Category Archives: Music & Book Reviews

Babylon Twins – Book Review

Babylon Twins is a Young Adult novel featuring a kind of apocalypse that is a little bit different than most of the other “end of the world” stories that I’ve been exposed to over the years. The story is told through the eyes of twin sisters, Clo and El. The author, M.F. Gibson, uses a unique, dual first-person perspective, where both of them are telling the story from the first-person, but switches seamlessly between each of them as the story is told. It is quite an interesting technique and one of the most intriguing narrative tools that the author uses to tell the story.

Ultimately, it is a story about the end of the world and how the twins’ unique relationship and language saves them, and the rest of humanity, from ultimate extinction. I won’t go into too much detail here, because that would just spoil the story. The story starts off as one about a family learning to survive in the wild. In the city, a super-addictive drug is released to the masses essentially turning everyone into mindless zombies…but not the aggressive “eat your brains” kind of zombies. The mother of the titular twins takes them and their younger brother away from the city where they find refuge in the wild. They spend the next decade there, living off of the land in a very secluded place, until their sanctuary is discovered and their mother leaves. Eventually, with their mother gone and things only getting worse, it forces them to leave the safety of their self-made home and return to the city in search of answers.

The adventure style of the story is engaging and told in such a way that I found myself feeling excited or curious about what was going to happen next. However, I also felt that the overall writing style was disjointed. There were times when the vocabulary used by the twin narrators was plain or simple, as if they were immature and inexperienced. But then there would be shifts in the narrative style at times that would use much more expressive, much more flowery language that changed the tone and feel of the storytelling. I don’t know if this was unintended, or if it was a choice made by the author, but it took me out of the story at times and made me wonder who was actually telling me the story.

The world that was created for the story is quite interesting and makes you, as the reader, think about the world that we live in and how close we could be to something somewhat similar happening to us. Some corporation that decides that it is in the best interest of the world to dope everyone up and make them mindless slaves. But, again, there are parts of the story where it feels like the initial problem, or adversity that is implied by the book suddenly shifts. I’m not saying that it’s against the rules to shift course in a story, in fact that is often a great method of surprising your audience. However, some of these shifts were so sudden and seemingly convenient that they seemed to stand out as obvious tricks rather than a natural progression of the story. Character motivations seemed to shift and waver at the drop of a hat. Even the main characters, the twins, are frustratingly fickle at certain points in the story, going from having deep, emotion convictions, to flip-flopping on them without warning, or having seemingly terrible or amazing or powerful things happen to them that they seem to forget about or disregard completely a few pages later.

So, in the end, I felt myself struggling to push forward in the story. I found it hard to want to finish reading the story, because by the end of it I had found that I had lost interest in what would happen. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the “bad guy” had changed so many times that there didn’t seem to be one anymore. Or perhaps it was because the main characters themselves never seemed to feel like they were in any true danger. Or if they did, they handled the stresses of those dangers in odd and irrational ways. Truly devastating things that happened to them were shrugged off as if it were just another day in the park, and lifelong rules and hatreds that they had been raised to never forget were thrown by the wayside at the first opportunity. And, even then, it didn’t matter, because the things that they’d been taught were seemingly lies all along, anyway.

The book ends with a cliffhanger, wide open for a sequel. There is a tiny part of me that would be interested in reading it just to see what ends up happening to the world that the sisters discovered when they came back from the woods, but that is a very small part. Ultimately, the story was interesting, but not great. I think that it was a concept that had great potential, but missed the mark on some important levels.

There was a part of me that wanted to excuse some of the mistakes that this novel made because of its Young Adult tag. Perhaps it was being written for a less mature demographic. But then I remembered that books like Hunger Games and Harry Potter are also in the Young Adult category and I don’t think that you can use that excuse. I just think that the book fell short of its goal. There are better books out there that explore post-apocalypse life, even in the Young Adult category.

Babylon Twins is available online at Amazon or you can get the e-book version.  You can also learn more about the author, M.F. Gibson and see some cool fan-art at the author’s homepage.

