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20 Best Video Game Soundtracks of 2018

Part Two

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Following the first half of this list from twenty to eleven, we’re now counting down from number ten to the number one best video game soundtrack of the year. These soundtracks were the best of the best this year and I can’t wait to talk about them, so let’s get started.

10- Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

It’s impossible to not include a soundtrack created by Studio Ghibli composer and general musical genius Joe Hisaishi, so of course the Ni no Kuni II score was going to make this list. Performed once again by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the music maintains the same sweeping orchestrations from the first game whilst including enough new material to keep the soundtrack fresh.

The Ni no Kuni series is a JRPG developed by Japanese company Level 5 with influence from the Studio Ghibli films, such as the art design and of course the music. As with his work on the Ghibli films, Hisaishi is able to perfectly capture the essence of the game world. Hisaishi worked with the President and CEO of Level 5 games Akihiro Hino on the sequel’s music. In a video released by PlayStation Europe focusing on Ni no Kuni II’s music, Hisaishi discussed how he went into the sequel with the idea of creating a more intelligent soundtrack that was tough on the orchestra to perform. This is apparent in a lot of the game’s music and again mirrors a good portion of Hisaishi’s work for Studio Ghibli such as My Neighbour Totoro, Howls Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. His work has a certain bright and complex nature which echoes throughout and represents the situations in the narrative perfectly. When the main theme of Ni no Kuni II plays, you can sense the adventure. You can tell what kind of story this will be.  The ability to convey this so easily makes this soundtrack a worthy listen.

There are all the usual tropes here that can be found in the soundtracks of the JRPG genre, boss battles, themes for different areas, character themes etc. The quirky spin that is put on them makes each fight and each level feel a little bit more unique. The music truly brings the world of Ni no Kuni to life.

Top Track: “Theme from Ni no Kuni II”

The main theme of the game is the same as the first Ni no Kuni but it is a little bit bigger and bolder than the original, adding to its already epic nature. The song wouldn’t be out of place in an animated film and is probably the piece most reminiscent to Hisaishi’s Studio Ghibli work. He brilliantly builds on the pre-existing Ni no Kuni theme and makes it even more enjoyable than it was in the first game.

9- Frostpunk

11-bit studios, developer of This War of Mine and publisher of the previously mentioned Moonlighter, created a fun, thrilling and engaging city building and survival management PC game with Frostpunk. Set in dystopian England in a world engulfed by frost and snow, the player becomes the leader of a small city built around a heat generator. After choosing a scenario to start the game, the player must make difficult choices and govern in the way they feel is fit in an attempt to keep the civilians from freezing, starving or revolting against you.

The music of Frostpunk is incredibly impressive and completely immerses you within the frozen world that you must take control of. Composer Piotr Musial chooses to use a fair amount of string-based tracks, with violins and the cello playing a large role throughout. These particular instruments are very good at producing a mournful sound and the sorrowful tones echo through Frostpunk’s main themes. It fully convinces the player of the terrible situation that they are in and the dire consequences of their actions if they cannot lead the city in an effective way.

Musial is also successful in using the musical themes of the game to mirror the cold nature of the setting. The low and solemn mood of the soundtrack reflects the misery of the icy wasteland that the characters find themselves in. The music manages to convey frozen tundra of a world with relative ease.  While listening, I was reminded of Marco Beltrami’s score for the film Snowpiercer, also set in a frozen world.  Musial captures the melancholic tones that Beltrami also achieves, but Musial does this within the confines of a PC game. Musial’s work on Frostpunk is brilliant work as he has created an incredibly immersive soundtrack.

Top Track: “The City Must Survive”

As the title suggests, this track is all about survival. The music plays during the game when a huge ice storm hits that the player has been preparing for. You can’t escape the feeling of dread and that the last semblance of hope is fleeting. “The City Must Survive” is the true sound of dystopia and, in my opinion, Piotr Musial has created a track which stands up equally against popular end of the world scores such as “In the House, In a Heartbeat” by John Murphy or the “Fallout Theme” by Inon Zur.

8- Far Cry 5

When you think of the Far Cry franchise, the music isn’t exactly what you would consider first. Initial thoughts usually consist of explosions, car chases and enough weaponry to last a lifetime. This is why the music of Far Cry 5 was such a pleasant surprise to me when I played the game for the first time. There is a great selection of licensed music which is heard on the radio during the game, but my main reason for choosing Far Cry 5 for this list is due to the strength of its original score and songs.

Set in the fictional Hope County, Montana, Far Cry 5 is centered on a doomsday cult that has taken control of the area and are terrorizing the locals. The soundtrack is very much influenced by the cult and consists of several hymns that reflect their doomsday message and act almost like propaganda to the inhabitants of Hope County. Producer and composer Dan Romer is responsible for writing the songs and he and his team do such a good job with them that it feels like the music wouldn’t be out of place for a real-life radical group attempting to recruit members. The songs manage to be inspirational whilst also containing their true message. The chorus of the most prominent hymn contains the lyrics, “When the world falls into the flames, we will rise again.” Throughout the game, you learn the teachings of the cult and their belief that our world will end and the new world will be a paradise for their chosen people. Their brainwashing methods, extremist beliefs and militant ways of converting the public to their way of thinking are all perfectly summed up in the hymns that Romer has created.

There has been significant effort put in to the Far Cry 5 soundtrack with multiple albums released alongside the game. There is the Far Cry 5 Presents series which focuses on the original songs for the game as well as various covers of them. Into the Flames consists of all the original hymns and songs by Dan Romer,  “When the World Falls” is the same song covered by the Hope County Choir (who are in fact the Nashville Choir in reality) and “We Will Rise Again” is the song reinterpreted by Nashville based ambient rock band Hammock. An article from Ubisoft Montreal shows how each variation of the song reflected each of the villains and their areas in the game, “The music in Far Cry 5 is ample, and represented geographically. The Nashville choir versions can be heard in John’s region. Bluegrass-country versions of the songs, produced by Dan Romer himself, are the soundtrack to Jacob’s region. Finally, in Faith’s psychedelic region, the post-rock band Hammock interprets the songs.”

Whilst each region represents a villain, as you liberate areas and traverse places that haven’t been converted by the cult, you tend to hear a soft country style of music, perfectly encapsulating rural Montana. Of course, you still get the more energetic tunes for the action sequences, but they still maintain the country twang that represents Hope County. The work that has been put into creating a strong correlation between the games narrative and the music should certainly be acknowledged and I believe it makes Far Cry 5 one of the strongest soundtracks this year.

