who make use of social media and new technologies to create their music. Most are proficient YouTubers to who had an interest in games and pop culture before they ventured into music. This brings another level of understanding to the music. It was worked on by people who are not just amazing musicians and artists, but also big fans of the francahises. It certainly comes across in the finished product as the Cadence of Hyrule soundtrack feels like a labour of love by people who know and respect the original music.
The creative use of music is incredibly endearing in this game. As with Sayonara Wild Hearts, the unusual gameplay mechanics make for a title that is original and fresh despite the crossover of such a well-known franchise. Managing to sound both modern whilst retaining the retro feel of the original games, Cadence of Hyrule is not only a brilliant soundtrack in its own right but also a wonderful tribute to the music of The Legend of Zelda series.
Top Track: Overworld (Combat)
My favourite remix on the Cadence of Hyrule soundtrack is the combat version of the “Overworld” theme. One of the most famous and instantly recognisable themes from the Legend of Zelda series, the “Overworld” theme is remixed here in a techno style that works incredibly well with the rhythm based mechanics of the game. The theme was also successfully remade in the Link’s Awakening remake, so it is great to see such an iconic theme getting some brilliant reworks. “Overworld (Combat)” stays true to the original whilst giving it a cool new twist.
5. Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali and Various Artists
This entry was actually one that I put into my best soundtracks list last year as the first episode of Life is Strange 2 was released in 2018. The following four episodes have since been released and the music only improved as the series went on.
The first season of Life is Strange was well known for its killer soundtrack, both licensed music and the original score. Whilst the second series will probably not become as iconic as the first, the music was still a highlight that draws the player into the story of two brothers desperately trying to find a place of solace following a terrible accident. Artists such as Phoenix, The Streets, First Aid Kit and Milk & Bone are included within the game and emphasise the indie and artistic vibe that the Life is Strange series is known for. DONTNOD Entertainment- the developers of the series, are incredibly adept when it comes to utilising the licenced music within their games. They include them at appropriate times within the game, which may not necessarily be an incredibly important moment. For instance, “On The Flip Of A Coin” by The Streets is a song that can be missed entirely as it is only heard if Sean chooses to switch on the radio in his room in the first episode. He will also start singing along to the song too which is a nice little touch. The song doesn’t come into play in some big narrative moment. Instead, it is used to show a bit of Sean’s character. These moments may not be grandiose but they are pivotal in allowing the player to form an emotional connection with the characters. The use of music in the scene is what allows us to do that.
Jonathan Morali once again creates a score that is simple yet beautiful and emotionally charged. All four episodes include music from Morali and there is no weak link. The score for each episode reflects the events and the characters perfectly, evolving with the characters as they do. There are even themes that represent some of the newer characters that are met along the way, such as “New Perspectives” which is a theme for Sean and Daniel’s mother Karen and “Free Spirits” which represents both the brothers and their grandparents. There is even a little hint of Max and Chloe’s theme from the first game in episode five. There are no bombastic themes or out there styles, just simple, real music. This is what I believe makes the Life is Strange 2 soundtrack one of the best this year and significantly higher on the list than it was last year. The music represents reality and the harsh truths that come with it. There is no pomp or ceremony. The simple and solemn guitar riffs used throughout the score represent this notion well and pull you even further into Sean and Daniel’s story. They also merge well with the choice of licensed music, making the songs feel as though they are related and believably connected to the world within the game.
The Life is Strange 2 soundtrack stands out as a musical composition that is able to tell a story. The licensed music slots in well with the original tracks and brings the story of Sean and Daniel to life whilst also emphasising their journey and hardships. Jonathan Morali’s score gives the game heart- as it did with his score for the first game- and brings emotion and depth to the narrative and characters. It is truly one of the best game soundtracks of 2019.