The Ice Merchant – Book Review

The Ice Merchant, is a historical fiction that takes place in late 1800’s America. Its main character is Nicolas Van Horne, a man who harvests ice in his home in upstate New York, and ships it down the Mississippi River to places like St. Louis, New Orleans, and Galveston. Van Horne also hides a secret business within his ice. Through dealings with an undertaker in his home town, he takes possession of corpses, various unfortunates who befall untimely deaths and are destined for pauper’s graves. Instead of ending up in these unmarked plots, Van Horne purchases them and then packs them in his ice and transports them downriver to medical colleges in the south, where they are sold at a fair profit in order to be dissected and studied by the students and doctors at the colleges for educational and research purposes.

The story of Nicolas Van Horne and his ice goes beyond even this. There is a darker, more sinister story that is waiting for Nicolas to unearth; a story of evil and murder. Beyond that, nestled amidst the morbid cadaver trade and the horrific mystery of murder, lies a narrative of complex relationships. Questions of faithfulness, true love, family, and morality are at the root of the main character’s struggles. His path, though marked by profoundly difficult moral and ethical questions, is pointed toward a decidedly humanitarian goal. He understands that by providing these otherwise castaway corpses, he is furthering medical studies by leaps and bounds. But when he begins to suspect that some of the bodies, bodies of young boys, are linked to a sinister underground world that no one knows about, his purpose shifts.

To me, the best heroes in literature are always the ones who are imperfect; the ones who must sacrifice so much in order to succeed. At first, I had my doubts about the main character of this novel, because he seemed to be too well-set, too lofty, and too ambivalent, to even consider taking on anything challenging enough to be considered heroic. He is described as being notably handsome, he his well-off, he is dealing in ice and bodies. This conveys to us that he is a cold man in more ways than one. He is detached, aloof, almost uncaring.

But as we read, we find that he is haunted by the things he does, the things he has seen. We come to understand that, though his reasons for trading in bodies are altruistic, he still wrestles with the ethics of it. He constantly justifies it to himself and others, almost defensively, and is repulsed by many of the other people who he is forced to deal with in the business of obtaining these bodies. He seems to have an almost instinctual understanding or intuition that there is something not right about some of the things he is involved with.

We see him struggle in many ways. Like many stories of truly heroic people, the struggle is a constant dilemma between personal desire and the “greater good”. A true hero will always tend toward the greater good, but the stories that, to me, resonate the loudest are the ones where the path isn’t quite so clear, or so easy. In order to try and make one thing right, the main character often finds himself confusing or destroying another path to rightness. Each step he takes seems to bring him closer in one direction to a good outcome, but in another, toward utter disaster.

I found myself sympathizing with this character after the first troubles in the story begin to set in. Once he is brought down from his seeming aloofness and perfection and revealed to be a flawed, conflicted, and uncertain man, he begins to struggle. He struggles to maintain his reputation, his relationships; he even begins to struggle to maintain even his own sanity. It is always frustrating to read a book where the main character makes decisions that seem so far removed from logic that the only explanation seems to be that they did it because that’s what needed to happen in order to further the plot. I never got this feeling from this book. I felt like the decisions that were made were very natural ones. I felt like the resolutions that were come to weren’t forced, or heavy handed.

I won’t spoil the book by saying if it has a happy ending, if the boy gets the girl, if the mystery is solved, but I will say that I left it very satisfied. Endings are hard. As one who has read his fair share of poor endings and has faced the difficulty of forging a proper ending first-hand, I will say that I felt this one was good. I think my only real complaint about the book is that, though the ending in satisfactory, I felt that a few leaps of faith were made that allowed for certain things to happen that may have otherwise seemed unlikely or improbable. But, to be fair, if it had ended in any other way, it would probably not have been nearly as satisfying.

On top of an intricately woven plot, I found that I was repeatedly impressed by the precisely and vividly painted settings and environments. As the author is, himself, a resident of the city of Galveston, and a doctor at the very same medical college which features heavily in the book, I was not surprised at how intimately familiar the narrator seemed to be to the city. But then, I had to remind myself, this was the world of over a century ago, and I was again impressed at how beautifully crafted each little detail of the world was. It really conveyed to me that the story took place in a different time, when people saw the world in a different way, when medicine and its various instruments were very rudimentary compared to the modern day, and when society and customs were more formal in many regards, but also much more brutal in others.

