Note Worthy 013: StarCraft, Metal Gear, and Tomb Raider

Soundtracks you should be listening to!

Welcome back! We’re looking at recent soundtrack releases, and there are a number of big ones this month. We’ve got impressions of the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Tomb Raider soundtracks along with a number of great releases from Square Enix, Taito, Gravity, Q-Games, and more.

It’s interesting to note this month that many of the releases are “Not for sale,” and are instead limited edition bonuses. I guess that says a lot for where the industry is going… is there really no money to be made from selling game music these days? That will certainly be a sad day!

Anyway, chime in and let us know what you think and enjoy the included samples! 

Dive into PixelJunk Monsters
Release Date: May 22, 2008
Price: $2.99
Availability: PlayStation Store
Artist(s): Otograph

We’ve dove into PixelJunk Eden and Shooter 1&2, and now I’m tackling PixelJunk Monsters. The colorful tower defense game features less music than the previous PixelJunk titles we’ve covered with only 40 minutes of music. The tracks are short and sweet in that regard.

What you have is some seriously dreamy electronic music. I’d say it’s highly reminiscent of Square Enix’s Mitsuto Suzuki’s solo productions paired with the whimsical melodies of Hiroki Kikuta. And I mean this in a good way, as those are to my favorite artists out there.

Even though the tracks are generally short (around the two-minute mark) and blend into one another, it’s a wonderful 40 minute journey. Very few tracks will jump out at you and prove memorable, but the overall listening experience certainly is. My favorites are “a-maze-ing maze” with its layered acoustic guitar and bells and the reflective lullaby, “bye bye monsters.”

This is great stuff. If it were more fleshed out, it could be my favorite PixelJunk score to date, but for now, Shooter 1&2 takes that honor with its innovative approach. Still, anyone looking to relax with some great electronic soundscapes, check out PixelJunk Monsters.

Emil Chronicle Online Original Soundtrack 6th Anniversary Memorial Soundtrack
Release Date: January 11, 2012
Price: 4,200 Yen ($45)
Availability: CD Japan
Artist(s): ACE+

While Gravity picked up the publishing rights to Emil Chronicle, I was apparently too busy playing Ragnarok Online to pay much attention. This is also a highly-stylized MMORPG that instead employed the talents of Japan-based ACE+, who you may remember from their work on Xenoblade Chronicles and Code of Princess.

This four-disc collection adds a single disc of new music to the 4th anniversary soundtrack that was released years ago. I love the upbeat nature of the music that matches perfectly with the game’s aesthetic. There are tons of Celtic influences, bouncy towns, vibrant fields, and tasty pop-oriented themes to enjoy. I feel it’s ACE+’s best work, as Xenoblade Chronicles was a little on the ambient side and Code of Princess a bit lacking in the memorability department.

There are some key moments on the album, including the opening theme, “FAR AND AWAY,” which brings a heavy Celtic sound with woodwinds and a beautiful and touching string section. The distant and solemn “Sound of the ruin,” the fun accordion-laden dance tune, “Beyond the Destiny,” the pumping rock fest “Over the infinite helix,” the dark and reflective “Phantasmagoria,” the upbeat and jazzy “Theme of Emil,” and the weird (but good!) vocaloid vocal track, “Song for Battle Field” are some of my favorites. As far as the new stuff on the fourth disc is concerned, you’ll want to listen for the opener, “Lands of Groundbreaker,” which is also a moving orchestral theme, and the closing vocal theme, “12sec seno mano -the voice from yourself-.”

It’s great to get in touch with ACE+’s history, and this looks to be some of their best. There’s some great artwork to enjoy, although the booklet is admittedly pretty thin. Still, I recommend checking it out if you liked ACE+’s other works.

Etrian Odyssey IV: Legend of the Titan Rough Drafts & Outtakes
Release Date: February 26, 2013
Price: Not for Sale
Availability: First press bonus
Artist(s): Yuzo Koshiro

We reviewed the Etrian Odyssey IV soundtrack in Note Worthy 005 and loved it. Koshiro has done an amazing job transitioning the series from the retro FM synthesis featured in preceding titles over to a live orchestral soundscape featured in Etrian Odyssey IV. I was immediately interested, then, when it was announced that the bonus CD included with early shipments of the game would feature outtakes and rough draft versions of the tracks used for recording purposes.

