Been a full year almost to the day since my last spotlight post - damn; and to think I expected being a retired staffer would afford me the time to do those more frequently. I've yet to figure out what it is about early November that pushes me to make these, but either way, it's time to talk about good VGM tunes again.
As a matter of habit, I've aimed to try and play at least one new game outside of UT per year, both as a brief break from the usual routine (and associated headspace), possibly offering new perspective or inspiration material too, as well as in order to exhaust my stockpile of older, unplayed WinXP-compatible games. This year I was particularly proud to've managed to knock two off the list.Edit
: the first game's block features no embedded music videos/links and is just a recommendation, skip to the second one below for VGM content.
The first game was Mark of the Ninja
, a 2013 2D tactical platformer by small studio Klei Entertainment that was picked up n' produced by Microsoft, for the usual brief exclusivity purposes. Klei showed promise with its previous release of Shank in the same genre, and the extra MS cash here definitely helped polish MotN's presentation: a cel-shaded aesthetic in ingame visuals and videos between chapters that does the ninja lore justice (more photorealistic might've made things look awkward), fluid motion, passable writing with a twist here n' there, top notch sound design, etc..
The game casts you as part of a surviving ninja clan in modern times, and that usually entails the balancing act of neither overplaying the mystical element, making enemies seem helpless against you, nor disempowering the popular ninja tropes of sneaking, climbing n' slashing in the face of armed guards with radios, electronic alarms and other, lethally efficient contemporary threats. Gameplay has you trying to remain in cover of darkness as much as possible, taking out light sources where you can and preying on the guards when you must; step out of the shadows without a plan and you'll get drilled with holes in no time. From the 10-12 hours it took to finish MotN to near completeness, the game always made sure to reward careful recon and tactical planning, and bonuses for level exploration provided a steady trickle of unlockable ninja tools - stealthy takedown moves from above/below, hook chain, smoke bombs, more silent running, and so on. While there's not much in the way of replayability IMO - you can redo the levels using a different, unlocked "path", i.e. playstyle/approach and subsets of your whole toolset, but that's it - challenge did ramp up reasonably until the end, and it always felt fun outsmarting and taking down one by one a bunch of heavily armed goons on overlapping routes with the blade, through distractions or terrorizing ninja theatrics.
In terms of how the game sounds and VGM quality, most of the attention seems to've gone to the well-produced environmental audio/SFX, voice acting and theme-fitting ambience, leaving very little to write home about beyond that, including the electronic elegy during the end credits, which, to me, was wholly unremarkable. Kinda makes sense not to include, say, a pumping electro/DnB soundtrack in a game where you constantly need to be aware of audio cues around you and managing your own sound output too, but I was still hoping for better; ambient tunes' instrumentation is on point theme-wise though.
All told, Mark of the Ninja gets pretty damn close to the "best of class" distinction as far as games that let you get your sneaky, freaky stealth on in 2D go, so if that's your jam, I'd definitely recommend this. Having pretty low PC specs and being relatively lightweight at below 2GB of HDD space also helps there. A few days ago, it was on offer on the DRM-free platform GoG
for pretty cheap (about 3 euros), but now it's gone back to ~15 (similar deal on Steam
), so if you're interested, I'd suggest waiting for the next sale before grabbing it. A trailer showing how it looks and plays can be found on the same pages.Edit
: for fairness' sake, since I embedded one for the following game, here's MoTN's launch trailer:
Well, shit, I was hoping to spend 3-4 sentences max on the first game and ended up doing a 4-paragraph mini review out of it instead - I think I need an editor :/. Anywho, time to move on to the meat-n-potatoes part of the post.
The second, but by no means lesser, game this post is about is FTL: Faster Than Light
, a 2D top-down spaceship management rogue-like released in 2012 by Subset Games that's about as indie as it gets, considering it's mostly the work of two people. The title's sci-fi-derived term fits the game since your ship will be using its FTL drive to jump from beacon to beacon across a sector and along numerous sectors of a galaxy, fleeing from the Rebel fleet in pursuit, after having managed to steal vital information that could allow your side, the Federation, to fend off an invasion against these foes, namely by knowing how to defeat their flagship. In true rogue-like fashion, there's no [quick]save or load features to be found here, so prayers to RNGeezus for favourable odds during combat, in map arrangements, random encounters or available equipment at shops and the occasional crew permadeath will be the order of the day, until either you make it to Sector 8 and take the final stand against the flagship or your ship's last hull point gets knocked off and you get to watch it disintegrate in a fiery explosion before starting over. It's hard, sometimes hellishly so, but definitely fun.
