Thirty years of classic Legend of Zelda themes old and new, given quality orchestral arrangements and performances across the board - what's not to like? Not much at all, although owners of the limited-edition 25th Anniversary Special Orchestra CD from five years earlier will want to note that about 30 minutes of arrangements are reused from that album. However it's material very much worthy of re-inclusion, and though the recording quality of this live concert album isn't at the same level as that studio album, I find the performances for most arrangements are more dramatic here. New to this album are a nine-minute "The Legend of Zelda 30th Anniversary Medley" (completely different from the 25th Anniversary album's medley, though thankfully possessing its own heart-pounding rendition of the "Dark Overworld" theme), high-intensity "A Link Between Worlds & Tri Force Heroes Medley" and "Boss Battle Theme Medley" arrangements, a surprisingly substantial "The Legend of Zelda Jingle Suite", and the five-star delight of the album, a live performance of the eight-minute "Skyward Sword Staff Roll". Topping off the highlights for the new arrangements are short but sweet orchestral renditions of "Hyrule Castle" and "Zelda's Theme". It took thirty years, but one of gaming's oldest and most beloved series finally has an orchestral album worthy of its namesake.
Final Fantasy XII's soundtrack has always stood out as a favorite from the series, and my only real sticking point with the original PlayStation 2 OST was that - as by far the most orchestral soundtrack in the series thus far - the completely sampled instrumentation could grow a bit repetitive over the course of four discs. Thus the fact that the PS4 remake Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age receives a remade soundtrack with live instrumentation is a pretty big deal - albeit with two caveats. The first is that the live instrumentation applies to the woodwinds and strings, but not the brass. The second is that the recording quality leaves something to be desired. That aside, I find the standout woodwind-led tracks in FFXII - of which there are many - all sound better in The Zodiac Age, or at the very least enjoyably different. The greatest improvement, however, comes in the tracks featuring strings. Existing favorites are even better with the live strings in The Zodiac Age, and tracks like "Penelo's Theme", "On the Riverbank", and "Nalbina Fortress Town Area" that I used to skip in the PS2 OST have become new favorites. Though it's hard not to be a bit disappointed that the redone Final Fantasy XII score doesn't have a full orchestral recording at the top of its class, at the same time though it's good to receive an even moderately improved version of a classic.
Among open-world adventure games in 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild may have stolen some of Horizon Zero Dawn's thunder, but when it comes to soundtracks Horizon Zero Dawn OST comes out as very easily my favorite new original game soundtrack for the year. As you'd expect for a soundtrack of the genre, the music often leans more towards ambiance than outright melody, but there's no shortage of very pretty musical moments. These are most frequently conveyed by beautiful solo and ensemble strings, often having a poignant sense of solitude as in "Homecoming" and "On Our Mother's Shoulders", though there are hopeful moments in folk-inspired tracks like "In Great Strides" and "City on the Mesa" as well. The soundtrack's mix of acoustic instrumentation with electronic synth could be expected as well, but I have a hard time thinking of another soundtrack that pulls off the combination as seamlessly and with such consistently high quality as what's done here. As long as you're not expecting a quick melodic fix, you can listen through the entire run time without really feeling the need to touch the skip button, an exceedingly rare feet for a four-hour OST.
After a disappointing third installment in the Distant Worlds series, Distant Worlds IV: More Music from Final Fantasy is a satisfying step back in the right direction. When you've got series classics like FFIV "Battle with the Four Fiends", FFV "Main Theme of Final Fantasy V", FFVII "Jenova Complete", FFIX "Festival of the Hunt", and FFXII "The Dalmasca Estersand" all on one album it's hard to go wrong, and two standout themes from from FFXIV only sweeten the deal further. The three performances of themes that were orchestral already in their OSTs make it a bit too apparent that the production values still aren't up to snuff with the best orchestral game music, and the producers' habit of lifting arrangements straight from the FFVIII Fithos Lusec Wecos Venosec album or re-arranging FFVI themes that were already done very nicely on FFVI Grand Finale is a bit unfortunate, but the remaining ten tracks make for one of the stronger Final Fantasy orchestral albums to date. As long as they keep bringing new arrangements of classic Final Fantasy themes at this quality, there could be plenty more good Distant Worlds albums to come.
A strong runner-up to Horizon Zero Dawn for the top new game OST, Valkyria: Azure Revolution Original Soundtrack as you'd expect is far more in the traditional JRPG vein, though composer Yasunori Mitsuda takes some impressive strides in modernizing the genre with robust orchestral arrangements and high production values. Similarly to that other score, you won't find the same high number of captivating themes as in most game music classics, but the album is a consistently high-quality listen throughout. There's an expected military quality - brass and rolling snares are in plentiful supply in the rousing battle themes - but it's not too serious to drown out the game and composer's JPRG roots as heard in some immediately endearing town themes. Mitsuda has made it clear in some of his comments the importance he places on evolving technically as a composer, and the Valkyria Revolution soundtrack is a satisfying validation of that approach.
At almost three hours of music with hardly or synth or a simple loop to be found, even holding dearly to its 1930s period jazz sound there's more variety in Cuphead Original Soundtrack than you'll hear in plenty of OSTs that span genres at will. There's an entirely different melodic quality to the album than your typical game OST, which combined with the extremely rambunctious brass makes it a soundtrack I only listen to on occasion, but you have to give composer Kristofer Maddigan and the production team credit for trying something entirely different and doing it very well.