As you might have guessed, there are plenty of avid gamers here at FACT HQ.
It would have been remiss of us, then, to ignore the wealth of incredible video game music that emerged in 2015. We’re in interesting times – thanks to Kickstarter and similar, developers can now fund projects that may never have been otherwise possible (we’re looking at you Shenmue 3). And thanks to the rise of Steam, PSN and XBLA, we’re able to procure inventive, independently developed games easier than ever before.
The following list collects some of the stand-out original soundtracks of the year, from the AAA bombast of Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain to the low-key modular gurgle of indie standout SOMA.
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15. Xenoblade Chronicles X
We admit it: at least one Xeno entry should’ve cracked our top 100 list earlier this year, because if there’s anything that will endure years from now when we all have apps and PSN installed inside our skulls, it’ll be the music from Xenogears and Xenoblade that holds up.
Jury’s out on whether Xenoblade Chronicles X is a better game, but you gotta admire its swagger and desire to go big or go the fuck home. Tossing aside the relatively serene vibe of the original, Hiroyuki Sawano takes the bombast of Attack on Titan and Kill la Kill (two anime known more for screaming than subtlety) and gives it an ear-pleasing sheen, mixing orchestral fare with things like Big Black and Depeche Mode, unapologetically. As you do.
14. Gravity Ghost
Ben Prunty is on a quiet roll. The guy behind the tunes for FTL: Faster than Light has been making some of the most sneaky, dreary sounds to ever find their way into gaming, and doing it on a regular basis. Gravity Ghost lightens the mood only somewhat, introducing more acoustic instruments into a largely synth-driven sci-fi palette, but the way it widens as the game’s story swells is gold.
A hard distinction to make when making these sorts of lists is where the line falls between sound design and music. By and large, when you’re looking over video game soundtracks and ranking them from best to worst, you’re often looking at how many proper “tunes” there are. Gaming has trained us to look for ear worms.
Mikki Tarmia doesn’t make those. He buries most of SOMA‘s melodies under a layer of subtle punishment, only letting them emerge when they need to push the game’s (excellent) story forward. But without him, the game wouldn’t be able to work the kind of slow, unnerving dread survival horror has sadly lost in the last few years. Plus, the whole thing was composed on a monster modular setup. Can’t pass that up.
12. Rocket League
The premise for Rocket League is just street football – but the street is a glistening stadium, the ball is giant and the footballers are actually cars that can drive up walls, double-jump and even fly thanks to their rocket thrusters. It’s all dressed in a cute sheen of bright colours and comic incredulity, a charm that helps offset its bro factor.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, that same charm is present in its EDM soundtrack, itself rooted in anthemic electro-pop, disfigured Vegas club dubstep and blissful prog house. It’s perfectly suited to Rocket League‘s constant sugar rush, and it’s nice to be welcomed to a competitive game with open arms in today’s world.
11. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Marcin Przybyłowicz, Mikolai Stroinski and Percival
(CD Projekt RED)
There were a lot of sprawling open-world games released in 2015, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has a personality that helps it transcend its otherwise generic fantasy setting. Developed in Poland, and based on a series of novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher series has always featured a strong Eastern European element, and it’’s something that’s carried over into third entry’s epic soundtrack. At times it’s more Polish folk than your average classical fantasy score, which makes the game’s mountain vistas, ocean voyages and mythical beasts all the more engrossing.
Toru Minegishi and Shiho Fujii
Someone needs to take Nintendo’s instrument sample packs for their main franchises and set them on fire. In 2015, Nintendo’s old guard saw a big slump, and their respective soundtracks have taken just as much of a hit as anything – just click this to hear one of the worst things to come out all year.
Thank you then to whoever greenlit Splatoon, the addicting shooter that stuck you in a room with three other legally safe knockoff Q*Berts and gave them guns that spray paint like a broken fire hydrant. To add to it, Splatoon delivers some of Nintendo’s cheesiest and rinkydink numbers in ages. But it works: it’s like cramming Tony Hawk 2 and Jet Set Radio onto one playlist and hitting shuffle.
9. Fallout 4
(Bethesda Game Studios)
What sets Fallout 4 apart from the litany of open world games this year is simply that its world is so damn inviting. From the eerily familiar Greater Boston locales to the creepy 50s design, there’s something about the game that sucks you in and won’t spit you out, and thankfully this time around Inon Zur’s soundscapes manage to match its sense of awe.
With Fallout 3, it was the radio stations that characterized the landscape – the crackling vintage sounds that reminded you of a bygone era, even if it was set hundreds of years in the future. Here, the radio stations pale against Zur’s rousing score (which doesn’t sound a million miles from Hans Zimmer’s Inception cues) and it maintains the tension throughout. Let’s just have a closer look in this abandoned shop before… argh! Super mutants! Why didn’t I quicksave.
8. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Ludvig Forssell, Justin Burnett and Daniel James
Deceived and left for dead, Big Boss has one thing on his mind in Metal Gear Solid V: revenge. For a series famously punctuated by moments of humour, The Phantom Pain’s story is a grim one, something reflected in Ludvig Forssell’s stony-faced and determined score. Its themes may lapse into Hollywood blockbuster territory a little too often, but at its high points the score captures the epic open-world setting with Morricone-inspired passages, and nails the chilling tone of the story’s body horror in its more atmospheric moments.
The musical climax is ‘Sins of the Father’, a Bond-inspired showstopper to rival that of ‘Snake Eater’ with lyrics that foreshadow Big Boss’s future suffering. As a way of bringing the narrative of Hideo Kojima’s 28-year saga full circle, it’s far more poignant than the game’s disappointing ending.
