Soundtracks are an integral part of any game – even if, like Limbo, it’s not a full-blown orchestral score. Providing atmosphere, contextual cues and heightening the drama, the right score can edge a game from being good, to being great. Everyone is aware of the iconic game soundtracks – Marty O’Donnell’s Halo wouldn’t be the same without a bunch of monks, Koji Kondo’s Zelda masterpieces are instantly memorable and Greg Edmonson’s Uncharted work sets the bar for action game music. But what of the games which were overlooked? Some feature incredibly powerful music that just hasn’t been heard by many. So, without further ado, adorn your headphones and crank the volume up as we present the best soundtracks from this generation that you may well have missed!
Kameo: Elements of Power (Steve Burke)
A launch title for the Xbox 360, Rare’s Kameo was a game long in gestation having originally begun life as a title for the Nintendo 64. Through various iterations, redesigns and graphical overhauls it offered a family-friendly tale peppered with Rare’s trademark quirkiness. One problem, however: it was fairly forgettable, especially evident now we near the end of the current console generation and nobody can remember the antagonist (Thorn) or, for that matter, the plot. The soundtrack, however, remains one of the best of this generation.
Conducted with a full orchestra – at that point quite, well, rare for Rare – Steve Burke’s score is frankly too good for the game. From the nautical-tinged pirate swagger of ‘Thorn’s Pass’ to the enchanting ‘Serenity’, the tracks on the official album present a composer in full control of his talents. Even better, extended tracks and work-in-progress medleys were later released by Rare for free totalling another hour of Kameo music! Steve went on to compose music for the rather creepy mating scenes in Viva Piñata, handily distracting us from the mechanics of piñata-on-piñata sexytimes.
Lair (John Debney)
So, it’s another case of ‘brilliant soundtrack, shame about the game.’ The involvement of Hollywood composer John Debney was widely heralded prior to the game’s release and... well, then the high-flying dragon combat game took a nosedive with the critics and the soundtrack hullabaloo along with it. Debney’s score is loud, lush and bombastic and reminiscent of the best Hollywood soundtracks. Some might even say too reminiscent. You’d be forgiven for thinking you were listening to a John Williams CD at times – take a listen to the track ‘Diviner’s Battle’ and you can hear shades of Star Wars: Episode I. ‘Civilization Theme’ could easily be mistaken for a Harry Potter tune, while the track ‘Elegy’ strongly recalls Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator work. Perhaps, though, this is why this soundtrack just works – it’s familiarity to other great soundtracks triggers some nostalgia centre in our brains and we instantly love the music. Potential similarities aside, there are some beautiful themes present in the Lair soundtrack. Seek it out.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (Oscar Araujo)
There was uproar when Lords of Shadow appeared on the scene. First of all, this was meant to be Castlevania, not God of War. Secondly, the soundtrack was unlike any other Castlevania game preceding it. Unfortunately, this meant Oscar Araujo’s amazing score was unfairly criticised in some camps. Using sweeping orchestral movements, gothic choir pieces and rolling percussion you are aware from the outset that this is a classy score. It might not resemble previous Castlevania works but a new type of game demanded a change in style. ‘Belmont’s Theme’ showcases the measured and dignified melody composed for the main character while early tracks such as ‘Besieged Village’ and ‘The Ice Titan’ are triumphant symphonies continually heightening the drama of the battle. Purists might dislike the soundtrack but it is undeniably a powerful score that deserves recognition.
GUN (Christopher Lennertz)
Technically current-generation given that the port was a launch title, GUN’s cliché drenched soundtrack is a masterpiece in evoking a specific genre – namely the Western. Unlike Red Dead Redemption’s Morricone-esque music replete with twangy guitars and moody beats, Christopher Lennertz instead chose to blend these instruments with full orchestral recordings. When you’re riding down the dusty plains and a brass ensemble rings out the noble theme you’ll understand why this choice was right. At times similar in style to Greg Edmonson’s work on the television show Firefly, Lennertz is able to keep the human drama tethered with the rustic sound of guitar and harmonica. Larger scale orchestral pieces – often featuring a melody for lone trumpet – bring to mind the genre staples of frontier life under threat from Native Americans, all against a backdrop of a lingering Civil War. Blending the frontier, Native American and orchestra styles creates an accurate depiction of life in the West and its hectic clash of cultures.