Top Track: “When the Morning Light Shines In”

My pick isn’t one of the hymns or variations of them, but instead a quiet piece of the musical score. This track is what plays when you load up the Hope County map and admittedly, I would often bring up the map just to sit and listen to this. You can really feel and hear the rural Montana countryside as you listen. Ubisoft and Dan Romer nailed the atmosphere with the whole soundtrack, but this particular song is what stuck with me after playing.

7- Super Smash Brothers Ultimate

When it comes to sheer content, the Super Smash Brothers soundtracks always go above and beyond what we expect from a video game soundtrack in general. With hundreds of tracks that span across multiple game properties as well as new music and remixes, Super Smash Brothers Ultimate succeeds in creating one of the most notable soundtracks of the year.

The tagline that Nintendo was heavily promoting upon the release of Ultimate was “Everyone is Here” as they brought together all of the fighters from the previous Smash games to create one huge roster. The same can be said for the music, as each character’s music from their own franchise is brought into Ultimate to create a colossal soundtrack of over 1000 tracks. Music from the original Super Smash Brothers, Brawl and Melee are all brought in as well as the new music created just for Ultimate. Each franchise has at least an hour or so of music to themselves and new fighters such as Simon and Richter Belmont from Castlevania and the Inklings from Splatoon bring their own music too which offers some fresh material. It was difficult to actually get hold of the whole soundtrack due to the number of songs, the different franchises, and the new and old music combined. I listened to as much as I could but with so many songs and so much to choose from, I couldn’t listen to the whole thing. The care and hard work that has gone into crafting such a monumental soundtrack is testament to how Nintendo wanted each character to be represented with their own music across the generations of their games.

As well as creating all new scores for the characters and remixing some already well-known themes, Ultimate also has its own theme song. The song, called “Lifelight”, acts as the underlying theme for a good deal of the new Ultimate music and it fits the series perfectly. Epically orchestral and fantastically arranged, the song has both an English and Japanese version and it’s as strong as it is catchy. For such a big game with multiple characters across many franchises, it would have been a difficult task to construct a theme song that can be used for the game as a whole which could represent everyone from every property. “Lifelight” manages this though and, although it mainly reflects the World of Light single player story mode, it acts as a guiding song that every character can rally under as well as having their own music.

Super Smash Brothers Ultimate certainly has the largest soundtrack this year but somehow it doesn’t favour quantity over quality. Each new song and remix is a brilliant and creative addition whilst the old music that remains has been specifically chosen and works well. The quality remains whilst the quantity is pushed to the limits, making it a unique soundtrack with enough music to last for a long time to come.

Top Track: “Gang-Plank Galleon” (Donkey Kong Country Remix)

Whilst “Lifelight” is a strong theme song for Ultimate, “Gang-Plank Galleon” is a perfect example of how well the remixes in the game are done. A remix of the song from Donkey Kong Country, “Gang-Plank Galleon” is a highly energetic interpretation that has been stuck in my head since my first listen. It encapsulates King K Rool and his introduction to Super Smash whilst still keeping the main theme from the original song.  “Gang-Plank Galleon” is a perfect remix, and, from all the music I managed to listen to, one of the best tracks in Ultimate.

6- Shadow of the Tomb Raider

The 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise was largely a success and introduced us to a Lara Croft who was far more vulnerable than her previous incarnations. There was an air of reality about her due to her wariness and uncertainty as opposed to her cocksure confidence in earlier games. With a change of character also came a complete change in many other aspects of Tomb Raider, one of which is the music. Jason Graves gave her an epic score with a new character theme in 2013 for Tomb Raider whilst Bobby Tahouri took over for the 2015 Rise of the Tomb Raider theme which expanded on the original with new pieces that subtly entwined with the 2013 theme. This year, we got another new composer for Lara’s third installment Shadow of the Tomb Raider, that being Brian D’Oliveira, and it is arguably the best Tomb Raider soundtrack yet.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is set in South America and centers on Lara accidentally releasing the Mayan apocalypse whilst attempting to stop the organization Trinity and her efforts to stop it before it is too late. The music adjusts to the tone of the game, growing with Lara as she matures. It also changes to suit her new environment, as she now finds herself deep in the harsh jungle. The director of audio and music for the game, Rob Bridgett, explains the need for the music to change as she does, “ As Lara is in a much darker place emotionally, and a more dangerous place physically, the music needs to represent both of these things.”  You can definitely tell that this growth and danger is a key element of the soundtrack. There is a darkness to it that wasn’t as prominent even in her first adventure where she had to adapt and learn to survive. D’Oliveira is able to convey the maturation of her as a character by building on the music from the previous two games and adding his own unique sound. He keeps her main theme from 2013 but seamlessly connects it to a new and darker sound. Lara’s troubles, both in her sense of self and in her dangerous surroundings, are perfectly portrayed through the music.

As well as being a more mature soundtrack for Lara, the composer also captures the essence of the jungle and South American culture in his music.  D’Oliveira is known for his strength with South American instruments and his ability to utilize them in his music. He worked alongside native musicians and also travelled to Mexico to obtain the instruments he would need to create the most authentic atmosphere possible. Again, Rob Bridgett commented on D’Oliveria’s talents and abilities with this specific culture and music, “Brian has a mind-blowing collection of pre-Columbian and South-American instruments… He has also spent a lot of time working with musicians from specific regions in South America to understand how and why the music would be performed on those instruments. It all brings a completely unique colour and authenticity to the score.”  This dedication to creating an authentic soundtrack well and truly pays off as whilst playing the game, you’re transported to the deep and muggy jungle alongside Lara. You can almost feel the uncomfortable heat, the sticky mud, and the dangerous foliage which could be housing a creepy creature. You are in the jungle, and the music is easily able to convince you of it.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider was a well-executed game and one of the best ones this year but some argued that it didn’t change its usual formula enough. The music, however, did exactly that. It changed, matured and grew into its own individual piece of work, growing from the past two soundtracks but still keeping the best parts from both. D’Oliveria manages to convey both Lara’s change as a person as well as her change of surroundings in a score that entices you to delve as deep into the dark jungle as you can possibly go.

Top Track: “Lara’s Dream”

This track isn’t actually related to Lara’s jungle environment, nor does it contain any of her original 2013 themes. This piece was a surprising addition to me, but a very pleasant one. As Lara sleeps, she dreams of her life in Croft Manor as a child and you get to play as her as she explores her garden, leading to her climbing to the roof of the manor. It’s surprising due to the gentle nature of it, considering the harsh jungle tones that most of the score is comprised of. It’s sweet and playful with a hint of sadness. The player knows the tragedy that will befall Lara, so to play as her just before she is subjected to it is bittersweet. D’Oliveria shows his range and ability to portray Lara both as an adult and a child through his music in this sweet and somber track.

