Best Game Soundtracks May 2017

As the days get hotter, chill out to some refreshing new game sounds.

Greetings, friends! I appear before you once more at the end of the month, having collected a bounty of fabulous new soundtracks to lay at your feet. Come, browse my wares! Can I interest you in some ambient electronica? Some crunchy chiptune beats? Some swelling orchestral tunes? Whatever your fancy, May has provided.

I don’t know how it escaped my notice last month, but Jake Kaufman released the soundtrack to Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment, and like all of Kaufman’s stuff, it’s exceptional. The original Shovel Knight had one of the best soundtracks of 2014, and the all-new tracks for this expansion (which is available as a stand-alone game) offer the same compelling flavor: Kaufman’s style blends the best of the NES classics, taking cues from Mega Man and Castlevania and melding them with his own sensibilities to create something unique and special.

Listen/Buy: Bandcamp

Also released last month was Little Nightmares, a horror-platformer from Tarsier Studios. While it seems as though the horror bits are more effective than the platformer bits, the game has seen mostly positive reception--if you’re a fan of the creeping dread of games like Limbo, maybe this one will be up your alley. The game’s score, by Tobias Lilja, is definitely unsettling in the way the best horror scores manage--probably not something you’d want to spin up at a party, but maybe one to keep in your back pocket for mood music come Halloween?

Listen: YouTube  Buy: PSN - Steam DLC

The last holdover from April is What Remains of Edith Finch, the surreal and mournful narrative adventure from dev house Giant Sparrow. As someone who was thoroughly charmed by The Unfinished Swan, I’m looking forward to sitting down with Edith Finch some time this year when the torrent of must-play games finally begins to subside. (Please allow me to believe that this will happen.) The game’s score is by composer Jeff Russo, whose work you might recognize from TV shows Fargo and Legion. Like those soundtracks, Russo’s work on Edith Finch is subtle, dark, and often sad. Unfortunately, as of this writing, it’s also only available as DLC on Steam. Expect a wider release in the near future (and a vinyl version, too, if Russo’s Twitter account is to be believed).

Listen: YouTube Buy: Steam DLC

In the first days of May, XSEED finally brought the third chapter of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky to the States, fully a decade after it saw its debut in Japan. I have a deep love for the Trails games which stems almost entirely from the fact that the Falcom Sound Team has for years been crafting JRPG soundtracks that sound like they come straight out of the late ‘90s. The Trails games seem like a special gift to the part of me that fondly remembers spending muggy summer afternoons sequestered in a cool basement enraptured by Star Ocean 2. Also, just about all of that music is available on Spotify for your perusal! Kudos, Falcom.  

Listen: Spotify - YouTube  Buy: iTunes

The May release I saw talked about the most was definitely Arkane Studio’s reimagining of Prey. Though most folks seemed to have some complaints about it, the overall buzz has been positive, placing it somewhere in the same constellation as the Shock games, Deus Ex, and Arkane’s own Dishonored games--pretty esteemed company! Prey’s soundtrack is by Mick Gordon, who just last year gave us the heavy metal riffs that underscored DOOM. Prey’s sound is a bit more understated, focused more on tension and suspense rather than splashy gore and ultraviolence, but it still has some of the same industrial flair that makes Gordon’s work so interesting.

Listen: Spotify - YouTube  Buy: Amazon - iTunes

World to the West came out this month, a Zelda-style adventure game that follows up on Rain Games’ previous offering, Teslagrad. It’s got a lovely, simple visual aesthetic and several different characters to play as, including a burly, mustachioed strongman, if that’s the sort of thing that would sell you on such a game. The score, by Norse duo Bear & Cat, is cheerful and cartoony and worth a spin.

Listen: Spotify  Buy: Bandcamp

Another of May’s indie releases was spellcasting action-adventure Mages of Mystralia, the debut effort from Canadian studio Borealys Games. It boasts a very intriguing system which evidently lets you craft bespoke spells from runes that you gather (I have fond memories of doing something similar in Eternal Darkness, though Mystralia seems to take the notion and run with it). It also has a very charming, YA-looking story about a young mage who gets exiled because of her magical ability: definitely the sort of thing I’d shunt my son toward if he were old enough for videogames and not still mastering putting on his shoes. The score to Mystralia is composed by Antoine Vachon and performed by the Video Game Orchestra, which is an exceedingly accomplished outfit despite its rather blase name. This is an album worth sampling even if the game doesn’t look to be your speed.

Listen/Buy: Bandcamp

I’ll confess, I had to do a little bit of research before I could take a stab at what Birthdays the Beginning might be about. It turns out it’s a game about cute dinosaurs! It’s got a Minecraft-like terrain that you can alter in an attempt to get new life forms to grow. Unfortunately, the critical reaction has been rather mixed, which bums me out because “cute dinosaur game” is an aesthetic that’s been missing from my life ever since I lost my copy of Bonk’s Adventure. Birthdays’ soundtrack is by Takayuki Nakamura, a veteran composer who’s been working for almost 30 years (I remember him best for his work on Meteos--why can’t we have another Meteos?). It contains some chill vibes that will help you to relax.

Listen: Spotify - YouTube  Buy: Amazon - iTunes

Well, someone went ahead and actually made a Polybius game, invoking the name of the urban legend to brand their arcade shooter. Certainly this won’t result in any bad luck or unforeseen consequences, right? I mean, it’s not like 2017 could get worse.

