Rhythm Action Review Special: Phase, Beats, Musika and Audiosurf

"Guitar Hero's getting churned out at such an astonishing rate these days it's hard to be even remotely excited about it—especially when the core gameplay is worse than it was when the game was called "Frequency" and came out in 2001, and you could play it sitting down without having to be ironic about it or pretending to like The Killers."
UK:RESISTANCE

This rhythm action school of thought, so eloquently outlined here by the ever-bullish UK:RESISTANCE, maintains that something has been lost on the genre's path from niche, low print run titles like Vib Ribbon, Mad Maestro and Frequency to the all-conquering mainstream successes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Now a poster child for the accessible and inclusive new world order of videogames, rhythm action was once the domain of anachronistically simple yet often formidably challenging cult curios that virtually always boiled down to one basic premise: Press buttons in time with the beat.

Of course, it's a testament to that inherently fun mechanic that you could argue the genre's not moved on much at all. At the end of the day, the gameplay of Guitar Hero and Rock Band is still predicated on timing, and thankfully the challenge of those earlier titles has survived in the harder difficulty levels of today's games. Nevertheless many earlier experiments at playing with music, and crucially with a controller that in no way resembles a musical instrument, led to some truly singular gaming visions and control systems, which in some ways eclipse the innovations of more literal, peripheral-based titles.

So it's heartening to review a selection of new, low budget games that constitute a slight resurgence in the founding rhythm action principles, utilizing basic control schemes to make playing with music fun. All are downloadable and priced under $10, all integrate the player's own music collection with their gameplay, and all have silly, cred-craving one-word titles. Let's take a look...

Phase – Review

Made by Rock Band and Guitar Hero pioneers Harmonix, Phase harks back most closely to the developer's outstanding debut titles Frequency and Amplitude. A now very familiar vertical track scrolls toward the screen, while the player attempts to hit the notes dotted along each of the track's 3 lines with the use of the 3 central iPod buttons (left, centre, right).

The notes are, of course, intended to match the beat of the music, while a secondary challenge comes in the form of occasional wavy lines of dots that must be collected with a pleasingly tactile sweep of the iPod wheel. In spite of the odd glitchy pause that can throw your timing, the controls work very well indeed and are as solid and reliable as you could hope for.

Phase Review Screenshot 1

Sadly, no matter how much you attempt to read patterns in the beat layouts and pretend that Phase is reading the song perfectly, too often the game feels like a button-pressing exercise that happens to have a custom soundtrack feature. There is little consistent, palpable connection between the music and the beat patterns you're being asked to follow, something that always prevents a game from bridging the gap between gameplay and audio, which is the key to the genre's magic and potentially transcendent highs. It's the same reason I was left cold by cult favorite Vib Ribbon.

When Phase works it's tremendous fun, but only when the beats come thick and fast or you're trying to hold onto a combo multiplier does the music occasionally gel with the gameplay to add a fun layer of intensity. And game difficulty versus the urgency of the music is just too vague and inconsistent a parallel to really rank this in the same league as Harmonix's earlier audio tapestries.

Phase Review Screenshot 2

Ambitious and well produced, it's hard not to like Phase, but it is easy to ignore it. Considering how quickly this game eats into your battery power, I find it unlikely many commuters will prioritise it over looking dreamily out of the window. Maybe in another iPod generation or so we'll move on to Phase 2 of this experiment, and perhaps find ourselves much more willing to play along. [Rating: 5 out of 10]

Beats – Review

As polished and colourful as Phase is, playing Beats on PSP afterwards feels like being sat next to a giant subwoofer in the trendiest, spaciest club in town. This is very much rhythm action seen through a Tetsuya Mizuguchi kaleidoscope.

The gameplay is typically simplistic and has few hidden depths: face button icons representing musical beats float towards three central nodes, and the player must select the correct node with the d-pad and press the correct button as the beats pass by in time to the music. What's refreshing is that Beats doesn't waste any time in dropping beat patterns thick and fast even on Normal difficulty, and even throwing curve balls in the shape of beats that look like they could be going to any one of the nodes. There's nothing wrong with making the player catch up with the game if the premise is this simple, and the very first track had me in the groove and bopping to the beat in my chair. This was a good sign.

Beats Review Screenshot 1

Tight responsiveness; nice presentation (with plenty of themes and Lumines-style level visualizers); swift tutorials; decent pre-packed tunes. All that mattered now was how well it interpreted my own tracks.

Pretty damn well, as it happens. Although it's up to the player to determine which element of the track the beats are emulating, you can generally be sure that some rhythmically prominent aspect of the song is being followed from one moment to the next. In some cases, the accuracy is so uncanny that you could almost believe a track had been specifically authored with a pattern of its own, rather than generated. And although it can never match the impact of actually building the track yourself (as in Frequency and Amplitude), a perfect run will certainly give you a sense that you're playing along to the music in a meaningful way. A shame, then, that the ‘Extreme' difficulty kind of breaks the illusion by throwing so many button commands at you that it's hard to match them to the beat of the song.

Beats Review Screenshot 2

It's also fun to pick a suitable visualizer for the track you're playing. There's something very right about playing along to ‘Cochise' with an intense Furnace backdrop, or ‘Signs' with the bling Urban Mirrors skin. It reminds you how much sensory overload can be a part of the rhythm action experience, especially when it's melding with back-to-basics mechanics.