5- Celeste

Indie 2-D platformer Celeste was created by developers Matt Thorson and Noel Berry and focuses on Madeline, a girl who is scaling a fictional mountain called Celeste Mountain. The game is inspired by Super Nintendo styled platformers and the music does reflect this inspiration but also has its own unique combination of piano and electronic elements which creates a truly fantastic soundtrack with a lot of personality and style.

The soundtrack for Celeste was composed by Lena Raine who captures the spirit of the 2-D platformer while remaining true to the story of the game and the character of Madeline. The electronic, synth style is reminiscent of older Nintendo titles but the soft piano tones represent Madeline and her struggle with depression well. Other instruments are included later, such as the guitar, which is utilized to represent certain characters. In an interview about the Celeste soundtrack, Raine stated that “All of the main characters in Celeste have their own instrument: Madeline has the piano, Theo has a guitar, and Mr. Oshiro has a theremin-like synth.” This is an interesting way to go about composing the music as it allows each character to have their own musical interludes which reflect their position in the narrative.

There is an essence of individuality surrounding the soundtrack, not only due to each character having their own instrument but also due to the combination of these instruments with the electronic aspects. It creates an almost futuristic, sci-fi tone and the mixture of this along with the traditional music makes for a unique sound which not only represents the characters but also their journey and struggles.  The track “Scattered and Lost” is a good example of this, sounding almost alien with its frantic techno vibes. It’s a contradiction to pieces like “Awake”, an entirely piano based tune which focuses on Madeline. Though both are very different in style, they both represent the same character. The traditional piano themes are used in quieter moments whilst the electronic components come into play more so during Madeline’s ascent of the Celeste Mountain. Raine creates two differing styles that flow throughout the soundtrack but still manage to work together to build on the narrative of the story as well as the platforming gameplay elements. There is no need to sacrifice one for the other, as Raine manages to meld them perfectly.

Celeste is incredibly individual in terms of its soundtrack, featuring Super Nintendo style retro riffs, sorrowful piano pieces, sci-fi sounds and techno titbits throughout. Lena Raine brings all of these elements together and makes them work in terms of narrative and gameplay, which is no easy feat. The music builds as Madeline continues her climb and as she faces setbacks and difficulties and calms during quieter personal moments. Raine creates a meaningful and heartfelt soundtrack all within the frame of a 2-D indie platformer. Celeste is an achievement in every sense of the word, including its soundtrack.

Top Track: “Resurrections”

This track is a favourite among Celeste fans and for good reason. Lasting almost 10 minutes, the track features both electronic, retro and piano elements that run throughout to create a song that represents both Madeline as a character and Celeste as a game. Lena Raine said that the track is “almost like a full suite of music by itself” and it certainly feels like you are getting a lot from this one brilliant piece of music.

4- Marvel’s Spider-Man

Spider-Man is a character who had several incarnations in video games, some better than others. From the well-received Spider-Man 2 game in 2004 to the not so great The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2014, the web slinger has been hanging around (pun intended) for a good long while. His latest video game instalment, Marvel’s Spider-Man, exceeded expectations in every way and was one of the best games of the year but the soundtrack is a superhero score in a league of its own which truly captured what it is to be Spider-Man.

What strikes me the most when listening to the soundtrack is how closely it resembles it other musical scores from Marvel films. It fits in so well that it wouldn’t be out of place as a score from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is not hugely surprising as composer John Paesano is not a stranger to Marvel properties. He has worked on the Netflix series Daredevil and The Defenders as well as having several other credits such as the Maze Runner film series and Markus’s soundtrack from Detroit: Become Human. His score is a largely orchestral affair with a prominent main theme for our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, arguably one of the characters best themes to date. The theme plays a key role throughout but is at its best at the beginning of the game, when Peter Parker first leaps from his apartment window and begins swinging through the streets of New York. As I took control of Spider-Man and his theme played, I felt like a real superhero. And this was only the start of the game. Paesano’s work reflects the tagline of the game “Be Greater” with a swooping and heroic sound that travels with the player as the soar and web swing through the world. You want to be the greatest Spider-Man you can be, and the music is a significant factor in this feeling.

Paesano not only succeeds in the big, heroic moments of the game, he also is able to capture the smaller moments with finesse and a more mature tone. When discussing how he wanted the music to reflect Peter Parker’s older portrayal in an interview, Paesano said, “Spider-Man music has always been very bright and fun. It’s always had a wink and a smile with it. And I really wanted to kind of give him a more grown up approach. I wanted to kind of give him a little bit more weight, give him a little bit more gravitas as far as his character went.”  This is apparent throughout the score as there isn’t as much of the bubbliness that is used in other musical takes on Spider-Man, such as Michael Giacchino’s score for the Marvel Cinematic Universes version of Spider-Man. There is a maturity that runs throughout, including in the action, the themes used for when the player is conducting science experiments and the more sorrowful moments. The change in style doesn’t lose the essence of the character, but it makes for a more established and poignant score that suggests Spider-Man’s growth and development from what we normally see him as. The track “Responsibility” is a perfect example of this. The track plays towards the end of the game during a particularly sorrowful moment where Spider-Man has to make a difficult choice. The music encapsulates his character whilst also conveying the weightiness of his decision and his maturity in knowing what choice he has to make. It is one of the best pieces from the soundtrack and shows Paesano’s firm grasp on what kind of Spider-Man Insomniac Games wanted to craft with their interpretation.

Spider-Man’s soundtrack soars as the webhead himself and is an incredible take on an iconic character and his theme music. John Paesano created a soundtrack that slots perfectly into all other Marvel properties and their music, and in my opinion is one of the best scores for any Marvel property to date.

Top Track: “Spider-Man”

I really wanted to give some of the other tracks a mention here, but I found myself returning to this main theme again and again. Upon first opening the game, I was immediately blown away by this music as it was part of the PlayStation 4 theme that I got with the game. I would leave my main home menu up just so I could listen to it again and again. It’s heroic, it’s big and it’s bold but it also has the real feel of Spider-Man within it as it slows down to a softer piano theme towards the end. It’s great to see Spidey receive an incredible theme for one of his best video game outings.

3- Octopath Traveler

JRPG games always have a tendency to be full of colourful and orchestral music designed to be appealing due to the long length of time that the player will be spending with it. The score for Octopath Traveler not only does this, it does this so well that the music is one of the most enticing aspects of the game. It builds the world, introduces the characters and intensifies the battles with ease and grace,  easily being one of the best soundtracks this year.

