Think the last Guitar Hero soundtrack was garbage? It would be great if you could use any song in your rhythm game of choice, so it's understandable why many indie rhythm games have tried to make procedural level generation work with your own tunes. There's been a few solid attempts at this sort of game before, with Auditorium and Beat Hazard being the most successful. Now, Empty Clip Studios brings us a Galaga inspired vertical shump that promises to deliver a different level based on each song you feed into their folder. Are they successful? Well, yes and no.
When Symphony first boots up, you're asked to point to the paths of your music folders, which scan in and get added to a master list of tracks. Picking a track and a difficulty begins a level that uses the beat and intensity of the music to generate waves of baddies that drop inspiration—points, essentially—that you need to gather up to keep your ship repaired and pump that score. Clearing an entire wave gives you a bonus, and collecting bonuses consecutively offers up an increasingly lucrative combo. The trick is to balance gathering the dropped inspiration and keeping the enemy numbers reasonable. Your ship is essentially bound to your mouse cursor, which allows for finely tuned agility and quick runs between baddies, but it's easy to be overwhelmed without warning unless you keep firing. You've got four weapons to do this with, but getting shot by an enemy can destroy these and eventually leads to death. Getting blown up is only a minor setback, as you respawn within seconds, but it does penalize your final score.
Any inspiration you pick up in a level goes straight into your wallet, as does a predetermined amount of kudos for meeting certain goals. This leads to a neat customization system, which is one of the most interesting parts of the game. Every completed song allows you to purchase a weapon or powerup with your spoils of war, which can be equipped onto your ship in subsequent plays. There's quite a few types that can drop, each of which can be upgraded, equipped, bound to particular mouse clicks, and even positioned to fire in any direction. Some songs will drop rare weapons as well, including a couple of unique variants like charging attacks. But throwing too much firepower on your ship can lead to a percentage of your score being lopped off, so it's important to find the right balance of brawn to get the best scores.
You probably don't need a reason for cruising the beautiful, musically-generated shumps besides loot, but the game offers one anyway. The general premise is that a malignant being has infested and corrupted your MP3 collection, and it's been consuming the souls of the world's composers and generally taunting you like a jerk. To show it that your soul is awesome an
d such, you need to keep playing levels until a boss spawns. Beat the boss, and you get a bit of a five part MacGuffin called the Soul Symphony. Fill in one of the sheets—that takes three victories—and you unlock the next difficulty. Rinse and repeat as many times as you please.
Even without all these unlockables and metagame elements, playing Symphony is a reward all on its own. The game looks absolutely manic, with plenty of neon and explosions creating a real psychedelic trip. As your music goes through thunderous highs and soft lows, the colors and intensity of the highway pulse and change from blue to purple to a frightening shade of red. It's not uncommon to see this sort of hyper-kinetic visual style in a shump, but Symphony pulls it off better than most. It's a gorgeous experience.
There are some problems, though. One is that the game isn't quite the leap forward from Auditorium and Beat Hazard like many hoped. The promise of a unique level for every song is a bit overblown, with pretty much every track playing more or less the same. To complicate things, the game's level generator is somewhat finicky. It tends to hone in on large changes in tempo and intensity, but if a song is of a uniform beat it often marks the entire thing as slow. It seems weird that a slow classical piece with scattered loud notes will be more of a roller coaster than a loud metal song, but there you go. Oddly enough, the songs included with the game tend to generate fantastic levels and are rather good in their own right, so it's definitely worth checking out the default soundtrack if you like classical, dance, electronic, or indie music.
More annoying, however, are the UI issues. Symphony can be filtered by album and artist, but can only sort alphabetically and not by, say, track number. It only shows three songs at a time, which gets unwieldy with just thirty songs, let alone the collection of thousands many people have built up. Hopefully, these issues can be sorted out, as Empty Clip does seem committed to patching the game. They've already patched in the ability to upgrade weapons from the equip screen, a much needed tweak. The other main issue is difficulty, namely the restrictions caused by the bosses. The game features six difficulties, but you have to start with the easiest and work up. Boss encounters are seemingly random, which forces skilled players to play a load of songs at mind-numbingly easy tempos. For this reviewer, Symphony only became challenging at the fourth difficulty, but that took two hours and thirty dull songs to reach. It's fun once you begin to be challenged, but adding in so many restrictions to get to that point sours the early game.
Final Verdict: Fun gameplay, delightful visuals, and an interesting metagame make Symphony a solid take on the procedural music genre. Playing with your own music is always going to be cool regardless, but UI issues and odd restrictions somewhat hamper the experience.
[xrr rating=7/10, max_stars=10]
This review is based on a review copy of the GOG.com PC version of Symphony provided by Empty Clip Studios.
Special thanks to GOG.com for providing the review key. You can buy Symphony DRM free and with bonus goodies (including the soundtrack) at GOG.com.