Top Track: Blood Brothers/Lone Wolf
Without going too far into spoiler territory, “Blood Brothers”/ “Lone Wolf” is a piece of music that plays with two specific endings of the game. There are four major endings to the game with a few variations here and there making for a total of about seven endings. Whilst the Blood Brothers ending is considered as bad by some and good by others, the Lone Wolf ending is a particularly upsetting one (I got it the first time around. I cried then loaded my last save and changed it). Because of the heavy emotion and narrative impact of these endings, Morali’s score here is probably the most emotional it has been since the first season. There is certainly a hint of sadness to it as a melancholy guitar tune is plucked heavily throughout. The theme intensifies in the midway point as Daniel demonstrates the danger of his powers in both endings. He has become something of a living weapon in these endings and after everything the player has been through with him as a sweet little boy, it is difficult to watch. As the theme and the cut scenes end, the player is left to consider the consequences of their choices throughout the game. The emotional impact wouldn’t be anywhere near as high without Morali’s sombre song playing throughout. Brutal yet beautiful, “Blood Brothers”/ “Lone Wolf” is a theme that emphasises the notion of actions, consequences and choices.
4. Devil May Cry 5- Kota Suzuki
One of the heftiest soundtracks on the entire list,(136 songs on the full soundtrack that equates to almost 5 hours of music across 5 discs)Devil May Cry 5 is a soundtrack that soars to incredible heights with its sweeping orchestra and badass battle themes.
Kota Suzuki has been a key player at Capcom for a long time, known predominantly for his work in the Resident Evil series. He is joined by multiple collaborators for the Devil May Cry 5 soundtrack- Yoshiya Terayama, Hiromitsu Maeba, Steven McNair, John R. Graham, Casey Edwards, Cody Matthew Johnson and Jeff Rona. Together they have created a soundtrack that bursts with fantastical energy, never dropping out of the high octane gear for even a moment. Elements of dubstep, rock and techno style influences are splashed throughout, making the songs feel even more out of this world. They never lose sight of the source material though; calling back to the theme from Devil May Cry 3 numerous times as well as including a small remix of the SNES Capcom logo theme within the title screen music. There are also different genres explored too such as in “The Heaven of My Hell Opening” which has laid-back, elevator music vibes. The versatility of the composers is what makes this soundtrack so special. Their ability to fuse various genres together and make them work is one thing, but they make sure that it stays true to the game as they do so.
An incredible feat when it comes to video games soundtracks, the Devil May Cry 5 soundtrack is exuberant and over the top in the best possible way (just like the game). When asked what the essence of the Devil May Cry series was that he wanted to capture within the music, Kota Suzuki responded with, “Music that rocks…that sounds cool, and exudes originality.” This pretty much sums up the entire feel of the Devil May Cry 5 soundtrack and makes it one of the best this year.
Top Track: Devil Trigger
I really love the track “Silver Bullet” but for the sake of how massive this song was, it has to take the top stop. This song is Nero’s battle theme in the game and it was composed by Casey Edwards and performed by Ali Edwards and Cliff Llloret. It is composed rather complexly, mashing up several genres to create one awesome song that kind of makes you want to head bang. There’s a bit of metal and techno/electronica in there as well as some pop and rock too. “Devil Trigger” was incredibly popular upon release, gaining around eleven million YouTube views since then. Influential, powerful and just fun to listen to, “Devil Trigger” is a great anthem for the Devil May Cry series to rally behind.
3. Kingdom Hearts III- Yoko Shimomura
Fans of the Kingdom Hearts series finally got the long awaited third instalment at the beginning of 2019. With the game came a soundtrack that included both new tracks for the game and remixed versions of older music. Despite there not being a huge amount of new and original music, there is a lot to enjoy from the Kingdom Hearts III soundtrack.
