Remember those times when you go out for dinner and you end up enjoying the sides a lot more than the entrée? You order a handful of, say, mozzarella sticks alongside a burger. The burger turns out to be a cold, soggy mess while the sticks are satisfyingly cheesy and crispy. Well, music can often play that exact same role as those mozzarella sticks in a handful of videogames.
Games can’t always be fun, smart or memorable, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have great music. Game studios sometimes find a way to include harmonious and grand musical scores in their disappointing games, soundtracks that are so good you can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if the game made as much of an impression. Here are the eight best examples of videogame soundtracks that are better than the games themselves.
Resident Evil 6, the last main entry in Capcom’s popular horror franchise, is a colossal mess. It’s the worst one in the series, with an emphasis on generic, mindless action rather than exploration and puzzle solving, which are Resident Evil’s roots. Its failure forced the company to entirely rethink its strategy for the series moving forward, and it’s been nearly four years since we’ve had a proper, big-budget Resident Evil game.
The series isn’t really known for its soundtracks, but Resident Evil 6 is a constant source of sinister, atmospheric music. It’s creepy most times, making the player uneasy and frightened when really, they shouldn’t be. The game is far from scary. Main composer Akihiko Narita knows exactly when to deliver an eerie track filled with ominous string instruments, or when he should kick things up a notch by using a large amount of percussion. I only wish Narita devoted his time producing a similar, high-quality score for the excellent Resident Evil 4 instead.
Released last year, Submerged was made by the small developer Uppercut Games. It’s a third-person exploration, post-apocalypse title about a young girl trying to save her sick baby brother from a disease. The game has a few interesting ideas, particularly the way it uses simple caveman-like drawings to tell its story, but the execution can definitely be better.
Jeff van Dyck, known for his BAFTA-nominated work on the Total War games, produced Submerged’s score. Dyck mainly uses the piano to create a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack that perfectly breathes life into Submerged’s otherwise somber world. It’s one of the few parts of the game that stands out, and it reminds me of Austin Wintory’s similarly elegant and euphonious Journey soundtrack.
Hot off the heels of Heavy Rain, developer Quantic Dream was a bit overambitious with the Ellen Page-led Beyond: Two Souls. The story barely makes any sense, especially since it’s not presented in chronological order, and it’s a total drag to play. It definitely wasn’t as well-received as Heavy Rain.
Composer Lorne Balfe (who we’ll see again on this list) still manages to convey the very few, great aspects of Beyond: Two Souls in the game’s roughly 40-minute score. Jodie’s suite, which acts as the main theme, is a gorgeous piece of musical work that makes even the most dire person feel hopeful. The heavy use of string instruments is accompanied by a soulful female voice humming a mellow hymn. Beyond: Two Souls is a game about living with your flaws and overcoming the many obstacles life throws at you. Balfe totally gets it, perhaps even more than Quantic Dream.
Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series always has fantastic music, as composer Yoko Shimomura is arguably only second to Nobuo Uematsu when it comes to making soundtracks for Japanese role-playing games. So why is Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on the list? It’s the worst game in the franchise, that’s why.
First released for Game Boy Advance, then later ported to PlayStation 2, Chain of Memories employs a baffling play system involving cards and math. It’s nearly impossible to understand, making the experience intolerable at times. But Shimomura still brings her A game here, creating fantastic tracks like “Lord of the Castle”, which is some of the best villainous music you’ll have the pleasure of hearing. It’s up-tempo and frenetic, and contains energetic piano work. She also manages to produce a version of “Dearly Beloved” (the series’ main theme) that’s better than the first game’s.
Compulsion Games’ puzzle-based platformer Contrast has a cool concept involving moving between the physical world, which is represented as 3D, and shadows, which are represented as 2D. The player has to constantly find light sources to create shadows they can move and jump on. The game’s noir atmosphere is also a delight, but Contrast fails to reach its full potential by the end. Its puzzles are mostly frustrating, and the story is pretty boring.
But it does have a wonderful jazz soundtrack that’s replete with catchy tunes and beautiful vocals. Songs like “The Streets” and “Kat’s Song” are soulful and emotional. The saxophone is often at full display, alongside vibrant, honeyed vocals. There are also a few speedy, hard-hitting rhythms that complement your adventures in Contrast’s Paris setting. Not many games explore the complex and nuanced world of jazz music, but Contrast does a good job of exposing players to the genre.
Composer Jesper Kyd was the main guy for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise for several years. However, Kyd decided to depart after 2010’s Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, leaving our returning hero Lorne Balfe to fill in some large shoes. He definitely pulled it off, but unfortunately he had to contend with making a stellar soundtrack for yet another flawed game.
Revelations is still regarded by some to be the poorest entry alongside the first Creed game. It isn’t awful, but it does feel tired and devoid of ideas. Balfe still leaves an impact, elevating a largely mediocre experience to something that’s actually memorable at times. Revelations’ score is a little melancholic with a Middle-Eastern vibe. (The game takes place in 16th century Turkey). The sitar is heavily used, creating an exotic, high-key sound which is satisfyingly different from anything you’ll hear in the series.
Acting as a direct sequel to Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2 addressed some of the first game’s issues, like the lack of player freedom and an open world to explore from the get-go. However, XII-2 is still terribly confusing mainly because it deals with time paradoxes, which is always difficult to pull off and make clear. XIII-2 is a bit lifeless as well, with that Final Fantasy magic largely absent.
Composer Masashi Hamauzu, who also did the soundtrack for Final Fantasy XIII, crafts an elegant and exciting score. Classic orchestral music involving pianos and a slew of varied string instruments (cellos, violins, and even harps) is still present. That’s the Final Fantasy standard after all. But Hamauzu includes crazy guitar solos and ambient electronica, making for one of the franchise’s more diverse soundtracks to date. Who knew electronica would go well with Final Fantasy?
Hamauzu is immediately back on this list with his work for the original Final Fantasy XIII. As we all know by now, the game didn’t turn out the way fans hoped it would. Square Enix created a frustratingly linear experience filled with constant cut-scenes and dull characters. It’s far from being the beloved gems that Final Fantasy VI, VII and IX are, and fans are still waiting for the series to make a comeback. Final Fantasy XV is hopefully just around the corner.
Hamauzu had to replace longtime Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu. In the end, he made arguably one of the best musical scores for a series that has delivered timeless tunes like “One Winged Angel.” Final Fantasy XIII’s battle theme, “Blinded Light,”, is fast-paced and has ferocious guitar work. The game’s best track, “Dust to Dust,” is an emotional tour de force that’s just as good as Final Fantasy X’s brilliant “To Zanarkand.” Even though Final Fantasy XIII is easily the most disappointing game in the series, its soundtrack still remains as one of the best.
Alex Gilyadov is a freelance writer who loves Breaking Bad and dislikes The Sopranos. He’s written for GamesBeat, Polygon, Playboy and Rock Paper Shotgun, among others. Tweet him @RParampampam.