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‘Metal Gear Solid 4’: An Act By Act Analysis

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“War has changed.”

There is not a single video game that opens as profoundly, or as appropriately, as Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots does with Solid Snake’s “War has changed” monologue. In less than five minutes, not only is the game’s tone established, so is a new direction for the franchise as a whole. War has changed, yes, and so has Metal Gear. Where Portable Ops signified the coming of a new identity, Guns of the Patriots solidified it. In telling no one but the player that war has changed, the audience knows to expect something completely different from this point on. This is made all the clearer when, roughly fifteen minutes later, a title card with the words “Act 1: Liquid Sun” comes up on screen.

Along with war, Metal Gear Solid’s narrative structure has changed as well. This isn’t the first time a Metal Gear title has split itself into two; both Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater divided themselves into sections featuring a prologue and a main game, but those prologues served to set up the core narrative. While there certainly is an overarching plot to Metal Gear Solid 4, each act does have its own story and themes to give it an individuality it otherwise wouldn’t have. They all connect to one another in the end, but Kojima injects so much identity into each act that analyzing MGS4’s narrative without taking the act structure into account feels misguided. Every act has its own narrative and thematic purpose in the context of Guns of the Patriots.

Before diving into act analysis, it is important to establish what Metal Gear Solid 4 is about at its core: Solid Snake. The series has never shied away from character stories, with Raiden and Big Boss both starring in rather character driven games, but it also never stopped to critically analyze Snake as intensely as it would Raiden or Big Boss. The original Metal Gear Solid did put Snake in a position of philosophical reevaluation, while also giving him a traditional character arc, but it never truly criticized what it meant to be Solid Snake. Snake had to bare the burden of committing patricide, and whether or not he enjoyed killing, but his arc was more focused in Snake carving an identity of his own and generally defrosting as a person. For a game so focused on family, Snake never even gets a chance to muse over ending the game by committing fratricide.

Come Metal Gear Solid 2, and there genuinely is nowhere for Snake’s character to go as an individual. As a result, Raiden becomes the protagonist and Snake takes on a mentor position. By the time Metal Gear Solid 3 ends, the only real thread left to explore is a deconstruction of Solid Snake in the same vein as Raiden and Big Boss. Of course, doing said deconstruction would require setting a game after Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that ended in such a way where a sequel would be thematically impossible. Needless to say, this puts Metal Gear Solid 4 in a predicament- it can’t be a sequel in order to preserve MGS2’s legacy, but it needs to be a sequel because the only natural plot thread left involves analyzing Solid Snake as a character. Coupled with Hideo Kojima’s intense disinterest with the series by the mid-2000s, MGS4’s script not only deconstructed Solid Snake, it destroyed everything that came before it to make a point. Guns of the Patriots is about Solid Snake, but it’s about a Solid Snake who’s going to be broken alongside the world around him; and neither are repairable.

Every single event in the first act serves to establish the annihilation the Metal Gear canon is about to undergo. Solid Snake is dying of a manufactured version of Werner Syndrome; his code name is changed to “Old Snake;” Meryl is introduced only to look at her once hero with nothing but pity; Metal Gear Solid 3’s stamina meter is replaced with a psyche meter that goes down during cutscenes depending on how Snake is treated; Naomi is formally working with Liquid; and Ocelot undergoes a complete personality death after Snake Eater went through such great lengths to develop him. Liquid Sun is a cold, cruel, introduction of an act and it deserves all the praise in the world for how much damage it does.

The only way to deconstruct Solid Snake so late the series truly is to destroy the lore around him. Better yet, act one’s approach to following up Sons of Liberty is everything it should have been: nothing. There is not a single major reference made to MGS2’s plot save for an acknowledgement that the Patriots do exist in some capacity. Otherwise, the resolution to Metal Gear Solid 2’s themes and plots are left up to the imagination. This, of course, doesn’t last as the second act immediately makes it clear that MGS4 is a direct sequel to MGS2, but act one serves as a reminder of how good a sequel Guns of the Patriots could have been without hurting Sons of Liberty.

Act one’s strength as an opening is also, sadly, its greatest weakness. Liquid Sun is the promise of a story of sacrifice, and that simply isn’t what Metal Gear Solid 4 is going to end up being. It has elements of sacrifice, especially within Snake’s and Raiden’s character arc, but the narrative is mainly about the passage of time. Outside of a tenuous connection to Liquid Ocelot, there is no logical reason for Snake to be a part of the fight. He’s old, he’s dying, and the next generation is leaving him in the dust. At the same time, though, there is worth in his age. He’s experienced, he’s smart, and he has something the next generation lacks: strength of will. Time marches on, and it’s important to realize when your time is up so the next generation can take the reins, but it’s just as important for the next generation to look back on the time gone by to take from the previous generation.

Although Metal Gear Solid 4 would go on to wreck MGS2’s ending in the next act, this theme of time actually does make Sons of Liberty stronger in hindsight. While Raiden taking over Snake’s role already had narrative and thematic weight, Guns of the Patriots conceptually recontextualizes it so that it’s a formal passing of the torch between two generations when control switches over to Raiden. It’s a detail like this, that feels so appropriate with Metal Gear, that makes act one so bittersweet. Kojima had done the impossible and made a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 2 that actually made sense; and then he utterly ruined it.

“Snake, the only thing keeping you together is the strength of your will.”

Act 2: Solid Sun is, quite possibly, the single worst narrative stretch in the entire Metal Gear franchise. Not because the content is poor, it’s actually quite inoffensive in its own bubble, but because it tramples over everything Metal Gear Solid 2 stood for. Where the first act took a conscious approach to ensuring MGS2 was left untouched, the second makes it a goal to reference every detail from Sons of Liberty so the audience knows that none of that thematic weight as the credits rolled actually mattered. While the mere inclusion of Rosemary and Vamp, characters who have no purpose existing outside of MGS2’s context, certainly damage their home game, it’s what Kojima does to Raiden that makes the second act such a narrative disappointment.

At the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, Snake tells Raiden that he needs to find something to believe in. On a narrative level, this is a way of resolving Raiden’s character arc by having him reevaluate his life up to this point. On a thematic level, this is Snake’s way of telling the audience, through Raiden, that it’s up to them to decide what actually happened during the events of Sons of Liberty. More than anything, this is a sentiment meant to leave players critically thinking as they reflect on the end of the series’ narrative. Come Solid Sun, however, and Raiden is back; not as his old self, nor a progression of himself, but as a cyborg ninja whose very presence contradicts everything Raiden as a character once embodied.

Raiden’s role as a cyborg ninja only makes sense by under-analyzing his character, which is especially frustrating considering Metal Gear Solid 4 is the first Kojima directed MGS not to have a co-writer. Kojima is entirely responsible for Raiden’s shift as a character. He used a sword at the end of MGS2, he was a child soldier, and he had a serious problem with emotional detachment. In Sons of Liberty, his backstory serves as commentary on the average gamer while also contrasting him to Solid Snake. In Guns of the Patriots, his backstory is a flimsy justification for why he’s now doing back flips and cutting down bipedal tanks with a katana.

If that weren’t enough, Raiden’s entire personality undergoes a psychological shift. While he was already at his breaking point by the end of MGS2, he was able to hold in together in the hopes of rescuing Olga’s daughter and finding his own truth. He was naive, but he was determined to do what he believed was right, and he had a strong sense of justice. He was lonelier than he lead on, and made sure he was seldom vulnerable, but he was still able to open up under the right circumstances and never rejected camaraderie. In MGS4, he’s a jaded, alcoholic, stoic who refuses to let a single person in and even abandons his family in order to finish a fight that doesn’t concern him.

In that last respect, and that last respect alone, Raiden does come off slightly compelling. For all his flaws, he does contrast Snake appropriately. Snake is the past generation while Raiden is the next, and both are fighting battles they have no reason fighting. In hunting down Liquid Ocelot, Snake is fighting a war designed for the next generation. By trying to kill Vamp, Raiden is forcing himself into a battle that the past generation should have finished. They are both out of place, and they suffer immensely for it. More importantly, the states of their bodies are in direct opposition. Snake is dying because of what the world did to him. Raiden is dying because of what he did to himself. The latter survives only through augmentations. The former through strength of will alone.

Conceptually, breaking Raiden down so mechanically only serves to benefit Snake’s character arc which is simply the problem with telling a story like Guns of the Patriots. For a deconstruction of Solid Snake to work so well, it needs an element like Raiden, a character audiences care about. At the same time, though, including Raiden means dismantling Metal Gear Solid 2 to the point where it’s no longer recognizable. Solid Sun shows that Metal Gear Solid 4 is a sequel in name alone, and the unfortunate truth is that it had to be this way.

This is the tragedy of Metal Gear Solid 4. For it to exist, it needs to break down what came before it. Act two goes relatively easy on Snake as a character, because the audience now has Raiden as a comparison point. At the same time, the situation is all the worse for Snake because Raiden is a creation of his own making. It’s ultimately Snake telling Raiden to find something to believe in that causes Raiden to break. Even if it’s in complete opposition to Metal Gear Solid 2’s message, it’s nonetheless a necessary addition for Snake’s arc. Raiden is the reason that act two is the worst stretch in Metal Gear history, because he’s explicit proof that he couldn’t be ignored if the series were to continue. It’s a sad realization, because it’s also a realization that Metal Gear Solid did not end when it needed to. In continuing past Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, it was obvious those games needed to be damaged for the series to continue. While Guns of the Patriots certainly does more damage to Metal Gear Solid 2, it doesn’t let Metal Gear Solid 3 get out unscathed.

“So long as there is light, there will always be shadow.”

As the effective midpoint of Metal Gear Solid 4, Act 3: Third Sun has quite an important job of setting up all the pieces for the finale while also breaking Snake down to his lowest point. Up to the start of act three, Snake has managed to overcome most obstacles thrown in his way with relative ease. While the subject of age is certainly a somber one, the inevitably of his death lingers only in the background. In an act as retrospective as Third Sun, it’s only fitting that Kojima choose to finally break Snake down now. It’s made all the more fitting when taking into account that this is the act that focuses on the events of Snake Eater the most. Snake’s lowest point comes to him when confronted with his father’s past. It should be noted that while the Snake Eater references aren’t as egregious as the Sons of Liberty references were in act two, they still damage Metal Gear Solid 3. Where the problem with act two was that the MGS2 inclusions simply couldn’t be reconciled with the type of story it told, the MGS3 inclusions in act three are either poorly written or poorly implemented.

Raiden’s inclusion can’t be justified, but it can be understood because it has literary merit in regards to Snake’s character arc. The Snake Eater nods are atmospherically appropriate for what Snake undergoes this act, but they often feel forced in and low quality compared to everything else Kojima has written for the series. They also reveal an unfortunate implication about Metal Gear Solid 4’s relationship with the rest of the series: it always needed to reference MGS2, but it clearly never needed to reference MGS3. Most of act three just goes to show how little of events in Snake Eater actually mattered in the context of the rest of the series. Kojima tries to force these deep connections by explicitly revealing Big Boss’ codec team as the Patriots all along, but this kind of twist has no basis existing. Snake Eater was about Big Boss’ downfall, it wasn’t about the events that happened. Third Sun flips the narrative and prioritizes the events over the meaning. In turn, Snake’s greatest defeat is appropriately dressed, but awkwardly shoved into an act too eager to romanticize Metal Gear Solid 3 to the point of pandering.