Overall, I was unexpectedly pleased with this novel. I had no idea what to expect when I began reading the story, being completely unfamiliar with the subjects of either ice harvesting or cadaver trading in the late 1800’s. But the author does such an exceptional job of placing us in the footsteps of the characters that we can’t help but come to an understanding of the difficulties of that time. The fascinating moral and ethical gray area that medical professionals were forced into because of the lack of legitimate, legal avenues to obtain cadavers for study. The fortitude and strength of will, of character, and of body that the people of that time had to have in order to merely survive, let alone attain happiness. This is a book that puts things into a new perspective. It makes you realize the hardships that previous generations had to endure and how lucky we are today because of the people that pushed for progress. But it also points out that human nature is a constant. That people back then were faced with many of the same trials and dilemmas that we face today.

I would easily recommend The Ice Merchant to anyone looking for a good story to read, regardless of your interest in the time period or knowledge of the subjects it tackles, because it goes beyond a mere history lesson. I look forward to reading more works by Dr. Boor in the future.

Eagle Flight Original Soundtrack Review

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Between the Oculus Rift and the PSVR I’ve logged more than 30 hours of flight time with Ubisoft’s first VR experience, Eagle Flight, a majestic new game that has you soaring above and through the futuristic ruins of a long-abandoned Paris. Humans have vanished and the animals rule the city. This interesting premise is matched not only with astounding open-world exploration, but one of the most engaging soundtracks I’ve heard in any game this year; VR or otherwise.

Composed by three-time BAFTA-nominated composer Inon Zur, Eagle Flight captures the pure majesty of flight through music, and even as I played I was looking forward to the possibility of this becoming available as a standalone soundtrack; a sentiment shared by numerous people in my chatroom watching my live streams of Eagle Flight. Sadly, there does come a point in the game where you are indirectly encouraged to turn off the music, and I can tell you that the entire experience diminishes greatly without the score, especially in a game with minimal sound effects and no dialogue outside some brief narration.

If I had to summarize the Eagle Flight soundtrack in a single word it would be “Triumphant”. The choices of instruments and the perfect blend of percussion fused with the ethereal voices of Mimi Page and Aeralie Brighton make it impossible to choose a favorite track. Honestly, if it weren’t for the moments of silence between, all 13 tracks could easily be merged into one. The rise and fall pacing of the music keeps you guessing on where this ride is going and makes this score anything but boring, which makes it perfect for a game such as this that I regularly play for 3-5 hour stretches at a time. Conversely, I can pretty much put this CD on a loop and listen to it all day.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Eagle Flight is that it is a VR-only experience, so the game won’t be reaching as many people, but thankfully you can at least enjoy what has become some of my favorite game music of 2016 and easily one of my top three soundtracks of the year. The music from the Eagle Flight Original Soundtrack works exceptionally well in almost any listening situation; especially while driving. The score is so soothing it’s like musical therapy and turns any commute into an adventure.

The Eagle Flight soundtrack is now available for digital download from http://www.sumthing.com and the CD is now available in stores.   I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gears of War 4 – The Soundtrack Review

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The fourth installment in the Gears of War franchise is upon us and along with it comes another epic soundtrack, this time from composer Ramin Djawadi whose music you may have heard in shows like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and the Warcraft movie that released earlier this year. With such an impressive portfolio you’d expect the new Gears of War 4 – The Soundtrack to be nothing short of epic and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. While there are a few stumbles during the 23-track run, for the most part the score does its job of vividly recreating flashbacks to those memorable moments from the game.

The soundtrack manages to evoke and overarching theme throughout while distinctively showcasing subtle nuanced moments from track to track.   You have soaring orchestration such as Prologue, the opening track that also accompanied the game’s opening cutscene that establishes the mood for the rest of the game.   Subsequent tracks like Anvil Gate and In and Out ramp up the tempo with a mix of instruments and electronics creating an almost hypnotic beat that continues into tracks like A Few Snags, and Windflare.

