By Joseph Walter
This praise is not misguided, however. Breath of the Wild is an open-world experience that somehow rejuvenates a tired genre by cutting it down to its basics and instilling an intangible sense of discovery and awe at every turn. The world of Hyrule begs to be explored.
That's not to say that there haven't been complaints about the game. Most of these are, somewhat unsurprisingly, directed at the musical score, or seeming lack thereof.
In a series known for its rousing themes (which have an entire concert dedicated to them) it's no surprise that the minimalist approach of this new classic was a turn-off for a chunk of the fanbase.
This is a shame, of course, because if you really take a moment to listen and understand the music, you'll find one of the most emotionally resonating scores in the entire franchise, particularly when compared to the grandiose, but overwrought-and-dead-inside score of Twilight Princess, for example. They may not all be hummable or action-packed, but they have a special quality that sets them apart if given a chance.
And to give them that chance, let's talk about some of my favorite pieces!
THE TEMPLE OF TIME
One of the best uses of this instrument is how it is able to convey the sense of desolation and destruction left in the wake of Calamity Ganon's unhindered resurrection 100 years prior.
Often, the piano will hint at certain memories or emotions, but they'll be in a broken state. A wonderful example of this is the theme for the Temple of Time from early in your adventure.
Upon your resurrection, the Old Man will direct your attention to the dilapidated building that will be familiar to players of Ocarina of Time. Should the player choose to investigate the ruins of the structure, they'll hear a sad series of notes on the piano. It's barely a song, but far from just atmospheric. Instead, it finds the perfect balance of both, making it an impactful piece. But there's also a strange sense of nostalgia about it... perhaps because it is the "Song of Time," simply slowed down and stripped bare to its most basic of notes. To hear this "hidden" song, simply play the BOTW theme for the Temple of Time, but increase the speed to 2x.
Horse Riding (Hyrule Field)
After taming a wild horse and taking it for a journey across the vast land, music will begin to play (should your ride be uninterrupted). There's a piece for the day and the night, and both are emotionally and thematically impactful for newcomers to the series, but especially for long time players.
No matter the time of day, after a session of prolonged riding you'll hear a frenetic piano start to play. This jazz-like dissonance might be a turn-off initially, but once the accompaniment comes in, it will all make sense.
During the day, we hear a truly crushing and somber take on Zelda's Lullaby, which serves as a powerful reminder of who awaits deep in the haunted halls of the ruined Hyrule Castle. During nightfall, a sobering version of the famous "Hyrule Field" music from the NES takes the lullaby's place, reminding the player of what was lost 100 years ago.
Both serve as nostalgic fulfillment at the very least, but both are also able to thematically set an atmosphere of loss that resonates through each and every location and story moment in the game.
Life in Ruins
The piano lures us in with a beautiful, even nostalgic tune (perhaps because it's a subtle reference to the Kakariko Village theme) but before we know it, the performance takes a much darker turn.
Thematically mirroring the events of the game, this piece conveys the sense that something is tremendously wrong in what was once a tranquil environment.
Considering the the themes of inevitably, loss and the eventual glint of hope within the game's story, this piece has a powerful emotional impact.
Featuring not just a piano, but also some traditional instruments played by soloists, it's beautiful and serene, but this exceptionally sparse orchestration conveys a tangible sense of loneliness.
Should you be cautious (or foolish) enough to venture there, and somehow manage to remain undetected by the roaming Guardians, this heart-breaking song will play.
Loaded with dissonance and a vague sense of what the melody could have been if it were not so distorted, "Castle Town" tugs at the heart strings, but isn't afraid to go deep into unsettling or threatening territory. It makes your hair stand on end and appropriately gives the player a sense of dread with the feeling of "I shouldn't be here," much like another location later in this list...
The main motif is a distorted synthetic pulse that is appropriately mysterious and ominous, and the surging tremolo of strings does well to accentuate the feeling of discovery and dread. Better yet, despite the unsavory adjectives I've attached to these themes, these instruments work together to form a relaxing environment conducive to the deeply cognitive process required to triumph in these many puzzle-heavy shrines.
Speaking of motifs, a form of this theme appears (along with other familiar nods) in the musical retelling of the events 10,000 years prior to the start of this game. In that context, it seems to be the musical representation of technology as a whole, or perhaps only that of ancient Sheikah creations.
Either way, its use in the regaling of the tale and in the Shrines gives the track a greater deal of depth in both a gameplay and narrative sense.
Hateno Village, which survived the Calamity 100 years ago, is a testament to this. And, thankfully, its theme is too.
Using an eclectic collection of instruments, "Hateno Village" creates a musically rich atmosphere, perfect for this town of old traditions that's managed to stay safe on the edge of the continent.
The theme lulls the player into a rightful sense of security. There's a genuine sense of safety and even comfort, with a lovingly nuanced performance, but it's the underlying sense of sadness that I find most intriguing.
Also, like many other pieces on the soundtrack, there's a callback to a previous game's motif: 1:13 is a musical reference to the old house theme, which is fitting because the player is able to purchase a home in Hateno should they choose to!
(Maze Forest) The Lost Woods
When (if?) you find the Lost Woods, this piece will let you know exactly what you've gotten yourself into. There's a subdued franticness, mimicking the actual physical and emotional sensation of being lost, but the gentle instruments and pizzicato conjure an appropriately curious feeling. I especially love the percussion that sounds like rattling bones.