Perhaps the biggest narrative fumble in act three is the revelation that Big Boss’ one-time romantic interest, EVA, now code named Big Mama, was Snake’s birth mother all along. Conceptually, this is an interesting idea ripe with potential. Snake killed his father and his twin brother, and now he meets his mother. For the first time in his life, Snake has a family member who isn’t working in direct opposition to his goals. Unfortunately, Kojima makes this one of the only moments in the entire game where the audience doesn’t get a glimpse into Snake’s psyche. Rather, he remains uncharacteristically quiet as Big Mama reveals his parentage and the identity of the Patriots. Snake has always had a habit of shutting up during exposition dumps, but never to the point where he’d neglect commenting on intimate information directed at him.

Snake’s silence isn’t what makes the whole interaction so poor, though. Big Mama’s dialogue is seriously lacking compared to other characters in the game, let alone the rest of the series. She spouts off biblical references for little to no reason, and the Judeo-Christian imagery feels painfully out of place. Snake Eater had references to the Garden of Eden, but they were always just references meant to be endear players to Big Boss and EVA. EVA joked that he, Naked Snake, was tempting her, when in truth it was EVA who tempted him the entire time. That’s the extent of the reference, but Metal Gear Solid 4 romanticizes to the point where it becomes Big Mama’s character painting a wildly inconsistent picture of who EVA is.  

As for Snake’s character arc, Third Sun actually does a surprisingly great job with gradually breaking him down. The act begins with him using his OctoCamo to replicate his younger face only for Meryl to disregard his youthful appearance as soon as she sees him. This is an important moment for Snake as it establishes that he can’t go back to who he was. A younger face is just a disguise for the body that’s slowly dying. This moment is paralleled at the end of the act when Snake and Big Mama get caught in an explosion and Snake ends up with a burn scar across his face.

As Big Mama lay dying in the aftermath, she similarly disregards him in the same vein as Meryl, “So long as there is light, there will always be shadow.” This echoes back to Liquid calling himself and Snake the brothers and light and darkness near the end of Metal Gear Solid. If Snake is going to kill Liquid Ocelot, he needs to be prepared to die as well. This also means that the most meaningful dialogue Snake has with his mother is her essentially telling him that he needs to die. Snake begins and ends the act with a face that isn’t his, rejected by two women who should have important roles in his life but don’t.

“An cuimhin leat an grá”

After two acts spent tearing apart Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, it’s surprising to step foot on Shadow Moses once more and realize that Act 4: Twin Suns might just be the greatest conceptual moment in all of Metal Gear Solid. For once in Guns of the Patriots, dismantling a game’s legacy feels appropriate. In fact, what Kojima does to Shadow Moses doesn’t even hurt Metal Gear Solid’s legacy. Rather, it makes it stronger. Shadow Moses now exists in these two very specific moments in time: the past, where Snake lived out his golden age- and the present, where Snake succumbs to old age as Shadow Moses sinks into the ocean. Every hallway, every room, and every moment is a living eulogy for the original Metal Gear Solid. For an instant, it genuinely feels as if Snake is his old self again.

Act four is a reminder that at the center of Metal Gear’s themes were characters living, dying, and growing in benefit of a greater narrative. It’s here where Snake is forced to confront the passage of time directly. Once Shadow Moses sinks, it’s over. Once the disease catches up to Snake, it’s over. Once the credits roll, the Metal Gear saga is over. Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 both presented themselves as definitive ends to the series, but for all of Metal Gear Solid 4’s faults, it truly made it feel like this was genuinely the last time. Even with the knowledge that Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V exist, it’s hard not to look at Twin Suns and believe, just for a moment, that Metal Gear really was going to come to an end right then and there.

Raiden does return in this act to fight Vamp once and for all, but his inclusion here isn’t as grating as in act two. There’s an emotional weight to Raiden’s arc here, and he finally starts to show some of his old vulnerability. More importantly, Raiden does not get to kill Vamp here. Rather, he gets mercy killed by Naomi. Vamp’s death is unsatisfying and gives Raiden absolutely no closure, but that’s exactly what it should have been. Raiden was fighting a battle that wasn’t really his and he’s left once again lost without a purpose. There’s one particularly powerful moment at the end of the act where Raiden seemingly gives his life to save Snake. As he’s crushed to death, he thinks back to an old conversation with Rosemary while his consciousness fades away. Act five immediately take away from the sacrifice by revealing that Raiden had lived, but, in that brief moment, Raiden was his true self again. There was a flicker of the Raiden from Sons of Liberty. At its core, act four is about the relationship between identity and the passage of time.

Time has changed Snake, Raiden, and Shadow Moses, but not to the point where they’re unrecognizable. Snake is older, harder, and slower. He is a man past his prime in every regard. At the same time, he still embodies that iron will only humans can possess. He fights not because he has to, but because he wants to. He fights to keep the world together. This isn’t his battle, but what matters most to him is ensuring there are no more battles left to fight. Raiden is broken, jaded, and psychologically shattered yet he maintains his sense of justice and puts his life on the line to save the one man who genuinely tried to give him a future. He fought a battle that wasn’t his and got nothing out of it, so he decides to pass on his life so Snake can keep his. Shadow Moses is sinking, covered in ice, and abandoned. It is a relic in every sense of the word, but it’s still home to one of the greatest stories in video game history. It is a museum of what has come and what is about to go. It is a plea for the audience to take the past as it was and move on.

Act four is a moment for players to truly sit down and evaluate who Snake was and is in retrospection. Following a physical and psychological scarring in act three, Twin Suns puts Snake in a place of familiarity so he can regain some of his essence. He muses on the past, shares memories with Otacon, fights Ocelot while piloting a Metal Gear, and watches Raiden finally take his lesson from Metal Gear Solid 2’s ending to heart. It’s a somber act meant to elicit introspection, and it stands out as one of the few moments in Guns of the Patriots that feels genuinely Metal Gear Solid. It’s easy to forget that just two acts ago, Kojima essentially ruined Metal Gear Solid 2 out of what felt like obligation. Here, nobody would be held at fault for just accepting Metal Gear Solid 4 for what it was.

In a way, that’s what Twin Suns is trying to do. The act opens with Snake reliving the literal PlayStation Metal Gear Solid. He can walk around, get caught, and walk in the snow. It is a reminder that, while MGS4 might change the lore of the series, the previous games cannot be altered. Metal Gear Solid is there, Metal Gear Solid 2 still works in its own context, and Metal Gear Solid 3 can be enjoyed without thinking about what comes next. Act four is about learning to accept what has come and what is gone.

“This is it, brother; our final moment. The battle has ended, but we are not yet free! The war is over, but… You and I still have a score to settle.”

As the last proper chapter of the game, Act 5: Old Sun has to tie up every loose end not directly focusing on Solid Snake. There’s an air of finality to each moment as it becomes clearer that, now more than ever, Kojima wants to end Metal Gear Solid. As Snake makes his way through Outer Haven, it truly feels like he’s coming face to face with Big Boss’ ideologies for the last time. After two games of trying to prevent his legacy from resurfacing, Snake has to put the rebirth down in what he knows will be the last mission of his life. Coming off the high of Twin Suns, it’s only natural to expect that same quality going into the finale. All the pieces are set for a satisfying conclusion, after all. Snake is going in alone, Meryl is getting in on the action, Otacon has a master plan to take down the Patriots, and Kojima will surely justify keeping Raiden alive in an incredibly moment. Unfortunately, while some loose ends wrap up rather nicely, there are a two in particular that conclude terribly. Old Sun has a lot on its plate, and it balances everything surprisingly well, but the quality is as inconsistent as act three.

By far, Naomi and Meryl have the two worst endings in Metal Gear history. Even though Naomi died in the fourth act, she returns in the form of a recorded message right before the final boss effectively taking credit for the defeat of the Patriots. In a way, this mirrors Raiden’s inability to finish off Vamp himself in act four, but the lack of satisfaction here feels out of place since the narrative pieces aren’t where they need to be for this to come off a clever literary move. Instead, it just feels like a last minute twist with little emotional weight to it.

Meryl’s ending is certainly more inoffensive in regards to the Metal Gear narrative, but her wrap-up feels much worse than Naomi’s. In an action-comedy sequence after an incredibly tense act, she and comic relief Johnny, a character previously known only for pooping his pants, vow to marry one another should they survive. It is a moment that defies all storytelling logic and stands out as the single worst written and directed cutscene in the Metal Gear canon up to this point. What’s particularly jarring about Naomi’s and Meryl’s endings is that they don’t tie into the overarching narrative of the passage of time. This is a problem Metal Gear Solid 4 has all throughout. It has this central theme, but it’s so obsessed with its nature as the tentative last game in the franchise that it desperately tries to tie up any loose end it can. Act five ends up feeling incohesive thanks to these moments, which is a shame considering how strong the other two main wrap-ups are.

Although keeping him alive isn’t completely justified given the content, Kojima does do a surprisingly good job in bringing Raiden back for the last act. In a moment heavily reminiscent of their time in Arsenal Gear, Raiden shows up to defend Snake as he powers through to the end of the game. Just like in his “death” scene during act four, Raiden feels like himself. He’s still jaded, but the essence of his personality is back. In an inversion of MGS4’s message, the next generation comes to help the past. Even though him sacrificing himself for Snake in act four effectively would have conveyed the same message, it’s made more explicit here because Raiden isn’t trying to die to save Snake. Rather, now he’s simply saving him so the both of them can live. Raiden realizes the value of life through the past generation, meaning Snake passed on a genuine message to the next, making his words from Sons of Liberty ring all the truer.

Similarly, Ocelot’s ending stands out as particularly strong. With the Patriots defeated and the world essentially saved, Snake and Liquid Ocelot both realize that the only thing left to do is kill one another. As the two trade blows, it becomes abundantly clear that this fight has no greater meaning. It’s two men simply fighting to the death. At the same time, this is a fight with all the meaning in the world. For Snake, and the audience, it is the definitive end of a chapter. When Snake kills Ocelot, it’ll mean that he, too, has to die. Even in the face of death, Snake does what he needs to do in order to finally wipe out a generation that’s only caused damage for the next. The more Snake fights Liquid Ocelot, the more the Ocelot personality comes back. By the end of the battle, Liquid has been fully beaten out and Ocelot dies as himself, knowing the son of the man he loved most came out victorious.

While this is an act that tends to take a backseat to Snake’s character arc, it isn’t without one key moment: the microwave. Before Snake can enter the heart of Outer Haven and purge the Patriots, he has to crawl through a microwave corridor. The further he goes, the more he burns up. Snake screams and he falls, but he keeps crawling. The screen is split in two at this point, with images of the supporting cast slowly failing while their only hope burns himself alive to save them. As all this is happening, the player is forced to mash the triangle button to keep Snake alive.