What you get are five rough drafts and two outtakes. The rough drafts, as interesting as they sound, won’t do much for you if you’ve already listened to the OST versions. These are synth mock-ups that Koshiro created to prepare for the recording sessions, so they aren’t as vibrant or warm as their OST counterparts, although they’re fun to listen to for comparison purposes.

The outtakes are both village themes. “The Wind’s Gentle Touch” meanders about dreamily, sounding almost like a lullaby, while “All is Well” goes classical with harpsichord (one of my favorite instruments ever) and a lovely woodwind accompaniment. It almost sounds like something Koichi Sugiyama would write for a Dragon Quest game.

So there you have it. I’d say if you missed out on the disc, you’ll be okay. Just pick up the OST, which is one of the best albums released in 2012.

GUN FRONTIER/METAL BLACK/DINO REX Sound Tracks for Digital Generation
Release Date: December 21, 2012
Price: 3,780 Yen ($40)
Availability: Limited (SuperSweep Shop)
Artist(s): Yasuhisa Watanabe, Hidetoshi Fukumori, TAITO

A new entry into SuperSweep’s GameMusic Discovery Series, this is a collection of arcade soundtracks from Taito’s catalog including two shooters and a fighting game. There are also some arranged tracks and a DVD containing complete playthroughs of each game (cool for those who want to know more about the music’s context).

The album kicks off with my favorite soundtrack of the bunch, Metal Black. This is a side-scrolling shooter about a fight against an alien invasion of Earth. There are a number of great melodies, including the intro stage, “Bone to be free” with its triumphant and sweet melody as players take back Earth. I also dig the ambient “Waste days” and the many boss themes which are somewhat atypical. I’m used to heavy action in my shmup boss themes, but all of these here take a more interesting approach, some slow and mysterious, and others a bit terrifying, highlighting the weird and alien-y appearance of the enemies you’re fighting.

The other two soundtracks don’t stand out as much. Gun Frontier is also heavy on the melody side, but nothing really stuck with me. Two remixes from the game, however, really shine as some of the best that this collection has to offer with a bumpin’ dance remix and a sort of world music/electronic jazz remix that somehow manage to take the unmemorable OST and make it into something worthwhile. Dino Rex, a strange fighting game featuring a variety of dinosaurs, gets a stereotypical dose of tribal percussion and sparse melodies. You have to watch the DVD footage, as this game looks truly terrible.

There’s another disc containing the Sega Saturn versions of Metal Black and Gun Frontier. The two versions are similar, except there’re more reverb effects on the Sega Saturn version, which I think I enjoy slightly more.

This is a nice collection for fans of Taito shooters. Metal Black is excellent, but probably not worth the price alone. If any of these titles have your interest, however, you may want to check this out.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Soundtrack
Release Date: February 19, 2013
Price: Not for Sale
Availability: Limited Edition bonus
Artist(s): Jamie Christopherson

This soundtrack is a surprise in so many ways. Generally, Konami keeps to itself with Metal Gear titles, relying on current Konami composers and former Metal Gear composers to maintain that “Metal Gear” sound. But Platinum Games had other plans, turning to Jamie Christopherson who certainly had a few tricks up his sleeve.

This album is the soundtrack disc that comes housed with the pricey limited edition version of the game. It contains in-game music by Christopherson, and doesn’t have much overlap with the Vocal Tracks album that has been made more widely available.

While it retains the Hollywood action stylings of past Metal Gear titles, it strays from that sound in many ways. I’d say it’s more of a Hollywood orchestral/electronic fusion with heavy rock elements. It’s really moody and cool in a lot of ways, but reminds me of, say, Deus Ex: Human Revolution more than Metal Gear.

That’s okay though. I love the opening track, “Title,” to death with its great melody and distant guitar work beckoning from beyond, while the furious drum ‘n’ bass “Chase” and exotic “Old City” are also pleasing. The gritty Western movie-esque “Plaza,” the Asian-flavored “Japanese Garden,” the ominous “Tension,” and the techy “Result” are also awesome. A few battle themes make an appearance in their vocal-less forms, but more about those later.

