Published on October 21st, 2013 | by Andy Astruc0
Soundodger+ | Review
DEVELOPER: STUDIO BEAN | PUBLISHER: ADULT SWIM GAMES | PLATFORMS: PC
If you’re looking for an easy shorthand to describe the sum total of human experience and achievement, it’s hard to go past the medium of music. A piece can encapsulate emotions, thoughts, actions, historical events, personal anecdotes, fables, secret messages and radical ideas. On a mechanical level, music represents a perfect intersection of the creative and logical; mathematically perfect sequences expressed as vibration.
Accordingly, music often plays a strong role in another crossroad of the technical and creative: video games. Sometimes it’s the friendly voice humming by your ear while you blast chunks out of alien scumbags, keeping your adrenaline pumping until you finish the fight. Sometimes it becomes the narrator, telling a story easily ruined by words. Sometimes it’s a deliberately unwelcome guest, filling your ears with discordant sounds that mimic the screams of unnamed beasts.
In the world of Soundodger+, music is your relentless enemy, and it wants you dead. But it’s a friendly-faced sort of foe that you can’t help loving, like Lex Luthor, the Goblin King or Walter White. Such is the strange dichotomy of this game.
Soundodger+ puts you in a circular field and fires hundreds of bullets at you from all directions. All of these projectiles correspond to part of the musical track which makes up the level — from the tiny triangles to the pulsing, diamond-shaped homing missiles — and your one job is to avoid getting hit by anything until the song ends. Everything starts simple enough as you zig and zag past the beats of Delasaurus’ Fields and Reaches, but things quickly escalate to maddening levels of complexity, with rolling waves of notes spewing out towards you in whirling dervishes of organised chaos. How well you handle this kerfuffle depends on not only your innate gamer reflexes (honed to perfection over many years) but also on your ability to analyse and anticipate how the game handles music. After a few tracks had spun by I had begun to anticipate certain attack formations based on a quick staccato of notes or the ubiquitous dropping of the bass.
Your score in any given track is represented as a mere percentage, which roughly correlates to your success in not being stabbed by the angry voice of a passing synthesizer. It’s a little misleading at first, however, as getting hit by a note isn’t actually what lowers your final score; instead, when you mess up the song fast forwards through all the notes currently out for blood, and it’s those notes that fail to count in your score. Scores also stop rising when you use the slow-motion button, but it can get you out of some seemingly impossible bits of bullet hell. I found the distillation of my efforts into a mere percentage to be a bit of a let down as the game progressed; having no breakdown of exactly how I performed and how I could get better (aside from not sucking so much) meant I ignored the final screen of each track for the most part.
It’s a minor quibble though, as, much like looking at your caloric burn rate after sex, paying attention to the score in Soundodger+ is completely missing the point. While there have been plenty of games that take advantage of music in the past, many of these use it as a means to determine the topography or to provide the scenery. Studio Bean have made the music the driver of the visuals, the impetus for action and the primary antagonist.
The result is an odd sense of tensile calm; the relaxing wave you get from listening to a good piece of music and the muted colours and geometry of the level design keep things zen, but everything is punctuated by the sense you’re being constantly hunted. Instead of feeling stressed at the end of one of the game’s 40-ish levels, I was energised. The way I might be after leaving a particularly hectic dance party. If I went to parties.
In terms of soundtrack, Soundodger+ is up to the task, with tracks varying wildly in tempo and style. Danny Baranowsky (best known for his stellar work on Super Meat Boy) and Journey composer Austin Wintory both provide pieces to dodge by, but there is plenty of musical magic to please almost any taste. Thankfully for the eager but rhythmically challenged among us, the barrier between the player and available songs is not skill, but time. A certain amount of points are required to unlock the next level, so if you find yourself completely stumped at any point you can take the walk of shame back to an easier song to grind, more or less. Considering the game revolves around the idea of listening to music in a creative way, making it simple to get to all the content is a smart move.
Those that do hate the excellent music on offer — or those who simply have their own tastes to make — will be happy to see that one of the main changes between the free flash version of Soundodger and the plus variant is the addition of an Auto-Gen mode. As you might expect, this takes any mp3 you have on hand — say, Short Skirt, Long Jacket by Cake, or the pristine pop of Carly-Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe — and turns it into a playable level. The results are mixed, and none come close to the beat-perfect results of the in-built music, but it’s a fun way to experience old tunes in a new way.
If the whims of a musical algorithm are a little too random for your liking, there’s also an extensive editor built into the game, with as many dials and doohickeys as your heart could desire. I appreciate the input, and hope to see many of my favourite songs given star treatment, but just like the level editors in Little Big Planet and Disney Infinity, and the countless abandoned worlds in Minecraft, I will allow them to gather dust due to a lack of time and skill. Mainly skill.
Soundodger+ is one of the few rhythm games I would recommend as more than a simple diversion or oddity. It takes music and gives it the respect it deserves, and by putting it in the middle of the gameplay it actually made me appreciate how music operates. For less than a decent cover charge, you can get more entertainment than a dingy underground club, with only a small chance of hangover.
RELEASE: 11 OCTOBER 2013