Bastion (Darren Korb)
Released in exceptionally limited physical copies, the Bastion soundtrack could still be considered one of the more prominent scores recognised by the industry and fans alike. Darren Korb combines acoustic guitar, eclectic drumbeats and strings and the result is a truly unique musical sound. This sound perfectly befits the game itself and it’s reliance on the unknown. Your character remembers nothing and there are only clues scattered around the post-apocalyptic world in which you wake. The soundtrack enhances this sense of the new – again using the acoustic guitar to play on ideas of a frontier life. Perhaps the standout tracks are the songs assigned to characters in the game. These tracks, featuring vocals by Korb and Ashley Barrett, are perfect. Barrett’s haunting vocals in ‘Build That Wall’ remain one of the most memorable moments in this gaming generation. These songs combine to great effect in the credits song ‘Setting Sail, Coming Home’, referencing the game’s story and characters in one while providing a resounding conclusion to the experience.
Alan Wake (Petri Alanko and Various Artists)
The melodramatic strings, mournful melodies and oppressive ambience – it can only be the soundtrack to Alan Wake! Petri Alanko’s score, much like the game itself, would not seem out of place in a Stephen King adaptation. The lack of any strong main themes is appropriate – the score feels more like a television soundtrack than a big-budget Hollywood movie. Of course, Alan Wake divides its levels into ‘episodes’ so this approach works especially well. Listen to ‘Welcome to Bright Falls’ or ‘Departure’ for the full power of Alanko’s subtle yet haunting music. In addition, the requisite Poets of the Fall song ‘The Poet and the Muse’ (attributed to the fictional Old Gods of Asgard, a band in the game) repeats the same trick as with their song ‘Late Goodbye’ for Max Payne 2. Referencing the story of the game through song would normally seem a little tacky but the song is so good – bringing to mind Led Zeppelin tinged folk – that it can be forgiven. Not to mention the fact the soundtrack also includes gems from Roy Orbison and David Bowie amongst others!
Mirror’s Edge (Solar Fields)
Mirror’s Edge was an ambitious and unique experience and, unsurprisingly, has a soundtrack to match. Calling on the sonic ambience of the artist Magnus Birgersson (also known as Solar Fields) the soundtrack alternates between chilled electronica to adrenaline-pumping dubstep. In a gaming landscape dominated by orchestral soundtracks it came across as truly original. The crowning achievement is the fantastic ‘Still Alive’ sung by Lisa Miskovsky. Instantly catchy and put to perfect use in trailers for the game it’s one of the few original songs that defines a game but could still be a contender in the pop charts. Should the Mirror’s Edge soundtrack strike a chord with you, check out more albums by Solar Fields.
Portal 2 (Mike Morasky)
The Portal 2 soundtrack may not have the catchy melodies or hummable ditties of other games but it does have one quality that sets it apart from the crowd: procedurally generated music. Rather than compose looped music to play while you traverse the Aperture Science test chambers, Morasky instead assigned various items (aerial faithplates, moving platforms, lasers) with individual sounds. Complete a puzzle in the right way and these sounds combine to form a pleasing sound – a reward for being correct! It’s all very ambient and very measured – unintrusive music so as not to annoy during moments of thought. That’s not to say there aren’t jarring sounds – later pieces sound like a chiptune kit going wrong. It all fits with the game aesthetic though, creating a pervasive feeling of artificiality. On top of this, Jonathan Coulton contributes another outstanding end credits song as well as an opera piece. Valve, outstripping the industry in terms of fan service, graciously made the soundtrack available for download in its entirety. Check it out at http://www.thinkwithportals.com/music.php.
Xenoblade Chronicles (Yoko Shimomura et al.)
From the outset the soundtrack to Xenoblade Chronicles is recognisably Japanese. There’s a certain sound to Japanese RPG soundtracks – intricate, intimate piano verses, rousing battle music – but that lends it a charm of its own. Spanning 4 discs, the Xenoblade score is by no means consigned to a dusty corner but, with North America still to sample its brilliance, the soundtrack is relatively unknown for the time being. What they will soon discover is that the soundtrack is delightful – charming, peaceful tracks like ‘Daily Life’ contrast with the unreal, dissonant ‘Aegir’. Although there are MIDI-esque tracks due to the constraints of the Wii, a large portion of the soundtrack is full orchestra. On a console that also bears the Zelda franchise any other RPG could find itself outshadowed. Luckily, Shimomura and team shine with the sheer breadth of style and talent on show.
Prince of Persia (2008)
Inon Zur is no stranger to game soundtracks having composed for many including Crysis, Fallout and Dragon Age. His score for the 2008 cel-shaded Prince of Persia ranks as one his best, encompassing ethnic instruments with a more traditional cinematic style. Yes, it sounds like Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, there happens to be a moody track that sounds like the Aladdin soundtrack. Given the source material what else would you expect? For a game that was criminally neglected for being ‘too easy’, Ubisoft’s beautiful Prince of Persia reboot sank into obscurity. The soundtrack was never released, physically or digitally, despite being one of the best of that year. The recent Uncharted 3 soundtrack is equally as epic (and indebted to Maurice Jarre) but Prince of Persia was first.