In all, this is a wonderful soundtrack. I haven’t played the game, but from what I can gather from Conrad, it works amazingly well, and Platinum Games ought to be pleased with their choice and Christopherson proud of his accomplishment. He had big shoes to fill and has successfully injected new life into the franchise.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Vocal Tracks
Release Date: February 18, 2013
Price: $15.44
Availability: Sumthing Else Music Works
Artist(s): Jamie Christopherson, Various Artists

Here’s the previously mentioned vocal tracks album. Contained within are the boss battle themes from the game that coincidentally are all vocal tracks. The tracks fit in well with the score, incorporating a blend of rock and electronics that is somewhere between ‘90s alternative metal and Linkin Park. Shredding guitars, wailing solos, and gritty vocals litter the album.

Before you balk, however, it’s important to note how the music is used in-game. In battle, the pieces generally appear in their instrumental form with cross-fades into the vocal versions as the action picks up in battle, which Conrad tells me works incredibly well to drive the action home. With that in mind, though, and the fact that many of the instrumental versions are included, even if the vocals aren’t your thing, you can still enjoy the musical backings as I found myself doing for tracks where the vocals didn’t really strike me.

Some of the vocals really do stand out, though. The explosive “Dark Skies” with its choppy vocals, the bass-heavy “A Stranger I Remain” with a great female vocalist, and the amazing guitar work in “The Stains of All Time” are among my favorites. The deep vocal stylings of Jason Miller in “Red Sun” are also particularly memorable. The moody and slower “The War Still Rages Within,” the longest track on the album, provides a nice closer.

My only complaint would be that the tracks are generally pretty short. In the two-minute range, actually. Still, fans of the game might even prefer this album to the OST, and it’s a lot more easily to obtain since it’s being sold separately. It’s worth checking out if this kind of music is your thing.

Release Date: December 5, 2012
Price: Not for Sale
Availability: Tower Records / Village Vanguard customer bonus
Artist(s): Various Artists

Here we are with yet another exclusive disc to fans in Japan who purchase Square Enix music at brick-and-mortar stores in Japan. This is the accompaniment disc to Final Fantasy Tribute -Thanks-, and features a compilation of past SQ customer bonus disc tracks along with new ones, and I have to say that this compiles some of the best SQ series music to date.

In terms of re-released material, you have the amazing “Aria” from Final Fantasy VI, redone by Reign of the Kindo, which is easily the best version of the touching opera scene I’ve ever heard despite it being sung in English by a man.

There’s a lot of great new stuff, too, including an arrangement from Soukaigi (composed by Secret of Mana’s Hiroki Kikuta), which is a rare treat, and a great arrangement. There’s a dreamy electronic remix from Einhander, a funky version of “MEGAROMANIA” from LIVE A LIVE that will have you thinking of The OneUps, a bumpin’ chiptune medley from Final Fantasy VII, and dubstep versions of “Battle on the Big Bridge” from Final Fantasy V and “TWISTER” from The World Ends With You (which is fantastic). Finally, we get a 20-minute DJ set from a recent live event that Square Enix held which combines popular Final Fantasy themes including “Red Wings” from Final Fantasy IV, “Battle” from Final Fantasy VI, and more LIVE A LIVE in a great set.

This is a great album, but unfortunately it’s only available to those who purchase the album physically in Japan. CD Japan cells a combination of Final Fantasy Tribute -Thanks- along with this bonus disc, but it comes at a premium. So think hard as to whether these remixes sound worth it. I think they are.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Soundtrack
Release Date: March 12, 2013
Price: $10.99 (digital)
Availability: Collector’s Edition bonus / iTunes
Artist(s): Blizzard Entertainment

I can’t help but be a fan of the musical universe of StarCraft. There are the rockin’ Terran, the creepy and textural Zerg, and the regal and serene Protoss. Wings of Liberty touched on all of these, but focused on the Terran race, and now we get our hands on a lot of Zerg-tinged themes, which is actually my favorite race, musically.