FTL's success has been a mix of hard work and a streak of unusually good luck. Its two devs, Matt Davis (programming) and Justin Ma (art) had an industry background, both previously working at 2K's Shanghai studio before quitting, then ran into each other at a games conference and hit it off after discussing the concept of this game. Soon after, a composer who'd yet to break into the pro scene, Ben Prunty, pitched 'em a fitting tune for the game, and they asked him for a few more tracks. To fund the game beyond their own finances, in March 2012 the duo turned to crowdfunding right as the Kickstarter wave was surging, and they got on the platform about a week after Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure broke all previous records, exceeding $3 million in funds. After FTL's pitch drew positive attention by the gaming press and popular devs alike, the pair ended up getting about $200,000 from some 3000 backers, 20 times more money than they'd asked, allowing them to improve the gameplay, bring a couple more people on board to help with art and do some proper writing for the text-based events, not to mention commission a full game soundtrack. The game managed to launch on September 2012, earning much critical acclaim, fan praise, numerous accolades at year's end (a GOTY too, IIRC), and an award at GDC 2013.
Gameplay-wise, rather than moving your ship around a scrolling level, blasting enemies one after another, FTL instead puts you in the shoes of a wartime spaceship captain running into Star Trek-/BSG-esque situations, tactically and ethically speaking, and focuses on what's happening inside of it during 1vs1 fights with enemy ships: spreading fires and hull breaches from incoming shots will need to be addressed by individual crew members, while being careful the depleting oxygen supply (or more shots) doesn't diminish their health to zero, or by venting the air out to space, assuming your O2 and door systems remain intact to close behind and replenish it; sometimes teleporting enemy crew will need to be fought off, while at the same time waiting for ion impacts that have briefly disabled your drones or sensor systems to dissipate, ensuring you're still diverting power to critical helm/engine systems so you can dodge oncoming fire before choosing the right weapons and correctly timing your own shots to make it past the enemies' shields, to damage their hull or disable their systems. If that sounds frantic, that's exactly how crazy (and quickly) it can get in a matter of a few shots being exchanged - especially if you don't have a plan. Mercifully, the game also features a robust pause function that lets you freeze the action, prioritize more calmly and issue commands to your crew, redirect power as needed and queue up any weapons you need before resuming. Not only does this promote more thoughtful play, it also broadens the game's player base and makes it accessible to groups that aren't able to rely as much on twitch reflexes as, say, UT players without compromising its core challenge. I think I also saw some toggle in the game's options to assist colourblind players, too.
Between the different weapons, drones and subsystems you can purchase and use, and the traits of the different species you can rescue or enlist to help run your ship, plus various other choices, FTL keeps you in constant crisis management that relies on experience, lateral thinking and contingency planning to ensure everyone's where they can be of most use at the right time, and to test that your ship's setup can overcome even the most unusual enemy configurations, assuring either the enemy ship eventually gets blown up, their crew gets all killed or bringing 'em to the point of pleading for their lives, offering resources to be allowed to go. Sticking with the same "tried and true" upgrading and purchasing formula is likely to see you successful until you come across that one unexpected (or too strong) enemy setup that pokes a car-sized hole into your planning and ruins your day. With luck playing a considerable part in the game too, weighing risks and pushing through hard odds to, hopefully, get big bounties of parts or missiles or desperately needed fuel (or even unlock new ships through series of events) rather than jumping away empty-handed if the situation looks impossible - or, worse, running out of fuel and getting stranded, hoping someone non-lethal responds to your emergency signal - often also becomes the other, most typical reason for why runs end in ruins. Still, you lose, you learn, you adapt and you get right back into it with more determination, eventually making it to the end with the odd story of freakish occurrences or events to swap with other FTL players afterwards; hell, even after having sunk 100hrs into it and occasionally glancing at the FTL wiki
for helpful clues, my success rate lies just above 15%, so don't expect a cakewalk.
