End of Days (John Debney)

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Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Peter Hyams were fighting the notion that their best days were behind them by 1999. Schwarzenegger, the king of 80s action, was in the middle of a rut that had begun with Last Action Hero in 1993 and many of his subsequent films from Eraser to Batman and Robin had underperformed with audiences and critics. Hyams had a minor hit with 1997’s The Relic, but nothing to compare to his salad days of Capricorn One and Outland. End of Days was not the panacea either man was looking for; a millenarian horror/action film about Schwarzenegger’s burnt-out bodyguard attempting to keep the fated mother of Satan’s child away from Old Scratch, it was a financial disappointment (Schwarzenegger’s reported $25 million paycheck probably didn’t help) and was critically savaged.

Hyams had worked with a number of composers throughout his lengthy career, including Jerry Goldsmith, David Shire, and Mark Isham. For End of Days, though, he chose to extend his partnership with composer John Debney, who had scored his previous two films, Sudden Death and the aforementioned The Relic. Debney had found a steady stream of high-profile work since beginning his scoring career in earnest in the early 1990s, and 1999 saw him tackle no less than six movies, with End of Days sitting opposite The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland in his filmography for that year. In many ways, End of Days was a good for for Debney; a devout Christian himself, the composer tackled the film’s music for the sacred and the profane with an orchestra, choir, and array of synthesizers and voice samples.

The primary motifs that Debney works with are based around the human voice. One is an eerie child soprano intoning “Agnus Dei” (“lamb of God” in Latin) which drifts in and out of the film’s soundscape; another is the deep and unmistakable tones of Tuvan throat singers, whose unsettling performances underscore the film’s most disturbing moments. Debney complements both with samples from Spectrasonics’ “Symphony Of Voices” and other more industrial synths for the film’s lengthy suspense and pursuit cues, while leaving the full might of the orchestra and the expected bombast for heaven and hell for key moments.

Debney’s approach yields some impressive highlights, most notably in the starkly horrifying “Main Title” and the film’s action-adventure centerpiece, “Subway Attack and Escape.” The scoring for the film’s denouement, “Redemption” and “The Eternal Struggle,” is lovely as well, employing every tool in the composer’s chosen arsenal as the choral and tonal elements of the score battle it out with synths and industrial tones. For much of the album, though, the latter ambient elements, with the child soprano and Tuvan throat singers throughout, predominates. And while this more ambient material deftly reinforces the film’s sense of oppressive millenarian darkness, it can be a very difficult listen away from the film. A very poor remix of Debney’s music tacked on at the end certainly does the album no favors, either.

One certainly can’t deny Debney’s creativity, the highlights of his work, or the sincerety with which it was assembled, but End of Days winds up working somewhat better in the film, flawed as said film may be, than on its own. As was the case for most of the 1990s, a “music from and inspired by” compilation of unpleasant rock songs barely heard in the movie was given a wide release first, followed by Debney’s much rarer 40-minute score-only product from Varèse Sarabande a month later. It’s worth seeking out for a distinctly different take on movie spirituality than Debney would later use in The Passion of the Christ and The Stoning of Soraya M., but expect a challenging and mostly textual listen with occasional highlights.

Rating: starstarstar

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Skies of Arcadia (Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda)

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When Sega launched its Dreamcast console in 1999, it had a difficult time attracting third-party software manufacturers, who had been stung by the company’s introduction and then rapid abandonment of products like the 32X, Sega CD, and the Saturn. Taking a page from rival Nintendo, Sega sought to fill the gap through in-house development; their effort on the RPG front was Skies of Arcadia (Eternal Arcadia in Japan). While its story was the usual JRPG boilerplate of evil empires, mysterious princesses, and six collectable Macguffins, Skies of Arcadia impressed audiences with its innovative visual design and mechanics. A steampunk world of floating continents, the occasional airship-on-airship smackdown, racing to discover unknown lands, and other novel accoutrements helped players overlook the kitten-weak narrative, and the game was even able to survive Sega’s introduction and then rapid abandonment of the Dreamcast itself (with a port, Skies of Arcadia: Legends, later appearing on the Gamecube).
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For music, Sega tapped employees Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda. Maeda was a longtime Sega veteran with a resume for music stretching back to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and even more extensive work in sound effects. Minobe was a relative newcomer, with sound effects experience back to 1996 but only one or two compositional assignments under his belt. Despite this, it was Minobe who took the lead on the project, working closely with the game’s developer on music that would change based on player input and experimenting with his MIDI keyboard to develop the game’s themes. While the majority of the game’s music was synthesized, yielding a pleasing sound quality at about the level of late PS1-era or early PS2-era titles, Sega also sprung for an orchestral recording by Torakichi Takagi of the first two and final two tracks on the album.