Released by Square Enix for the Nintendo Switch in July of 2018, Octopath Traveler is a turn based JRPG that has reflections of previous JRPG titles within both its graphical HD 16-bit style and its music. The music has elements reminiscent of the old school titles such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII but composer Yasunori Nishiki puts his own spin on the formula to create a modern day classic. When discussing his work on Nintendo’s official website, Nishiki explains his desire to bring the element of nostalgia into the world of Octopath Traveler but not to entirely rely on it, “My goal was to create a soundtrack that would bring back the feelings from our childhood frozen deep inside us…At the same time, I didn’t want to just recreate the past, so I applied a great deal of heated passion to “defrost” these feelings in an even more real and dynamic form befitting the modern era.” . Nishiki is entirely successful in his attempt to combine nostalgic trends in JRPG music with contemporary and new themes. He has managed to create an instant classic with the Octopath Traveler soundtrack by doing this.

The music for Octopath Traveler is focused mainly on character themes, area themes, and battle themes, arguably the staples of most JRPG soundtracks. The eight main characters each have their own individual theme that represents their profession and personality. For example, Primrose the Dancers theme is upbeat to an extent as you would expect from a musical score for a dancing character but it also carries some weight with its string section. Primrose is a character with a tragic past and you can sense the solemn undertones under the perky tunes. Another example would be Tressa the Merchant’s theme which is rife with a sense of adventure and exploration, as she yearns to set out on her own adventure despite her merchant background. Nishiki’s individual themes for each character imbue the game with a sense of personality, blending the characters with their own music for an experience that has more depth. The later battle themes also blend with the character themes but have their own sense of individuality.

Octopath Traveler has such an impressive soundtrack that it stayed with me long after my first listen. There was obvious inspiration from older JRPG games but enough creativity and originality that it still remains its own creation. There is a wide range of orchestral arrangements and instruments, from a mellow saxophone in Alfyn the Apothecary’s theme to the soft guitar that hides beneath the wind instrument arrangements of Therion’s theme. Octopath Traveler has a varied and beautiful soundtrack that is sure to be remembered as one of the best JRPG soundtracks of our time.

Top Track: “Octopath Traveler Main Theme”

Again, I just couldn’t resist choosing the main theme of the game for my top pick due to the sheer wonder of it. A short but brilliant theme that portrays the spirit of adventure and the JRPG genre as a whole, Nishiki perfects the concept of an introductory theme that prepares the player for the game and gives an idea of what to expect music-wise. It’s amazing and I strongly recommend giving it a listen, though it’s such an inviting tune that you may be tempted to give the rest of a soundtrack a try afterward.

2- Red Dead Redemption II

We waited years for a follow up game to Rockstars 2010 hit Red Dead Redemption and when we finally received Red Dead Redemption II in October of this year, it was definitely worth the wait. The game is a prequel to the original game, set during John Marstons time running with Dutch Van der Linde and his gang. As well as having a superb story and fun gameplay, the game has an incredible soundtrack. I’ll include the link to Rockstars official statement released about their music and those involved here as there are just too many involved for me to list but Woody Jackson, the composer for the original game (and several other Rockstar titles) returns to create the score. With so many talented artists, producers and musicians involved, it’s no surprise that Red Dead Redemption II has an absolutely stellar soundtrack.

The use of music has always been well done in Rockstars games but I found that this is particularly notable for both of the Red Dead Redemption games. In RDR, the use of music is essential. Key moments in the game seamlessly integrate with music to truly immerse the player, such as Jose Gonzalez’s “Far Away” being used when travelling to Mexico for the first time or Jamie Lidell’s “Compass” playing when John Marston rides back to his family. The same tactic is used in RDR2 and once again manages to immerse the player and stir up a fair amount of emotion. A song called “May I? Stand Unshaken” by artist D’Angelo is played during a particularly poignant moment in the narrative and I couldn’t help but feel slightly crushed by the wave of emotion that suddenly hit me as I continued my horseback ride alongside the melancholy song. In contrast, there is also a cheerful and upbeat song which plays as John, Uncle, and Charles work to build John’s house in Beechers Hope. Though ultimately bittersweet due to the events of the original game, it’s a sweet and optimistic moment where the music is implemented to make the player feel part of the moment. There is no jarring awkwardness with the chosen songs, they fit perfectly into the narrative and make the experience feel more cinematic as a whole.

The musical score has a familiar feel to it thanks to the return of Woody Jackson. Jackson is able to once again perfectly convey the spirit of the dying American Old West as he did with the first game. His music permeates throughout the course of the game and enhances the experience with powerful yet subtle music cues. Every gunfight makes you feel like a true gunslinger, every bar fight makes you feel like a rowdy tavern thug and every long horse ride makes you feel like a turn of the century cowboy. His music draws you in to the Red Dead Redemption world and doesn’t let go. Whether it’s a somber moment, a funny drunken scene in a bar or an exciting gunfight with a rival gang, Jackson’s score keeps you firmly planted in the western world.

Red Dead Redemption II was a marvel on many levels including its immersive soundtrack full of great musical scores and songs. Certain songs bestow a great deal of emotion in relation to the narrative and make the player realize just how much they care for the characters. The soundtrack is a total triumph and, although an official release date still hasn’t been announced, I know that I and many others will be purchasing the soundtrack as soon as Rockstar delivers it to us.

Top Track: “See the Fire in Your Eyes”

When a new protagonist was announced to be the star of Red Dead Redemption II, I was unsure as to whether any character could take John Marston’s place. As it would turn out, Arthur Morgan ended up being just as beloved, if not slightly more so, than Marston. This particular song relates strongly to Arthur’s development throughout the game and it’s hard to not feel emotional when listening to it. It tells the tale of a man who has made mistakes, many mistakes, and has not always been a good person but tried to be a better man. As the song states, “You did your worst, you tried your best.” It’s an almost heart-breaking comparison to Arthur, whose attempts at a normal life were thwarted by his relation to the gang and his inability to adapt to normality. He is and always will be an outlaw, but he was a good person with a good heart who gave his all. Arthur is a tragic character and this song is a brilliant representation of his journey.

1- God of War

My number one pick from all of the video game soundtracks released this year has to be God of War. Released in April 2018 from Santa Monica Studios, God of War is the eighth game released in the God of War series but is a huge step away from the formula of the other games. The game is loosely a sequel but entirely reimagined from what it once was. Based loosely on Norse mythology, whereas the other games focused on loose reinterpretation of Greek mythology, the game centres on Kratos and his young son Atreus. After the death of his second wife Faye, Kratos and Atreus set out to achieve her final wish of having her ashes scattered from the highest peak of the nine realms. The game is largely narrative driven with great combat and gameplay that highly differed from previous games but did not lose the essence of what God of War was. The music is one of the elements that went through a complete overhaul and the result is the absolute best game soundtrack of 2018, if not one of the best game soundtracks of all time.

