Longtime Square contributor Yoko Shimomura finally gets her turn at a main-line Final Fantasy score, and though the album as a whole doesn't match Uematsu's greatest works (largely due to the parts not composed by Shimomura herself), it's still very much worthy of the series tradition. The battle themes are the most epic orchestral-choral works I've heard from Shimomura yet, easily joining the series' best, while some poignant somber moments and a few noteworthy additions to the series' repertoire of overworld and chocobo themes round out the package nicely. Like most multi-disc OSTs the quality among tracks varies greatly, particularly in the slow-starting first disc, but the best hour or so of the four-disc collection makes for the most dramatic game OST of the year.
Don't let the presumptuous title dissuade you - following an excellent second album in the Greatest Video Game Music arranged album series, this third installment continues to impress. The arrangements and performances for such Western mainstay series as Warcraft, Dragon Age, Skyrim and Portal, as well as Final Fantasy X's "Hymn of the Fayth", are among the best choral VGM you'll hear, avoiding the bombast of most such works in favor of a more subdued yet still epic approach combining Gregorian-like male choral harmonies with beautiful lead vocals by Myrra Malmberg. The album is fairly short at forty minutes, but whether listening to my favorite tracks or the album as a whole, no game soundtrack from the year has moved me more than this one. Maybe that title isn't so presumptuous after all.
The most unique and atmospheric game OST of the year belongs to a Swedish indie platformer about an anthropomorphic little creature made of yarn. For Unravel, composers Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja use an almost entirely acoustic small ensemble of strings and Nordic folk instrumentation to craft a moody and moving soundtrack aptly described as "beautiful melancholy". It's composed more in the manner of an arranged album than a typical OST, the memorable themes almost always accompanied by an equally impressive intro, interlude or finale, yet there's a very OST-like progression to the narrative of the album as a whole. The consistent overall sound and somber tone means the soundtrack can become a tad monotonous in its two hour entirety, but listening to the best hour or so it's a fantastic listen, and easily one of the most original game soundtracks in recent memory.
If Studio Ghibli were to release a new film, and that film were to have a piano collection album, that album might very well sound like I Am Setsuna. Tomoki Miyoshi's score for Square's SNES era'esque JRPG has exactly the mix of heartfelt innocence and lingering sadness so often found in Ghibli films and their soundtracks. The score is almost entirely performed by piano (at least in the US edition I've been listening to, titled "Winter's End"), and like many game and anime piano collections it eschews complex arrangements and virtuoso performances, instead letting a plethora of very pretty melodies take the forefront. It's not an album I'll listen to as frequently as many favorites, but as the soundtrack to a quiet evening I can't think of anything better.
I've never held much interest in the Tales Of series soundtracks, but I'll give any series anniversary orchestral album a shot. After hearing 20th Anniversary Tales of Orchestra Concert Album I'm glad I did. The lively arrangements, professional orchestrations, excellent live performance, and adventuresome quality in both the single-theme pieces and the smoothly flowing medleys reminds me of classic orchestral VGM like the Orchestral Game Music Concert albums. I honestly can't imagine any fan of orchestral game music not finding something - if not quite a lot - to like.
While Final Fantasy XV may boast a more epic tone and greater scale, the Final Fantasy OST from 2016 that most captures the classic series sound is the smartphone title Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. The instantly endearing melodies, well-produced combination of live instruments with high-quality sampled orchestration, and overall album consistency remind me of another minor but memorable recent FF title, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (along with occasional hints of Bravely Default). Composer Noriyasu Agematsu seems content to mostly follow genre tropes over attempting anything revolutionary, and a lack of standout pieces in the last quarter lessens the score's impact a bit, but fans looking for a JRPG fix should absolutely give it a listen.
With film composer Henry Jackman at the helm, Uncharted 4 gets a more robust, Hollywood-like sound than its already cinematic predecessors. More importantly, it's a more varied and emotional score than you might expect considering the blockbuster Marvel movie soundtracks Jackman is known for. The orchestrations are noticeably improved over previous Uncharted soundtracks - a couple of the dramatic action themes in particular take the series to the next level - while the storytelling pieces have a poignancy proper for series characters in their final outing.
Inon Zur's score for the VR title Eagle Flight combines traditional orchestration, rhythmic tribal percussion and soaring female vocals, both in driving action themes and uplifting New Age pieces. It's a combination that brings fond memories of Avatar and other James Horner classics, and occasionally even hints of Panzer Dragoon. More live instrumentation would have taken it to an even higher level, but as it is it's still one of the most exhilarating scores of the year, and the one I'd most like to hear in context of the game.
The year's great soundtrack surprise is Valley Original Soundtrack by Aakaash Rao. Steam tells me the game is a first-person adventure platformer, but the score says classic JPRG. Atmospheric environment themes, festive town themes, dark and mystical dungeon theme, rousing battle theme, and a beautiful ending vocal - virtually every staple JPRG music type gets a nice big check. In fact after hearing the soundtrack's varied soundscape and ethnic instrumental accents for the first time, the first thing to come to mind was Suikoden. It's a bit more subtle - and not quite as memorable - as that classic score, but the fact that a comparison is even valid means it's well worth listening.
Civilization VI Original Game Soundtrack is a great example of concept plus execution equaling a quality game soundtrack. Civilizations from throughout history and around the globe each get a theme inspired by their musical traditions, most also receiving a reprise to represent a later historical era, and all rendered with authentic live instruments. Imagine the characters from a classic period film traversing a bustling ancient town and this would be the soundtrack. The album release appears to be fairly incomplete - the most notable omission being the main theme "Sogno di Volare", which is on a separate single release - but with two and a half hours of music there's still plenty to enjoy.