7. Ori and the Blind Forest
For those weaned on Disney platformers like Aladdin and The Lion King or the crisp, colourful world of Rayman, Ori and The Blind Forest is a trip back to the time when a platformer that looked like a cartoon was the height of graphical achievement. Tonally, Ori and the Blind Forest is more like a Miyazaki film than anything inspired by Disney – something that’s in no small part down to Gareth Coker’s subtle orchestral score, which brings a glimmer of light to the game’s dark, barren forest setting. Platform games are seen as lacking gravitas in the era of AAA first-person shooters and sprawling open-world environments, but Coker’s score makes Ori and The Blind Forest one of the year’s most captivating gaming experiences.
In a gaming world dogged by endless sequels (do we really need another Assassin’s Creed game? Really?), reboots and rehashes, it was refreshing to play unique indie platformer Apotheon this year. It was flawed, certainly, but its style – based around the ancient greek art – was undeniably brilliant.
A large part of the game’s success was down to a chilling set of cues from Greek composer Marios Aristopoulos, who captured both the era and the game’s unique qualities without succumbing to the usual tropes.
5. Crypt of the Necrodancer
If this had been a AAA title, it never would have made it off the white board, or even to the board room at all. Its design is a cross between a roguelike dungeon crawler and a rhythm game – keep in time with the songs, or you fail. Amazingly, you can even replace the usual gamepad with a Dance Dance Revolution controller and dance your way to victory (while pissing off your neighbors in the process).
Then there’s the soundtrack itself, a cross between Italo, lounge, and electro house that should never work. Not now, not ever. But it does, and Danny Baranowsky deserves all the credit for making this the addictive thing that it is.
4. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
(The Chinese Room)
In a world of bullet hell and stressful online multiplayer interactions, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture made it acceptable to simply slow down a little bit. Based on the quiet, quaint and deeply English science fiction worlds of John Wyndham and John Christopher, the game’s slow, dreadful silence is its core mechanic and the mood is only enhanced by Jessica Curry’s masterful score. Rich and evocative, Curry’s cues really come into their own when referencing plainsong or early English traditional music – at times it’s like being guided through the apocalypse by John Taverner, and that’s no bad thing at all.
Xenoblade Chronicles X aside, let’s talk: the JRPG had its heyday largely in the 16-bit and 32-bit era, and once the stories blew up in budget, the alien charm lost a bit of its appeal. It’s most telling that many of the best RPGs in recent years have been the ones that callback to the days of the SNES, often produced by Western developers making the most of their nostalgia, using familiar elements and pushing them in new, different directions.
That’s where the amazingly-realized Undertale comes in this year. Here’s an RPG that’s designed for you to make it through the entire game without killing something unless you absolutely have to (but you can anyway, if that’s your thing). It’s endlessly self-aware, charming, and often hilarious.
Toby Fox’s score ties it all together. The tunes are damn near flawless, leaning into your memories of the best soundtracks of the 16-bit era, and like the game they’re made for, they work for and against your expectations. The game would be nowhere near as good without them.
Ryan Amon, Tsukasa Saitoh, Yuka Kitamura, Nobuyoshi Suzuki, Cris Velasco and Michael Wandmacher
With the alluringly formidable reputation of the Souls games standing behind it, Bloodborne has proved to be a standout gaming experience in the current generation. However, the attraction reaches far beyond Bloodborne’s visceral gameplay, its Austrian-cum-late Georgian era-inspired setting woven and presented in striking detail. Themes span from Lovecraftian horror fantasy to mystery and meta-commentary on the bloodlust that drives players, but at its heart, Bloodborne is a tragedy. Thankfully the depth of the story and setting is reflected in the score, and whilst the plot holds you beyond arm’s length, the soundtrack haunts, ensnares and overwhelms much like the game’s tentacled, hostile abominations.
Simply existing in the game’s world is a dark, treacherous experience and the music doesn’t let you forget it. The quiet swirls of violins and harmonising vocals set the mood for solitary moments, whilst a deep sadness undercurrents the game’s uneasy ambiences and terrifying climaxes, complete with its own twisted lullaby. String section tremolos, bombastic battle percussion and Gregorian chants lie waiting to shock players into their next skirmish.
These sounds resonate most during the boss battles, lingering and replaying in your head long after the ordeal; when you’re spending long, consecutive periods with something named “Ebrietas, Daughter of the Cosmos”, it’s only fitting that awe and dangerous fascination are distilled from an equally grand-sounding 65-piece orchestra and a 32-strong choir. What’s surprising is that for those who’ve indulged in the thrill of the hunt, the soundtrack recalls the excitement of intense danger rather than its trauma. The compulsion to revisit is overwhelming, like a self-aware Stockholm syndrome as you willingly give yourself to the nightmare.
1. Axiom Verge
Axiom Verge’s side-scrolling homage to the labyrinthine gameplay of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was the year’s most enjoyable slab of retro gaming. Thomas Happ handled all of the art, code, game design and music, and the result is a collection of killer 16-bit themes intertwined with the game’s setting, an icky alien world filled with fleshy-looking rocks, sentient flora and vicious wildlife.
Themes like ‘The Axiom’ and ‘Otherworld’ nail the isolated, dangerous environment, while themes like ‘Trace Rising’ enhance Axiom Verge’s breathless, white-knuckle boss fights, each adding a modern twist to a well-worn sound. Most importantly though, Happ’s soundtrack proved catchier than any other this year. If you’re able to pull yourself away from Axiom Verge’s world, Happ’s earworm melodies will be sitting at the back of your mind to reel you back in.