As with the other Kingdom Hearts soundtracks, Hikaru Utada wrote and performed two new songs for the third game. “Face My Fears” is a collaborative song with Skrillex that opens the game and “Don’t Think Twice” is the closing theme. Both new songs exude the magical and epic feeling of the Kingdom Hearts universe, making use of a full orchestra for both numbers (with some added Skrillex dubstep for “Face My Fears”). The themes that Hikaru Utada creates for Kingdom Hearts are always so spectacularly beautiful as well as being suitably epic to fit into the game. With her Kingdom Hearts III tracks, she manages to raise the already stupendously high bar that she set for herself. In terms of Yoko Shimomura’s score, there are a few new noticeable additions to the soundtrack. “Scala Ad Caleum” is a violin and piano heavy piece that demonstrates Shimomura’s talents whilst the new Gummi Ship exploration music is catchy and cheerful, almost sounding like something from a Pokémon game. There are also some great new battle themes, including one where Sora faces off against three characters at once who I won’t name for spoiler purposes. Shimomura clearly has an amazing grasp on the series and continued to demonstrate her talent as a composer with Kingdom Hearts III.
I find the music of the Disney worlds particularly impressive in Kingdom Hearts III. Shimomura reflects the various animated worlds with her score despite their originality and lack of connection to the music that we already know from those films. Films like Frozen and the Toy Story movies have such iconic music and although these can be heard in the game (“Let it Go” makes an appearance as does the instrumental to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), Shimomura also creates a whole new assortment of tracks for each world. The music fits right into each world and not be out of place in their respective film franchises. My particular favourite is the “Kingdom of Corona Field Theme” for the Tangled world. This upbeat and cheerful track plays during the exploration segments of the Tangled world and sounds like it was written by Alan Menken himself- famous Disney composer who wrote the music for the Tangled movie. Shimomura’s ability to create brilliant original music based on established franchises is impressive enough. However, she goes above and beyond expectation by providing music that stands up to the original scores from the Disney films. There are also incredible remixes of music from the other games, such as “Roxas’s Theme” which gets an epic orchestral upgrade.
There has been some backlash towards Kingdom Hearts III from fans and critics and the same judgement has been aimed at the soundtrack also. Whilst the criticisms are understandable, I believe that Kingdom Hearts III provided one of the best gaming soundtracks this year. With its large scale orchestral arrangements, varied styles and Disney inspired world themes, Kingdom Hearts III impresses by offering both old and new arrangements.
Top Track- Dearly Beloved
I wanted to pick an original song for this but I just couldn’t resist putting one of my absolute favourite Kingdom Hearts pieces here with the remix that it got for Kingdom Hearts III. “Dearly Beloved” is a simple yet beautiful piano piece that is absolutely heaving with emotion. The new version plays on the title screen of Kingdom Hearts III and it is a completely perfect way to welcome players back into the world that they have been waiting to come back to for so long. Starting off small, the song escalates to an orchestra before winding back down to the piano. The Kingdom Hearts III version is my favourite version of this track due to the upgrade it received and the nostalgia that it represents. “Dearly Beloved” is an astounding piece of music that feels even more beautiful than it did when we first heard it back in 2002.
2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses- Takeru Kanazaki,Hiroki Morishita and Rei Kondoh
Fire Emblem: Three Houses was my first experience with a Fire Emblem game and I was blown away by how immersive the whole experience was. One of the elements of the game that really hooked me was the music. The Fire Emblem: Three Houses soundtrack is one that I kept coming back to over and over again.
The main theme of the game- “Edge of Dawn” being the title of the vocal version- is easily one of the strongest of any from gaming music this year. It is reworked constantly throughout the score in a variety of different situations and it never feels out of place. “Edge of Dawn” is perfectly executed, establishing the tone of the game from its first use in the opening. In an article on the soundtrack, Twinfinite.net states that “ it’s critical for long video game soundtracks to have a strong theme that the rest of the tracks can be built around…it’s also important for that theme to be versatile enough that it can fit various moods”. This is very much the case with the main theme as it transitions during the game. It goes from epic opening number to relaxing ambience to bombastic battle theme with ease. The composers have created such a versatile main theme that it can represent any emotion or situation, which is an incredible achievement alone.
