Its not often that Im left stymied when reviewing a disc. Personally, I tend to get a clear vibe on something shortly after firing it up, and that gut feeling is rarely wrong. Until I encountered Frequency, I couldnt ever recall feeling so indecisive about a game. I got a lot of mixed signals while playing it, and just didnt know what to make of it. On the one hand, I liked most of the music and I often found myself in a pleasantly trippy groove. On the other hand, I thought the game design was seriously lacking and the difficulty level was sadistically over the top. When trying to summarize my take on Frequency, I find that this game enigmatically contains both good and bad ends of the design spectrum in perfectly equal amounts.
I didnt know much about the game before getting it, and after absorbing as much of the imposingly detailed instruction book as possible, I tossed it aside and jumped right into the game to see what I could see. Despite the heavy barrage of printed information, the gist of it is that its a music game that only uses three buttons. How tough could it be, right? Ha famous last words, indeed.
Frequency is much like other music titles in that the object of the game is to hit buttons with good timing, but the setup here is a little unusual. Onscreen, it resembles nothing so much as the classic arcade game Tempest, with play taking place inside a large moving tunnel shaped like an octagon. However, the cursor you control at the bottom of the screen is stationary while the tunnel itself rotates. Behind both the tunnel and the cursor are various abstract geometric backgrounds that will blow out your optic nerve, but have no real effect on the game itself.
Each of the tunnels eight sides represents one type of sound. For example, one section will consist of the drum beat, and then after rotating the tunnel youll find yourself on a section that activates the vocals. The next section over is guitar, and so forth and so on. On each wall of the tunnel, there are three lines running down its length. Blue gems will travel towards the player down these lines, and its your task to hit the correct button as these gems touch your cursor. After successfully hitting enough gems, the section youre on will be "cleared" and its particular channel will continue to play until you move on to the next portion of the song. Each song is measured in twelve portions, and you must play well in order to survive and "finish" the song. Fail to keep the beat and youll lose energy, eventually losing the game.
Its simple enough in concept, and I have to admit that the auditory effects of activating the musical sections one by one are very appealing. Quick actions yield immediate rewards, with each successful "clearing" adding another layer of depth to the track. Its very easy to slip into a groove by letting your mind go, focusing only on reacting to the gems and zoning out to the increasing complexity of the sounds. Its also quite neat to hear the songs stripped apart into their various components, and to have the ability to add whichever type of sound youd like to, depending on which sections you activate first.
This new take on sound is especially neat because the games upbeat techno-slanted selections are a perfect match for deconstructing music. Its fitting that the games forgettable premise has the player taking on the role of a futuristic DJ, since thats exactly what you feel like while jamming. Another thing in the games favor is that I liked almost all of the tracks that I heard and even recognized a lot of the artists, shockingly enough. Be aware that the tunes are mostly electronica, dance or club-style, although there are a small number of hip-hop tinged tunes and speedy metallic crunchers. Its not a bad selection at all, but for gamers who arent into that general type of sound be warned that theres no J-pop here.
However, any level of bass-thumping bliss you might achieve is extremely short-lived due to the songs being divided into twelve portions as I mentioned earlier. Every time you go from one portion to the next, all the sound sections youve previously activated get reset and youre jolted out of your groove by complete silence. Not only does it completely and continually interrupt the musics natural flow, it also means that youll rarely get to hear the complete song with all of its layers unless youre very quick with your fingers. I can see that the designers felt it was necessary to add a feeling of urgency or tension to the play, but the scheme they came up with is too jarring and disruptive.
Besides the stopping and starting of the music, there are other factors that make Frequency a game thats very easy to get into, but extremely difficult to feel in control of. For example, Frequencys difficulty curve skyrockets even on the Normal setting and ends up feeling very indifferent to the players abilities or needs. The Expert setting is openly hostile. The speed and complexity with which the gems rocket towards the player is just completely out of touch with what can reasonably be expected from players. Its hard to see how something so seemingly simple becomes so savage, but trust me when I say it becomes too hard, too fast. The amount of concentration and dexterity needed to track the hyperfast complex gem patterns is inhuman.
Scoring is another area where Frequency hits a sour note. With lots of practice and caffeine its possible to simply finish the first sixteen songs (out of twenty on Normal, twenty-five on Expert), but the high scores required to unlock the extra tracks are impossibly high. In order to rack up a big set of numbers, players have to "complete" special colored sections of the tunnel to receive powerups. (This is in addition to playing near-flawlessly, of course.) The powerups you get will either instantly complete a section or give you a score multiplier. Without taking advantage of these bonus sections, its impossible to get anywhere near the scores required on skill alone. The biggest problem with this is that its hard to see the bonuses coming because the tunnel curves and often hides them from view until its too late. In addition, the game simply runs so fast that taking your eye off of the cursor for even a second will cause you to make errors in the gem lines. As a result, most of the powerups will whiz past you uncollected. Without using the hard-to-catch bonuses regularly, you have no hope of scoring decently, let alone unlocking anything.
Its very disheartening that Frequency takes such a harsh stance towards the player. I could easily see this game becoming a classic if it was easier, or at least more focused on providing a player-friendly type of challenge. However, since only bionically-enhanced people will be able to unlock all of the songs and be able to stand up to the game on its own terms, a large segment of Frequencys potential fanbase will be prevented from ever enjoying the whole game, if theyre not alienated from the start.
Taking all of this into account, what do I make of Frequency? Its hard to say. The design choices in scoring and difficulty suggest to me that either the developers are superhumans, or that they merely failed to turn good ideas into a fully developed and playable game. The potential for greatness is there, but being successful in Frequency relies too much on quick reflexes and luck to be viewed as deliberate and satisfying design. However, it remains more addicting than most puzzle or music games despite its significant flaws. In my opinion, much of the games strong appeal lies in the feeling of actually controlling the music, despite the difficulty level retaining complete control of the game.