This is a genuinely painful and enduring act, a physical reminder of everything Snake has endured up to this point. Walking through the microwave is a moment of pure sacrifice on Snake’s part. Even though Raiden could have easily done it himself, Snake undergoes the task to show the next generation that life is worth fighting for. It is a symbolic act that signifies the end of the past, and one that symbolizes the crux of Snake’s entire character arc. He has always fought to let the world be as it is, and now he’s showing the world the lengths he’ll go to ensure that he leaves the human race intact. After five acts of living just to die, Snake embodies the value of human life at death’s door.

“This is good… isn’t it?”

The grand finale to Solid Snake’s saga, Naked Sin/Naked Son is simultaneously the epilogue Metal Gear Solid 4 did and did not need. By the end of Old Sun, there’s still one last thing Snake has to do: die. Having killed Ocelot, passed on his message to the next generation, and saved the world, Snake heads to the grave of Big Boss so he may take his life and kill the last remnants of a generation gone by. As he kneels in front of his father’s headstone, Snake places his gun in his mouth and the camera pans into the sky. All players are left with is the sound of a gunshot as the screen fades to black.

From the moment Guns of the Patriots began, Snake’s death was an inevitability. He was rapidly aging, the FOXDIE in his body was mutating, and it had become clear that he simply had no place in the modern world. In taking his own life, Snake sacrifices himself from the pain of dying, from the pain of turning into a biological weapon, and from the pain of being made redundant. It’s an almost defeatist end to one of gaming’s most legendary heroes, but that’s exactly what makes the act so powerful. Snake’s suicide is a moment of genuine vulnerability, a reminder to the audience that he has always been just another man. In a sense, Snake reaches an enlightenment that neither Raiden or Big Boss do at the end of their respective games. All three characters have been deconstructed over the course of the past three Kojima directed games, but only Snake ends his game understanding who he is and what he must do. There is no misunderstanding, there is no confusion- Solid Snake has to die.

At the end of MGS4, Solid Snake is the one character in all of Metal Gear to come out a genuine hero.

Which makes it incredibly awkward when the ending credits cut back to the game to reveal that, not only did Snake not kill himself, Big Boss is alive and ready to confront his son. Just like with Raiden in act two, Big Boss’ inclusion in the epilogue is counterproductive to the essence of his character. He was corrupted by his country, tried to create a world of perpetual warfare, and was killed by his son in turn. He was a hero who fell from grace and died a pathetic death in Central Asia. Big Boss returning for the epilogue belittles Liquid’s, Solidus’, and Ocelot’s character arcs. All three characters do what they do in an attempt to carry about what they believe is Big Boss’ legacy. His death triggers a chain reaction in the world where his sons are pit against one another while his closest ally desperately tries to make Outer Heaven a reality. In the end, they all fail because Big Boss never truly passed on a legacy.

To begin with, Outer Heaven was born out of a perversion of The Boss’ dying words, giving an air of illegitimacy to everything Big Boss did over the course of the series. When he dies, Solid Snake is the only person with him and he chooses to live his life independent of Big Boss’ philosophies. Liquid, Solidus, and Ocelot weren’t with Big Boss when he died, but they still try to give his death meaning in order to fit their agendas. Each character has their own version of Outer Heaven they want to see realized, but they’re all inconsistent with one another. Big Boss suddenly returning from the dead removes much of the weight from their misinterpretations as he was seemingly always there to pass on his legacy. Big Boss was a warlord, but there was tragedy in the fact he died alone with a son who wanted nothing to do with him. Him never actually dying hurts the series when looking back on it with a Metal Gear Solid 4 context.

Another issue with Big Boss’ return is what it represents for Solid Snake’s character arc. After an entire narrative of being told that Snake has to, and will, die, it’s hard to see an outcome where he survives as narratively satisfying. After all, Guns of the Patriots presented itself as the ultimate character deconstruction for Solid Snake, a genuine end to the series’ protagonist. From a pure plot perspective, Snake failing to kill himself is not a poor move on Kojima’s part. As already established, Snake is just a man. He is vulnerable and he has moments of weakness. In a way, him pulling the gun away at the last moment is an endearing moment that shows a considerable amount of humanity. No amount of self introspection and resolution could prepare Snake for suicide.

Having Big Boss appear as a physical manifestation of that concept is an interesting idea with an almost mythological presence. After an entire game filled with overtly technological explanations for the franchise’s mystical elements, Big Boss’ appearance is conceptually fresh. Unfortunately, while he does work as a representation of Snake’s humanity and his closeness to death, Big Boss spends the entire epilogue monologuing about the Patriots; how Zero, a supporting character from Snake Eater, was the main villain all along; and his misinterpretation of The Boss’ will. The only part of Big Boss’ ending monologue that truly matters is the last. Him realizing he was wrong all along is a fitting end to his character, if unnecessary. He understands through Snake’s actions that he was wrong about The Boss, but it’s too little, too late. Big Boss is about to die in his son’s place.

Big Boss dying in favor of Solid Snake is a strange way to close out the epilogue as it does give closure to Snake’s character arc, but he ends up sharing said closure with Big Boss. That said, this was a series that always revolved around the dichotomy between the pairing. Even when the father was supposedly dead, the son still had to fight his many shadows to wipe out his legacy. As Big Boss dies for the first and last time, there’s an understanding between the two previously unseen in Metal Gear Solid. They’re enemies, but they respect one another.

Big Boss never saw Snake as his son, and Snake never saw him as his father, but they nonetheless valued each others’ merits as men. Big Boss telling Snake that he can, and should, live out his final days in peace is a tender moment that makes sense for both characters. Big Boss always had this sentimental side to him as shown in Snake Eater, and Snake always had this desire to retire and live a quiet life. The father dies in the son’s place so the latter may at least live a bit longer. Considering Snake is a clone of Big Boss, as well, this does mean the past generation still dies.

All this harkens back to the passage of time present throughout Metal Gear Solid 4. Snake was a creation of the past generation, but he lived in a world of his own. He became the past, but he was stuck fighting between Ocelot’s and Raiden’s generations. Him putting the gun down and lighting one final cigar for Big Boss is a visualization of the fact he can accept the passage of time without killing himself. Were it not for the massive information dump Big Boss unloads on Snake, Naked Sin/Naked Son would be a pitch perfect epilogue. Even then, though, Snake’s character arc still comes to a fitting close. He didn’t kill himself, but he never had to. He spent the entire narrative sacrificing himself for the sake of others, and it all ends with someone sacrificing themselves for him. For the first time in his life, Snake is free to be a man.

“The world would be better off without Snakes.”

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is at times convoluted, disjointed, and inconsistent. It brings back characters for little to no reason, ends several character arcs in narratively unsatisfying manners, and tears the series’ lore to pieces in order mirror Kojima’s frustration with the franchise. At the same time, it’s a beautiful, and often genius, conclusion to Solid Snake’s character and the greater Metal Gear narrative. The passage of time is felt throughout every act, and Snake’s character truly falls to pieces only to rise as a freed man at the end. It is a game inherently about the value of life and what can be accomplished by a single individual.

At the end of MGS4, Solid Snake is the one character in all of Metal Gear to come out a genuine hero. Every single thing he has done was for the betterment of humanity. He was often cold and disconnected from the people around him, but he always fought for them. As much of Guns of the Patriots is a deconstruction of Solid Snake, it is a tribute to him. Even at his lowest point, Snake represents the greatest attributes of mankind. He fought a battle that wasn’t his, not because he believed the next generation couldn’t do it themselves, but because he felt responsible. Snake killing himself would have ended the story on a powerful moment with a powerful message, but him surviving is all the stronger because it’s proof that time does not divide. Generations can co-exist and, in his last days, Snake should pass on a final message: to live in peace.

All that’s known about Snake’s last days is that he spent them with Otacon and their foster daughter, Sunny. Most notably, Snake quit smoking. Cigarettes were almost synonymous with the character and, at the end of his life, he chooses to give them up in favor of a healthier goodbye. Snake quitting smoking is ultimately for the best, not due to health reason, but because it signifies a true change in his character. The world is better off without Snakes, and giving up smoking is his way of formally renouncing the code name that followed him for years. At the end of his life, at the end of a saga, Snake does not die an animal. He dies a man. War had changed. Metal Gear had changed. And Solid Snake had changed.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Mike Worby

    April 18, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    This is a truly excellent piece Renan. Nice work, best one yet in the series.

  2. Andrew

    June 7, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    I just finished the game, and I want to thank you for this articulate and insightful piece. Excellent work.

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Games

Best Video Game Soundtracks of 2019- Part Two

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Continuing on from part one, I’m counting down the best video game soundtracks of 2019 from ten to one.

10. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice- Yuka Kitamura

One of the better games released in 2019 was Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, an action title set in a fictional version of the war torn Sengoku period of Japan. This version of this time frame includes magic but there is still a sense of accuracy in regards to the general tone of the game, making strong reference to actual locations and buildings in Japan. The music is just one element that makes the world of Sekiro come to life as it is full to the brim with authenticity.

Yuka Kitamura- known for her work on the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne– adapts a slightly different style than her usual work. In an interview with Game Informer, Kitamura explains how there was more focus on fantasy style and grandiose music in the other games- likely due to the entirely fantastical settings. The setting of Sekiro required a certain element of “wildness” as it was grounded within the bloody Sengoku period. Despite the challenges that Kitamura and her team ( she also worked with various external composers) faced with creating a style that could capture both the brutal nature of the Sengoku time with the fantasy of the magic within Sekiro, they pulled it off fantastically and the music seems to flawlessly blend with the game environment.

The use of authentic Japanese instruments is a perfectly executed component of the soundtrack, such as the Taiko (Japanese drum), the Shamisen (a three-stringed tradition Japanese instrument) and the Biwa (a lute). My personal favourites are the tracks that feature the Shinboe, the Japanese flute. I love the almost contradicting nature of the soothing flute with the violence of the Sekiro world. Kitamura describes the more peaceful sounds of the soundtrack as an attempt to encapsulate “ancient Japanese beauty and a sort of time- honoured tradition and religious aspects.” The inclusion of cultural elements of ancient Japan makes this soundtrack stand out as you can tell that a significant amount of the music is influenced by real history and Japanese tradition.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice boasts an incredibly well-crafted soundtrack. Kitamura clearly set out to try and capture the Sengoku period accurately whilst maintaining ancient Japanese culture with authentic instruments. Whilst she was mostly confined to boss battle music with her work on Dark Souls, she is able to do far more here. The result is a stunning soundtrack with moments of intensity and beauty that perfectly captures the essence of Sekiro.

Top Track: End of a Vicious Struggle

There is plenty of amazing boss battle music in the Sekiro soundtrack- such as “Divine Dragon” and “The Owl”- but the piece I have chosen as my top track is “End of a Vicious Struggle” as it is a perfect culmination of events of the game. The piece plays at the end of the game when (and if) the player actually manages to make it there. The game is known for its difficult and sometimes brutal nature so if it is completed, there is a definite sense of accomplishment there. “End of a Vicious Struggle” not only has a perfect title, it almost sounds like a reward for getting there. Combining various traditional Japanese instruments with an orchestra, the piece perfectly closes the game.