Experienced composer Bear McCreary is the man behind the soundtrack and he was a fan of the series before coming on the project. His understanding of the character and themes of the series shines through in his work. Though his original theme for Kratos is the song that would become “Memories of Mother”, he would go on to compose an epic and superb new theme for Kratos known simply as “God of War”. I was lucky enough to see “God of War” performed live in London in May at the PlayStation Live in Concert show and it was an astonishing performance. Hearing it performed live showed me just how powerful and lasting the theme is as the song reverberated through the Royal Albert Hall. The booming echoes of the voices within the song are indicative of Kratos’s Spartan past and how it constantly follows him. It is inescapable but during the game, as he learns to confront his past rather than run from it, the song becomes more incorporated with the other themes of the soundtrack and not quite as intimidating, though still having a certain strength. As McCreary said in an article for the PlayStation blog, “That melody is more reflective of the qualities one associates with Kratos: masculine, relentless, and badass.”

McCreary introduced new styles of music into the soundtrack whilst keeping certain elements from the previous game’s music into consideration, “I took my memories of that classic God of War soundtrack – the deep choirs, pounding drums, and shrieking brass – and reinvented them for a Norse age. I wrote new themes, and introduced to the music exotic instrumentation and languages from various Northern European folk traditions”. The Norse inspiration flows through the soundtrack and resounds through the key themes. It’s another drastic step away from the original template of the God of War franchise but one that pays off immensely. Although he is in a new realm, the spirit of Kratos as a character is still prominently present in the music. It doesn’t feel like a totally new game with a new protagonist, it is the same rage-filled Spartan that gamers have spent many years with. The music reflects this familiarity whilst keeping in line with the Norse culture of which Kratos now finds himself a part of.

There have been many brilliant soundtracks this year for video games and it wasn’t easy picking a number one choice but God of War goes above and beyond. New themes and music are present but the spirit of God of War does not get lost on the way. The franchise reinvents itself as does the music, and in doing so, creates a soundtrack that is as beautiful as it is memorable. God of War is, simply put, a musical masterpiece which will be remembered as one of the best that video game music has to offer.

Top Track: “Ashes”

I had a tough time choosing the top track for God of War. The main “God of War” theme reinvents the music for Kratos brilliantly whilst “Memories of Mother”, the favourite track of the composer, is a beautifully sorrowful tune. My choice eventually boiled down to the track which took the best parts of both of these wonderful tracks and inserted it into a crucial and highly emotional moment of the narrative. At the beginning of the game, we see Kratos and Atreus preparing to cremate the body of Faye, Kratos’s second wife, and Atreus’s mother. The sorrow from a child losing a mother and a man losing his love is intense and this track is significant in adding to the heightened emotions. I found myself feeling desperately sad for both Kratos and Atreus, despite only just beginning the game. Kratos’s words to her as he prepares to take her body are incredibly powerful, “Find your way home. You are free”. Not only does it show just how much the series has matured with its audience, it shows how Kratos as a character has also matured. It also shows the strained relationship between a father and his son, a theme that continues throughout. “Ashes” is a powerful and moving piece of music which not only made gamers feel emotional within minutes of the opening of the game, it contributed in introducing a very different Kratos in a very different God of War game.

****

Thanks so much for reading my top twenty video game soundtracks list. Here’s hoping that 2019 brings us even more brilliant music from our favourite games!

PART ONE (TOP 20)

Antonia Haynes resides in a small seaside town in England where she has lived her whole life. She's a simple girl with a passion for zombies, writing, film, television, drawing, superheroes, Disney and, of course, video games. Her ideal day would consist of junk food, fluffy pyjamas and video games because quite frankly going outside is overrated. Follow her on Twitter on @RainbowMachete

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    January 5, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    I hate to break the bad news but you forgot to include the best soundtrack of 2018 — SEA OF THIEVES.

    Look out for my mixtape of the best soundtracks which I am dropping soon.

    • Antonia Haynes

      January 6, 2019 at 3:46 pm

      I loved it when I had a listen, such a good pirate/adventure soundtrack. I feel bad that I didn’t put it in!
      Also Dead Cells after hearing it in your mix tape, so good.

  2. John Dork

    January 20, 2019 at 3:28 am

    I’m sorry but NO DEATH’S GAMBIT?! 2D Darksouls with amazing soundtrack by ALEX FCKIN ROE?? I can’t take this list seriously without it, since you have soundtracks like celeste and moonlighter but not this one…

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‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ Review: Moon’s Haunted but Still Shines

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ returns to a familiar destination but Bungie is reworking Destiny with each expansion and Shadowkeep is no exception.

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Destiny 2 Shadowkeep Review

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep may be a return to a familiar destination, the Moon, but Bungie continues the trend of reworking Destiny with each new expansion, and Shadowkeep is no exception. Replete with a reworked season pass system, progression systems, customization options, sandbox re-tuning and quest interface, Shadowkeep is both a welcome iteration and extension of the existing Destiny 2 experience offering more RPG-esque player agency than Destiny has ever seen before. While the game is still haunted by some overly familiar issues, Shadowkeep is a welcome expansion and a promising start to the third year of Destiny 2.

Old Haunting Grounds

The Moon isn’t the only familiar face in Shadowkeep. Keeping with tradition, Eris Morn has returned from a long absence for another dark, lunar expansion (the first being D1′s The Dark Below when the character was first introduced) as she investigates a disturbance deep within the Moon. Quite literally haunted by the past, Eris has called upon the Guardians to assist her in finding the source of the phantoms plaguing the Moon and vanquishing “Nightmare” versions of familiar visages from the past.

All is not entirely as old players might remember. An immense hive structure, the Scarlet Keep, now overshadows previously unexplored territory on the Lunar surface. New Lost Sectors hide in the depths of the Moon, and new secrets a la the Dreadnaught or the Dreaming City lie waiting to be discovered by inquisitive players. And at the very center of the expansion an ancient, unknown threat lies in wait, an ominous foreshadowing of the trials ahead.

While the expansion does a decent job ensuring the familiar haunts don’t feel overly recycled, it’s hard to say Shadowkeep makes the most of the Moon. The campaign opens on such a high note as players storm the moon in an unexpectedly matchmade sequence before individual Fireteams independently uncover an unanticipated twist that absolutely shatters expectation. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly devolves into uninteresting fetch quests that fail to live up to the intrigue of the initial mission nor live up to the narrative heights of some of the most memorable missions the Moon previously housed including fan favorites The Sword of Crota and Lost to Light to name a few. That’s tough company to keep, and Shadowkeep fails to measure up.

