Nearing the end of the year we always take a look back at the games we played and try to remember them fondly. Some we remember, some we forget. For me, one of the major factors in whether or not I remember a game depends on how good it sounds. So here we are, counting down the top five memorable soundtracks of 2014.
5. Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare’s latest massive RPG, and may well be its magnum opus. It’s only fair, then, that it has an equally impressive soundtrack. And life is, sometimes, not often, fair.
The majority of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s soundtrack is nothing outstanding, really. It’s entirely conventional. What it lacks in originality, though, it makes up for in polish. Each track is chosen purposefully and is perfectly effective for its moment in time. Stomping around Thedas is underscored by appropriately fantastical music. The way combat music shifts in and out of exploration background is perfectly functional. But where it excels is in its setpiece battles with the titular dragons. You know you’re in for an epic encounter when that dragon battle music kicks in. Heart-pumping excitement and frantic macro skills match perfectly with the thump of the drum and the screech of the strings. It works very well, giving Dragon Age: Inquisition an overall great audio experience. Oh, and the title theme is pretty great too.
4. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Valiant Hearts: The Great War was a small but impressive artistic puzzle platformer by Ubisoft Montpellier about World War 1. With its interesting puzzles and innovative lack of player-caused violence in a war game, Valiant Hearts delivered an emotional, touching take on the struggles of those who fought and fell in the war to end all wars.
While the entire package was rather special, the soundtrack deserves a special mention. It could be tense and exhilarating where necessary, but where the music really shined was when it was reflective and respectful. In a game about war, Valiant Hearts was best when it was at rest, and the music proves it. Songs like the title track show just how the welcome lulls between battle can be restorative and so so devastating. By focusing on the emotions of those affected by all that death, rather than the act of killing itself, Valiant Hearts – and its articulate soundtrack – deserves to be recognised as one of the musical high-points of the year.
3. Bound by Flame
Bound by Flame wasn’t very good. I mean, it was alright I guess, and the world was interesting, but the game just wasn’t great. Its standout feature was the actually quite fantastic soundtrack.
Composed by Olivier Deriviere – also responsible for Of Orcs and Men and Remember Me, which both had outstanding soundtracks – Bound by Flame’s fantasy music reached rare highs. Carrying strong Northern European foundations with a modern French flair, Bound by Flame’s soundtrack stands well above the mediocre gameplay slog, highlighting how much promise the core concept of the game had. Each area is elevated by its fantastical scoring, with light orchestral sounds emulating the gentle floating snow and intense burning fires. Occasionally, Deriviere bursts out with ethereal vocal tracks, like in “Life” by Bulgarian vocalist Iré. The driving drums, insistent strings, growing electronics, and soaring crescendo show how an amazing soundtrack can make a game memorable.
2. Dark Souls 2
Dark Souls 2’s soundtrack is moody, powerful, understated, subtle, and Gothic in the classical sense of the word. And I love it.
One of Dark Souls’ triumphs is how understated it is. Nothing is ostentatious, but everything is elegant. Everything in the game is, in its way, truly beautiful – even the most twisted monstrosity. This philosophy of respect carries through to its soundtrack and its judicious use of music. Most of the game is spent in silence, soaking up ambient noise and enjoying the vast silences. But there are, however, sparsely and perfectly used instrumental tracks, mostly underscoring the game’s punctuating boss fights. Each track suits its boss thematically and gameplay-wise, delivering just the right amount of adrenaline and tension to make each battle memorable. The one example that sticks in my head is Nashandra’s “Queen of Drangleic”, which breaks from the more dramatic, pulse-pounding boss battle tunes and instead opts for a lonely, melancholy, ominous piano solo track, emphasising the fallen queen’s fatalistic desires. Shivers, every time.
Transistor, hands down, had this year’s best soundtrack. Not only in the compositional quality of each track, or the cohesiveness of themes, but in the way the soundtrack is so integral to the game’s story.
Darren Korb, who also composed for Supergiants’ previous game Bastion, clearly had a vision of the game, and its protagonist Red. The lounge singer idol who loses her voice after an assassination attempt, Red has no dialogue in the entire game. Korb gives her a voice. And what a voice it is. As you sojourn through Cloudbank’s dive bars and shifting streets, Red’s presence is heard in the jazzy electronic melodies. Most of the tracks are purely instrumental, however the handful of times you hear Red – sung by Ashley Barrett – are spectacular. Her seductive voice, like in in “We All Become”, instantly makes you stop and pay attention. Thankfully, Transistor gives you a home base with a jukebox where you can play all your favourite tunes – something which I found myself coming back to constantly. Having the soundtrack so intertwined with the game as a whole draws the game together and makes it so impressive to experience as a whole creation. Stunning.
And you could also press a button to make Red hum any damn time you want. Instant win.