9. Katana Zero- LudoWic, Bill Kiley, DJ Electrohead, Justin Stander and Tunç Çakır

The indie game scene is becoming more and more dominant when it comes to amazing gaming soundtracks. 2-D neo noir action platformer Katana Zero is no exception in this, providing one of the best video game soundtracks this year.

The soundtrack is made of up tracks split between five different artists, though Bill Kiley and LudoWic take on the bulk of it. The music is a blend of a few similar genres, the most prevalent being 80’s style synthwave, techno and electronica. There are definite similarities with 2012’s Hotline Miami here, both in terms of gameplay and the music. The player takes on the role of an assassin and the game plays out in similar 2-D style to Hotline Miami but from a side scrolling perspective rather than top down. NewRetroWave.com describes the soundtrack as “perfectly moody and drenched in dark neon tones” and this is certainly true. These “neon tones” also reflect the 80’s vibe that permeates throughout the game. You can almost hear the bright neon lights and tacky outfits. Certain tracks stand out for their incorporation of this 80’s style, such as the boss battle theme “All For Now” which sounds like it was ripped straight from the Blade Runner universe. The artists do an incredible job of pushing the synthwave style to the limit and seamlessly blending it with a more modern electro sound.

Games that both look and sound perfectly retro have become something of a cliché in the contemporary gaming world, even more so within indie games. It can be difficult for titles that adapt this style to stand out, but the soundtrack of Katana Zero successfully navigates these clichés and reworks them into something truly fantastic. Managing to sound both futuristic and retro, Katana Zero successfully makes its mark within the gaming world.

Top Track: Snow

“Hit the Floor” is an amazing club bop and “Katana Zero” encapsulates the moody neon style that the game is going for but I’ve chosen “Snow” as my top track as it brings something a little different to the soundtrack. Calmer and smoother than most of the other tracks, “Snow” uses the synthwave genre a little differently here. Rather than creating techno, science fiction like tones, it creates a sense of ease and solitude whilst maintaining the retro feel. Bill Kiley- the composer for “Snow”- creates a piece that is relaxing but doesn’t take you out of the world entirely. The unique feel of “Snow” is what made it stand out to me.

8. Outer Wilds- Andrew Prahlow

Another indie game that took the gaming community by storm was Outer Wilds. Not to be confused with The Outer Worlds, Outer Wilds is an indie space adventure game from Mobius Digital and Annapurna Interactive. The music here is interesting as it is homely and comforting despite the intergalactic setting.

Prahlow was given the description “backpacking adventure in space” by friend Alex Beachum (from Mobius Digital Games) when he was first told about Outer Wilds. This is what led him towards the banjo, which has become the most iconic element of the Outer Wilds score. The banjo tune is most prevalent when the player finds themselves sitting around a campfire, plucking at the strings of said banjo. This “homely ensemble of guitar, banjo and harmonica” creates a feel of cosiness to the music that can’t help but make the player feel at home. This is a pretty unusual choice for a game set in space. Usually, the whole point of being in a galaxy far, far away is for there to be a sense of the unknown. No matter what kind of media you look at- film, television or books- when you get to space there is a sense of feeling very alien (pun very much intended). You are away from everything that you know so you might as well suspend any disbelief. That is why science fiction soundtracks can sound so otherworldly (I have space puns for days). But the choice to go for a musical style that is so inviting and comforting immediately sets a different kind of mood. It suggests a home, a place of safety and comfort. This is what the game instils when you find yourself around that campfire. Despite being placed in a world that is millions or possibly billions of light years away from our own, Prahlow’s music immediately puts you are at peace. I absolutely love this decision and I think it makes Outer Wilds one of the more unique soundtracks this year.

Once the player leaves the comfort of the campfire, the sound changes to one a little more concurrent to the usual science fiction sound. The introduction of synths creates the traditional sci-fi alien sound but that banjo never truly leaves your side as you are constantly pulled back to the games main theme. “Into the Wilds” is a great example of this. It starts off with the banjo before skyrocketing into an out of this world style synthwave sound, suggesting a traveller bound for discovery and adventure in the wide open galaxy. It then comes back down to the homely banjo theme, grounding you in that comforting place beside the campfire roasting marshmallows. There is also a theme for an alien race called the Nomai which is more piano based, synthetic sounds that continue during the player’s exploration of space and even a brief but lovely song called “Morning” which features David Tangney on the cello. No matter where the soundtrack goes to, it always comes back to that comforting theme.

Outer Wilds is an amazing take on a sci-fi soundtrack. The rustic themes work incredibly well and blend with the synth based sounds to create a soundtrack that reinvents the sound of space travel.

Top Track- Travelers (All Instruments)

Towards the end of the game, there is a moment when all of the instruments come together and join the banjo to create a fully-fledged song. The “Travelers” song even includes whistling performed the aforementioned Alex Beachum from Mobius Digital Games. The song represents a collective coming together of the space travellers, bound together by the music despite the dangerous surroundings. Without going into too much detail the player finds themselves in a time loop under dangerous circumstances, constantly trying to solve a certain problem before it is too late. No matter how precarious the situation is and how deep you find yourself in the darkness of space, “Travelers” instils a sense of hope, camaraderie and home that sticks with you even after the game ends.

7. Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng and Linnea Olsson

In most cases, video games tend to shape the soundtrack around the games narrative, mechanics and general structure. However, in the case of Sayonara Wild Hearts the music is the basis on which the whole game is formed. Basically, the music IS the game.  Unique, unusual and electrifying, Sayonara Wild Hearts boasts and incredible soundtrack that blasts most mainstream music out of the water.

Developed by Swedish game developers Simogo with help from Annapurna Interactive, Sayonara Wild Hearts is described on the official website as “A pop album video game”. The structure of the game is very similar to an album as it focuses on short, punchy levels. The player takes on the role of a young woman whose experience with a broken heart leads her on a path to discover larger meaning in the universe. Gameplay is on rails as the woman traverses the levels via various methods of transportation such as motorcycle and skateboard. Combat ranges from shooting lasers to dance battles. Enemies in the game- fabulously stylish ones at that- can be defeated by pressing buttons in time with the music. Every aspect of the game is tied into the music, making the soundtrack one of the most –if not the absolute most- important elements of the entire game.

Heavily pop influenced, the soundtrack is bubbly, kitschy and as vibrant as the games visuals.  The inspiration behind the album is varied, with Simogo referring to the game and music as “a soup made of pop culture”. Just a few of the artists they were inspired by included Carly Rae Jepsen, Sia, Charli XCX and Blümchen whilst some of their gaming and media inspirations ranged from Sailor Moon to Tron, WarioWare and Punch Out. You can certainly hear all these pop culture influences within the soundtrack oddly enough. The creative way in which the music was formed makes for a sound that is both unique and familiar.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is one of the most creative games released in 2019 and the same can be said for the soundtrack. The music is hugely important to the game and it ends up being one of the best aspects of it. The soundtrack is as good- if not better- than music in the charts today with Linnea Olsson giving a vocal performance as impressive as many female artists out there.  Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng have crafted a soundtrack that reflects the charming, neon pop nature of the game that is also brilliant in its own right.

Top Track: A Place I Don’t Know

Whilst I adored the remix of “Clare de Lune” that was created for the game, it seemed unfair not to pick one of the many fantastic original songs for my top track. Not quite as energetic as some of the other tracks “A Place I Don’t Know” plays at the games conclusion and is a song that could be considered a theme for those who have experienced the pain of heartbreak. The game’s narrative centres on a woman whose heart is broken so it is no surprise that this comes across so well in the music. The song is a peaceful but sad entry. It never crosses the line into too morose or morbid, maintaining a chipper feeling with the inclusion of whistles.  “A Place I Don’t Know” manages to capture the essence of what it feels like to lose direction in life. No matter how that loss comes about, everyone can relate to having felt it at some point.

6. Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda: Danny Baranowsky

Spin off/crossover game Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the Necromancer is similar to Sayonara Wild Hearts in that music is an essential element to the overall game. Cadence of Hyrule is a rhythm game and so the player must alter their play style to sync up with the music. The game manages to perfectly intertwine music and gameplay whilst throwing in some incredible Legend of Zelda remixes.

Cadence of Hyrule composer Danny Baranowsky worked with an eclectic team of musicians on the soundtrack, including Jules Conroy (better known by his YouTube handle of FamilyJules7x) who provided all the guitar segments in the soundtrack, vocalist Adriana Figueroa, game composer Riley Koneig, violinist and otamatone connoisseur Michaela Nachtigall, woodwind specialist Kate Letournea and Power Up Audio and their creative director Kevin Regamey. With so much talent, it is no surprise that Baranowsky was able to put together such an amazing soundtrack. What I find interesting is these are all very much contemporary artists who make use of social media and new technologies to create their music. Most are proficient YouTubers to who had an interest in games and pop culture before they ventured into music. This brings another level of understanding to the music. It was worked on by people who are not just amazing musicians and artists, but also big fans of the francahises. It certainly comes across in the finished product as the Cadence of Hyrule soundtrack feels like a labour of love by people who know and respect the original music.

The creative use of music is incredibly endearing in this game. As with Sayonara Wild Hearts, the unusual gameplay mechanics make for a title that is original and fresh despite the crossover of such a well-known franchise. Managing to sound both modern whilst retaining the retro feel of the original games, Cadence of Hyrule is not only a brilliant soundtrack in its own right but also a wonderful tribute to the music of The Legend of Zelda series.

Top Track: Overworld (Combat)

My favourite remix on the Cadence of Hyrule soundtrack is the combat version of the “Overworld” theme. One of the most famous and instantly recognisable themes from the Legend of Zelda series, the “Overworld” theme is remixed here in a techno style that works incredibly well with the rhythm based mechanics of the game. The theme was also successfully remade in the Link’s Awakening remake, so it is great to see such an iconic theme getting some brilliant reworks. “Overworld (Combat)” stays true to the original whilst giving it a cool new twist.

5. Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali and Various Artists

This entry was actually one that I put into my best soundtracks list last year as the first episode of Life is Strange 2 was released in 2018. The following four episodes have since been released and the music only improved as the series went on.

The first season of Life is Strange was well known for its killer soundtrack, both licensed music and the original score. Whilst the second series will probably not become as iconic as the first, the music was still a highlight that draws the player into the story of two brothers desperately trying to find a place of solace following a terrible accident. Artists such as Phoenix, The Streets, First Aid Kit and Milk & Bone are included within the game and emphasise the indie and artistic vibe that the Life is Strange series is known for. DONTNOD Entertainment- the developers of the series, are incredibly adept when it comes to utilising the licenced music within their games. They include them at appropriate times within the game, which may not necessarily be an incredibly important moment. For instance, “On The Flip Of A Coin” by The Streets is a song that can be missed entirely as it is only heard if Sean chooses to switch on the radio in his room in the first episode. He will also start singing along to the song too which is a nice little touch. The song doesn’t come into play in some big narrative moment. Instead, it is used to show a bit of Sean’s character.  These moments may not be grandiose but they are pivotal in allowing the player to form an emotional connection with the characters. The use of music in the scene is what allows us to do that.