Minobe, a self-taught musician, wound up writing 42 of the 67 album tracks, including all the music that features Skies of Arcadia‘s main theme. That theme, a bright brassy march, is first played by a full orchestra in “Opening Theme” and taken up by synths in “Blue Pirates’ Ship” and elsewhere. It’s a terrific theme, and Minobe gets a lot of mileage out of it, even mixing what sound like fragments of the idea into tracks like “Vyse’s Theme.” That song is typical of the instrumental creativity that the composer brings to much of his work, mixing optimistic orchestral synths with electric and bass guitar in the sort of classical/pop fusion Nobuo Uematsu preferred in many of his earlier works. There’s plenty of diversity as well, with Minobe handling a gentle love theme (“Fina’s Theme”), exotic world world music (“Kingdom Of Nasrad,” “Eastern Air Pirates”), and outright silliness (“Gag”) with tuneful aplomb.

Maeda, who played the electric organ before turning to game music, handled the remaining 25 album tracks, and to their credit the two men do a good job of merging their styles. Maeda doesn’t use Minobe’s main theme, and in general his music is more straightforward, with fewer embellishments and a greater reliance on bass guitar and synth keyboarding, though much of that is as a consequence of writing more of the straitlaced music for villains, humorless characters, and dire locations. His more direct approach certainly doesn’t preclude memorable melodies, though, with the lion’s share of the game’s character themes (“Gilder’s Theme,” “Drachma’s Theme”) and some bright incidental tunes (“Black Pirates’ Theme”) to his credit. If his more dour music for villains (“Galcian’s Theme,” “Imperial Theme”) isn’t always as engaging as Minobe’s material, Maeda does have the chance to compose some quirkier and more creative material (“Air Pirates Secret Base”). His “Great Silver Temple,” an off-kilter music box tune that evolves into a sinister and twisted waltz, is perhaps the best example of the latter and the best dungeon theme on the album as well of one of the highlights overall.

However, Skies of Arcadia badly needed a Final Fantasy style deluxe multi-disc release and wound up shortchanged for it, with some simply unforgivable album production decisions in its release. None of the tracks loop properly, and many abruptly cut off before completing even a single loop; to make matters worse, much of Minobe and Maeda’s music has relatively long loops. For instance, “Ramirez’s Theme,” the motif for the main villain, completely cuts off after just a few seconds of a rambling, jazzy piano part that dominates the track in-game, truncating to 1:52 a track that requires at least 3:00 to complete a single loop. A few tracks were left off completely, though admittedly not any essential ones, and others were combined into suites: the world and battle themes change in-game based on the player’s location and health, respectively, and the album awkwardly crossfades together up to six single-loop variations of the world theme. It strings together the three battle states (Normal, Crisis, and Opportunity) in a similar way–almost completely quashing the magnificent Opportunity versions in the process. Worse, the tracks were remastered for the album, giving them richer reverb and a wetter audio mix, so there is no way to manually loop many of the short CD versions (which cut off before the loop point) in an audio editor, and going to the original audio files as encoded for the Dreamcast and Gamecube results in the loss of Wataru Ishii’s digital mastering.