Similarly, a bit of that intrigue is reintroduced in Shadowkeep‘s final mission, but, like the campaign as a whole, it’s over before the player knows it and fails to live up to the precedent set by previous, lengthier campaign conclusions. More mileage is gotten out of the narrative and destination in the post-game in the way of a new weapon farming system, a new activity known as Nightmare hunts that play like mini Strikes, and a Strike proper, but that does little to alleviate the disappointment of an overly terse campaign that reads like a teaser for what’s to come over a distinct, fleshed-out story.

A New Era, a New Season

Part of that is presumably courtesy of a shift in Bungie’s approach to content releases. While the previous expansion, Forsaken, similarly opted for procedurally released content over the course of the season, Bungie has doubled down on that strategy with Shadowkeep ensuring there’s something new to be experienced each week that players sign in. While certain activities have alway arrived post-launch including raids, dungeons, and exotic weapon pursuits, Shadowkeep and its “Season of the Undying” has seen new PvE and PvP activities launched after the expansion’s initial drop, adding to an already lengthy list of Destiny to-dos.

Central to the season is the new PvE, matchmade activity, the Vex Offensive, which pits six players against waves of Vex combatants paired and features some minor puzzle elements, all for the sake of earning a series of weapons exclusive to the mode. While the Black Garden locale of the mode is certainly eye-catching, the Offensive, with its recycled mechanics and familiar enemies, doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. It might pale in comparison to activities introduced in past seasons (like Warmind‘s Escalation Protocol, or last season’s Menagerie), but is intentionally terse, intended to match this new seasonal philosophy, and will be removed from the game after Season of the Undying (though the exclusive arsenal will still be available in the loot pool obtainable through undisclosed means). Like the Vex themselves, the Vex Offensive might not seem like much independently, but collectively is a piece of a greater whole challenging and rewarding players for participating within the specific season.

Bungie is further defining each season with the inclusion of a seasonal artifact and a season pass system. The artifact, again only available for the season, offers players an avenue for additional, limitless Power gains while also offering unlockable gameplay mods encouraging players to utilize specific classes and builds. The Oppressive Darkness mod, for example, debuffs enemies hit by void grenades, encouraging players to construct discipline-oriented, void builds. Another mod, Thunder Coil, increases the power of arc melee attacks by fifty percent, giving all new life to the Hunter’s Arcstrider subclass. Meanwhile, the season pass operates similar to that of Fortnite or any number of games and replaces the previous cosmetic only level up system of Destiny 2‘s past. From the season’s outset, any and all experience goes toward unlocking rewards from the pass including new armor, armor ornaments, exclusive weapons and exotics, and engrams. The experience requirement for each level is static, meaning progress is fair and steady throughout and never feels throttled. Both seasonal systems are fantastic new additions that reward players for playing the game while making experience gains more purposeful than any other time in Destiny‘s endgame.

New Duds to Boot

Shadowkeep also marks the debut of Armor 2.0, a new system that allows players more agency in character customization than ever before. Whereas armor previously rolled with random perks and a roll of only three stats (Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience), Armor 2.0 comes with no perks and six stats as Destiny 1‘s Intellect, Discipline, and Strength (determining the charge rates of player’s super, grenade, and melee abilities) make their triumphant return. Instead, Armor 2.0 has slots for modifiers so players can pick and choose whatever perks they want just as long as they’ve unlocked those mods. Mods are acquired from most activities, while enhanced mods (better versions of certain traditional mods) are exclusive to some of the game’s more challenging content. While the grind for mods seems excessive in the face of the rest of the game’s grind, it’s a one-time affair, some of the best mods are unlocked via the seasonal artifact, and the payoff is astounding, providing customization like never before.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Axe to Grind

Speaking to the grind, Destiny has often struggled and failed to find the perfect balance of meaningful power climb and tedious grinds recycling the same old activities. Luckily, at the outset of the climb towards max power, Shadowkeep strikes a much better balance centered on beloved ritual and new and or seasonal activities. Power drops now operate on a clearly labeled, tiered system, incentivizing players to prioritize new or challenging activities for maximum gains. Ritual activities (Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit), though tier one, retain their relevance by offering multiple weekly powerful drops for match completions, vendor bounties completed, and rank progression. Previous, otherwise irrelevant avenues towards power have been retired, but this is a welcome reduction and there is no shortage of powerful drops in the climb to max power. That isn’t to say that the grind couldn’t be shorter ensuring more players can participate in endgame activities when they first arrive, but progression generally feels smoother than any time in Destiny‘s past.

Conversely, content flow might overwhelm casual and even dedicated players as there’s simply too much to do and grind for players tight on time. Bungie now considers Destiny and MMO with proper RPG mechanics, and, in terms of time commitment, that really shows with Shadowkeep. On a certain week, a player might have an accomplished week in-game after sinking only three to five hours into the game. Other weeks the game seems to demand closer to the ten to twenty-hour range. One week, for example, saw the release of the new dungeon, a new Crucible game mode, an exotic quest, a new public event, and the start of the Festival of the Lost, a limited time, Halloween event. That’s simply too much, feels like poor pacing, and favors streamers, Destiny content creators, and hardcore players for whom Destiny is their exclusive hobby, a burgeoning theme with Season of the Undying. While it’s certainly exciting that there’s always something to do in D2, it doesn’t seem true to the game’s roots as a hybrid, a shooter with MMO elements, that could be taken at a more casual pace but still offered an engaging endgame for the dedicated audience. Now, there’s only an endgame with no end in sight.

A Better Destiny Awaits

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players who want to pay a minimal price for seemingly unending content, and in that regard, Shadowkeep is a steal. A sensational new raid (minus some finicky new mechanics), a foreboding dungeon, an immense new arsenal to grind for, and a better tuned PvP and PvE sandbox in which to enjoy them mean Shadowkeep will keep Guardians’ attention the whole season long and is an excellent proof of concept for the seasonal structure going forward. If Bungie can keep this pace up, year three of Destiny 2 could easily be the best year in franchise history. As a general caution though, Destiny 2 now clearly caters to the hardcore, requires MMO levels of commitment, and is best enjoyed with a regular group; casual, time-restricted, and solo players beware. It might not be the best single expansion release in franchise history (that’s still a toss-up between The Taken King and Forsaken), but, beginning with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the third year of D2 is the closest the tumultuous title has ever come to Bungie’s ambitious vision for the shared-world shooter and the game fans have been waiting for these past five years.

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What Are Some of the Switch’s Best Indie Devs Making?

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The Nintendo Switch has quickly become the preferred platform for some of the most talented indie studios in the industry. Its pick-up-and-play form factor and Nintendo’s concerted effort to court smaller developers this generation (complete with indie-specific Directs) has resulted in a library that’s positively flourished.