The brigands responsible call themselves Llamasoft, and they are headed up by veteran game designer Jeff Minter, the gentleman behind other trippy arcade shooters Tempest 2000 and Space Giraffe. Polybius shares those games’ colorful, psychedelic aesthetic and intense speed--it looks like someone rubbed Tempest all over Race the Sun, or if someone took Thumper and talked it out of its Goth phase. The soundtrack, by the “Llamasoft Moosicians,” is pure techno candy, the kind of music you listen to when you’re the subject of a vast subliminal experiment of a secret division of the government.  

Listen/Buy: Bandcamp

I’m 100% behind the soundtrack to Strafe, the tongue-in-cheek ‘90s retro shooter from developer Pixel Titans. The reception to the game itself seems to be pretty mixed, with critics divided on whether the handful of procedurally-generated elements work for or against it, but the synth-heavy score from electronica artist ToyTree is easy to recommend. It probably won’t make you think you’re in 1996 like the game wants to, but don’t worry: nostalgia is a trap meant to prey on your happy memories anyway!

Listen: Spotify  Buy: Bandcamp

As someone who doesn’t own any VR technology, I don’t tend to keep up with the latest and greatest VR-exclusive games (are there any?), but Sony seems to have put a little extra advertising oomph behind Farpoint, its PSVR-exclusive, sci-fi first-person shooter. The general consensus seems to be that without its VR schtick, the game doesn’t do anything new or special, but that it’s figured out a big chunk of how to make an FPS work in virtual reality. If you’re an early adopter of VR and you’ve been waiting for a game to really get the systems right, it looks like Farpoint might pique your interest. The game’s soundtrack, by Stephen Cox, is a solid cinematic-style score that you can listen to even without a virtual reality headset.

Listen: Spotify - YouTube  Buy: Amazon - iTunes

If you’re a fan of superheroes punching each other (and, judging by the last five years in American cinema, this category probably includes many of you), you will no doubt be excited by the release of NetherRealm Studios’ Injustice 2. This sequel to DC Comics’ 2013 what-if-Superman-but-bad fighting game arrives just as the DC Cinematic Universe kicks into high gear, and if my Twitter timeline is to be believed, the game is considerably better than any film in that thus-far-ill-advised endeavor. Injustice 2’s score is generally in keeping with the scores of recent Batman and Superman films: lots of low strings and brass, very heavy orchestra and driving, urgent energy. Good music to punch to!

Listen: Spotify - YouTube  Buy: Amazon - iTunes

It looks like a game has finally arrived to challenge To the Moon for the 16-bit tearjerker crown: Rakuen released this month, with its beautiful fantasy world and its hospitalized young protagonist and its ability to get me misty-eyed with its danged trailers. I’ve got a little kid myself, so you can bet I’ll never make it through a game like this without coming out a blubbering mess on the other side. Listen to that sample from the score by Laura Shigihara! Listen to those lyrics! I can’t even make it through the song I picked for this roundup without getting the sniffles.

Listen/Buy: Bandcamp

The charming and whimsical Old Man’s Journey released this month, a game about rolling hills and hiking by the sea, in which you alter the landscape to ease the wanderings of the eponymous Old Man. The score to this one is by the superb scntfc, who was responsible for last year’s Oxenfree, one of the better soundtracks of 2016. The score to Old Man’s Journey is less haunting and more comforting, so I imagine my family will complain less when I play it during dinner.

Listen: Spotify  Buy: Bandcamp

May also brings us another Fire Emblem! This year’s 3DS entry is Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, a remake of 1992’s Fire Emblem Gaiden for the NES. I can’t be mad at Nintendo for annualizing this series: the West was deprived of Fire Emblem for far too long, and it’s about time some of the older entries got reimaginings. It sounds as though Shadows of Valentia may have preserved a little bit too much of its predecessor’s brutal grind, but if you’ve been tapping away at Fire Emblem Heroes for the last few months and wishing for something a little more substantial, this will be just what the doctor ordered. The soundtrack is a doozy, but it’s only available with the special edition, so if you think you might want to own it, take that into consideration!

Listen: YouTube

Last but not least, May brings us RiME, an adventure game that wears its Ico influence on its sleeve. RiME has beautiful blue skies and ocean, ancient ruins, and lovely environments in general. Critics have been quite divided on it--some say it’s a retread of ideas that have been better executed elsewhere, some were deeply moved by the craft put into its world. For my part, having only judged the soundtrack, I have to give it a hearty thumbs up: David Garcia Diaz’s score is evocative and alluring, drawing you in with haunting vocals and strings. This one comes wholly recommended.

Listen: Spotify - YouTube  Buy: Amazon

That brings our roundup to a close this month, with just a couple of footnotes: The WipEout Omega Collection drops next month, and Sony wants to tease your nostalgic love of turn-of-the-millennium club music with a Spotify playlist: Only ‘90s kids will remember WipEout!

Also, Darren Korb’s soundtrack to Bastion is getting a vinyl release this summer, and seeing as how Bastion has one of the greatest soundtracks ever to grace a videogame, you should scurry on over and pre-order that posthaste. Buy one for yourself, and buy one for every DJ you know. I want every wedding this summer to be spinning the sounds of Korb’s acoustic frontier trip-hop.

That’s it for May! Check back at the end of June, when we’ll no doubt have tunes from a new Tekken, a new Valkyria game, and ARMS! (Have you heard that main theme from the global “testpunch”? Yowzers! Sound of the summer!)

Thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next month!