At the time of Skies of Arcadia‘s Japanese release, the aforementioned 2-disc truncated release was pressed alongside several “drama CDs” mixing re-recorded dialog and music. Due to the hasty demise of the Dreamcast, limited numbers were made and the disc has since fallen badly out of print. Bootlegs from EverAnime and SonMay popped up to fill demand, but even they are rather hard to come by anymore, leaving anyone wanting a legitimate copy in for a long and expensive search with a very high chance of getting a counterfeit instead of an actual retail product, though a digital download in two volumes is available from Amazon and iTunes. The scarcity of the genuine product, combined with the dreadful album production, make Skies of Arcadia a strong contender for one of the most frustrating video game albums of all time. Yet for all that Minobe and Maeda produced an extremely strong, tuneful, and innovative work equal to anything by Uematsu or any Japanese VGM superstar one cares to name. Even in its current, frustrating form, the music merits a strong recommendation. Minobe and Maeda still work with Sega often, but in their years of composition and sound effects design since, neither has come close to topping their efforts on Skies of Arcadia.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Paper Mario (Yuka Tsujiyoko)

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Super Mario RPG had been a late-life hit for the Super Nintendo. It had combined Nintendo’s trademark characters in a light role-playing adventure that mixed in new characters and an element of timed button presses courtesy of the RPG specialists at Squaresoft (of Final Fantasy fame). A sequel seemed like a no-brainer…until the Nintendo 64 console arrived and Squaresoft jumped ship to the rival Sony Playstation, throwing the in-development Super Mario RPG 2 into doubt. Not only could Nintendo, who had handed off development to subsidiary Intelligent Systems, no longer use any of the original characters Square had helped develop, but the N64 lacked the processing power to render the vast new game in full 3D. Intelligent Systems took the creative route of revisualizing the game in a papercraft world, turning the N64’s weakness into a strength, and the game (renamed Mario Story in Japan and Paper Mario elsewhere) turned out to be an engaging and surprisingly deep RPG adventure like its predecessor, frequently cited as one of the best games on the platform.

Yoko Shimomura had written the best score of her career thus far for Super Mario RPG, but as a full Squaresoft employee at the time, there was no chance of her return. Instead, Intelligent Systems handed the assignment to one of its staff composers, Yuka Tsujiyoko, whose primary work before then had been for the Fire Emblem series of hardcore tactical RPGs. In many ways, Tsujiyoko came from a similar place as Shimomura: extensive experience with generally dead-serious RPGs thrust into the role of writing a lighthearted and jokey score with full license to use the iconic Mario themes penned by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo.

Tsujiyoko incorporated far more of Kondo’s themes into her work than Shimomura had; Paper Mario is in fact suffused with classic Mario tunes from the NES and SNES generations, some openly, others so subtly that one might miss it on first listen. She also began the score with a very light touch before gradually moving into more straightlaced and even occasionally even downright serious music before ending with a parade scene that served as a sonic recapitulation of the music that had gone before. One can’t deny that the resulting score feels every inch a Mario score, and a Mario RPG score at that.

However, Tsujiyoko’s music suffers throughout from an extremely thin presentation. Large sections of the music are only one or two musical lines, sounding very stark and isolated even as they try to be quirky and fun. She’s also not able to make a significant impact with original thematic material; the music tends to shine its brightest when Tsujiyoko is referencing Kondo’s classic tunes. When Tsujiyoko’s own original compositions take center stage, they generally feel like too little musical butter scraped over too much musical toast.

Part of this is, of course, not Tsujiyoko’s fault. The N64 was theoretically capable of playing a variety of music formats: PCM, MIDI, even MPEG, with a theoretical maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. But with the space on the Paper Mario cartridge limited to just 20 megabytes, sound quality was the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of more game data, leaving Tsujiyoko and her synthesizer performer/sequencer “vAin” to struggle with some of the lowest-grade synth on the N64. This is both one source of and an aggravating factor for the aforementioned tinniness and thinness that is the major hallmark of N64 music and Paper Mario. At times, the sound seems less lush and well-synthesized than that of the SNES–while the older console had less raw capability, its SPC700 chip allowed music to be stored in only 64 kilobytes, preventing the kind of pilfering of resources and marginalization on the N64 despite even greater space limits.