I was expecting the Main Theme track to steal the show but that honor goes to the 7th track, Taken, which borrows elements from the main theme and develops them into something highly emotional to enhance a key moment from the game’s story. The soundtrack comes full circle in the Finale that borrows upon the Prologue track and takes it one step further.

One thing that surprised me was that there didn’t seem to be any callbacks to the music or themes from the previous games. This was entirely original music, which may bother fans of the game looking for some musical connection to past experiences. Even so, the score we get is as epic as the game it supports with music that fuels the action and enhances the narrative and somehow remains memorable without ever becoming overbearing. Honestly, I couldn’t have told you much about the soundtrack if you had asked me about it after finishing the game, but hearing the score detached from the game sent all sorts of memories flooding back, even a month later.

If you’re a big Gears of War fan or just enjoy listening to robust musical scores that range from subtle emotions to pulse-pounding tribal-like beats then Gears of War 4 – The Soundtrack will certainly be a worthy addition to your musical library. You can find it now on digital and streaming outlets worldwide, including iTunes and Sumthing.com, or get a physical CD on Amazon.

Halcyon 6: The Official Soundtrack Review

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Games and shows in the Sci-fi genre have a certain musical theme that we can expect. Though the music isn’t the same from one to the next, there is a tone to them, a certain texture, that we can immediately say belongs to something sci-fi in nature. The soundtrack to Halcyon 6 by Steve London immediately places itself comfortably within this specific genre, but goes a step further, to isolate it to that particular style of sci-fi music that belongs to the ‘90’s sci-fi video game.

There are fifteen tracks on the soundtrack to the game and each one is unique. There are songs like Hold Your Course! and Battlestations! and the bonus track, Deep Space Distress Call that are tense and epic in their scope. There are themes for each of the alien races that you encounter that seem to hint at the race’s overall attitude. One perfect example is the track The Yabbling. When I met this race of aliens, I remember feeling confused and a little put-off by the conversation that I had with their representative, and the track that plays for them is just as strange. It is upbeat, confusing, and very, very odd, while still maintaining that very specific sci-fi feel.

The music sets the mood for the game and does so very well. Each piece seems to have been written with a very specific moment in the game in mind and when it corresponds with those moments, it provides a very concrete, very real sense of that moment. Battles are tense and exciting, partly because the pacing of the music serves to set you on edge. The thematic music does a wonderful job of implying the vastness of the space around you, the options available to you, but also that underlying threat of impending attack. There always seems to be lurking, even in the music, the implication that you are never quite safe out in the black of space and that you never can quite predict where the next threat is going to come from.

Especially considering that the soundtrack is relatively short for a video game that you will potentially play for several hours, I was quite impressed and pleased that the music didn’t feel too repetitive or overpowering. It does a great job of setting tone and mood for the game, but not ever really taking center stage. The music plays a supporting role in the game and it does this very well.

The HALCYON 6 game and soundtrack are out now, available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux. The HALCYON 6 – Original Game Soundtrack is now available on CD Baby.

Far Cry Primal Original Game Soundtrack Review

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When you’re playing a video game set in 10,000 B.C. there is a certain level of expectation when it comes to presentation; both visually and audible. Far Cry Primal is arguably thin on story and dialogue, which in some way almost gives the game a silent movie quality, allowing the score to move front and center.   Aside from those rare moments of subtitled caveman speak, the only thing you are hearing in Primal is the environment and whatever composer, Jason Graves deems thematically correct.

I’ve been a big fan of Jason’s video game OST works over the years, and Far Cry Primal is no exception, but as I listened to the 33 tracks spanning nearly two hours there wasn’t that same level of musical discovery that I normally get with other soundtracks. Then I realized, you are basically already listening to the soundtrack, uninterrupted, while playing the game.  This was merely consuming that music in a different format – without the visual stimuli.

Another thing that struck me was how all the songs blended together thematically. That’s not to say they all sound the same, but I did find it much more difficult to associate bits of the score with specific gameplay moments – one of my favorite reasons to listen to soundtracks.  I think a big reason for this is the dominance of percussion in nearly every track.  If you love a good tribal beat then look no further than Far Cry Primal, and the selection of instruments used to create some of the more primitive sounds is pure genius.

