Music has always been at the heart of what Harmonix does. From Rock Band to Dance Central to the extremely experimental Chroma, the studio's made sure that whatever the player's doing, they'll nod their head and tap their foot while doing it. Even when branching out as far as it is with its new project A City Sleeps, Harmonix never strays from its roots, and the game feels remarkably better off for it.
A City Sleeps is a game that Harmonix is dedicating only a fraction of its resources to. The team, comprised of only five people, was the group that was working on Chroma until the studio decided to indefinitely put it on the backburner. Not sure exactly how to mold something as ambitious as the musical first-person shooter, the team segued to something more manageable -- a twin-stick shoot-'em-up for PC.
The underlying brilliance behind A City Sleeps is its accessibility. Most players familiar with twin-stick shooters will feel an instant comfort controlling it. Left stick to move, right stick to shoot. Easy enough. However, complications start to arise when the game asks you to not only be skilled, but to factor in technique as well.
A City Sleeps tells the tale of Poe as she enters the dreams of citizens of SanLo City in an attempt to save them from their unending nightmares. If it sounds confusing, that's because it kind of is. Harmonix's Nick Chester told us that the team hasn't quite figured out how it'll convey the story, but it'll likely be through cutscenes or text. The build that we played contained neither, so we were unable to glean any of that on our own.
Moving through dream worlds as she does, Poe has control over three ghosts -- Anger, Mercy, and Master. The catch is that these spirits can only be unleashed at certain idols that appear at predetermined spots as the level progresses. Doing fine on health but have some nasty enemies on the screen? Anger will deal an area-of-effect attack that damages anything in its radius, or Master will significantly weaken anything between you and the idol. Conversely, Mercy will shoot out bursts of oft-needed health, for those in the mood to sacrifice offense for defense.
It all sounds basic enough, but music is the element that ties everything together. Without it, it'd be a frantic mess. However, the musical score is dynamic, leading to sections that are slightly slower or faster depending on the action on the screen. Likewise, Poe's shot speed follows the speed of the score, as do the idols which will disburse their assigned power-ups usually on the downbeat of a measure.
It culminates in an experience that is entirely predictable for the musically inclined, but still difficult enough for even seasoned bullet hell players. Getting into a groove and knowing which idol you need to be by at any point in a measure, while dashing around and doling out damage can be supremely rewarding. Any break from the rhythm will leave you scrambling to dodge projectiles, but regaining the momentum instantly puts you back in sync.
Although music is so integral to A City Sleeps, Chester thinks that shoot-'em-up fans will find a real challenge here. Given some time with the game on an easier difficulty, we're inclined to agree. It's certainly no cakewalk, as we felt the heavy hand of failure more than once. Juggling ghosts, shooting at enemies, and avoiding bullets is a lot to ask of even the finest multitasker; the music's just there as a fine guide.
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