Jonathan Morali once again creates a score that is simple yet beautiful and emotionally charged. All four episodes include music from Morali and there is no weak link. The score for each episode reflects the events and the characters perfectly, evolving with the characters as they do. There are even themes that represent some of the newer characters that are met along the way, such as “New Perspectives” which is a theme for Sean and Daniel’s mother Karen and “Free Spirits” which represents both the brothers and their grandparents. There is even a little hint of Max and Chloe’s theme from the first game in episode five. There are no bombastic themes or out there styles, just simple, real music. This is what I believe makes the Life is Strange 2 soundtrack one of the best this year and significantly higher on the list than it was last year. The music represents reality and the harsh truths that come with it. There is no pomp or ceremony. The simple and solemn guitar riffs used throughout the score represent this notion well and pull you even further into Sean and Daniel’s story. They also merge well with the choice of licensed music, making the songs feel as though they are related and believably connected to the world within the game.

The Life is Strange 2 soundtrack stands out as a musical composition that is able to tell a story. The licensed music slots in well with the original tracks and brings the story of Sean and Daniel to life whilst also emphasising their journey and hardships. Jonathan Morali’s score gives the game heart- as it did with his score for the first game- and brings emotion and depth to the narrative and characters. It is truly one of the best game soundtracks of 2019.

Top Track: Blood Brothers/Lone Wolf

Without going too far into spoiler territory, “Blood Brothers”/ “Lone Wolf” is a piece of music that plays with two specific endings of the game. There are four major endings to the game with a few variations here and there making for a total of about seven endings. Whilst the Blood Brothers ending is considered as bad by some and good by others, the Lone Wolf ending is a particularly upsetting one (I got it the first time around. I cried then loaded my last save and changed it). Because of the heavy emotion and narrative impact of these endings, Morali’s score here is probably the most emotional it has been since the first season. There is certainly a hint of sadness to it as a melancholy guitar tune is plucked heavily throughout. The theme intensifies in the midway point as Daniel demonstrates the danger of his powers in both endings.  He has become something of a living weapon in these endings and after everything the player has been through with him as a sweet little boy, it is difficult to watch. As the theme and the cut scenes end, the player is left to consider the consequences of their choices throughout the game. The emotional impact wouldn’t be anywhere near as high without Morali’s sombre song playing throughout. Brutal yet beautiful, “Blood Brothers”/ “Lone Wolf” is a theme that emphasises the notion of actions, consequences and choices.

4. Devil May Cry 5- Kota Suzuki

One of the heftiest soundtracks on the entire list,(136 songs on the full soundtrack that equates to almost 5 hours of music across 5 discs)Devil May Cry 5 is a soundtrack that soars to incredible heights with its sweeping orchestra  and badass battle themes.

Kota Suzuki has been a key player at Capcom for a long time, known predominantly for his work in the Resident Evil series.  He is joined by multiple collaborators for the Devil May Cry 5 soundtrack- Yoshiya Terayama, Hiromitsu Maeba, Steven McNair, John R. Graham, Casey Edwards, Cody Matthew Johnson and Jeff Rona. Together they have created a soundtrack that bursts with fantastical energy, never dropping out of the high octane gear for even a moment. Elements of dubstep, rock and techno style influences are splashed throughout, making the songs feel even more out of this world. They never lose sight of the source material though; calling back to the theme from Devil May Cry 3 numerous times as well as including a small remix of the SNES Capcom logo theme within the title screen music. There are also different genres explored too such as in “The Heaven of My Hell Opening” which has laid-back, elevator music vibes. The versatility of the composers is what makes this soundtrack so special. Their ability to fuse various genres together and make them work is one thing, but they make sure that it stays true to the game as they do so.

An incredible feat when it comes to video games soundtracks, the Devil May Cry 5 soundtrack is exuberant and over the top in the best possible way (just like the game).  When asked what the essence of the Devil May Cry series was that he wanted to capture within the music, Kota Suzuki responded with, “Music that rocks…that sounds cool, and exudes originality.” This pretty much sums up the entire feel of the Devil May Cry 5 soundtrack and makes it one of the best this year.

Top Track: Devil Trigger

I really love the track “Silver Bullet” but for the sake of how massive this song was, it has to take the top stop. This song is Nero’s battle theme in the game and it was composed by Casey Edwards and performed by Ali Edwards and Cliff Llloret. It is composed rather complexly, mashing up several genres to create one awesome song that kind of makes you want to head bang. There’s a bit of metal and techno/electronica in there as well as some pop and rock too. “Devil Trigger” was incredibly popular upon release, gaining around eleven million YouTube views since then. Influential, powerful and just fun to listen to, “Devil Trigger” is a great anthem for the Devil May Cry series to rally behind.

3. Kingdom Hearts III- Yoko Shimomura

Fans of the Kingdom Hearts series finally got the long awaited third instalment at the beginning of 2019. With the game came a soundtrack that included both new tracks for the game and remixed versions of older music. Despite there not being a huge amount of new and original music, there is a lot to enjoy from the Kingdom Hearts III soundtrack.

As with the other Kingdom Hearts soundtracks, Hikaru Utada wrote and performed two new songs for the third game. “Face My Fears” is a collaborative song with Skrillex that opens the game and “Don’t Think Twice” is the closing theme. Both new songs exude the magical and epic feeling of the Kingdom Hearts universe, making use of a full orchestra for both numbers (with some added Skrillex dubstep for “Face My Fears”). The themes that Hikaru Utada creates for Kingdom Hearts are always so spectacularly beautiful as well as being suitably epic to fit into the game. With her Kingdom Hearts III tracks, she manages to raise the already stupendously high bar that she set for herself. In terms of Yoko Shimomura’s score, there are a few new noticeable additions to the soundtrack. “Scala Ad Caleum” is a violin and piano heavy piece that demonstrates Shimomura’s talents whilst the new Gummi Ship exploration music is catchy and cheerful, almost sounding like something from a Pokémon game. There are also some great new battle themes, including one where Sora faces off against three characters at once who I won’t name for spoiler purposes. Shimomura clearly has an amazing grasp on the series and continued to demonstrate her talent as a composer with Kingdom Hearts III.

I find the music of the Disney worlds particularly impressive in Kingdom Hearts III. Shimomura reflects the various animated worlds with her score despite their originality and lack of connection to the music that we already know from those films. Films like Frozen and the Toy Story movies have such iconic music and although these can be heard in the game (“Let it Go” makes an appearance as does the instrumental to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), Shimomura also creates a whole new assortment of tracks for each world. The music fits right into each world and not be out of place in their respective film franchises. My particular favourite is the “Kingdom of Corona Field Theme” for the Tangled world. This upbeat and cheerful track plays during the exploration segments of the Tangled world and sounds like it was written by Alan Menken himself- famous Disney composer who wrote the music for the Tangled movie. Shimomura’s ability to create brilliant original music based on established franchises is impressive enough. However, she goes above and beyond expectation by providing music that stands up to the original scores from the Disney films. There are also incredible remixes of music from the other games, such as “Roxas’s Theme” which gets an epic orchestral upgrade.

There has been some backlash towards Kingdom Hearts III from fans and critics and the same judgement has been aimed at the soundtrack also. Whilst the criticisms are understandable, I believe that Kingdom Hearts III provided one of the best gaming soundtracks this year. With its large scale orchestral arrangements, varied styles and Disney inspired world themes, Kingdom Hearts III impresses by offering both old and new arrangements.

Top Track- Dearly Beloved

I wanted to pick an original song for this but I just couldn’t resist putting one of my absolute favourite Kingdom Hearts pieces here with the remix that it got for Kingdom Hearts III. “Dearly Beloved” is a simple yet beautiful piano piece that is absolutely heaving with emotion. The new version plays on the title screen of Kingdom Hearts III and it is a completely perfect way to welcome players back into the world that they have been waiting to come back to for so long. Starting off small, the song escalates to an orchestra before winding back down to the piano. The Kingdom Hearts III version is my favourite version of this track due to the upgrade it received and the nostalgia that it represents. “Dearly Beloved” is an astounding piece of music that feels even more beautiful than it did when we first heard it back in 2002.

2. Fire Emblem: Three Houses- Takeru Kanazaki,Hiroki Morishita and Rei Kondoh

Fire Emblem: Three Houses was my first experience with a Fire Emblem game and I was blown away by how immersive the whole experience was. One of the elements of the game that really hooked me was the music. The Fire Emblem: Three Houses soundtrack is one that I kept coming back to over and over again.

The main theme of the game- “Edge of Dawn” being the title of the vocal version- is easily one of the strongest of any from gaming music this year. It is reworked constantly throughout the score in a variety of different situations and it never feels out of place. “Edge of Dawn” is perfectly executed, establishing the tone of the game from its first use in the opening.  In an article on the soundtrack, Twinfinite.net states that “ it’s critical for long video game soundtracks to have a strong theme that the rest of the tracks can be built around…it’s also important for that theme to be versatile enough that it can fit various moods”. This is very much the case with the main theme as it transitions during the game. It goes from epic opening number to relaxing ambience to bombastic battle theme with ease.  The composers have created such a versatile main theme that it can represent any emotion or situation, which is an incredible achievement alone.

The rest of the soundtrack is no less impressive. Though there are tracks that don’t quite reach the level of others, the score is still incredibly enjoyable. There is also a selection of tracks that will only appear in certain story paths, so replaying the game means that you will keep hearing something new. The ambient music throughout is fantastic-particularly the track “Life at Garrech Mach Monastery”- as it is incredibly soothing and despite its repetitive nature, doesn’t get tiresome or boring to listen to. It is constantly relaxing and draws you into the world of the school. The battle music is the opposite situation, hyping the player up with energetic orchestral themes dominated by the brass and the strings section.   A great example of this is “Fodlan Winds”, which is a general battle theme that can also get a little repetitive. As with the calmer music, the battle music doesn’t feel boring at any point.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses has one of the most dynamic soundtracks of 2019. I immediately wanted it as soon as I heard it whilst playing and it stuck in my mind for a long time afterwards. The score represents the various tones of the game perfectly, from the relaxing monastery exploration to the intense battles to the dramatic time skip. All three composers clearly put a lot of work into the score. They have crafted a soundtrack that reflects the narrative and the characters. The teenagers start off relatively carefree and grow up after a time skip where a war is now taking place. The score perfectly captures this sense of innocence being lost with the juxtaposition of soothing themes and battle music.  The game became one of the favourites of many this year and the soundtrack is also a huge achievement that is one of the best.