As I mentioned in my game review for Far Cry Primal, music plays a major part of the overall experience; setting the mood such as the majestic theme that plays when you light a bonfire and the hawk swoops in, or the dangerous themes that creep in when the sun goes down and predators come out to play. Grave’s score has the uncanny ability to seamlessly shift from one track to the next based on real-time events creating a totally immersive experience.

Far Cry Primal is one of my favorite games in the franchise and Jason Grave’s brilliant score is a big part of that. If you enjoy primitive percussive music then the Far Cry Primal Original Game Soundtrack will effortlessly transport you back to the dawn of man and fuel the caveman DNA inside all of us.

XCOM 2 – Original Soundtrack from the Video Game Review

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One of the things I enjoy most about soundtrack reviews is how the music can subconsciously trigger mental images from the game (or movie). Of course this requires having experienced the content the soundtrack is meant to support.  Sadly, for reasons I won’t go into here, we have yet to been able to play XCOM 2, so I am going into this review a bit blind.  But it should be an interesting experience on just how accessible video game music can be even if you don’t play the game.

Tim Wynn was brought onboard to score the alien sequel. Wynn has an impressive list of credentials, and while I have played games and seen movies that he has worked on none of them has particularly stood out with maybe the exception of The Darkness II released back in 2012.  XCOM 2 presents a unique challenge for Wynn in that a story of aliens taking over the earth has been done so many times, would it be possible to create a fresh take on music for such a stale premise?

Surprisingly enough, the answer is yes, and Wynn has created a unique blend of soothing futuristic orchestrations with heavy emphasis on synth – think Blade Runner meets TRON. In fact, without having ever experienced the game, there were several tracks that could have seamlessly been dropped into (or lifted out of) the latest TRON movie.

Over the course of the 29 tracks prepare for a rollercoaster ride of smooth ambient score and pulse-pounding electronic bass beats that could easily fill in as the soundtrack for a futuristic racing game.   Be warned – if you listen to this soundtrack while driving please set your cruise control or you will likely find yourself doing triple digits.  I particularly enjoyed how the tracks flowed together.  If it weren’t for the gaps between tracks this entire soundtrack could easily pass for a single 67-minute experience.

There is a certain generic quality to the style of music in the XCOM 2 OST in that I could easily see this music being dropped into just about any type of game or movie. Nothing really limits it to the sci-fi genre, and that makes it perfect for listening to just about any time.  The pulsating electronic beats fuel your adrenalin then the score does an abrupt 180 with a few minutes of soothing synth before taking you on its next musical adventure.  The mix of rise and falls is executed with almost mathematical precision and can leave you breathless at times, but the music can just as easily slip into the background of your consciousness making this one of the most accessible soundtracks for listening to just about any time.

This is my first review for a Tim Wynn project and hopefully it won’t be my last. I am really impressed with the quality and range of the work in the XCOM 2 OST, and even without having played the game I can still totally recommend this soundtrack to any music lover who enjoys an eclectic mix of orchestrated themes with a heavy emphasis on synth and futuristic beats guaranteed to get your pulse racing.

Grab your copy on Amazon or check it out on iTunes.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! – The Soundtrack Review

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When I review a video game soundtrack I always enjoy seeing (or rather hearing) how much just listening to the music can spark my memories of playing the game.   In the case of the Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Soundtrack the 2-disc CD album arrived ahead of the game – in fact I have yet to receive my review copy of the game – but the music for this particular soundtrack is so good I just couldn’t wait any longer to write my review, because whether you plan on playing the game or not you DEFINITELY want to own its soundtrack.

If you’ve read any of my other OST reviews you’ll know I am a super-fan of Jesper Kyd.   The man is a musical genius whose video catalog I celebrate with the same passion and reverence as I have for John Williams and my movie soundtracks.  He is responsible for a majority of the music on this 2-disc soundtrack, most of which is found on the first disc, which might explain why it was so hard to swap out to the second.   That’s not to say the work of Des Shore and Justin Mullins is anything short of awesome as well, but Jesper’s tracks on that first disc are so hypnotically entrancing that the CD would often loop back on itself before I realized it was over and it was time to swap.

