With some of the earliest video games, music became an essential part of the experience, working to evoke certain emotions that other aspects of game design often could not due to technical limitations. Modern games have innovated both in the realm of sound design and score, as well as other areas, so music sometimes doesn’t necessarily play as pivotal a role as it once did. Music can be a subtle addition that complements the gameplay experience, or it can act as a focal point to the experience that heightens the emotion even further than expected. 2021 emphasizes both ends of that spectrum with a ton of fantastic examples of great video game soundtracks.
2021 may have been a strange year for games to some fans, but in terms of impeccable soundtracks and scores, this year presented a ton of variety. An impressive spread of AAA and indie titles showcased a ton of musical styles and themes that stood out this year, all to varying degrees of prominence in each title. Frenetic surf-rock-fusion plays in the background of Deathloop to heighten the excitement of each gunfight, while mysterious, chaos-infused electronic music elevates the uneasy atmosphere throughout the exploration of ZDR in Metroid Dread. Some of the most impressive video game soundtracks came from 2021’s biggest games.
The Artful Escape
Rightfully so, The Artful Escape deserves to be honored as one of 2021’s best video game soundtracks because of how intrinsic music is to the identity of the adventure. Originally conceived by Johnny Galvatron, frontman for the band “The Galvatrons,” The Artful Escape began as a sonically-inclined indie platformer with a failed Kickstarter.
Annapurna Interactive picked up the title to publish it, and the psychedelic platformer impressed many indie fans with its prog-rock soundtrack that emulated Galvatron’s emotional journey from musician to game developer. The Artful Escape‘s journey is deeply personal, exploring an artist’s spiritual journey as they attempt to live beyond their uncle’s shadow as a famous folk musician. The game’s soundtrack evokes feelings of cosmic discovery aptly, weaving together elements of rock music with various electronic melodies that combine with the spiritually cosmic art style and atmosphere. The game’s soundtrack is as insane a trip as the game’s narrative is, and better for it.
Fusing jazz influences and 60s rock with modern instrumentation and production, Deathloop‘s score perfectly complements the retro-futuristic setting and action of the game. Colt’s journey through the titular groundhog day plays out a lot like a James Bond film on LSD, emphasized by the psychedelic rock influence on the soundtrack. A mix of stylistic vocal songs, along with funky pulse-pounding instrumental themes, elevate the strange atmosphere of Blackreef. Deathloop‘s score is full of earworm melodies that are always just a bit off-kilter, drawing from spy thrillers and action movies from the past to accentuate the game’s theme excellently.
Toby Fox has already become a known quantity in video game orchestration thanks to his incredible Undertale soundtrack, and he shows no sign of stopping with the music of Deltarune. With Chapter 2’s release this year, the nostalgic and complex chiptune orchestrations of Deltarune continue to iterate on the fantastic Undertale-esque sound with the new game’s JRPG-like presentation and atmosphere. Variance in character and setting themes, the reliance on consistent work with leitmotifs, all culminate in creating a familiar sound of which the composer is known for, while also giving Deltarune a unique sound that elevates Kris’ hero’s journey as it continues to unfold.
Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights
In the quieter moments of the Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights soundtrack, various somber piano melodies pair with vocals that evoke a childlike innocence to emphasize an overbearing feeling of tragedy. In a similar vein to Undertale, this gloomy fantasy Metroidvania utilizes the leitmotif of Lily’s theme throughout the soundtrack, spliced between original orchestrations for overworld and boss themes. Battle themes in particular are where Ender Lilies’ score experiments the most: There’s an impressive mix of striking percussion and dramatic strings, harrowing solo piano themes, and even modernistic synth melodies like the “Helplessness” theme. All of which culminate in underscoring Ender Lilies‘ grim journey through its dark fantasy world.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles
Dramatizing the conflict of a tenuous courtroom in video game form, the Ace Attorney series has had plenty of iconic character and court themes throughout its 20-year run so far. The distinctly Japanese caricatures of the series all have iconic moments throughout the series, and The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is certainly no different.
However, the soundtrack for the latest entry adopts a more fantastic sound to match The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles‘ Victorian-esque setting. What sets it apart, however, are the distinctly Japanese-esque string melodies that inter-spliced between European harpsichord sections. The interwoven music influences are meant to emphasize the main character’s displacement in an unfamiliar land. Bringing Ace Attorney‘s signature sound into a Victorian setting makes this soundtrack stand out from other games in the series in a big way.
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Perhaps the most striking soundtrack of 2021, the Kena: Bridge of Spirits score is incredibly unique because of the story behind it. In producing the game’s soundtrack, composer Jason Gallaty reached out to the Gamelan Cudamani ensemble group to work on the game, injecting traditional Indonesian orchestration into the game. Melodic percussion comes courtesy of the live performance of the Gamelan Çudamani, arranged by Gallaty throughout Kena: Bridge of Spirits. This resulted in the merging of traditional sounds with contemporary orchestration to create a memorable soundtrack that resonates with the themes of spirituality in Kena: Bridge of Spirits.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy
Any proper adaptation of the iconic Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel heroes needs to feature an iconic classic rock sound, but Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy goes above and beyond. Eidos Montreal’s Guardians of the Galaxy takes a three-pronged approach to its soundtrack: An original orchestral score, licensed classic rock music from the 70s and 80s, as well as an original “Star-Lord” band and album.
