Feature Q&A: Patrice Bourgeault on the Panzer Paladin soundtrack

Jerry on 2020-11-22
Tribute Games' latest sprite-based adventure game is Panzer Paladin for Windows and Nintendo Switch. The science-fiction platformer stars mech-piloting service android Flame.

When extraterrestrial invaders from another dimension beam down from space, Flame is tasked by the Gauntlet peacekeeping organization to pilot her mechanized bipedal robot Grit across ten geographical locations targeted by the enemy's haunted meteorites. Along the way, Flame is challenged by a mysterious armored centaur known as the Horseman, who wields rare weapons and offers cryptic warnings of the perils that await the heroic android.

Flame's Paladin armor can swipe a variety of swords, spears and hammers from opponents. These uncanny weapons can be broken through use, embedded in specially marked stones to serve as checkpoints, or snapped in half to release special attacks or health bonuses. Flame can also jettison her armored suit and, equipped with a laser whip, take on enemies up close and personal.

We spoke with Mercenary Kings composer Patrice Bourgeault of Montreal, Canada on the subject of his music score for the game. Subjects ranging from the musician's approach to chiptunes, guitar rock, and territorial genre flourishes provide a behind-the-scenes perspective on the creative process underlying the Panzer Paladin soundtrack.


In Panzer Paladin, Flame’s peace keeping organization deploys her to various geographical locations. For the instrumentation selected for the music track set in Japan, I was reminded of the influential Yamaha portable keyboards that game composers like Yuzo Koshiro utilized leading up to their work in 16-bit game scores. Is this the kind of sound you were interested in capturing for this stage theme?

Composer Patrice Bourgeault: There were some ideas on this stage that I wanted to go with, such as a melodic plucking sound that would be percussive at the same time, and also a bit of taiko drumming. It's interesting, because when you talk about Yamaha keyboards, FM synth and the 16-bit era game scores, this is something that I grew up with.

The first consoles I had were the Sega Master System, followed by the Sega Genesis. I still remember so many of these soundtracks, and it has probably been an influence on my music. On Streets of Rage, Koshiro is composing as if it were for rock music, instead of going with classical music as an influence, which is what you might be used to. There is the use of the drums and a lot of the blue scale, which is close to the pentatonic scale. I grew up with these soundtracks and memories of that just won't go away.

In Revenge of Shinobi, there is a track that takes place on the docks. When I wrote the "USA" track for Panzer Paladin, I wanted to have this kind of upbeat street vibe. The goal is not to copy it, but I thought it would be cool if I could capture this type of vibe. Usually, I like to start with small sketches as tryouts for one melody. I try to out melodies on the keyboards, or for the drum parts, I'll do some finger drumming on the piano. Whenever I come up with something interesting, I keep it and build the track around it. If I am lucky, I can get it right in the first attempt, though sometimes I have to play around.

Character sketch by David Liu and Tribute Games' concept art for Tanzania and Russia

Several of the stage themes make references to territorial music conventions.  The Russia theme features an intro channeling Russian folksongs like "Korobeiniki," which many people are familiar with from its appearance in Tetris. Was this a strategy you employed to lend a particular stylistic identity to these stage themes?

That's an appropriate question when you are talking about music conventions tied to the geographical location. There's some tricks you can pull from music theory to make the melody sound appropriate. It's not a direct reference. But at the same time, there's a reason why the Tetris theme sounds Russian, in the sense that this kind of minor melodic scale and the use of percussion for the rhythmic section sounds distinctly Russian.

When I started working on the soundtrack, I wanted to do more of this, so that you could have even more of the sense of the country when you played the level. But, as I was playing with this concept, I realized that sometimes I was not using appropriate melodies for these instruments. These were the kinds of comments I received from Jonathan Lavigne, one of the founding members of Tribute. And I think this was a good call. Because I make no pretensions of having mastered these folkloric instruments, I colored with just a little spice here and there to give a feel for the location. It is not so much in the forefront as it was in the beginning.

That's as far as it could go in getting close to "Korobeiniki." This would be the starting point. Then, when I start composing, I don't really think about those conventions as much. I think, "Let's create a good structure, and let's create a melody that is easy to recall." By combining these little ingredients, with the use of the melody and the percussion, in the end you hope it sounds a little bit Russian, just to get a flavor that belongs to this country.

It was very important for the genres of guitar rock and chiptune to blend together well. It's also very important for all the songs on the soundtrack to blend together. That is the number one concern. Each song has to feel like it's from the same soundtrack. Going too far with, say, doing a Russian folk song, it would not have fit as well within the soundtrack. The main goal is to get all these songs to work well together.


Panzer Paladin begins with an attack on Gauntlet’s base in Canada. The introductory stage showcases chiptune instruments reminiscent of vintage game consoles as a foreground instrument. Was the stage theme’s design intended to lay the groundwork for the soundtrack as a whole and reflect the instructional nature of the stage's introductory gameplay? 

The process behind the “Canada" theme was quite interesting. When I started working on it, I was so conscious of it being the first level where the player will learn the gameplay. I produced a track that was a lot calmer than what you hear in the game. As a tutorial, I thought you would want to take it slow and learn the controls.