That’s not to say that, whether due to lackluster composition or technical issues, that Tsujiyoko’s music for Paper Mario is a total loss. The lovely music box “Mario and Peach’s Theme” opens and closes the game with synthy fairytale charm, for instance. The late-game sequence including “Crystal Palace Crawl,” the battle theme “Freeze!” and the lovely group of tracks from “A City in the Stars” to “Sanctuary!” are all able to make the best of technical limitations and show some of Tsujiyoko’s compositional chops; it’s not hard to get the impression that she struggled somewhat with lighthearted music but is more in her comfort zone with relatively serious music in the Fire Emblem vein.

Ultimately, whatever the reason, Paper Mario is probably the weakest Mario RPG soundtrack. It is also, perversely, the only game in the Paper Mario series to have a soundtrack: a two-disc set was put out in Japan alongside an incredibly rare American release with identical contents that was available by special order from Nintendo Power. Neither set includes all the music in the game, both suffer from failing to properly loop the music they do present, and both have become sought-after collector’s items in their own right (much like the game they represent). As for Tsujiyoko herself, she would return with fellow Fire Emblem composer Yoshito Hirano to pen Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube; that score, free from the constraints of the N64, is far superior and as yet unreleased. The first and only available Paper Mario score, on the other hand, will probably only be of interest to dedicated collectors and diehard fans of the game.

Rating: starstar

Game Music Bundle 8 (Various Artists)

Cover The fine folks at the Game Music Bundle have once again unleashed a cornucopia of video game albums for fans’ auditory pleasure. Often penned by new, up-and-coming composers eager to make their way in the industry, the tunes mostly come from indie games outside the scope of the contemporary industry. Fittingly, the Game Music Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers outside the scope of the contemporary music industry! Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier of albums, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a minimum suggested donation of, appropriately, $13.37. These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited, and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again! This particular Game Music Bundle is now available! Go here to purchase!

