Best Game Soundtracks July 2018
Greetings, friends! We’ve made it through July, and with it what little remains of what was once the video game summer release doldrums. I’m old enough to remember when summer meant a few measly crumbs’ worth of interactive entertainment! Back in my day, we gnawed on the bones of late spring’s JRPGs until our characters were level 99 and we’d beaten all the optional bosses -- they were all we had until the late autumn harvest of new titles! These days, all it means for games to have a “summer slump” is that the monthly avalanche of AAA titles is replaced by a bounty of smaller games, DLC, and swimwear-themed events in our preferred Games As Services.
Phew! At least we’ll never be wanting for excellent video game soundtrack albums.
Early Access games bedevil me to no end when writing these roundups. I’m never sure whether to include a game as soon as its soundtrack releases, or wait until the game is officially out to highlight its tunes. Whatever the case, folks have been singing the praises of Dead Cells for more than a year, and it’s finally going to see an official release on PC and consoles any day now. Dead Cells is a side-scrolling platformer with a heavy emphasis on Metroid-style exploration and a heaping helping of procedural generation. It’s gotten praise for its evocative art and its punishing difficulty, but of course I zeroed in on the wonderful soundtrack by Yoann Laulan. It’s full of strings, choral samples, and percussion that always seems to push the action forward. Don’t pass this album over like I did when it first dropped on Laulan’s Bandcamp page -- listen to it immediately!
At the tail end of June, Darkest Dungeon received some new DLC: The Color of Madness, an homage to what is unquestionably my favorite H.P. Lovecraft story (“The Colour Out of Space” -- it’s one of his least problematic!). Accordingly, the game has received a few new tracks from composer Stuart Chatwood, whose work on the Prince of Persia games I’ve always liked. Chatwood’s music is dark, intense, and oppressive. There are only five songs on this little EP, but every one of them is good stuff. Listen to them, then go read about how that Lovecraft story is a precursor to Annihilation.
Speaking of DLC released in June, Splatoon 2 got a big chunk of new ink-splatting fun in the form of its Octo Expansion. I held off mentioning it until this month’s roundup, because as of mid-July, there’s now an official soundtrack release! Sure, you’ll have to import a physical copy, but the important thing is that there’s a legit way to get ahold of these fabulous tracks. Splatoon continues to sound like nothing else in games, and I’m constantly charmed by how successfully Nintendo keeps the game’s soundtrack tied up in its characters and world. Anybody who speaks ill of Pearl and Marina has lost the capacity to feel joy, in my opinion. Listen to these songs if you intend on staying fresh.
I might as well round out the DLC soundtracks by including Anthony Marinelli’s score to Far Cry 5: Lost on Mars, the latest expansion for Ubisoft’s Montana cultist-killing simulator. This DLC takes you to the Red Planet to shoot some aliens with laser guns and continue Far Cry’s tradition of taking its base games to eclectic locales. I confess that Far Cry 5 had mostly fallen off my radar after its rather tepid critical reception (despite really liking what it did with its in-game music!), but I like Marinelli’s Western-twang-meets-sci-fi-synth score! Space Western isn’t exactly a novel genre mash-up, but it’s a musical aesthetic that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing. Far Cry 5 has actually had two other DLC soundtrack releases that I missed (oops!), the mostly ho-hum Hours of Darkness and the really spectacular Far Cry Arcade, which is packed with electronic rock that is deeply up my alley.
Without question, the new game I’ve seen the most popping up on my Twitter feed this month is Octopath Traveler, Square Enix’s throwback JRPG from the Bravely Default crew. It’s got a lovely, unique visual aesthetic, with crisp pixel art and tilt-shift camera techniques that make each scene look like a beautiful diorama. As a long-time SaGa defender, this should be right up my alley, but I find myself curiously cold on it -- has Square Enix finally lost me for good? In any case, I can’t fault the soundtrack by Yasunori Nishiki: it’s lush, dynamic, and fully succeeds at transporting its listener to a world of fantasy and magic. It even has some excellent boss battle themes, which long-time readers may remember is my favorite musical genre. Weirdly, the UK and other territories have gotten the full digital soundtrack release, but the US is still waiting on it -- however, there’s a 22-track “preview version” if you simply can’t wait. Or you could import a physical copy!
Buy (full version) iTunes (UK)
And this month, at last, one particular game series comes to the end of the road: The Banner Saga 3 released recently, and with it, another score by the supremely talented Austin Wintory. Wintory has scored all three installments of The Banner Saga, and though each score has been stellar, you can track his growing skill and confidence across all three entries. Listening to the albums one after another, you get a sense for his evolution as a composer over the last half-decade. It’s an impressive culmination! Truly music for the end of the world. Why don’t you go ahead and read our review for the trilogy’s conclusion, and then, if you haven’t, check out the Saga for yourself…?
In a weird coincidence, this month saw the release of two extremely gay mech games with incredibly charming dialogue, both of which have great soundtracks. The first of these is Extreme Meatpunks Forever, a combination visual novel / 2D brawler by Heather Robertson. Besides having a great title, Meatpunks also has a soundtrack by Josie Brechner, aka Visager, whose work you might have heard if you picked up the Zelda-like Blossom Tales on Switch last year. Visager describes their soundtrack for Meatpunks as, well… “TRANS FOLK PUNK DYSTOPIA WESTERN music with splashes of SLUDGE ROCK, GLITCH CORE, ANIME EMOTIONS, and HORROR MOODS.” If that’s not recommendation enough, no words of mine are going to make you check out these fine tracks.
The second well-written gay mech game we got this month was Pillowfight Games’ Heaven Will Be Mine, a visual novel about fighting mechs in space and flirting with your nemeses. It’s from Aevee Bee and Mia Schwartz, the same writer/artist duo that brought us 2016’s We Know the Devil, and composer Alec Lambert returns as well to bring us the soundtrack. Lambert’s score here is full of spacey synths, alternating between soothing ambient tracks and thumping bass lines. The tracks here are, as Lambert says, perfect for “descending into the immense tidal gravity well of deep space.” Go check out these tracks, then write a saucy text to someone you shouldn’t.
Each month I’m sent PR releases about a number of albums of covers, rearrangements, and creative takes on game music. I normally pass on including them in these roundups because there’s always so much superb original game music to cover, but every once in a while one will slip past my defenses on a slow month and charm me entirely with its conceit. So it is with Guitar Collections - Final Fantasy IV, which sees twelve tracks from that seminal Uematsu score rearranged for guitar by Willam Carlos Reyes, the guitarist from VGM cover band The OneUps. If you need a meditative place into which you can retreat from the existential horrors of living in the world right now, I would recommend a comfy chair, your best noise-canceling headphones, and this album.
That’s just about it for this month! For the record collectors out there, I hear that iam8bit is putting out a vinyl version of Adrian Moore’s jazzy soundtrack to Framed 2. That’s not just a good album, but one that’s worth listening to from start to finish, which makes it a good candidate for a vinyl release.
Check back in at the end of August, when I’ll be back with more auditory baubles to dangle before your rapt ears!