But then I got the feedback from the Tribute guys, letting me know that because the base is being attacked, we have to feel the urgency of that danger. The stage had to carry the same amount of energy as the other stages. If it were too mellow, it would not fit as well. This is when I brought the chip instruments up front. I brought in some guitar riffs, which would serve as a musical foundation for the soundtrack. The chiptunes flow over it and are carried by the rest of the mix.

For the Panzer Paladin soundtrack I used "chipsounds" software from a company called Plogue. I think it gives a very authentic feeling because they have worked so hard to get these sounds to feel like the real thing. It helped me a lot to achieve this part of the process.

Here there are two genres of music in play that are complementary, which might be described as "guitar rock" and "chiptune." The idea of live instruments like guitar and bass backing up chip music seems to me to have an ironic or unexpected feel to it. Was this approach intended to serve the story, where an android and mechanized robot are at the forefront of the action, and the human operatives are providing instruction and lending support?

It's an interesting analogy, in terms of who is performing in front and in back. I started experimenting with using these two genres together when I was working on Mercenary Kings' soundtrack. It has the same type of flavor, in the sense that these two genres are blended together.

In the genre of chip music, vintage game hardware will often serve as backup to a live guitar or vocal performance. For instance, Tribute Games staff members worked on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World: The Game ten years ago. And in my observation, the approach by Anamanaguchi to live performance, which involves vintage console sounds, directs your attention to the live instruments performed in the foreground.

It definitely was an influence for me to see just what could be done with bringing these two genres together. There is so much energy. You hear the chiptunes, you hear the live instruments like rock music. In my case, you have a more conservative formulation for music, where you have drums, bass and guitar. As a result, chiptunes are carrying the melody and are playing the role of the singer in a rock band. Because it is instrumental and is serving as background music, vocals might not be appropriate here.

When talking about the guitar rock genre in the case of the Panzer Paladin soundtrack, sometimes I would go to record analog music from a real guitar or sometimes the bass is a synth bass. It depends on what is needed. If I go with synth instruments, that might be faster, or it might be more flexible in the end. It needs to blend together really well.


The headquarters in Canada is the first stage where we are introduced to the Horseman character, who serves a significant purpose in the narrative structure of the game. Is the return of the character's battle track in different forms throughout the game a strategy for tying together the player's overall experience?

I think this is an interesting way of making the soundtrack whole. Taking parts of one song and then bringing them back in different ways allows you to feel that you are always in the same environment. This was done in the "Horseman" theme and in the different epilogues. The Ravenous music shows up in cutscenes whenever the character appears, in the form of a guitar riff. The idea is to contaminate different songs with some of the same parts to help bring the whole soundtrack together.

In a cutscene where Flame is communicating with the Gauntlet headquarters, Ravenous hacks into her comms and appears in her heads-up display. That's when the Ravenous guitar riff comes in?

Yes, the badass guitar riff is cued to the moment where he appears.

Did the designers at Tribute Games mention that they wanted a jingle to introduce the Horseman character? I was reminded of Protoman’s theme in Mega Man 3, which plays before the character appears onscreen and then is also integrated into a full-length music track in the epilogue.

I was told that the character would come back throughout the game. They said it would be cool, when the Horseman appears, if he could have something a little bit like Protoman. I knew what they were referring to, but took another look to remember exactly what they meant. The idea was to have a calming melody to announce something was coming. That was how I understood it. The introduction serves as a small break between the level and fighting the boss. You need a buffer between those two. That's why it's there.

On several tracks, certain characteristics of the music appear to be matched to the unique characteristics of that environment.  The Switzerland stage theme takes place on a train, and there is an uneven tempo to the music, like a chugging engine. There is also a waning of the instruments, like the Doppler effect of a passing train.  Was this the effect these musical choices were meant to serve?

This was done on purpose. They told me a little bit about the level—that it was happening on a train. I had some basic visuals to work with. Having these two or three specifications, I wanted it to have the feel of a train, but I did not want it to be too obvious. It needed to sound like part of the melody, not sound effects.

After defeating a boss, the player is given a reprieve from the action when returned to the stage stage select screen. Does this kind of emotional variation allow you to dial back the tension intermittently as the player makes progress?

I would not say that the "stage select" is the smoothest track. I tried to have there be a sense of anxiety. You are having to choose where you want to go. It didn't need to be too laid back, I think. For example, when you go to the shop, or during the cutscenes, then you can go with something more relaxed. It's a little bit more abstract. There is a little more reverb and electronic sounds, and some sounds of a computer. The player needs a break from the intensity of the music, so it breathes a little more.

When you get to the tower levels, this is where the music gets a little bit metal. You have more double bass drums to heighten the intensity. In the "Spirit Forge," this track has the most metal flavor to it, in its changing time signatures and the use of bass drum and percussive instruments.

In the same way that the game designers invite the player to design custom weapons in the blacksmith mode, could the inclusion of the Powerglove arrangement in the album release be interpreted as an invitation for musicians to record their own Panzer Paladin soundtrack arrangements?

Whenever an artist covers my music, it makes my day. There were some metal covers of Mercenary Kings, but there was also reggae, which was really good! In the case of the Powerglove cover, the lead guitars are really flying and the double bass-drums toward the end are quite jaw-dropping. I couldn’t stop smiling, the first time I heard it. If other artists ever want to cover Panzer Paladin music, I’d definitely love to hear some of those tracks performed by a live band!

Panzer Paladin digital soundtrack available for purchase through Bandcamp and Steam. Images courtesy of Tribute Games.