Top Track- Blue Skies and a Battle

I know a lot of people would want “God-Shattering Star” as the top pick and I would agree that it is an incredible track with awesomely dramatic vocals. However, I think that “Blue Skies and a Battle” deserves some recognition as it is such an awesome piece. The song plays during the Battle of the Eagle and the Lion- the mock battle between the Blue Lion, Golden Deer and Black Eagle Houses. The piece is appropriately epic; this is the battle that you spend a fair amount of time preparing for after all. However, it lacks the hardness of some of the later battle themes that occur during more serious events in the story. There is a sense of playfulness to the song as the students all come together for a mock fight rather than a real one. It also has a superb beat drop that both shocked and pleased me when I first heard it. “Blue Skies and a Battle” may not be the most dramatic of songs on the soundtrack but it represents the Garreg Mach students in their prime, before the horrors of war would later consume them.

1. Death Stranding- Ludvig Forssell

Death Stranding had two albums out around the time it released: the musical score and “Death Stranding: Timefall”. “Timefall” is an album with licensed songs inspired by the game. The album is good but it is Ludvig Forssell’s enigmatic, creative and sublime score that I am choosing as the number one pick for the best video game soundtrack of 2019.

Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding was met with mixed emotions upon release despite the hype that surrounded it beforehand. No matter how disillusioned you were with the game, there is no faulting the incredible music that Ludvig Forssell and his team in the music department have created. A fusion of sci-fi synth, beautiful piano segments, mournful violin tunes and full blown orchestras, the soundtrack is mind-blowingly good. “The Final Waltz” is a great example of using all four of those elements, starting with a synthetic sound and flowing easily into a quiet piano as a lone violin evolves to an orchestra. The piano makes a return toward the end of the piece, joining the lonely violin to create a track that is heaving with emotion. I haven’t played Death Stranding but I could feel the palpable emotion from the in-game scene that this track aligns with. It made me feel something despite not having any kind of context. The synth segments converge with the orchestral elements to create an odd fusion of sounds that really shouldn’t work but completely does.

The soundtrack conveys several different moods and tones throughout. One of the more interesting pieces is “Souless Meat Puppet”, a song with a creeping and eerie melody that gets more menacing as it progresses. It creates an atmosphere again without even knowing what is happening within the game. This then compared to a softer piece like “Strands”- a nine minute track which includes a heavenly choral arrangement, a lovely piano tune and a crashing synth conclusion- shows just how far the soundtrack can be stretched in terms of genre. Like many entries on this list, there is a versatility to it that conveys the various situations and tones throughout the game. Death Stranding is the most impressive example of this.

Forssell went out of his way to create something unique for the Death Stranding soundtrack. In fact, the first place that he, Joel Corelitz (an additional composer for the game) and the team working on the music went when researching for the soundtrack was Home Depot. In an interview with Polygon, Joel said “Ludvig Forssell and I found ourselves in the aisles of Home Depot banging on random objects to hear how they sounded.” From using metal oil drums to duct taping over the strings of their instruments to create a dampening effect, the team wanted to utilise anything and everything to get the unique sound they wanted. They even when as far as to abuse a piano by using a rubber mallet on the inside strings and scraping a gardening rake over them. They went out of their way to create a soundtrack that reflected the bizarre universe that it would later inhabit and their efforts were not in vain. Press F to pay respects to that piano though.

Death Stranding was a polarizing video game. There is no denying that fact. But if you come away from the game feeling disappointed, at least take a moment to appreciate the hard work and dedication from everyone involved on the title, including the soundtrack. The music is engaging, enlightening and incredibly powerful. I would say that it outdoes plenty of soundtracks from various media forms such as film and television. Forssell and the team behind the music have created something that will be remembered as something of a masterpiece, even if the game itself isn’t.

Top Track- BB’s Theme

This theme is a major element across Death Stranding, important to the narrative and used in the gameplay. The song is intended for a bridge baby- the babies in the amber pods- and it expresses the desire to protect them. Even though there are some peculiar plot points in Death Stranding, this theme of wanting to protect a child of your own is one that is relatable to anyone. Protagonist Sam can whistle the tune of “BB’s Theme” or play it on the harmonica in game and it acts as a crucial plot point that links Sam to another character. Composition wise, the song is fantastic. Jenny Plant’s lullaby style vocals are eerily calming as she is accompanied by whistling. The song progresses from soft synth tones to a full orchestra with the synth continuing to add sci-fi elements throughout. The song is a huge achievement, managing to be incredibly relatable despite the weirdness of Death Stranding in general. One of the strongest forms of love is the love between a parent and child and the song perfectly captures that within its lyrics whilst managing to maintain a cool and edgy sound. The song ends with the sound of a baby cooing, wrapping up the theme for the bridge babies seamlessly. A mature song that links well with the game whilst being great in its own right, “BB’s Theme” takes the top spot as the best song from the best game soundtrack this year.

If you’ve managed to read all the way through this, thank you so much! I’m shocked you made it but I’m also super grateful! I hope you enjoyed my list and would love to hear what you think were the best gaming soundtracks of 2019.

Here is to a great 2020 full of incredible music from incredible games! Check out our soundtrack mix tape here.

PART ONE

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Best Video Game Soundtracks of 2019- Part One

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

2019 has been a year of ups and downs for the video game industry but one aspect that has been consistently excellent is the quality of soundtracks in gaming. The bar is constantly being raised in regard to the standard of music in games, with gaming soundtracks becoming as iconic as film and television scores. There has been a huge amount of amazing video game soundtracks this year so I’m going to be counting down twenty of the best soundtracks from 2019 from across the gaming world. Before we do so, let’s start with some honourable mentions. There are a few games that had brilliant soundtracks that I just couldn’t fit into the main list. Cutting them was a painful process so I thought I would give them and their composers a shout out.

Anthem- Sarah Schachner

Anthem may have received a lukewarm response upon its release in February but one element of the game that cannot be faulted is the soundtrack. Perfectly capturing the futuristic, sci-fi nature of the game, the Anthem score is an achievement that deserves to be acknowledged. It is also great to see a female composer make her mark in an industry dominated by male composers. Schachner clearly understands the world of Anthem and brings it to life excellently.

The Outer Worlds- Justin E. Bell

A recent game that became a hit, The Outer Worlds is another sci-fi style game that allows players to explore various planets and become a helping hand or a terrorising force to the inhabitants. Bell is able to capture the epic science fiction nature of the game, but he blends it with differing genres to create a unique sound. The most noticeable is the nod to the Western genre, reflecting the player’s travels through the vast wilderness of space.

Little Town Hero- Toby Fox

Cutting this one hurt as I really love this soundtrack but with so much great competition this year, unfortunately I couldn’t justify its place. Though the game itself received mixed reviews, Fox’s score oozes with charm. Fox has carved out a place for himself in the gaming world and his soundtracks are always vibrant and bubbly with a hint of powerful emotion. Although Little Town Hero doesn’t have quite the same depth as the scores for Undertale or even Deltarune: Chapter 1, Fox has crafted a little gem that is brimming with personality.

Borderlands 3- Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann and Finishing Move Inc.

When it comes to pure, unadulterated video game fun, Borderlands is the franchise to go to. The long awaited third game released in September and it had a surprisingly varied soundtrack. The eclectic combination of styles comes about thanks to the three separate composers. They each bring a different feel to each world and provide more depth than one might expect from Borderlands.

Metro Exodus- Alexei Omelchuk

The music from this game is incredibly powerful, perfectly reflecting the post-apocalyptic nature of the story. Based on the Metro book series which is set in Russia after a devastating nuclear war, the game is a first-person shooter with a strong narrative aspect. Ukrainian composer Alexei Omelchuk creates an eerie and haunting soundtrack that also invokes a great deal of emotion for important story moments and gripping tension for action scenes.  His music could easily go toe to toe with a film soundtrack, and it would probably win.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (Remake)- Ryo Nagamatsu

Ryo Nagamatsu truly hits the nail on the head with his remake score. Bursting with cuteness and personality, the Link’s Awakening remake soundtrack cleverly combines an 8-bit musical style with orchestrated pieces. This invokes an element of nostalgia whilst also bringing the game into the contemporary video game scene.

These honourable mentions deserved a moment to be recognised and praised but now let’s get into the list. I’ll be listing entries twenty to eleven in this instalment, with part two coming afterwards.

Let’s begin!

20. Untitled Goose Game: Dan Golding

A surprise hit of 2019 was the indie game centred on the player controlling a slightly dastardly goose aptly named Untitled Goose Game. The game was praised widely and quickly became an internet sensation due to the passive aggressive nature of said goose. Interestingly enough, developers House House weren’t actually planning on having a prominent soundtrack. This soon changed following the release of the games trailer in 2017. Classical piece “Prelude No. 12: Minstrels” by Debussy was used to highlight the silly antics of the playable goose. The music was edited in a way that it almost seemed like it was framed around the goose’s behaviour, adding an extra layer of humour to an already pretty funny premise. The popularity of the trailer led to the decision to include music, but not just as a background element. The music of the game is situational in that it changes based on the actions of the player. Golding went through an elaborate process to bring this to life, but it was well worth the effort. As the goose lurks around its victims, the music will feel more low energy, but it perks up as soon as the player’s dastardly deeds are being committed. The piano tunes that follow your naughty goose around are all variations of six Debussy Preludes, with some original music from Golding also appearing on the radio in game. Due to this incredibly smart decision to include reactive music, I had to put Untitled Goose Game on this list even if the soundtrack itself is only half the length of some of the other entries here. Creative, unique and wonderfully executed, Untitled Goose Game succeeds in creating a soundtrack that reacts to your various devilish goose deeds.

Top Track: The Garden

It is difficult to highlight actual tracks from the game due to the reactive nature of the music but the piano piece that is used as you annoy the gardener in the game’s first level-The Garden- is my favourite. It is an example of Golding fantastically adapting Debussy, but it also somehow manages to reflect the actions of a wayward goose. The scheming of the goose; the irritable nature of his victims; the bad behaviour with no rhyme or reason; it is all captured perfectly in “The Garden”. It encapsulates everything the goose represents: being a bit of a nuisance.

19. Astral Chain: Satoshi Igarashi

Nintendo title Astral Chain is a game that unexpectedly rose to prominence upon its release in August 2019. An entirely original IP, Astral Chain is a hack and slash adventure game centred on a world known as “The Ark” and a police force known as “Neuron” who the player is a detective for. The music is a dynamic aspect of the game as it regularly fluctuates between three distinctive genres: metal, orchestral and electronica. The score boasts a range of tracks and it is impressive how Igarashi- who previously scored Bayonetta 2– manages to switch so easily between them. You get a feel for how a scene in the game is playing out just by listening to the soundtrack due to Igarashi’s masterful manipulation of the various genres. In a developer blog by PlatinumGames, Igarashi gives some credit where it is due to two other composers who helped out on the game, Naofumi Harada and Hitomi Kurokawa, as well as two outside composers who were also involved, Masahiro Aoki and Satoshi Setsune. Igarashi also includes a graph on this blog depicting the music genres used in the game and how they reflect certain moods during the game such as tense and calm. This shows the importance of maintaining the three genre structure and how Igarashi and his colleagues went about enforcing this method throughout the game. Not only does the score juggle three separate genres, it does it incredibly well. This versatile nature of the score is what makes Astral Chain one of the best soundtracks this year.