Animal Master is an abnormally creepy song, but not in the same sense as "Castle Town." Instead of doom and gloom, it's an ethereal and eerie sensation that sends a chill down your spine.
Occurring in one of the stranger hidden moments in the game (which I will not spoil) it creates an atmosphere that fits the imagery perfectly, and leaves a lasting impression on the player.
Prince Sidon's Theme
The wistful flute, lively percussion and melodic piano betray a sense of sadness that perhaps refers the feeling of loss that each and every Zora has for their champion, Mipha, who was defeated one hundred years ago.
Breath of the Wild, Main Theme
Instead of opting for the glory of "Ballad of the Goddess" or the synthetic-choral opening of Twilight Princess, Breath of the Wild keeps things mellow and sweeping, with the composer's beloved piano, but also a lovely flute, strings and woodwind section, filling things out with minimal brass. Heck they've even thrown an accordion into the mix in honor of Kass (a traveling musician, who happens to be my favorite character and often plays snippets of this theme on his personal accordion when you ask him to sing for you.)
It serves as a prominent motif through many pieces but it never comes to full fruition until the finale of the game (which I won't spoil narratively or sonically).
It's sad, it's moving, it's nostalgic and yes, it is powerful, all in its own, reserved and romantic way.
A thematic triumph, Breath of the Wild's conscious choice to withhold its most action-packed theme for the finale is a perfect catharsis. With the majority of the score remaining reserved, what a feeling it is to storm your objective, the castle, and be greeted by this powerful march. The emotional impact is unlike any other in the series, and it's especially thanks to the skillful implementation of this music.
The exterior of the castle is our first taste of the theme. The marching and eerie organ that starts the track sets the martial mood, calling to mind the thousands of troops who were destroyed during the Calamity and how you, a century later, now march in their footsteps with the goal of avenging them, and the kingdom itself.
Then the deep brass comes in with the track's main hook. A truly threatening-yet-subdued sequence featuring impactful syncopation, it deftly illustrates the nightmarish dangers of the countless Guardians patrolling the castle walls. On the subject of nightmares, this particular sequence is similar to Link's Awakening's the "Ballad of the Windfish." Although it could be a coincidence, the amount of references the "Hyrule Castle" theme has to older games makes me lean towards it being intentional.
After the initial brass, the strings play us a rendition of Ganon's theme, as it is he (or whatever he has become) that awaits within the sanctum. An interesting moment with this part is that the pianist starts to sprinkle in the theme for the three Goddesses used in Ocarina of Time's creation story. Merging that theme with Ganon's gives the scenario an appropriately fateful twist.
The brass then returns at full strength, blowing the previously subdued performance of the hook out of the water and furthering the perilous and malevolent theming of scaling the castle.
Following this is the greatest callback in the score, which is a tattered, desperate and strained orchestral performance of the series' main theme. Its interjection into the proceedings turns the already-exceptional track into one that now seemingly embodies the destiny of Hyrule itself, setting the stage for what will likely be the final battle between pure malice and the hero, ending a war that has been fought for millennia. The history of this conflict surges through this theme, the "Song of the Hero."
This nostalgic overload is chill-inducing, and the performance's frayed edge only makes it more impactful.
Following the callback, the song's main hook returns once more, this time with triumphant flourishes to compliment the do-or-die core of the theme. The climax before the track finally loops is like the exclamation point to every challenge you've overcome thus far. And then you finally find a way into the castle.
Here, the theme changes. While the exterior's version was climactic and intense, the interior takes a different route, yet remains just as emotional.
Opting to capitalize on the significance of wandering through the defiled halls of the castle, the interior version of the theme is bone-chilling and haunting.
A ghoulish organ and uncomfortable percussion sets the scene. What makes the organ creepier than it should be is the register that the composer chose to use. Instead of the deep notes that one would associate with Bach's work, this organ is light and airy, making it seem like the instrument itself is a ghost. There's something slightly off about the performance, too. Whether it's just the malevolence that oozes from each note, the distortion of certain sequences, or how it generally clashes with the empty-sounding percussion, there's a general sense of discomfort.
What solidifies the emotional impact of the theme, and its creepiness, is the chillingly serene rendition of "Zelda's Lullaby," which replaces the use of the series' main theme from the exterior version of Hyrule Castle's track.
The fact that the lullaby is without bells and whistles, remaining gentle despite the hellish surroundings makes for a surreal and sobering moment. Of course, it's quite fitting, as Zelda herself is within this castle, somewhere, fighting still, and you will find her soon enough to set things right, once and for all, rectifying the failures of the past.
Astute listeners should also keep their ears open for a quick piano reference to the series' theme played by the piano and chimes before the track loops.
Overall, I don't think the criticisms made against Breath of the Wild's music are warranted, nor do they hold any water. If anything, BOTW's score is the best of the series in terms of thematic and emotional depth, skillfully taking previous themes of the series and morphing them into motifs that don't necessarily represent places or people but ideas, giving them an intrinsically powerful soul and connection to the player and the world that was so lovingly crafted within the game.
If any criticisms are to be made, they should be focused on Nintendo's questionable sound mix, and the inexcusable lack of a sound option to personally equalize it yourself. Though, to be fair, this is a widespread problem on the Wii U as a whole.
That said, I hope this score provides as much emotional satisfaction and enjoyment for you as it has for me.