The rest of the soundtrack is no less impressive. Though there are tracks that don’t quite reach the level of others, the score is still incredibly enjoyable. There is also a selection of tracks that will only appear in certain story paths, so replaying the game means that you will keep hearing something new. The ambient music throughout is fantastic-particularly the track “Life at Garrech Mach Monastery”- as it is incredibly soothing and despite its repetitive nature, doesn’t get tiresome or boring to listen to. It is constantly relaxing and draws you into the world of the school. The battle music is the opposite situation, hyping the player up with energetic orchestral themes dominated by the brass and the strings section. A great example of this is “Fodlan Winds”, which is a general battle theme that can also get a little repetitive. As with the calmer music, the battle music doesn’t feel boring at any point.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses has one of the most dynamic soundtracks of 2019. I immediately wanted it as soon as I heard it whilst playing and it stuck in my mind for a long time afterwards. The score represents the various tones of the game perfectly, from the relaxing monastery exploration to the intense battles to the dramatic time skip. All three composers clearly put a lot of work into the score. They have crafted a soundtrack that reflects the narrative and the characters. The teenagers start off relatively carefree and grow up after a time skip where a war is now taking place. The score perfectly captures this sense of innocence being lost with the juxtaposition of soothing themes and battle music. The game became one of the favourites of many this year and the soundtrack is also a huge achievement that is one of the best.
Top Track- Blue Skies and a Battle
I know a lot of people would want “God-Shattering Star” as the top pick and I would agree that it is an incredible track with awesomely dramatic vocals. However, I think that “Blue Skies and a Battle” deserves some recognition as it is such an awesome piece. The song plays during the Battle of the Eagle and the Lion- the mock battle between the Blue Lion, Golden Deer and Black Eagle Houses. The piece is appropriately epic; this is the battle that you spend a fair amount of time preparing for after all. However, it lacks the hardness of some of the later battle themes that occur during more serious events in the story. There is a sense of playfulness to the song as the students all come together for a mock fight rather than a real one. It also has a superb beat drop that both shocked and pleased me when I first heard it. “Blue Skies and a Battle” may not be the most dramatic of songs on the soundtrack but it represents the Garreg Mach students in their prime, before the horrors of war would later consume them.
1. Death Stranding- Ludvig Forssell
Death Stranding had two albums out around the time it released: the musical score and “Death Stranding: Timefall”. “Timefall” is an album with licensed songs inspired by the game. The album is good but it is Ludvig Forssell’s enigmatic, creative and sublime score that I am choosing as the number one pick for the best video game soundtrack of 2019.
Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding was met with mixed emotions upon release despite the hype that surrounded it beforehand. No matter how disillusioned you were with the game, there is no faulting the incredible music that Ludvig Forssell and his team in the music department have created. A fusion of sci-fi synth, beautiful piano segments, mournful violin tunes and full blown orchestras, the soundtrack is mind-blowingly good. “The Final Waltz” is a great example of using all four of those elements, starting with a synthetic sound and flowing easily into a quiet piano as a lone violin evolves to an orchestra. The piano makes a return toward the end of the piece, joining the lonely violin to create a track that is heaving with emotion. I haven’t played Death Stranding but I could feel the palpable emotion from the in-game scene that this track aligns with. It made me feel something despite not having any kind of context. The synth segments converge with the orchestral elements to create an odd fusion of sounds that really shouldn’t work but completely does.
The soundtrack conveys several different moods and tones throughout. One of the more interesting pieces is “Souless Meat Puppet”, a song with a creeping and eerie melody that gets more menacing as it progresses. It creates an atmosphere again without even knowing what is happening within the game. This then compared to a softer piece like “Strands”- a nine minute track which includes a heavenly choral arrangement, a lovely piano tune and a crashing synth conclusion- shows just how far the soundtrack can be stretched in terms of genre. Like many entries on this list, there is a versatility to it that conveys the various situations and tones throughout the game. Death Stranding is the most impressive example of this.
