Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown feels brilliant. It’s a wonderful mix of real and arcade and it plays like a dream. But what’s kept me coming back to replay older missions over and over in the last few weeks is how that “feel” combines with its amazing soundscapes.
In a way the soundtrack for the game is in the vein of something that would accompany a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Aggressive horns, moving strings, some vocal tracks punctuating the action. But none of that should be read remotely as a pejorative. Bruckheimer movies are scored to perfection. They ham handedly smash you with their pathos over and over until you truly desperately know the emotion they want to ooze out of your pores. I mean, it helps when you can constantly hire Hans Zimmer.
Keiki Kobayashi might not be Hans Zimmer but in terms of effect achieved he’s damn close. Kobayashi’s mix of orchestral with electronic evokes exactly the right emotion precisely when needed. Though the controls feel good it doesn’t become fully cohesive until you’re flying and listening. The running electronic beats with backing percussion make you feel the urgency and desperation in your mission. Or the soaring horns make you feel, well, like you’re soaring.
It’s kind of mind boggling how many different sets of sounds can evoke this feeling of “flight.” Sometimes its long stretching strings punctuated by woodwinds. Sometimes it’s a steady electronic beat. Sometimes the tension is held perfectly by a mix of horns and pulsing beats. But they all feel like tracks that you should be flying to. They range from desperate to longing. Some of them are battle anthems and others are more meditative, designed to be heard with the drone of a missile lock warning.
As an American who has seen a lot of summer blockbusters it’s kind of hard to not mentally connect games like Ace Combat with movies like Top Gun. And yes, Jerry Bruckheimer produced that one too. Harold Faltermeyer’s brilliant “Top Gun Anthem” acts almost as a zero moment for everything that Kobayashi will do. Heavy on the guitar and electronic beat with plenty of orchestra when needed. Big, powerful, bombastic.
But Top Gun is a passive experience. You attend it and it never changes. Kobayashi, pardon the pun, ascends to new heights because in my many dozen hours of the game I never once felt like I was hearing a song for the second time. I might have taken damage, prioritized targets differently, or been running low on ammo but for each of those moments it felt like I was exactly at the right song beat of a song being played for the first time.
I’ve played “Fleet Destruction” a dozen or more times by now and every time I hear “Siren’s Song” it feels like a new moment. With the right plane and a little heavy on the afterburners I can be hitting the first targets right as the guitar riff starts. By the time I’m making my next pass the twangier guitar beats are kicking in. As I’m making another run we’ve advanced into the brass bellows. I typically take a pretty similar attack trajectory through these first few beats but it doesn’t feel like I’ve been here before. Its familiar as a “war soundtrack” but unique to this war.
In preparation to write this I spent a few hours with the soundtrack. Even after all my time with the game the only pieces that felt overly familiar where the ones that were tied to menus or mission briefings. Pieces I’d heard in the background with little distraction. But even those are drip with pathos. They scream shock and awe but manage not to be overbearing. They take you on their mighty wings to skies unknown.