Despite the eShop falling victim to some of the discoverability and shovelware issues that long plagued Steam, there have been some real standouts over the years. Since video games take quite a while to produce, there’s often speculation as to what some of the premier developers have been working on. Let’s take a look at four of the most recognized indie studios on the platform and have some fun trying to figure out what they might be up to.


Sidebar Games

It’s hard to believe that 2017’s Golf Story was Sidebar Games’ first project as a studio. The two-man team from down under balanced a delightful dose of Australian-tinged humor with clear callbacks to the Mario sports games of old to deliver one of the best Switch exclusives in 2017, bar none.

Unlike the other studios on this list, Sidebar has been extremely silent on development progress; we can only glean bits and pieces from the few interviews they’ve done. We know the game has been in development for roughly two years and that Sidebar was still in active development as of March 2019 when they put out the call for a pixel artist for their next project. There’s also a fair chance that the new game will either be Switch-exclusive or target Switch first, seeing as how Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date as of Spring 2019. If exclusivity worked so well the first time, why not try it again?

What Can We Expect?

Whatever Sidebar is working on, it’s almost guaranteed to be single-player and story-focused. One half of the dev team, Andrew, has gone on record multiple times saying that he’s “very partial to story modes.” This also players into one of their strengths; though there was a great time to be had with Golf Story’s golf, it was all elevated by the game’s ridiculous-yet-lovable characters and wacky situational humor.

Since the team has already deconfirmed a sequel as their next project, there’s really not much to go on. While I’d personally love them to tackle something Mario Tennis-inspired next, there’s a good chance they’ll avoid sports altogether. As long as the wit found in Golf Story is alive and well, though, their core audience is sure to be interested.


Fabraz

Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is still one of the best platformers to come out in recent memory. The game’s striking three-color art style isn’t just unique, but it’s also ingrained into the platforming mechanics in inventive ways. Beyond having a look all its own and a stiff challenge for players who wanted it, however, Fabraz went the extra mile to build a fun cast of characters and even a hub world to explore outside of the main game. It was a pleasant surprise from a relatively unknown developer at the time.

Fabraz has been anything but complacent since Slime-san’s launch. The studio released two free content expansions, ported the game to other consoles, and even got into the publishing business. No matter their other ventures, however, the team has made sure to tease their next project every so often since the start of 2019.

What Can We Expect?

Fabraz speculated that their new game was already roughly 60% complete at the start of October. Since it only began production in December of 2018, it’s safe to assume that the next game will be relatively small in scope. It’s also likely that Fabraz’s next outing won’t be “Slime-san 2,” since the original game received such heavy content additions months after release (including an expansion literally titled “Sheeple’s Sequel.” The team certainly knows how to make magic from very limited resources, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do with a bit more of a budget, a new art style, and tons more experience.


Game Atelier/FDG Entertainment

It feels like Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom came out of nowhere. The team at FDG Entertainment had published indie darling Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King just the year prior and the console port of Oceanhorn before that, but there wasn’t much talk about FDG’s capabilities as a developer. As it turns out, however, Game Atelier’s choice to bring them on as a co-developer was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to Monster Boy. Five long years of development later and fans were treated to one of the best platformers in recent memory.

Though it launched on all consoles, Monster Boy famously sold eight times more on Switch than PS4 and Xbox One combined, reminiscent of the sales of Blossom Tales on Switch. Needless to say, FDG’s next title will be targeted squarely as the Nintendo community. But what could that next project be?

What Can We Expect?

A Monster Boy sequel. FDG recently celebrated their collaboration with Game Atelier on Twitter and announced that they’re collaborating once more. The commercial and critical success of Monster Boy can only lead one to believe they’re hard at work on a follow-up together. Thankfully, with such a solid base to work off of now, this one shouldn’t take nearly as long to release.


Chucklefish

Chucklefish has garnered a great deal of respect in the indie community as both a developer (Starbound, WarGroove) and frequent publisher (Stardew Valley, Timespinner, the upcoming Eastward, and others). Their eagerness to bring so many of their top-notch titles to Switch has made them one of–if not the–most lauded indie studios on the platform. If it’s coming from Chucklefish, there’s a good chance it’ll be of the highest quality.

What Can We Expect?

Witchbrook! Chucklefish announced the game way back in 2017 and instantly had both Harry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans foaming at the mouth. It’s a magical school simulation/RPG where players will attend class, learn spells, make friends, date, and work towards graduation. The company’s CEO and lead designer, Finn, has been incredibly open about the game’s development from the beginning. In fact, he made the ever-changing Witchbrook design document public in August of 2019 to give some insight into the game design and planning process.

Since there’s already so much we know about where the game’s going, this is going to be used as more of a “Hopes for Witchbrook” section. To keep it short, let’s focus on two of the game’s most make-or-break elements: dating and world-building.

Dating

One of the things many RPGs struggle with is making dating feel meaningful after the relationship starts. People love romancing in Stardew Valley, but the experience itself is really rather shallow; bring characters their favorite items, talk to them daily, experience a few touching cutscenes and voila! All that’s left is to put a ring on it and have a baby.

My hope is that in Witchbrook, the real fun starts after the relationship begins. Being able to have lunch together, go to festivals, celebrate anniversaries, plan outings, and even introduce them to the player’s in-game friends would go a long way in making the relationship feel more than a ribbon to be crossed.

World-Building

When someone asks the seminal question “What fictional world would you love to live in?” the world of Harry Potter almost always tops to list (right next to Pokémon, that is). It isn’t just because of magic itself or the emotional ties people have to the cast, but more so because of the immense amounts of personality and lore J.K. Rowling infused into the world. From the dark history of Hogwarts to the vast array of magical beasts to the establishment of Quidditch, there is a whole movie and video game series that has been created based on mere slices of the Harry Potter universe.

Naturally, it’d be silly to expect Chucklefish to achieve as much depth in an indie project as one of the most successful authors of all time did over the course of seven books, but there’s still plenty of potential. Since the game will primarily take place at the school, exploring why the school was created and how it’s changed over the years could be quite interesting. Then there’s how different populations of the world at large feel about magic, how various magical species play a part, the favorite magic-imbued pastimes of students in the world of Witchbrook, and so on. The key will be to infuse magic into every element of the world (and gameplay) as naturally as possible. And after reading through the extensive design doc, I’ve no doubt Chucklefish will be able to pull it off.


The indie scene on the Switch is thriving more than ever. New talented developers are making the platform their home every day, and those who’ve already proved themselves are hard at work on their next premium experience. The next wave of releases from these studios can’t come soon enough.

