While many point to how lifelike the next blockbuster action title is or how gorgeous an artistic indie darling is when it comes to evaluating a game, these visuals would lose their impact without a stirring soundtrack to score them. From the chip-tunes of Super Mario Bros to the Gregorian chants of Halo, video game music brings players closer to immersion and fantasy. Much like how a movie’s soundtrack sets the tone for dramatic scenes, game music also helps players connect emotionally with the story.
Checking the Score is a monthly feature devoted to these crucial compositions which are literally the soundtrack to our gaming lives. Delving into what makes them impactful, the process of composing them and the intricacies of each score, our aim is to put a spotlight on the aural backbone of gaming.
It’s been a couple of months since the release of Tears of the Kingdom — a stellar sequel to Breath of the Wild that took Zelda fans by storm. This second installment of the Calamity Era timeline features throwbacks to its predecessor while also featuring new sights and sounds to enjoy. Tears of the Kingdom makes direct connections to Breath of the Wild with its new soundtrack by reusing previous tracks, but also uses new musical themes to communicate a darker tone for the series. It’s no surprise that a Legend of Zelda game has taken a creepier tone — longtime franchise fans probably remember the nightmare fuel of ReDeads, Dead Hand, Blizzeta and more from previous installments (we could talk about how creepy Majora’s Mask is as its own article). Tears of the Kingdom not only produces intense boss themes and environmental melodies, but also gives musical focus to the story’s conflict. With the impending arrival of the Demon King, and mysterious presence of Gloom all over Hyrule, we can hear a major tonal shift in the way these concepts are framed. Distorted melodies, discordant notes and synth tones pepper the soundtrack to cover the title’s themes. Let’s dive into the abyss of new tracks found in Tears of the Kingdom that help give the game its own identity while still connecting it to its predecessor. To best discuss the soundtrack, mild spoilers will be covered.
After some years following the events of Breath of the Wild, protagonists Zelda and Link are busy looking into a phenomenon known as “Gloom” seeping out from beneath Hyrule Castle. The ectoplasm-like substance sickens anyone that approaches it and numerous search crews have gotten ill. Now that Calamity Ganon has been defeated, there’s plenty of time to delve into the world’s secrets. Some secrets may be better left unfound, however, as our favorite duo accidentally unleash an ancient evil that sets the events into motion. We can immediately feel the title’s tone shift as we watch horrific events unfold in an intense cutscene. Through devastating events, Zelda and Link are separated. Our quiet Hylian hero awakes to a different view of Hyrule, as he must suddenly navigate islands in the sky and learn of a technologically advanced proto-civilization. With major themes of technology, the macabre and more, we can hear the ways Tears of the Kingdom separates itself from its predecessor.
Once such track that exemplifies the more macabre themes is “Prologue: Beneath Hyrule Castle”. Starting out with a solitary tolling bell, a discordant melody of an occasional piano key here and there is soon layered on top as we slowly descend into the depths of Hyrule Castle. Snap, succinct choral notes are added and distorted for additional ambiance. A chill may run down our spine as the melody triggers the deeper we descend in the game. To merge gameplay and music together in such a seamless fashion heightens what we see on screen. Through the din, Zelda leads the way — the light of her torch bounces across tunnel walls. The closer we get to what lies beneath the castle, the more this track crescendos until it culminates into a furious windchime alerting us of danger. Get a feel of ancient terror with this prologue track below:
Upon awakening after the events that take place beneath Hyrule Castle, Link must now navigate a mysterious world in the sky. Known as the Sky Islands, this area’s theme feels solitary and searching with its emphasis on wood-wind instruments. The use of legato melody, with its smoothly flowing notes, truly does mimic the wind. Highs and lows in melody make the area feel mysterious and unknown to us — which perfectly fits story themes. Our hero is alone, and we must work through this tutorial area before moving onto the rest of the game. This lonely theme also fits the world building, as we will encounter the solitary life of denizens we meet along the way. Feel the windy, haunting notes within the “Sky Islands” track:
From the highest points in the sky to the lowest abyss, Tears of the Kingdom has players adventuring to so many biomes within the world. Players effectively have three different maps to adventure through: the Sky Islands above, the surface midland of Hyrule and cavernous Depths that appeared after events of the prologue. We hear many of the same tracks used from Breath of the Wild on the surface — indicating that we are still within the same universe. Tracks like the riding theme that initiates upon horseback, themes for the various villages and even combat themes are still the same. But we continue to hear Tears of the Kingdom’s commitment to the strange and unusual as we dive deeper underground. The only way we can reach Hyrule’s subterranean level is by diving into cavernous openings in the ground. “Dive to the Depths” is a track that initiates the moment we take the plunge. It’s a long, dark, Gloomy way down into the Depths. Diving into the abyss feels like its own adventure thanks to the use of woodwinds, strings and arpeggiated repeating piano notes. As we approach our descent, a blare of horns and bass indicate our arrival to the world below. It’s a weird, inquisitive melody that feels textural thanks to the flute’s crunchy vibrato. We can almost feel the rush of wind as we dive down a cavernous hole filled with squelching Gloom. Once down in the Depths, we continue to hear discordant notes and reverberated instruments to indicate a more sinister biome. Take the dive below:
As Link explores the new landscape of Hyrule, various shrines have once again appeared. Featuring the puzzling tests again, these shrines now also feature new enemies that guard them. Because these shrines are directly linked to an ancient technologically advanced civilization, it also means encountering mechanical roadblocks and enemies. Engaging with enemies within shrines initiates a new combat theme that solidifies new technological concepts. “Shrine Battle” is a synth-y theme with electronic beats peppered throughout that also makes use of acoustic instruments to provide discordant notes. A weird melody gives more weight to the odd mechanical creations attempting to do us harm in the world. It’s a quick tempo theme that helps to give a unique identity to Tears of the Kingdom. The game melds concepts of ancient, advanced technology with more analog contemporary concepts to create a new version of Hyrule — especially in light of all the mechanical creations players have made with the sandbox elements. This theme takes an almost sandbox approach as well, as there are different variations of it within each shrine. It’s quite the feat to take one theme and create multiple versions of it that still sound unique. Take a listen to a more electronic Hyrule:
Tears of the Kingdom features a soundtrack that supports its tonal shift towards a creepier Zelda game. Macabre themes for organic threats are juxtaposed well with technological themes. The soundtrack features both electronic and acoustic elements to breathe life into a new version of Hyrule. We still hear similar tracks from the first game to give foundation to Tears of the Kingdom and solidify it as part of the same timeline, but now we must contend with an ancient evil that works in the dark. Unsettling events in the story are made even more-so with an intimidating soundtrack that times itself masterfully with real-time game events. There’s so much of Hyrule to explore, and there are so many musical themes that make it such a grand adventure. From sweeping melodies that introduce new biomes, to electronic beats that elevate story lore, Tears of the Kingdom shows us all the ways music can compliment new themes in a classic franchise.