Publisher: Empty Clip Studios
Genre: Action / Rhythm
Reviewer: Nick Stewart
Overall: 8 = Excellent
Win XP SP 3/Vista/7, Intel 2 GHz or AMD equiv. processor, 2GB RAM, 256 MB DirectX 9 compliant video card with Shader Model 3.0, 250 MB free hard drive space
While the Rock Band / Guitar Hero / Rocksmith genre has certainly found its own wildly mainstream niche on consoles, PC gaming has had considerably less success in matching up its own standard tropes with a music-focused experience. There have been some standouts, of course: Audiosurf in particular was a stellar mash-up of action and tile matching that used procedurally generated gameplay based on players’ own music collection. It’s a philosophy also employed by the more recent Beat Hazard, which put much more emphasis on action, using gamers’ tunes to create an individualized “bullet hell” shooter. In this same spirit now comes Symphony, which offers a vertical shoot-‘em-up that riffs off whatever lies in your iTunes folder and beyond.
Given the musical core of the gameplay, it may seem odd that the developers infused Symphony with a plot; what’s even odder is that, though it sounds rather silly, it actually works decently well in conjunction with this style of game. The paper-thin storyline involves an unnamed demon who’s commandeering the souls of various composers to corrupt your music collection and enter this world. This means it’s up to you to fight off his minions and cleanse your tunes of their influence, and this takes the form of a vertical-scrolling shooter as you select individual songs and blast away. The pace and intensity of the music not only affect the speed with which the minimalistic, throbbing neon wireframe backgrounds scroll by, but also the frequency and sync of the enemy spawns—which, once destroyed, explode in a shower of musical notes and harmless shrapnel, filling the screen in a frenetic colorful haze in very short order.
After every few songs, a corrupted composer will surprise you by making an unwanted appearance during a level, which serves as a boss battle. Each boss has a specific style and approach, which become more difficult after every defeat. After you’ve beaten one a few times, you’ve essentially freed them, which in gameplay terms means you unlock another difficulty level and open yourself up to a different boss later on. Progressive difficulty levels not only ratchet up the number, aggressiveness, and type of enemies, but also mix up their attack patterns. The story may sound profoundly silly and unnecessary, but it actually adds a moderately entertaining (if wholly cheesy) layer to the game; more importantly, it adds a sense of structure to keep this feeling like an actual game rather than a simple novelty or toy. On paper, it seems hokey, but it strengthens the experience surprisingly well.
This basic system, filled with visual chaos and music and endless enemies and Geometry Wars-style explosions of color, is at the core of Symphony, but what really helps to elevate it to a worthwhile experience is its upgrade system. Your basic craft is armed with four points which can be outfitted with all manner of weaponry that you unlock with every song you complete—which, since you have infinite lives, provides you with additional incentive to play. You start out with a quartet of basic peashooters, but after an hour or so, you’ll have access to missile launchers, energy cannons, weapons that fire forward and backward, and so on. These weapons can be mixed and matched on your craft, and while most are dependent on your personal style and skill level, you’re sometimes offered “rare” high-powered variants. You can also unlock power-ups that appear as random drops in subsequent games, giving you the ability to create a small explosion or even to become invulnerable for a short time. Even if you’re not the obsessive collector type, it’s a great source of longevity.
Further bolstering the system while adding a surprising amount of depth is the fact that each weapon and power-up can be upgraded multiple times to improve them in obvious but crucial ways, which is where Symphony’s Inspiration and Kudos systems come in. Essentially, these break down into twin point-tracking systems that can be used as currency for unlocking discovered items for use or for upgrading those you have, and earning them is simple. Every defeated on-screen enemy drops a small glowing note in their wake, and collecting it earns you a set amount of Inspiration, with the quantity of points depending on the toughness of the enemy. More importantly, defeating every enemy in a wave drops a special Chain bonus onto the board, which can be collected for big Inspiration point boosts. By achieving certain Inspiration milestones on a level/song, you unlock larger and larger Kudos totals when you’re done. As you unlock higher difficulty levels, you open yourself up to achieving larger and larger Kudos.
It sounds overly complicated, but in reality, it eases you into a certain reflex and strategic mindset as you play. Since the key to making the most of each level comes from maxing your score, you’re constantly searching for waves you can clear out without demolishing yourself in the process. This becomes even more frantic when your craft starts taking damage, forcing you to collect Inspiration to repair it and therefore keep you from taking a massive point penalty for dying. As you rise through the difficulty levels, gameplay soon becomes a kind of dance where you’re bobbing and weaving among the strings of enemies, trying to take out specific waves, darting in and back to fix your craft, triggering an explosive power-up to clear a path to the Chain drop, and gritting your teeth in the hopes of staying alive long to collect that Kudos bonus. It’s deeply addictive and deceptively visceral, with sheer enjoyment creeping up on you until “just one more level”-itis takes hold.
There are a few quibbles to be had, mind you, particularly in how Symphony handles its peripheral elements. The system for putting songs into the game’s library is unintuitive, confusing, and somewhat sloppy, though it deserves some points for automatically seeking out things like your iTunes library. Where it falls down somewhat is in its inability to pick specific songs to remove from its list, as building it requires you to pick broad folders where your music may be stored. If your music is in a few different places, the odds increase that you’ll be forced to add files that you’ll have to scroll past over and over again when you’re picking your playable levels. The “all songs” filter is also a bit kludgier than it needs to be: each song title is accompanied by your last performance and the item it unlocked (or a blank if you’ve yet to play it), which means that you can see only a few song titles on-screen at any one time. This translates to a lot more scrolling than should be necessary to poke through a couple thousand songs, and simply having the option to see song titles only would streamline this considerably. Weapon upgrades are similarly viewed, and similarly overly complicated to access and compare. Finally, there’s also a weird recurrence of certain game-killing bugs that cut your levels to a second or two before kicking you to the “level complete” screen, and will recur until it crashes or you manually restart. Altogether, these are relatively minor irritants, and although it would be nice to see them improved upon, they’re not nearly severe enough to quash the incredibly good time offered here.
The concept may sound like Beat Hazard, and the game may look like Geometry Wars, but Symphony is a sufficiently unique experience to warrant a solid look. It makes fantastic use of your music collection by expertly linking its own heartbeat—spawn syncing and eye-popping visual insanity—to the individual songs, tying it all together with a paper-thin storyline that nevertheless provides an actual game-like structure to something that could easily have been labeled a novelty. This is further enhanced with a really strong upgrade system that allows you to customize your craft and gives you a tremendous amount of replay value, and it’s more than strong enough to ignore some of the interface silliness. It may initially seem derivative and easy to dismiss, but give it time: with its near-infinite sensory overload, surprising depth, and the best possible soundtrack to any game—i.e. your own—you’ve got a PC music game that provides the kind of thrills that haven’t been seen since the first days of Audiosurf.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)