Easily the best of the three handheld titles, Beats actually feels like a half-playable game even when the music doesn't match the gameplay, such is the visual finesse and well-judged challenge. And when the game is in sync with your favourite tunes, you'll find it hard not to groove along and break into a smile. It also has the advantage of not sucking up your iPod battery, and so works well as a nice break away from passive listening that keeps your brain on its toes as well as your ears happy. [Rating: 7 out of 10]

[Disclaimer: Beats will take up 236 MB on your memory card. The Sony Store (UK) does not display this information prior to your purchase because it is crap, and also amused by the thought of me paying £20 for a bigger memory card so that I can play a £5 game.]

Musika – Review

Created by Masaya Matsuura, the man who pioneered music-generated gaming in Vib Ribbon, Musika is certainly the most baffling game of the four. Not because of any exciting Japanese weirdness or ultra-tough difficulty (both staples of old school rhythm action), but simply because there appears to be no game here.

What there is is a ‘spot the letter' challenge in which you press the main iPod button if the slowly materialising letter that appears onscreen is to be found in the title of the currently playing song (which, in a bizarrely uncertain bit of design, is partially visible as it scrolls along the bottom of the screen). Doing this increases your combo multiplier, as does skipping any letters that appear but are not in the song title. Aside from a few perfunctory power-ups, that really is it. It's basically a dull word and memory game played along to a soundtrack of your choice.

Musika Review Screenshot

With the difficulty dependent on how long a song is versus how long its title is, you would think there was an interesting element of user-balanced challenge involved, but its wild song-to-song fluctuations really only serve to highlight the imbalance and arbitrary basis of the central mechanic. Sensibly, songs with a long title will wield higher potential scores, but you still feel that choosing the right song is half the game and that too often the actual gameplay boils down to pre-emptive presses and good fortune.

While the cheesy visual effects occasionally spice up the letter-recognising ‘action', it does not take long for the silliness of the whole enterprise to tire you. I'm afraid this is a cynically simple and dumb use of the iPod that probably took about two days to code and will make a lot more money than it deserves. [Rating: 3 out of 10]

Audiosurf – Review

After picking up a favorable critical reception at the International Games Festival, Audiosurf has been the indie flavor of the month on Steam, and rightly so. Ostensibly it is about veering a hovercraft left and right along a race track that undulates to the beat of your chosen song and collecting colored blocks for points, but the grid that those color blocks fall into turns the game into a kind of two-tiered puzzler. Keen racing reactions are needed to collect and correctly position high-scoring blocks of the same color into groups of 3 or more (after which, as you may have guessed, they will disappear).

Immediate impressions are of a game that certainly seems to flow to your music with a convincingly strong sense of rhythm, yet feels disposable and uninspiring in pure gameplay terms. But as you unravel the secondary layer of puzzle play and point scoring, and become more adept at keeping a cool eye on the block grid, you start to appreciate the potential here.

Audiosurf Review Image 1

For instance, the unique abilities of the different craft types, although initially a warning that the core gameplay may not be that deep (it isn't; you move a mouse left and right) not only add potential variety to each play, but most constitute a clever enough gameplay variation that you feel they could have been the ‘default' way to play. Unusually, and to its credit, there is no default way to play Audiosurf. Whether you want to play a reaction test game of dodging grey blocks and collecting colors, to have the ability to delete unwanted colors from your grid, or to be able to capture blocks and hold them for later use, Audiosurf's craft types offer a good range of entry levels while still catering for different advanced strategies.

Indeed, Audiosurf has so many factors that seem like they could affect the gameplay, scoring system, difficulty, rankings and track generation, that it can be a game whose balancing takes time to fully understand and to trust, and ultimately to glean satisfaction from. On one count, however, Audiosurf demands compulsion.

Quite simply, Audiosurf rejuvenates the high score table to the point where it feels like a new mechanic. In these days of daunting YouTube videos and dangerously skilled loners, the high score has been largely supplanted as a reward and status symbol by mandatory unlockable content, alternate endings, online verbal abuse, Xbox Achievements, and, if you're very good, $250,000. But Audiosurf has cleverly allowed an inclusive high score community to build around a non-gaming passion that everybody has: music.

Audiosurf Review Image 2

Whereas the scoring systems of the other games in this round-up feel flat and (no pun intended) pointless even when the game itself is fun, Audiosurf has dug its claws into the universal love of music in a way that will have most players audiosurfing through their MP3 collections not only to see how the game plays with different types of music, but to see who else shares their passion for that music and then try to beat them at it. For me, the game truly came alive the first time I received an e-mail telling me my best score had just been bettered on a track I never thought anyone else would try. A throwback to the days before the immediacy of online play, Audiosurf uniquely personalizes its high score wars. You'll stop at nothing to reclaim the throne on your favorite songs.

It even makes steps towards social networking by allowing you to, ironically, become ‘Friends' with your scoreboard rivals and to track each other's song choices. Of all the games in this feature, Audiosurf is the one most reassuringly rich in innovation and potential, and proves beyond question that plastic instruments and pricey downloadable content are not the be-all and end-all of the rhythm action genre. [Rating: 8 out of 10]