While I often find that my time to play video games is steadily reducing as I grow older, the opposite is true for listening to their soundtracks. Whether it’s jamming to something while I go for a run, putting on a track to help me focus while working, or a tune to chill out to while writing nonsense like this, a video game’s soundtrack helps keep it alive long after I’ve completed the game.
I should also say that I’ve only picked one game per franchise/series otherwise you’d see a lot of repetition. And that I’ve decided to split this list into two parts because I’m running out of time for our arbitrary 5:30 pm deadline.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Let’s get the obvious out of the way early. It should come as no surprise that The Witcher 3 is on this list. I’ve spoken many times about how much I love this game and the excellent soundtrack is no different. It acts as a link between the story and the gameplay to create a rich, memorable world. Whether that’s the change in tempo for combat, running through the hills on your horse, or entering a tavern, everything slots perfectly into place. There is an argument to say that it is classic fantasy music and move on, but I would say that the soundtrack is distinctly Witcher throughout. As a comparison, the Netflix series has its own soundtrack that besides a few tracks doesn’t have that distinct nature found in the video game. It’s still very good but The Witcher 3 wins in almost every category.
I have never been a big fan of chiptune. There are some that I like but mostly, I prefer other styles. However, Shovel Knight is an absolute joy to listen to. The energy and tempo force the tracks to rattle around your head long after they’ve finished (in fact I can hear one of them as I type this document) and fit the frantic pace of the games many boss fights. And at the same time, they also match the emotional story beats along the way. If you haven’t played Shovel Knight (then get on that, it’s amazing), then I would encourage you to listen to the soundtrack. This is because I know that the genre and difficulty can turn some people away and I’d hate for you to miss out on this stellar soundtrack because of something as minor as not enjoying the game.
Not only is Endless Legend one of my favourite games of all time, but it also has a soundtrack that I could (and do) listen to on repeat all day long. Whenever I hear a track from the soundtrack I’m instantly transported back to one of the many games I had with friends as we smashed our fantasy factions against each other. And while there are some areas of the video game that I would change (mostly the turn-based combat and some of the balancing) there isn’t anything I would alter about the soundtrack. The main title track (Auriga’s Song) sets the tone of the game perfectly with its sweeping melody yet slow and lumbering pace that encapsulates the genre’s epic scale. This is one of my most listened to albums while working on something stressful as it helps me relax and focus, which is exactly what you want from the soundtrack to a 4X game.
Final Fantasy X
Honestly, this list could have included every single Final Fantasy game as they all have brilliant soundtracks (even XIII). However, as I’m only picking one I had to go with Final Fantasy X. This is my favourite Final Fantasy game and the accompanying soundtrack is no different. To Zanarkand and the Hymn of the Faith send shivers through my body whenever I hear them. Whereas, the main battle score and Otherworld are good for getting the blood pumping, even if the latter hasn’t dated well and is very cheesy. And then there are the tunes that play in the various villages and trials which sell the island hopping, nautical themes of the game. While none of them reaches the levels of To Zanarkand, the Besaid Island track stands out as the perfect fusion of natural and tech that encompasses Final Fantasy X’s narrative.
Much like the Final Fantasy series, I could have easily picked another release by Supergiant Games such as Bastion or Pyre. However, for me, Transistor has the better soundtrack. The vocal tracks are the only talking in the game and for a game with a silent protagonist, they speak volumes about the world around you. Transistor’s soundtrack is perfect sticking out in the background to help you chill out or focus. Lots of articles for Bits & Pieces are written with this in my ears. While I think there is a certain sadness to the score given that many of the tracks accompany a world being destroyed, there is also a hope that permeates throughout the album. And while I don’t think gameplay-wise, Transistor is my favourite by this developer in terms of narrative, atmosphere, world-building and music, it wins in every category.
For many years, I’ve listened to the Halo 2 soundtrack without ever having played the game. And throughout those listens I enjoyed it but never felt that I loved it. While there are soundtracks that I’ve adored without playing the game, I think it helps to have a story beat or emotional tie to solidify a soundtrack as a favourite of all time. And so last year (2020), I played Halo 2 with my partner and a lot of time listening to the soundtrack afterwards. And it is glorious. It’s also stupid and that is also part of why I love it as well. The main Mjolnir theme has guitar riffs and rocking solos that fit the wider more expressive narrative of revolution that takes place in Halo 2. While at the same time, there are quieter more considered tracks such as Ghosts of Reach. But really what you’re here for (except for that rocking main theme) are the Incubus tracks (which are brilliant) and the insane Breaking Benjamin tune – Blow Me Away. This is basically first-person shooter the song and it is a thing of beauty. And by that I mean it’s awful but in the best possible way. While it’s not a good song, it is catchy and despite my best efforts I can’t help but love it. And don’t even get me started on Never Surrender, you need to listen to that yourself and you’ll understand.
Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for Part 2. There were more soundtracks that I wanted to talk about than I’d first thought. If you want more other things, then check out Gav’s article on UI Fatigue or George’s review of the 2021 Mortal Kombat film.
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