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‘Death Stranding’: And Now for Something Completely Different

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Death Stranding Slow Connectivity

Video gaming as a medium has often been perceived as little more than a toy. Even with Nintendo pushing the NES as a part of the home and more than just a toy– a strategy they’d adopt again for the Wii– there are still many who see games as toys, rather than an expression of an art form. It makes perfect sense, though. If there’s one thing modern video game culture has pushed front and center this past decade, it’s instant satisfaction. As big-budget games embrace homogeneity, the medium’s priorities have shifted from capitalizing on its inherent interactivity to making sure gamers are never bored with their $60 toy. Reggie Fils-Aime famously said “If it’s not fun, why bother?” for a reason, but when every big-budget game is paced the same, structured the same, and plays the same, where’s the fun to be found? 

About Death Stranding…

It’s far too early to even assume what kind of impact Death Stranding will have on the medium & industry (if any), but as one of the last big budgets games to release in 2019, Hideo Kojima’s first crack at the “strand game genre” is a nice note to cap the decade off on– one that serves as an almost necessary palette cleanser as the medium heads into the 2020s. Death Stranding offers audiences a chance to breathe, to look at themselves in the mirror, and to reconnect. Not just with the world and others, but with a medium built on interactivity. 

Hideo Kojima is often criticized for his cutscene ratio, to the point where it’s not unusual to see critics suggest he just make a film, but the fact of the matter is that most games do need a story. Not just that, video games have the potential to present a story better than any other medium. Readers and viewers can place themselves in the shoes of their protagonists, but a game makes the player become the protagonist. How we control our characters, how we play, how we interact with a virtual world– all this is a reflection of ourselves, one that only the gaming medium can offer. 

Not that it often does, at least not meaningfully. Modern developers are afraid to lose consumer interest, and the increasing shift towards the “games as a service” model has ensured that gameplay loops are simple to pick up, simple to get into, and simple to stay into. Games are something to be played with– toys. And there’s immense value in that. Video games can be a fantastic way to reduce stress & clear one’s thoughts regardless of how they’re designed, but such an approach means that the average gamer is going to be accustomed to gameplay loops that are structurally derivative of one another. 

On the flip side, there are the games that prioritize narrative too much, or simply devalue their own gameplay with extraneous content. From Hideo Kojima’s own gameography, this is a mistake he clearly made with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even from this decade, it can be argued that what little importance Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain placed on the story ended up hurting it in the long run because it distracted from the core gameplay loop. There’s a reason so many developers follow similar game structures and build off similar foundations: they’re reliable, they get the job done, and it does result in great games. Both The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are clear examples of how mechanically homogenous & predictable games have gradually become this past decade, but they’re still great games.

Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time.

Death Stranding is most comparable to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but really only on the most surface of levels. Death Stranding has AAA backing, but it has the creativity and ingenuity of a modern indie. While AAA developers have lined up for uniformity, the indie half of the medium has arguably never been better. Those who grew up alongside video games are now developing their own, calling back to and even evolving forgotten genres. All the while, AAA games only move closer to the Disneyfication of movie production– hit all the key demographics, make it “accessible” for everyone, and make sure there are no real ideals or beliefs. No need to upset potential consumers, right? 

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Death Stranding was backed by Sony and developed by a massive development team, but Hideo Kojima’s direction is far more in-line with the modern indie scene than that of his AAA cohorts. Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time. It’s slow to start, slow to pick up, and even the core gameplay loop is slow. It takes hours before players get their first vehicle, and even longer before they finally get a weapon. Death Stranding saves its actual core gameplay loop for so late in the experience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest the game sees an entire genre shift halfway through. But that’s missing the point. Death Stranding’s “genre shift” is only going to feel so for those who don’t want to engage with the first half’s crawl– those who just want to play with a toy. 

Of course, just wanting something simple and immediately engaging to play is fair enough. For working adults with limited time to play a game, in particular, but not every game is going to resonate with everyone, even if a game like Death Stranding is designed for anyone. Death Stranding seems inaccessible & foreign in a generation where every big genre release plays like the last, but between a myriad of difficulty options and an online system designed to make the player’s life easier– one that works & works well– Death Stranding takes the medium’s interactivity to its next logical step: connectivity. Real connectivity, though. A connection that goes beyond playing against or with someone for a few minutes. 

In Death Stranding, players can leave a tangible mark on, and in, the world. Players can build structures for others, share with others, and just do something as simple as “liking” others. Those opening hours are incredibly valuable as– without the means to kill or fight back– players are forced to interact with the game world on a deeper level beyond combat. Death Stranding takes its time developing its gameplay loop, drip-feeding weapons, and concepts. Even the online component opens itself slowly, forcing players to understand what it means to be alone before they can forge real connections– with the world, others, or themselves. 

This is what Hideo Kojima understands better than the majority of modern AAA developers: games can connect a feeling directly to the player. Death Stranding’s best moments (as any should be) stem from gameplay. Kojima’s storytelling is engaging as ever, but it exists to bolster the gameplay– as does the slow pacing, as does the aggressive enemy AI, as does locking out weapons for hours on end– everything in Death Stranding is ultimately in service of connecting players to Sam in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. Through Sam, audiences can observe an America that’s in ruins, but one that society is rebuilding.

As Sam reconnects America, opportunities arise to finish bridges for others, leave supplies in remote areas, or just warn of dangers ahead. It’s very Dark Souls-esque in nature, but with a gameplay loop that minimizes traditional action, Death Stranding is the rare AAA game that’s bold enough to embrace the medium and everything it represents, for better or worse. A video game interacts with an audience in a way that books and film can’t. Controlling an avatar is an intimate act and reflects us better than most might realize. Death Stranding recognizes this fact, turns its back on modern gaming mainstays, and attempts to reconnect the medium together. 

Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

AAA gaming and the indie scene shouldn’t be divided. A gameplay loop doesn’t need instant satisfaction to be engaging. Story and gameplay shouldn’t feel disconnected. Standard online multiplayer can be more rewarding when PvP elements are tossed to the wayside or even just outright ignored. Death Stranding resembles the average AAA title in many respects, but it allows itself to be eclectic, off-putting, & sincerely unfiltered– in regards to politics, human nature, video games themselves. Only time will tell if “strand games” will take off, but keep in mind that the stealth genre didn’t exist when the hit “action” game Metal Gear released for the MSX2 in 1987. As Death Stranding makes abundantly clear, everything changes with time. 

The 2010s have not been a bad decade for the medium, far from it. The past ten years have seen truly legendary consoles and games come out of the woodwork, but it’s impossible to deny the shift that occurred (and had been occurring) in AAA game development– one that’s driven the medium far away from meaningful interactivity, where flavor of the month games long to be played for all eternity, like Toy Story-esque monstrosities given form. Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

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