$1 Minimum Albums

Gods Will Be Watching Original Soundtrack (fingerspit) A self-described “point and click thriller centered on despair,” GWBW is a crowdfunded survival resource management game with a deliberately late-1980s Sierra adventure game aesthetic. True to that design, the music is often dour and desolate with electronic pulses and beats to provide momentum; it often feels like an attempt to evoke the overall sound of that era in gaming history without the drawback of wonky MIDI and a thousand different sound cards. Some of the music is a little too textual and unpleasantly downbeat to appreciate outside of the game, particularly the lengthy “20 Days Of Empty Words” and “Legend,” but more melodic tracks like “Everdusk Headquarters,” “Human Experimentation,” “Farewell,” and “Nemesis” help make up for this (the synth voices in “Nemesis” in particular are a nice touch). Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake (Disasterpeace) A tile-based exploration-based puzzler for mobile devices, MAMBC is self-consciously cutesy and sugary. Disasterpeace, probably most familar to gamers from 2012”s FEZ, dedicates the album to Nintendo maestro Koji Kondo, and indeed the music is very much in the style of Kondo’s earliest 1990s music for the SNES. This is a double-edged sword; it means capturing both the retro charm and the undeniably “thin” sound that the SPC700 exhibited in its earliest days before it was fully mastered by later titles. As a result, while the music has plenty of cutesy melody (and even a few more troubled songs like “Legend of the Shiversnap”), the thinness of its excellent approximation of very early SNES games keeps it from having the in-your-face retro aesthetic of 8 bit or the lush SPC700 grandeur of later SNES music. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately The Sailor’s Dream Original Soundtrack (Jonathan Eng) Less of a game than an interactive narrative based around exploration, Swedish developer Simogo’s iOS TSD has received favorable notices for its unconventional storytelling and relaxed presentation. Composer Jonathan Eng traveled to Mölle with the designers to inspire the nautical feeling of the game, and the music uses many of the instruments that mariners would have: whistling, plucked-string instruments, concertina, and the human voice (occasionally supplemented by things like a piano which would have been unlikely to be found shipboard). The overall result is a very warm and melodic sound with a seafaring lilt and a deep vein of sadness and longing, without falling too deeply into the trap of using nothing but sea shanties and stereotypes. Seven songs, each named for a day of the week and crucial to the game’s plot in mysterious ways, are sung by Stephanie Hladowski; her delivery adds another layer of melodic melancholy to the work, and the songs are as much a highlight as the instrumental pieces–a rare feat. Highly recommended. Rating: * * * * * Purchase Separately Super Time Force Original Soundtrack (6955) Another deliberately retro throwback to late 1980s and early 1990s PC games, STF is a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek, platform shooter with an innovative time-rewinding mechanic that debuted to good notices on the Xbone and PC in 2014. Canadian composer 6955 was charged with producing a high-energy retro soundtrack to match the game’s high-energy retro visuals, responding with an effort that seems straight out of the early 1990s tracker demoscene with strong electronic beats and plenty of bleeps and bloops. While it nails the aesthetic and the rhythm requirements for its game, there’s not much melody to be had among the loops. As such, it doesn’t function terribly well away from its parent game and is probably best experienced inside of it. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Zombies/Corporate Lifestyle Simulator OST (bignic) The third of three deliberately retro-80s indie games in the $1 minimum albums (hmm, could faux late-80s aesthetics be a trend?) ZCIS is an isometric actioner in which an office drone slaughters zombies using improvised weapons. Composer bignic takes a very modern approach to the music, combining his retro electronics with a fragmented soundscape and the occasional vocal and dubstep effects that seem fresh off a contemporary dance floor. In its better moments (“Children of Dune”) it’s a refreshing approach, but at times (“Modern”) it shades too close to the nightmare that is contemporary pop music to be comfortable to anyone who’s not a fan of the latter. It’s probably best to listen to the samples on Bandcamp first; the music is likely astonishing to people who dig its style but much more of a series of highlights to those who don’t. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately

$10 Minimum Albums

Dreamfall Chapters Reborn – Original Soundtrack (Simon Poole) The first two Dreamfall titles are beloved by adventure game fans, and interest was eventually strong enough to lead to a new episodic game series to continue the story of characters trapped between two worlds in the Telltale mold. The first game was scored by Bjørn Arve Lagim and the second primarily by Leon Willett, but Chapters composer Simon Poole wrote additional music for the title as well. The most heartening thing for longtime series fans will be the return of several themes from Dreamfall, remixed and adapted by Poole from Willett’s originals: “Return to the Hospital Room” takes the vocal melody of the original and turns it to piano, for example, surrounding it with soft ethereal effects and electronics, gradually building in intensity to become a near-action track. The overall sound of the album follows that pattern: pianos, the occasional vocals (“Prologue”), and electronic manipulation; it can best be described as a combination of Willett’s approach to the second game combined with Poole’s own harsher efforts for the same title. It may not be quite up to the standards of its direct predecessor, but is nevertheless a worthy effort in its own right. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Freedom Planet Official Soundtrack (Woofle and Strife feat. BlueWarrior and Dawn) Once a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game, the makers of FP eventually decided to file the serial numbers off and use a cast of original characters (perhaps due to the legendary lack of quality in recent Sonic games); a similar style of speed-based platforming and combat to the early 1990s Sonic titles remained, though, and led to some positive feedback from the community. The team of composers recruited to score the game responded with music that very much captures the Sonic zeitgeist: lively, melodic, and slightly retro. With a whopping 71 tracks, there are relatively few duds, with just a few naff vocal tracks and one bizarre, if short, bit of dialogue to distract from the pleasant tunes. Recommended. Rating: * * * * * Purchase Separately FTL: Advanced Edition Soundtrack (Ben Prunty) The sci-fi roguelike game FTL needs little introduction for indie game fans; its brutal difficulty, randomly generated content, and comparatively hard science have made a huge impact in the genre. Its “Advanced Edition” expansion dropped in 2014 with a wealth of new content, including a new game area co-created by Chris Avellone, necessitating fresh music from original composer Ben Prunty. Like his original score for FTL, the Advanced Edition is an ambient synthetic soundscape, not melodic but very atmospheric and with a heavy influence from 1980s sci-fi scores like Blade Runner and Dune, similar to the original Mass Effect in many ways. The lack of melody for the most part makes the music in the expansion, like the music in the original, best experienced in the game itself, though the delightful faux 8-bit bonus track “Colony” is a highlight. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Gods Will Be Watching Alternative Soundtrack (fingerspit) This “alternative soundtrack” for GWBW consists of unlockable background music for the game’s second chapter. It’s very much in the same style as the main soundtrack, but with much beefier track times, making it a bit more of a slog. Enthusiasts of the game or the composer’s sound will enjoy more of the same, though it works better as a supplement than as a stand-alone listen. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Hack ‘n’ Slash: Original Soundtrack (Paul O’Rourke) Double Fine Productions is best-known for its founder, designer Tim Schafer of Lucasarts fame, but it has also been a hotbed of game innovation with its regular “Amnesia Fortnight” game bashes. HNS, a Legend of Zelda-inspired game with a strong puzzle element, was one of the games developed at the 2012 bash, and it was eventually made into a full-fledged retail title with a score by Paul O’Rourke. O’Rourke doesn’t attempt to imitate Koji Kondo’s Zelda style or the various 8-bit, 16-bit, or 64-bit incarnations thereof, instead opting for a perky, electronic approach more reminiscent of Jake Kaufman. The best tracks have a bouncy melodic energy enhanced with electronics, though significant parts of the album are unable to keep up the melodic strength and suffer somewhat for it. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Halfway Original Soundtrack (Gavin Harrison) Another deliberately pixel-retro offering, Halfway is a sci-fi tactical combat game with the look and feel of a mid-to-late SNES-era Japanese RPG. The music by Gavin Harrison doesn’t attempt to evoke the retro style but rather occupies a more textural, ambient, and tracker-esque space. Aside from a few tracks, (like the opening with some lovely synth voices and the closing with a heartfelt violin solo) the game’s field music is electronic ambiance while its battle music is more lively tracker-inspired loops with a hint of Vangelis. Melody is at a premium, with texture being the overriding concern, and as such it probably is best experienced in-game or by aficionados of electronic textures. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Immerse (Lifeformed) Immerse is unusual in that it’s not a game score per se but rather a score for a documentary about the making of a game–in this case, the making of Double Fine’s Broken Age, the soundtrack of which was features in Game Music Bundle 7. Lifeformed makes music that sounds absolutely nothing like the game’s actual score by Double Fine’s Peter McConnell; while the latter was almost entirely live music by ensembles in Melbourne and San Francisco, Lifeformed creates an entirely synthetic sound with a heavily electronic, at times almost 8-bit sensibility. The album is essentially a series of extended electronic and synth grooves with a sound that’s more Minecraft than Broken Age; the music is tonal but melody takes a definite backseat to the grooves. Not a bad rainy day listen, and depending on your preferences you may appreciate it more than the music Broken Age actually got. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Izakaya Ōmen ~MINI~ (Maxo) Izakaya Ōmen bills itself as a horrific deconstruction of a Cooking Mama-style cooking game, with a chef’s disembodied spirit forced to experiment with bizarre ingredients to prepare dishes for a variety of supernatural gourmets. As a work-in-progress for a capstone seminar in game design, the game has a very brief soundtrack of just three tracks in a deliberately retro 8-bit style (a style it shares with the game and seemingly 2/3 of all recent indie game releases). The music is a spot-on match, aurally, to a NES or original Game Boy, though the music isn’t as optimized for the platform as something like Koji Kondo or Hip Tanaka might have produced in their heyday. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Lovely Planet Original Soundtrack (Calum Bowen) Among all the indie games straining for a retro look these days, most seem to have their sights set on the blocky aesthetics of the late 80s and early 90s–not incidentally a time when most of today’s developers were game-playing tots themselves. Few if any games seem to aim for the Playstation 1/N64 era of blocky untextured 3D, but the surreal first-person shooter Lovely Planet does just that. Calum Bowen’s score is bright and melodic, sounding like a bouncy Japanese platformer from the Playstation 1 era. There are a few places where the music skirts close enough to straight-up Japanese classical music that people who don’t care for that style may be put off, but overall it’s a fun little musical journey. A bonus track, remixed by Maxo of Izakaya Ōmen, is more the latter than the former. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Majestic Nights Volume One: All Lies on you Original Game Soundtrack (Das Fokks) MNM postulates an alternate, neon, out-of-control 1980s rife with conspiracies, aliens, and other strange goings-on. Accordingly, its brief soundtrack by Das Fokks is highly, highly 1980s itself: a cocktail of electronic dance music from the decade mixed with synthesized bleeps and bloops common to video games as well as music in that era. It gets major points for capturing the era’s style, but the music’s aggressive energy can be wearying, and it doesn’t have much in the way of melody to latch onto beyond the glittering 1980s sheen. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Monarch: Heroes of a New Age Original Soundtrack (Goomin Nam) MHOANA is an massively multiplayer online RPG from MMORPG-hungry South Korea, available since 2012 in its home country, that focuses on medieval investment and siege warfare moreso than the standard looting and questing of typical games in the genre. Countryman Goomin Nam, a veteran of similar South Korean projects like TalesWeaver, composed the soundtrack for a partly live ensemble of strings, woodwinds, and guitar backed up by synthesizers. It’s clear that the composer and developer were angling for a massive Uematsu-esque fusion of quirky contemporary elements with orchestral grandeur, and for the most part it succeeds–though not nearly as well as Uematsu himself in his classic scores, naturally. The most interesting thing about the album is its distinct Latin flair in orchestration and arrangement. The solo guitar in particular makes the score seem at times positively Iberian, and in combination with some of the more unusual elements is enough to earn it a firm recommendation. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately The Novelist: Official Soundtrack (Kent Hudson) The Novelist posits the player as a spirit affecting the decisions of a vacationing and deeply unhappy family, with the power to influence them toward happiness or despair, often inadvertently; it was widely acclaimed on release. Composer Kent Hudson responds to the game’s simple yet intimate story with a score that is played entirely on solo piano in an airy, impressionistic, and ambient mode. For piano fans and those with a need for quiet contemplation, the music works wonderfully; those who aren’t predisposed toward the instrument will likely be bored out of their skulls. It definitely sets itself apart from the other GMB8 albums that value texture over melody, though, in its quietude. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Spell Team Death Match OST (bignic) STDM actually hasn’t been released yet–developer Piñata Games has been working on the 2D pixel art shooter for at least a year (even acknowledging the current pixel art market saturation in their design docs), but in the brave new world of digital distribution and prototyping, it’s not unusual for games to be released after their soundtracks–and indeed, Bandcamp is littered with the soundtracks of games that never came to be. Composer bignic uses an approach very similar to that from his ZCLS: harsh if creative retro electronics, and an emphasis on catchy, fragmented grooves over straightforward melody. The short soundtrack lacks ZCLS‘s highs but also its lows, making it an admirable companion piece. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Wanderlust Adventures (Chris Christodoulou) A retro-styled pixel art (sigh) MMORPG with a look and feel intended to evoke SNES JRPGs of bygone times, WA is actually the second game in an ongoing series. Greek composer Chris Christodoulou scored the game with a self-described “mixed bag of orchestral, electronic, ambient and rock music,” which could not be more accurate. The music’s entirely synthesizes save for a guitar solo but has a terrific clarity with plenty of great melody, and at times reminds one of the best parts of Jeremy Soule’s Secret of Evermore. The quirkier tracks in particular are a delight–especially the duo of “Fantasia No. 1” and “Wanderlust,” perhaps the dual highlights of the entire bundle. Only the few very sparse and harshly minimalistic tracks keep the album from the highest rating, but it still comes with a recommendation. Note: As of this writing, there is an issue with this album as downloaded from Loudr which causes three tracks–including, unfortunately, “Fantasia No. 1” and “Wanderlust,” to be truncated. Loudr has been notified of the issue and will presumably reissue a corrected file shortly. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately

Flower (Vincent Diamante)

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It might seem rather quaint, in an age of multimillion dollar blockbuster video game titles with Hollywood production values, to produce a retail game with no dialogue, no human or animal characters, and a story that is completely about tone rather than narrative. But that’s just what Thatgamecompany did in 2009 with Flower, the follow-up to their first retail title Flow. Structured as the dream of a flower in an urban pot, Flower entranced critics and Playstation 3 players alike with its colorful worlds and simple use of motion controls, becoming a surprise hit and one of the PS3’s more compelling exclusives.

For Flow, Thatgamecompany had contracted outside composer Austin Wintory to provide a meditative, choral-tinged score, and they would return to Wintory for their follow-up, Journey. But for Flower, which was a clear spiritual successor to Cloud, Thatgamecompany audio director and composer Vincent Diamante returned to scoring for the project. A member of the original seven-student USC development team that had produced Cloud, Diamante had produced an appropriately airy and stunningly realized score for that title on a shoestring budget. Flower would allow a much broader canvas, with Diamante’s music procedurally recombined during gameplay in a way that integrated music an images to an unprecedented extent.

As with Cloud, the music of Flower is entirely synthesized in Cakewalk Sonar, Miroslav Mini, and Synful, but the sample libraries that Diamante had built up once again meant that the sound had incredible clarity for a synthesized orchestra. The synthesized nature of the score also allowed Diamante to play with instrument dynamics; while elements like pianos, strings, and acoustic guitars are in their natural range, a significant portion of the music involves instruments like bass flutes and bassoons pushed to higher registers in what Diamante described as a process akin to the earthbound flowers taking flight.

There is a main melody in the score, a short and lilting idea that’s a close cousin to the theme from Cloud, if somewhat more deconstructed and subtle. It’s featured in hints on piano at its first expression in “Life As A Flower,” in woodwinds in “Splash of Color,” and and finally merging both woodwind and piano performances with full orchestral accompaniment in “Sailing on the Wind.” Diamante’s theme is given its most extensive workout in the bright “Purification of the City,” the album’s highlight and longest track, where it weaves in and out of the song, passing from instrument to instrument in the orchestral mix.

Mirroring the development of the Flower theme, the songs on the album take a sonic journey from the more minimalist and new age sections, where the music is pared down to a guitar and small ensemble, to the album’s highlights which feature a much fuller sound. This means that at times the mix is at times somewhat thinner than Cloud. Part of the album’s progression does lead into greyer territory, though. The lengthy “Solitary Wasteland” track is rather desolate and minimalist even in comparison to the other tracks, and its minor-key mode and great length (11 minutes) make it stand out somewhat, especially coming between the pared-down “Nighttime Excursion” and the joyous “Purification.” It’s also worth noting that the meaty length of Flower‘s tracks, of which five are over seven minutes long and two are over ten minutes apiece, may serve to exacerbate the album’s weaknesses for some listeners.

Flower‘s close fusion of music and gameplay led to immediate calls for a soundtrack, but the music’s conception as being procedurally generated layers and instruments made the process more difficult than it might otherwise have been. An 8-track digital score was eventually released in 2010, but like the game itself it was a Playstation Network exclusive, meaning that non-console-owners had no recourse for purchase. This was eventually remedied by La-La Land in 2014 with the release of a limited-edition CD soundtrack containing two tracks not on the initial release. Flower winds up being somewhat less accessible than Cloud due to its more subtle use of its overall theme and its much lengthier tracks, but lovers of simple and colorful video game music will nevertheless find much to appreciate, and fans of Cloud will be delighted to hear more music from the same sonic world.

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