Top Track: Dark Hero- Female Version- sung by Beverly

Despite the brilliant tracks throughout, it is one of the actual songs from the game that I have chosen for the best of the soundtrack. There are two different versions of this song, a male and a female version. I chose the female version as Beverly-the artist who sings it- has an incredible voice that amps up the epic nature of the song.  The male version is still good, but it is incredibly auto tuned. This does actually fit in with the Astral Chain world with its robotic sound, but Beverly’s version is still the more enjoyable. The song is a perfect encapsulation of both metal and electronica and sounds like it was ripped straight out of a mainstream anime. With great vocals and awesome instrumentals, the song is fabulously over the top and stands out significantly.

18.Sea of Solitude: Guy Jackson

Berlin based indie game developers Jo-Mei Games released the adventure game Sea of Solitude in the summer of 2019. The game centres on a girl named Kay who has turned into a monster. As she traverses through a submerged city on a boat, she encounters various creatures and other monsters as she goes about trying to become human again. Sea of Solitude acts as metaphor for depression, loneliness, fear and battling your inner demons and the musical score is a reflection of Kay’s fight against her personal darkness. Composer Guy Jackson was brought on to score the game after he demonstrated some melancholy pieces of music he had been working on in his spare time during a meeting with CEO of Jo-Mei games Cornelia Geppert. The score has moments that reflect a significant amount of emotion, from anger to pain to desolate sadness. Jackson captures each emotion perfectly with his simple yet raw and powerful music. The game itself may have received mixed reviews, but there is no faulting Jackson’s carefully crafted score which stemmed from a folder of sad music on his computer.  This is why I believe Sea of Solitude has one of the best soundtracks of the year. From humble and unpolished beginnings, Jackson managed to create a perfect score to represent the tumultuous traversal of mental health issues that we all deal with at some point.

Top Track: I Picture You Before Me- sung by Stella Angelika

“I Picture You Before Me” kind of acts as the games main theme as it appears at the beginning and at the end of the game. There is an instrumental version of it but the version I have chosen is a version sung by Stella Angelika with Guy Jackson accompanying her on the piano. The unique nature of the song’s inception is intriguing, as they did not begin recording with the song completely finished. Jackson referred to the state of the song as a “sketch” when he and Angelika began recording. He began playing the piano and whilst Angelika sang some lyrics she had written on her phone, it was mostly an improvised composition. Although the final version was given some fine tuning, the improvisation was kept. This improvised style reflects the true emotion of those involved, especially Stella Angelika who stated that the lyrics she had written on her phone to aid her with her improve were written during  “the darkest time”. She went on to say that “The things that I was feeling really went into this little sketch”. This raw emotion is what makes this track a stand out on the album, reflecting the nature of the game as well as capturing real human emotion within the artist. It is a unique way of creating a song, but Jackson and Angelika really nailed it with “I Picture You Before Me”.

17. Pokémon Sword and Shield: Minako Adachi and Go Ichinose featuring Toby Fox

Pokémon Sword and Shield is a game that has been getting some flack since its release in November. Despite praise from critics, fans have slated the animations, the incomplete Pokédex and the narrative. Once again, Sword and Shield is a game with outstanding music that outweighs the negative energy surrounding the actual game. The soundtrack represents the end of an era as Pokémon music aficionado Junichi Masuda is not involved. In an interview last year, Masuda stated that “it’s important to have the younger generation at Game Freak take over the development of Pokémon as a series”. Masuda has been involved in the series since the very first Red and Blue games. Whilst it is sad to see him depart, the new composers bring heaps of energy to the behemoth of a score (there are around 72 tracks) whilst maintaining the key elements that are the most recognisable from the series. The original music from the first games are referenced constantly throughout. The title screen theme is an homage to the main theme from Pokémon Red and Blue, which became a theme that most Pokémon media rallies under (it was even remixed brilliantly in the ending credits to Detective Pikachu). The Sword and Shield remix revitalises the theme to represent the new game, the new region and the new trainers ready to set out on their adventures. Other classic themes such as the “Pokémon Centre” music, the “Evolution theme” and the “Wild Pokémon Victory Theme” are included with a modernised sound but little else changed. As much as I loved the homages to classic Pokémon music, it was the new themes that particularly caught my attention. The soundtrack switches genres frequently, including funky electronica, cutesy pop, punkish metal and even a bit of country mixed in there with “Hulbury Town”. There is something for everyone and it is all extremely enjoyable to listen to. No matter how Pokémon Sword and Shield will be remembered in the grander scheme of the Pokémon franchise, the music will surely be remembered for its greatness.

Top Track: Battle! (Gym Leader)

Whilst Toby Fox’s “Battle! (Battle Tower)” theme that he created especially for the game is an enjoyable addition to the soundtrack, it is the “Gym Leader Battle” theme that truly steals the show here. The theme is bombastic, highly energetic and wouldn’t sound out of place in a nightclub. The excitement of Pokémon battles is highlighted in this track, particularly when the crowd cheers start to kick in about three quarters of the way through the song. Their chanting is reminiscent of those attending a real-life sports match and it is a clever feature to integrate into the music. The “Gym Leader Battle” theme is awesome and definitely a standout on the Sword and Shield soundtrack.

16. A Plague Tale: Innocence: Olivier Deriviere

Set in 14th century France, A Plague Tale: Innocence is mostly a stealth based game about a teenager named Amicia and her younger brother Hugo attempting to find a safe place after their home was invaded by the Inquisition. They must deal with various enemies as they navigate their war-torn homeland, most notably swarms of plague rats that devour everything in sight. As with many games where the narrative takes precedence, the soundtrack is an important element and one that is wonderfully executed by Deriviere whose previous video game work includes Remember Me and Vampyr.

Due to the time period in which the game is set, the main focus of the score is only on a few instruments. There is an emphasis on the strings section such as the violin, cello and guitar to encompass the medieval mood. The strings are used in both the action sequences and the quieter moments to great effect. In the tense moments where the player may find themselves sneaking around to avoid danger, the strings will screech in a deep and booming fashion such as in the track “The Inquisition”. They often start slow and build to something that goes from slightly unnerving to utter heart pounding tension.  These segments reminded me strongly of music found in television, such as Bear McCreary’s The Walking Dead or Ramin Djawdi’s Game of Thrones scores. Both make great use of the strings for epic moments and Deriviere’s work here wouldn’t be out of place amongst them. The Soundtrack World website describes the intimidating string work perfectly, “…contains a pattern that keeps repeating, but instead of getting tedious, enough variation has been added to the pattern to keep the music interesting and gets progressively darker and builds to a broader sounding climax.” This is certainly the case for “The Inquisition”, and several other tracks, the ones Soundtrack World references including “Orphans” and “Escape”.

The calmer moments of the soundtrack are equally powerful but it invokes more soothing emotions. The soft pluck of the guitar strings is calming, despite the stressful situation that Amicia and Hugo find themselves in. They act as peaceful interludes amongst the violence and decimation within the game and Deriviere composes these pieces beautifully.

A Plague Tale: Innocence is a perfect example of how a simple soundtrack made up of only a handful of instruments can be just as effective as a complex one. Deriviere keeps the soundtrack firmly grounded in the 14th century game setting whilst also breathing life into this plague infested world. Amicia and Hugo’s journey is often without music in-game but when the soundtrack does kick in, the fear, violence and life or death scenarios feel all the more real.

Top Track: Father

I was torn between this track and “Beyond the Horizon” here. “Beyond the Horizon” is unique in that it is the only song that makes use of a different style and different instruments, including an organ and some male vocals.  However, I believe that “Father” has a stronger emotional impact. “Father” is the second track on the soundtrack and it encompasses the childlike innocence of Amicia and the connection between her and her father before her world is turned upside down. It represents that which a great deal of us still cling to: optimism and hope. It is a simple guitar piece with a small strings section kicking in about halfway through. Beautiful and hopeful, the song suggests a peaceful life. Although this peace is ultimately shattered, it reflects a happier time for the siblings. Sometimes being able to reflect on these happier moments is what keeps us going, making this piece feel incredibly human.

15. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab

When it comes to franchises, Star Wars is one of the most iconic of them all. Anyone who is able to work on anything even remotely to do with it- films, games, television, terrible holiday specials- is sure to be subject to criticism and intense scrutiny by the hordes of dedicated Star Wars fans. This goes for the music of the franchise too. John Williams created one of the most iconic and beloved film scores of all time. Other composers have chipped in via the various spin off movies and television shows (most recently Ludwig Göransson in his incredible music for The Mandalorian). It’s a hefty task but when it came to score the music for the latest Star Wars game, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Stephen Barton and Gordy Haab took up the challenge and did amazingly well.

With John Williams’s soundtracks, he captured the feel of a completely fictional sci-fi world whilst maintaining some relatability and humanity with tracks such as “Princess Leia’s Theme” and “The Force Theme”. Barton and Haab are able to do the same here, blending bombastic, orchestral action pieces with softer pieces that are equally orchestral but make use of the woodwind section to create a soothing sci-fi atmosphere. The score is so convincing at times that I honestly wondered if John Williams had a hand in it in some way. The inspiration that Barton and Haab took from Williams is incredibly clear to anyone, even those who may have only heard the main Star Wars theme. However, there is an interesting use of music in Fallen Order that does separate it somewhat from Williams’s orchestral inspiration.

The opening of the game has a fascinating use of music that hasn’t really been seen in the Star Wars universe before. A strange, alien sounding song can be heard and as we focus in on playable protagonist Cal Kestis, we realise that this song is actually music that he is listening to on his headphones. The use of music within the Star Wars universe itself is rarely delved into (except the weird cantina acts) and-correct me if I’m wrong internet- I’m pretty sure that no one has ever been shown just listening to a recorded artist on a music player. It is an interesting place to start the game, with an alien song rather than an orchestral score. We all know the intense and mind-blowing way that the movies open, so I found this opening a brilliant twist on the use of music to introduce us to a Star Wars adventure. Oh, and fun fact, the alien band that Cal is listening to is actually a Mongolian heavy metal band who use throat chanting in their songs. You’re welcome for that titbit.

The soundtrack has not been officially released so I’m not even entirely certain of the names of all the tracks despite my research. There are a few dotted around out there, mostly based on the names of the various planets that you visit such as Kashyyk and Dathomir. There’s even a petition to get the soundtrack officially released which I’ll link here if you are interested.  Though I can’t be specific with titles from the soundtrack, it is clear that Barton and Haab had a clear understanding of the Star Wars universe as their music slots straight into it without a second glance. There are moments of brilliance that feel ripped straight from the movies as well as quieter moments that are equally strong. There is no doubting that Barton and Haab succeeded in pulling the player into a galaxy far, far away with their brilliant music.