To wrap up yet another impromptu mini-review before it completely gets out of hand, FTL is a cohesive whole that I've had plenty of fun playing over the past 50 days. Its bare-bones, pixel art aesthetic, clean UI and well-chosen perspective allow gameplay to shine through, and the text-based events on some beacons serve as a welcome respite from action, as well as expand the FTL universe's lore, occasionally even yielding unusual benefits you won't find at standard shops - the game's main source for supplies, repairs and better equipment or crew. Not only is the game mod-friendly, but after persistent community requests, a save & quit function was added, allowing to resume your run at a later time (thereby also introducing the ability to save-scum, for those so inclined ^^). Hearing the two devs tell FTL's story in their hour-long GDC 2013 postmortem
, it becomes apparent that the game's defining trait wasn't just getting lucky, but the clarity of vision that kept them focused on the core gameplay, rather than over-complicating things after coming into a trove of community money; e.g. "1 vs many ships" was considered as a realistic expansion, but dropped as it would create a visual mess. In abstract terms, this was meant to be comparable to, say, a 1vs1 Tetris game, and that's what it successfully delivered on, which is why I think it deserves my wholehearted recommendation here. It also doesn't hurt that it's got a tiny footprint (requires ~200MB of HDD space), runs on toaster-level specs across many platforms and tablets (Windows, Linux, OSX, iOS), and that the 2014 free upgrade it received in FTL: Advanced Edition offers more content (a new race, a new layout for the 8 existing ships, new gameplay elements and resources) and features Chris Avellone as a "special guest writer" either; anyone familiar with CA's highly-acclaimed career as a scribe in (cRPG) games like Fallout 2, Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment probably already knows what a difference his golden pen can make in a game's writing, and I can vouch for the extra streak of amusing unpredictability present in FTL: AE's random encounters. I figure it's probably gonna take another 20hrs or so before I unlock everything n' finally put it down, and I was coming across the odd, previously undiscovered event as recently yesterday while still enjoying the soundtrack. If anyone's inclined to check out its trailers or pick it up yourself, it seems GoG's currently offering it for 8.50
euros and Valve's DRM-walled garden sells it for a similar price
Apologies for the extensive lead-up to the OST itself. If we had something like "Other game reviews" or "Recommend us something good" kinds of threads in Off Topic, these mini-reviews might've been better placed there, but since we don't, I figured they might be of some use here as context or gaming advice. Anyway, here's a trailer for the game as a quick break before finally coming to the OST.
As mentioned above, FTL's soundtrack is the handiwork and first professional project of U.S.-based composer Ben Prunty
. The project called for music that would have a calmer "Explore" version and a more dynamic "Battle" counterpart for each so the game would be able to switch on the fly between either flavour of a track to match the ingame context. The OST is largely organized in that manner too, going though the ingame tracks' mellower variants first, followed by the more percussion- and FX-laden action ones in the same order, bookended by the few tracks that don't observe that convention - title score, final boss score and some bonus stuff not included in the game, which you can safely skip.
FTL's soundtrack genre is predominantly synthy electronic with a chiptune streak. There's no bombastic electric guitar solos or bass-boosted EDM/DnB/wubz fare here; instead, the music tries to fit the game's tactical nature and to ease you into a chilled-out, thinking mood by being sparse/minimalist on its more ambient side, even dwelling in eerie, almost rhythm-less emptiness in some tracks. More often though, it'll pick you up by introducing and reusing catchy chords n' motifs as melodies or counterpoints as action becomes the focus and stakes get raised. Prunty's done great work in conveying that vast, "spacey" feel through the use of most tricks in the book, too: panning, phasing, reverbs n' echoing, distorted radio chatter samples, etc. - FTL's is a vibrant, but mysterious cosmos. IMO, as long as the scant presence of "authentic" instrument textures isn't a deal-breaker for you - or the genre itself, more generally - you should be able to catch its groove and see what it's going for by track 3 or so, then really get into it past the midpoint.
Also, for anyone inclined to infer quality through comparisons to more established work, I'll say that going through the whole OST, one might come across parts reminiscent of, say, Frank Klepacki's more introverted C&C Red Alert 1 tracks, Marty O'Donnell's creepier Halo 2 Mausoleum ambience, BT's glitchy/circuit-bending, experimental This Binary Universe
work (note to self: do the damn BT spotlight already!), Bear McCreary's more, shall we say, feral BSG remake soundtrack scores on rare occasion, or, on the more upbeat side of things, Daft Punk mid-90's fare - at least that's the stuff I could recall. It all meshes fittingly and makes for a cohesive, enjoyable listening at the end of the day, whether you're playing the game or just queuing up its playlist to serve as a backdrop for doing something else (like I am now
), which explains the various awards and distinctions Prunty received for FTL's OST and sound design in 2012, especially considering he was up against more experienced composers putting out work like Journey's OST by Austin Wintory. Ever happy to "geek out", offer insight and wax compositional with his followers, Prunty's also discussed his creative process on his blog here
, in case anyone's interested to learn more about it.
You can check out the whole vanilla FTL soundtrack right below, although, for some odd reason Bandcamp begins the embedded OST from track 15, so do take a few secs and rewind back to #1 before starting to hear the whole thing in the proper order. Otherwise, happy listening:
FTL: AE added 8 more tracks to the game, the 4 Battle versions this time preceding the Explore ones in the OST update.
The Lanius theme is the tune featured in the GoG FTL:AE trailer (edit
: whoops, minor fumble there), but Hacking Malfunction's still the best track Prunty made for the game, if you ask me