Together, all three create an exciting trichotomy of unique sounds that makes Guardians of the Galaxy stand out. The licensed music is iconic and recognizable, while the original score helps give the Guardians a traditional hero’s theme to ramp up the intensity in more serious moments. That being said, the original album produced specifically for the game from the fictional “Star-Lord” band is the star of the game’s soundtrack. Even if it’s charmingly cheesy, producing an original rock album alongside a score and licensed music makes the game’s soundtrack iconic.
In name alone, Metroid Dread sets expectations for the gameplay experience pretty early, but the score does a great job of hammering home its titular feeling. A deep uneasiness is emphasized by the irregular and chaotic orchestration played in every new area of ZDR that Samus explores. Whether it’s the ambiance that’s in the background while players wander through Artaria, or one of the horror-inducing and pulse-pounding E.M.M.I. chase themes, Metroid Dread‘s soundtrack does a perfect job of making the player feel uneasy. It’s not exactly the type of soundtrack to listen to recreationally, but it sets the uncomfortable and scary tone for Metroid Dread artfully.
For a game bent on emulating the early 80s world of gaming, Salvinsky’s original score for Narita Boy is an incredible retro wave throwback that perfectly complements the game’s aesthetic. As a retro-futuristic platformer complete with blurry resolution and digital gridlines, Narita Boy‘s soundtrack was clearly inspired by the popular synthwave genre of music. Harkening back to 80s electronic music, with punchy synths and high BPM that resemble the scores of films like Blade Runner, there isn’t a single track in the score that seems out of place.
NEO: The World Ends with You
Following up on the original game over a decade later, it makes sense that NEO: The World Ends with You‘s soundtrack is just as stylish and anime-esque as the first entry was. The J-pop and punk rock fusion across the entire track list, alongside dedicated vocals on nearly every track, makes NEO: The World Ends with You‘s soundtrack sound extremely over-the-top. That in turn makes it very distinct compared to every other game soundtrack released this year, even in comparison to other anime-inspired JRPGs that were released throughout 2021.
As part of the original game’s remaster, the original Nier game’s soundtrack was similarly overhauled with 2021’s Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139…. Original arrangements from Nier were reorchestrated with modern production for Nier Replicant, re-capturing the spirit of the original songs without changing them drastically.
Replicant‘s usage of non-lexical vocals (written by singer Emi Evans) adds great weight and emotion to each song through phonetics alone, which is impressive considering how rarely vocals are implemented in video game music. This “Chaos Language” almost acts as a new instrument, elevating Replicant‘s soundtrack in a unique way that’s unlike many other video game soundtracks in general.
Persona 5 Strikers
The soundtrack of Persona 5 proper has received a ton of praise for its acid-jazz fusion that was unlike any other JRPG soundtrack ever produced. That being said, Persona 5 Strikers‘ soundtrack presents an interesting spin on that style through several remixes and original orchestrations.
In particular, Persona 5 Strikers takes the funky foundation of the base game and injects about as much rock and metal influence as possible. The end result is a high-energy soundtrack with twice as many guitars tracks than Persona 5‘s soundtrack ever had. Even outside of the battle themes, certain dungeon and overworld themes ventured far outside of Persona 5‘s specific style and explored various other sounds and influences.
The long-awaited sequel to the first game, Psychonauts 2 brings with it a stellar and whimsical soundtrack that encapsulates the zany nature of the game’s aesthetic and story. Accompanying the sequel’s expectedly strange narrative is a score that plays out like a Pixar film’s soundtrack, full of melodic peaks and valleys meant to evoke a sense of wonder and excitement throughout the game. The psychedelic nature of Psychonauts 2 means there’s a ton of variation in themes, and similar to Deathloop, borrows a lot of inspiration from Bond-like jazz fusion that culminates in a lot of diverse songs in the game. Jack Black’s appearance on “Smell the Universe” emphasizes this wholeheartedly.
Shin Megami Tensei 5
While Shoji Meguro is mostly known for his work on the Persona soundtracks, Ryota Kozuka is known for his work on the modern Shin Megami Tensei game soundtracks. Shin Megami Tensei is drastically different in tone compared to Persona, and that can’t be greater emphasized than by listening to the music. Shin Megami Tensei 5‘s soundtrack in particular illustrates Kozuka’s signature ethereal and heavily distorted sound, mixed in with some strong metal guitar riffs in every battle/boss theme.
It’s frankly surprising how many battle themes are actually in Shin Megami Tensei 5, and the fact that all of them are distinct and kick up the intensity with ease. This variance in sound makes every separate battle, and every new god or demon, seem important in its own unique way. The overworld and dungeon themes make the Netherworld seem isolated and dangerous, paired with songs that are both rhythmic and melancholy to emphasize this strange and enticing new world of demons. Shin Megami Tensei 5‘s soundtrack combines the best of Shin Megami Tensei 3 and 4‘s sounds to create an intriguing and adrenaline-fueled soundtrack.
Tales of Arise
By comparison, Tales of Arise‘s soundtrack is a relatively traditional JRPG soundtrack that’s executed quite well. An exciting Final Fantasy-esque mix-and-match between powerful orchestral arrangements and impactful rhythm guitars from boss themes helps set the tone of Alphen and Shionne’s adventure. Chanting Latin choruses back up some of the more emotional songs throughout Tales of Arise, and the usage of string instruments like the violin/viola for the main melody in several songs gives the score a bit of a voice.
Overall, there were a ton of fantastic new game soundtracks released in 2021. The sheer diversity of sounds, ranging from a variety of traditional and unconventional genres, largely helped raise the bar of quality for excellent video game soundtracks in every category.
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https://gamerant.com/video-game-osts-music-soundtracks-best-2021/ 15 Best Video Game Music Scores and Soundtracks of 2021