Top Track: Cal Kestis Theme

Whilst I couldn’t find an official upload of “Cal’s Theme”, a YouTuber by the name of Flash Music put together the pieces of Cal’s Theme that they could decipher throughout the game. Thanks Flash Music! “Cal’s Theme” is quite a whimsical number in its initial iterations, suggesting a character that has much to learn and has a great journey ahead of him. In this compilation, the theme gets more mature as the game progresses. I love when composers use a particular theme for a character that alters throughout as that character develops. That is exactly was Barton and Haab do for “Cal’s Theme” and it is a brilliant way to show that his path will not be an easy one and he may not come out the other side of it as the same person.” Cal’s Theme” easily stands up against other character themes throughout the Star Wars franchise, even one such as “Rey’s Theme” from the latest trilogy, and that is why I feel it is one of the best pieces from the soundtrack.

14. Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro and Inspion Izene Inc.

Catherine: Full Body is a remaster and extended version of the original Catherine game from eight years ago. The remaster includes 21 new tracks and this soundtrack is what I am putting on the list. The Catherine soundtrack was great at bringing together an eclectic group of music genres and somehow making them all work amazingly together. The Catherine: Full Body soundtrack continues this tradition with some awesome remixes of classical pieces, smooth and soothing jazz melodies and hip hop songs that sound ripped straight from the mainstream music charts. Composer Shoji Meguro- famous for his work on the Persona series– enlisted the help of Inspion Inzene Inc for the extended soundtrack due to their help on the sound design of the original title (I’m linking an interesting article in regards to Inspion’s involvement but be warned that the website is in Japanese!). This collaboration works well as there is a sense of familiarity regarding the soundtrack but a fresh new set of tracks to distinguish the new material from the original content.

The Catherine: Full Body soundtrack is just as creative, eclectic, unique and quirky as the soundtrack for Catherine was, with just the right combination of various genres. It makes for an interesting listen that offers up a bit of something for everyone whilst expanding the already brilliant original material.

Top Track: Tomorrow (Rin’s Theme)

For all its varying genres of music, the piece that stood out to me the most was the simple yet beautifully performed “Tomorrow.” Acting as a theme for the new character in Full Body Qatherine- known as Rin- the theme is simple and sweet and incredibly soothing. Rin is a new neighbour who befriends Vincent in the game. The tune is played by Rin on the piano and acts as a tool for helping Vincent during his nightmares. This helpful nature is reflected in the melody of the song, which echoes with a benevolent nature. Despite there being some amazing remixes of classical music involved in the soundtrack (the “Ride of the Valkyries” remix is my personal favourite) “Tomorrow” is a lovely tune that brings some sweetness to the game.

13. Afterparty: scntfc

Following the success of their first game Oxenfree, indie game developers Night School Studio continued to demonstrate their strength in the indie game field with their recent release Afterparty. Afterparty follows Milo and Lola, two best friends who find themselves suddenly in Hell with no recollection as to how they died. Composer Andrew Rohrmann- known by his stage name scntfc- returns to score Afterparty following his work on Oxenfree. The score is a unique mix of booming club style electronica and creeping, atmospheric, organ heavy tunes that embodies a theme worthy of the underworld.

Whilst there are other elements that pop up throughout, the game mostly revolves around the premise drinking and partying and this is reflected well in the soundtrack. Milo and Lola find out that the only way to escape from Hell is to out-drink Satan himself, making getting wasted pretty important to the plot. The music encompasses a techno vibe that would be associated with a party heavy environment. It’s fun to listen to and is easy to imagine a bunch of drunken party goers dancing uneasily to the infectious beats.

The electronic techno music is definitely an element that makes this soundtrack one of the best this year, but the ability to infuse it with a different style completely is what makes it great. I would say that the other style of music is a crossover of rock and religion. I’ll use the track, “Your Own, Personal Demon” as an example. It begins with an organ and develops with choral voices, drumbeats and eventually includes the electric guitar. There is an element of music that one may think of when considering Heaven, Hell or religious matters (organs and a chorus of singers) then it merges with the style that reflects the badass that is Satan in Afterparty. After all, he is the Lord of the Underworld who throws 24/7 parties. A cool guitar riff would suit him nicely. With this mashup of musical styles, scntfc creates an interesting music combination that is both clever and enjoyable.

The music of Afterparty is proof that taking musical risks- such as merging styles that may not seem compatible- can really pay off. There has clearly been a lot of thought put into which musical genres reflect the games premise and characters best and it all comes together nicely. With Afterparty, scntfc has scored another incredible soundtrack for Night School Studios. Here’s hoping they continue their collaboration in the future.

Top Track- Hades Gonna Hate

“Schoolyard Strangler” is a perfect representation of how the various genres combine to create one unique track that reflects the (under) world of Afterparty perfectly. However, I just couldn’t resist putting “Hades Gonna Hate” as the top track as it is pure electronic enjoyment. It seriously sounds like a song in the mainstream music charts today with its awesome techno beats and addictive riffs. I dare you not to at least tap your foot whilst listening to this one.

12. Code Vein: Go Shiina

When I first started listening to the Code Vein soundtrack, I was struck by how dramatic and powerful the first track alone was. Honestly, the sudden choral voices made me jump a little. Booming and harmonic in style, the soundtrack is incredibly epic and shockingly well done. Despite having licensed music included, I’ll be focusing on the musical score of the game.

Code Vein is a role playing game set in a post-apocalyptic society where a terrible and mysterious event led to the destruction of humanity. Whilst many games have dystopian settings, few of them go as bombastic with their music as Code Vein does. The score is highly orchestral, making the game come alive. It is hard not to feel something when a swelling chorus and orchestra bursts to life as you play. The player battles various monsters and vampiric creatures throughout the game and the music plays a key part. Fights can quickly become more effective once the music begins to intensify and the score alters with player decisions. This dynamic approach to the soundtrack did cause issues for the composer though, as Go Shiina suggests this in a behind the scenes video on the game where he states, “the music needs to be composed in a way that allows for change at any time without undercutting the track, and these changes aren’t necessarily limited to dark sounds that match the backing.” It was clearly a struggle to include reactive music but Shiina pulls it off to the point where even the most tedious of battles can be uplifted by the power of the soundtrack.

Code Vein is another game that received mixed reviews upon release but as with the other entries on this list with the same issue, the soundtrack is far from mediocre. Shiina was given a fair amount of freedom on the project, “They basically let me do what I wanted with the composition”, he says in the BTS video. I personally think this was a great move on behalf of Bandai Namco. They clearly placed a lot of trust in Shiina, likely due to his previous work with them on games such as the God Eater series. They were right to do so, despite his Code Vein work being “very strong and hard compared to the (God Eater) music”. This hardness is apparent throughout, with certain tracks literally booming. “Main Theme” is a great example of this (the one I first listened to that gave me a slight scare). It immediately opens up with a chanting chorus of voices followed quickly by a bellowing organ before the full orchestra kicks in. A review from Shack News accurately describes the singing as an “almost-Gregorian monk-chanting piece”. This is such a unique way to introduce the player to the game. Don’t forget, this is only the main menu. This kind of introduction is important as it is the first impression that the player gets. This intro indicates that the player is certainly in for an epic journey.

Code Vein manages to inflict some serious damage with its astounding music that begins as soon as the game is started up. It doesn’t let up throughout and can uplift the player during battle due to the interactivity and intensity of the score. Code Vein is yet another fantastic soundtrack that may not have gotten the credit it deserved due to the reaction from critics.

Top Track: Memory of the Lost

I know I’ve been heaping praise on the “Main Theme” of Code Vein but for my top track, I have to choose the melancholy “Memory of the Lost”. Played during a sequence in the game that delves into a certain character’s memories, “Memory of the Lost” is an emotionally charged piece of music. Starting off with the string section, the piece then begins to include a piano and a female vocal performance. The composition of the song screams anime and that is definitely not a bad thing. Anime has some of most inspiring and beautiful soundtracks and this track is certainly the best that Code Vein offers.

11. Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead

PlayStation 4 exclusive Days Gone was released to mixed reviews in April of 2019 but the soundtrack is one of the best I’ve heard this year. Acting as a composer for films and television as well as video games, Nathan Whitehead has created a score that sucks you into rural post-apocalyptic Oregon and doesn’t let go. In Days Gone the player takes on the role of Deacon St John, a biker who is surviving alone after a pandemic turned people into “Freakers” (basically fast zombies). The score is a versatile collection that ranges from terror inducing themes for the Freakers and softer numbers for emotional moments in the story.

Whitehead previously worked on some of the films in The Purge franchise so it is no surprise that he is incredibly well adept at invoking a feeling of suspense and imminent danger within his score. His piece “The Freakshow” is a haunting theme for the Freakers that immerses you in a deep feeling of dread. It is a perfect monster theme but there is also a touch of softness to it to remind the listener of the human that once resided within. When discussing his work on the PlayStation Blog, Whitehead mentions that this was essential for the theme, “It was…important to maintain a thread of humanity”. “The Freakshow” builds and builds until it becomes heavily reliant on the string section and the sense of tension that it can bring (the best example of utilising the strings like this is the theme from Psycho). There is an overall tone of fear but that small yet potent inclusion of something to reference the Freakers humanity is a nice touch that shows that Whitehead clearly went out of his way to bring some gravitas to this score.

Whilst the more harrowing and action-packed scores are exciting to listen to, I found myself drawn to the quieter pieces. Whitehead noted that his two biggest influences on the score are “Deacon…and the setting of the Pacific Northwest” and I found that this came across most powerfully in the softer moments of the score. There is a certain peaceful nature to the various guitar riffs, especially when combined with an orchestra. Whitehead wanted to create an “organic, lived-in sound with a touch of Americana” and this is particularly powerful in the guitar heavy tracks. You can’t help but hear the rural American countryside, although Whitehead did say that he didn’t want it to “sound too country”. I think he succeeds in this as there isn’t a permeating twang that you get with pure country scores. It represents the beauty of the environment that Deacon finds himself in during his travels whilst also reflecting Deacon as a character and his connection to nature.

The Days Gone soundtrack manages to invoke a plethora of emotions, from serenity to tension to fear and back again. Whitehead shows off his versatility as a composer whose score changes with the players actions, such as increasing in tension if Deacon happens to run into a pack of Freakers.  There are similarities to Gustavo Santolalla’s The Last of Us soundtrack (one of my favourite game soundtracks of all time) in that the composer has perfectly managed to capture both the feeling of a desolate and dangerous world and the struggles of the last bastion of humanity. Despite other elements of Days Gone not being so well received, the soundtrack is easily one of the standout features of the game. Clearly a labour of love on Whitehead’s part, Days Gone is undoubtedly one of the best soundtracks in gaming this year.

Top Track: I Remember

One of the most affecting tracks of Days Gone is “I Remember”, a track about Deacon and his life before the outbreak that destroyed the world. It is a heartfelt track with a focus on the guitar, creating a soothing atmospheric tone. The theme acts as a reflection of Deacon’s past with hints of themes from his future. The piece slowly builds to a powerful orchestral theme before ending with the quiet guitar again. Whitehead said that the piece was meant to be “wistful and a little hopeful…to reflect Deacon’s resolve.” The lower guitar moments seem to represent the wistful elements, with the crescendo symbolising Deacon’s strength and “resolve.”  Beautifully created and almost rustic in its tone, “I Remember” is the most striking piece from Days Gone that shows how game scores can be just as moving as movie scores.

PART TWO

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