Having not played the game the music was built for I have no point of reference for how well it complements the narrative or gameplay, but as a standalone musical experience, this is some of the best music I have listened to in 2014. With no ties to the game I would compare the style to something from the TRON soundtrack – in fact two people who were listening to the soundtrack asked if this was from TRON.   Jesper Kyd has gone on record to say that, “There are no traces of real instruments; everything is made with analog synths, drum machines and old gaming consoles. The music is my take on 1980s sci-fi music and electronic music and there’s everything from Commodore 64 and Sega Megadrive instruments to massive analog synths and vintage drum machines. It’s basically a headtrip through 1980s film-inspired electronic synth scores with my own twist on that genre.”

I couldn’t agree more.  I was definitely having musical flashbacks to Tangerine Dream movie scores like Risky Business and my all-time favorite movie soundtrack, Run Lola Run primarily composed by Tykwer/Klimek/Heil.  Admittedly, you probably should be a techno fan going into this soundtrack, as it does rely heavily on the repetitive synth style of the genre.  The Shore and Mullins tracks do mix things up a bit, while preserving the overall continuity and flavor of the soundtrack.  Their tracks sound more like actual score that might reside underneath a narrative moment, or in the case of some of the more exciting tracks, maybe combat.  Track names that make use of key words like Ambient and Combat help to support my hypothesis.

If we ever do get to review Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel game at a later date I will be sure to update this review with any pertinent information regarding how well the music fits or complements the actual gameplay, but for now, rest assured that if you love techno and music heavily entrenched in video game culture, or are just a fan of Jesper Kyd, this is a MUST OWN album.

Music samples from Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel Soundtrack are streaming on SoundCloud and the album is available at Sumthing.com and Amazon.com.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 – Original Game Soundtrack Review

clos2ostCastlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 has finally released to the delight of gamers everywhere, and it is impossible to miss or dismiss the overwhelming influence and impact that the game’s score has on gamers while they play it.  Thankfully, Konami and Sumthing Else Music Works have brought us the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2: Original Game Soundtrack so we can enjoy the masterful composition of Oscar Araujo even when we aren’t glued to our video game.

The word “epic” gets tossed around a lot these days; so much that is has probably lost a bit of its meaning, but make no mistake, this soundtrack is EPIC.  Spanning 19 stirring tracks (or 31 if you buy the Director’s Cut digital version) there isn’t a single bad track in this score, especially if you have already played the game as each musical cue will help recreate vivid flashbacks from your time within the game.  While you may hear some subtle influences from past Castlevania games there is nothing recycled here.  Araujo has created something wholly unique and totally immersive with a composition that is as large and majestic as the set pieces within the game.

The sweeping score covers all the sub-genres with pleasing melodies, intense action, and suspenseful horror; all easily identifiable with their place in the adventure, but every bit as enjoyable on their own, even if you’ve never played the game.  Tracks like “The Throne Room” and “Descent to the Castle Dungeons” are larger than life then you have tracks like “Carmilla’s Spell” and “City in Flames” that really set an emotional high bar for the experience.  Tracks 8 and 9 (“Dracula’s Theme” and “Hunter and Prey”) fuse together to create seven minutes of pure adrenaline.  Narrative keyboard solos are juxtaposed with heavy percussion moments that fuel the boss battle segments from the game, and while there are still a few instances of synthesized effects, they are much fewer and used for greater effect in tracks like “The Toy Maker” and “Dying for a Drop of Blood”, and when combined with the haunting chorus you get chilling tracks like “Gods Chosen”.

Recorded at the legendary Abbey Road Studios; Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 has a soundtrack that is easily on par with anything coming out for theatrical release and just as easily puts this as one of the top three listening experience for video game soundtracks in 2014.  The arrangements are on a scale of something you would expect from a Lord of the Rings movie.

Even if you haven’t played this latest installment in Konami’s legendary vampire franchise, you are most certainly going to enjoy this fantastic score, and for those who have played the game; prepare to relive the experience as the music is sure to spark all sorts of memories of your past adventures.   The Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2: Original Game Soundtrack is now available on Amazon.com or you can download a digital version from iTunes, and as always, check out Sumthing.com for all the soundtracks for all the latest games you’re already playing and those that are coming soon.