Forssell went out of his way to create something unique for the Death Stranding soundtrack. In fact, the first place that he, Joel Corelitz (an additional composer for the game) and the team working on the music went when researching for the soundtrack was Home Depot. In an interview with Polygon, Joel said “Ludvig Forssell and I found ourselves in the aisles of Home Depot banging on random objects to hear how they sounded.” From using metal oil drums to duct taping over the strings of their instruments to create a dampening effect, the team wanted to utilise anything and everything to get the unique sound they wanted. They even when as far as to abuse a piano by using a rubber mallet on the inside strings and scraping a gardening rake over them. They went out of their way to create a soundtrack that reflected the bizarre universe that it would later inhabit and their efforts were not in vain. Press F to pay respects to that piano though.
Death Stranding was a polarizing video game. There is no denying that fact. But if you come away from the game feeling disappointed, at least take a moment to appreciate the hard work and dedication from everyone involved on the title, including the soundtrack. The music is engaging, enlightening and incredibly powerful. I would say that it outdoes plenty of soundtracks from various media forms such as film and television. Forssell and the team behind the music have created something that will be remembered as something of a masterpiece, even if the game itself isn’t.
Top Track- BB’s Theme
This theme is a major element across Death Stranding, important to the narrative and used in the gameplay. The song is intended for a bridge baby- the babies in the amber pods- and it expresses the desire to protect them. Even though there are some peculiar plot points in Death Stranding, this theme of wanting to protect a child of your own is one that is relatable to anyone. Protagonist Sam can whistle the tune of “BB’s Theme” or play it on the harmonica in game and it acts as a crucial plot point that links Sam to another character. Composition wise, the song is fantastic. Jenny Plant’s lullaby style vocals are eerily calming as she is accompanied by whistling. The song progresses from soft synth tones to a full orchestra with the synth continuing to add sci-fi elements throughout. The song is a huge achievement, managing to be incredibly relatable despite the weirdness of Death Stranding in general. One of the strongest forms of love is the love between a parent and child and the song perfectly captures that within its lyrics whilst managing to maintain a cool and edgy sound. The song ends with the sound of a baby cooing, wrapping up the theme for the bridge babies seamlessly. A mature song that links well with the game whilst being great in its own right, “BB’s Theme” takes the top spot as the best song from the best game soundtrack this year.
If you’ve managed to read all the way through this, thank you so much! I’m shocked you made it but I’m also super grateful! I hope you enjoyed my list and would love to hear what you think were the best gaming soundtracks of 2019.
Here is to a great 2020 full of incredible music from incredible games! Check out our soundtrack mix tape here.
‘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.
25 Years Later: ‘Before Sunrise’ Crafts an Enduring Romance Founded on Empathy
‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab
Royal Rumble 2020: The Good, The Bad, and The Tolerable
Sordid Cinema Podcast: Does John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ Stand the Test of Time?
‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie
Star Trek: Picard: “Remembrance” Introduces a Different Picard
Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
My Love/Hate Affair With ‘Star Trek’
Let’s Remember Why ‘Tremors’ is a Beloved Cult Hit
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories – The Best (and Only) Card-Based Action RPG on the GBA
Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit
How Rimuru Tempest Changed the Game for Isekai Protagonists
The Most Anticipated PlayStation Games of 2020
- Games2 weeks ago
Bitores Mendez Teaches You the Politics of Pain in ‘Resident Evil 4’
- Games4 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 the Decade (Ranks 25-1)
- Sordid Cinema3 weeks ago
The History of The Grudge: The Beginning of the Curse
- Festival du Nouveau Cinema4 days ago
‘Color Out of Space’ is Pure Cosmic Horror
- TV3 weeks ago
20 Years Later and How ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ Revolutionized the Sitcom
- Anime4 weeks ago
The Best Anime of the Decade (Ranks 50-26)