Derek Duke, the musical voice of the Zerg, does a lot of heavy lifting alongside sound lead Glenn Stafford (resident Terran specialist), and even Jason Hayes who was responsible for the Protoss in the original StarCraft returns to Blizzard Entertainment and is featured with Audio Director Russell Brower, cinematics expert Neal Acree, and contributor Cris Velasco.

So, how does it sound? This album is certainly much darker and heavier than Wings of Liberty. It really nails the Zerg sound right out of the gate with “Corruptors” which touches on classic Zerg themes that will awaken that sense of nostalgia within. Duke does an amazing job with textural electric guitar and ambient electronic backings, marrying them to tense strings and defiant brass. We get these sounds throughout.

Other tracks, including “Heart of the Swarm” and “Fire in the Sky,” bring in that bombastic Hollywood action sound with big orchestra with cool electronics in a very tasteful way, while there are a number of foreboding pieces featuring great choral work in “The Coming Storm,” moody rock in “Phantoms of the Void,” and some fantastic booming percussion in “Conscience.”

Other times I was reminded of Halo (and I make this comparison in the most flattering way possible), with “Collateral Damage” featuring emotional strings and bassy piano notes that are followed by the blistering electronic-infused rock that is typical of the Terrans, while “Stronger” really channels that badass Halo sound with rock percussion and heavy electronic guitar work. The final track, “Whispering from the Stars,” has some finality to it, although things sound pretty bleak. Be prepared for what sounds to be a pretty distressing end to the game.

This is really a fantastic soundtrack filled with great music and great production values. I have to say it’s one of my favorite Blizzard Entertainment albums in recent memory, and that’s saying a lot given the quality they are consistently able to deliver.

The Black Box
Release Date: March 8, 2013
Price: Name Your Own Price
Availability: Bandcamp
Artist(s): Aivi “waltzforluma” Tran, Steven “surasshu” Valema

This album is so good that I had to post about it when it was released last week despite knowing that I’d be reviewing it here. The team, who you may recognize from the recently-funded Cryamore project, combines piano and chiptunes through a number of original tracks and remixes. Tran’s piano work is fantastic, and Valema’s chiptune work, constructed in Impulse Tracker, adds a dreamy quality that sounds so natural.

In terms of remixes, there’s my favorite track from Katamari Damacy, “Lonely Rolling Star,” which is upbeat, fun, and classy, while the bonus track, “Mabe Village,” from Link’s Awakening is simply sweet and adorable. The final remix is from Asturias’s Cryptogenic Illusion album, titled “Distance,” which gets a bubbly treatment.

The originals cover a lot of territory, with “Shapeshifter” exploring what feels like a contemporary jazz style that is smooth and mood-setting, while “Diamond Dove” flutters about an adventurous atmosphere and “Here’s How!” gets into some swankier jazz territory. “Mika” is an emotional ballad that feels rooted in classical piano, and “Pocket Universe” explores jazz-tinged pop.

It’s all quite lovely, and I can’t quite get over how natural this combination of sounds is. It also comes packed with a comic series that is “to be continued,” suggesting that we’re going to see more collaborations between Tran and Valema. I can’t wait! Stream it, and if you like it, throw some money their way! This is great stuff.

Release Date: March 5, 2013
Price: Not for Sale
Availability: Limited edition bonus
Artist(s): Jason Graves

This is the Tomb Raider soundtrack disc that comes with the limited edition version of the game. It comes with ten tracks totaling a little over 35 minutes of music, comprising only half of the tracks featured on the full-length soundtrack being released by Sumthing Else Music Works.

What’s here is quite good. You have your typical action cues with heavy tension, not too unlike what Graves was able to do with Dead Space, but this score is a lot more dynamic. There’s tribal percussion to highlight the more organic locales of the game as well as tracks that bring out a more personal side of the game’s protagonist. “First Blood” in particular stands out for its emotional melody tinged with desperation, while the deep and broody brass tones in “The One” had me thinking of The Terminator. Everything culminates in the intensely chaotic “The Ritual” before listeners reflect on their journey in the contemplative “A Survivor is Born.”

It would have been great to have seen the full-length soundtrack included with the limited edition, or at least the inclusion of some exclusive tracks. If you really like what you hear here, you’ll probably want to pick up the full-length OST from Sumthing Else Music Works.

Jayson Napolitano