Music and gaming go hand in hand. Working directly with the art style, music helps to sets the mood for a game be it dark and gritty or light and uplifting. It is used to convey information, accentuate emotion, or even to lull us into a trance like state as we play our 11th level of Lumines in a row. Despite it being so integral to our gaming experiences, in most cases music is just a supporting structure that helps make a game better.
Music has however proven that it can be the basis of a game. Titles like Amplitude, Frequency, Guitar Hero and Rock Band were all built around the concept of music and were successful in varying degrees. But it has been the indie scene that has brought the most interesting uses of music as games to the table. Games like Audiosurf and Beat Hazard utilize the end-user’s own music collection to dynamically create levels to play, creating a nearly endless source of content. Developer Empty Clip Studios new release, Symphony, follows in those footsteps.
Symphony is a top down “space” shooter reminiscent of the classic arcade game, Galaga. Swarms of enemies attack the player and utilizing a flurry of ammo, deployed by pressing the left mouse button, and some improvised flying maneuvers, they are to be dispatched. Points are received by collected dropped notes from destroyed enemies as well as occasional chain icons that offer up bonus points. From a conceptual aspect it is about as old school as one could go, however Symphony has a few tricks up its sleeves.
Like Audiosurf, Beat Hazard and other like games before it, Symphony procedurally generates its levels based on the peaks and valleys in the audio wave of the song file selected. Symphony however may be the best to do so to date. In past with games that have utilized this functionality, I always felt that something was off, that the programs designed to scan the music for peaks and valleys were fudging it somehow and not clearly reading the files all the way through. It’s clear Symphony’s scanner gets it right though, as the pace of enemy ships noticeably changes with the tempo of the music. This makes each song a unique experience, which is exactly what the game claims to do. For as unique as each individual level can be though, the core gameplay still derives down to quickly blowing up swarms of enemies as they appear on screen. Fortunately things are spiced up a bit by the overarching narrative which introduces boss battles to the mix.
To put it simply, the story of Symphony is pretty absurd but one does not play arcade shooters for their deeply engaging narrative. For some reason a demon has decided to attack our world through the player’s digital music collection and there is a lot of nonsense about us being physical beings and that making us weak. It is this narrative reasoning though that produces the most fun aspect of the gameplay, the demon battles.
For some reason the demon has captured the souls of our greatest composers and is forcing them to attempt to destroy us. These battles arise every few levels played and to free the soul of each composer the demon must be defeated three times, each confrontation presenting a harder variation of the last battle. With no real penalty for death in the game, these battles present the only point where one could potentially stall as they must be defeated to advance. Defeating the demon, frees their soul and unlocks a new difficulty level. Playing on higher difficulty levels is not exactly necessary but it ups the chaos and in turn the fun.
Taking on the later demon forms and the higher difficulty levels will require players to upgrade their ship. Clearing a song will unlock a random item that can be purchased using Inspiration points, which are accumulated based on the score of a level. Sometimes these items are ship upgrades, like a Megablaster or Energy Cannon, other times they are power-ups like Invincibility. All the items can be upgraded although they require a combination of Inspiration and special Kudos points. Kudos points are gained by completing score challenges on each song and clearing the challenges on higher difficulty levels will grant players more Kudos points to spend.
Unfortunately upgrading items is a whole lot more cumbersome than it should be, in fact navigating any of the menus is Symphony is a major cause for frustration, especially if the player has a large music library to import. Navigating through songs can be done via artist, album or with no filter (showing all songs) but with no quick play option or ability to create a playlist of favorites picking a song can take almost as long as some of the levels do. Of course having too large of a music library (anything over 10000 appears to give it problems) renders the game utterly unplayable as it will crash to the desktop upon finishing. For a game that banks on players having a large music library to keep playing the game over and over, it is highly disappointing that it cannot support large library structures and could possibly cause less tech savvy players to think the game is outright broken as importing music is the first thing most players will do with the game.
The issues with Symphony’s music imports and awful menu / navigation design are off-putting but can generally be worked around or ignored to get to the game’s good points. Sadly the problems extend to there as well though, with seemingly random fits of lag throughout the game. And in a game where success is based on quick, precise movements, lag is a killer.
Personally I really love what Symphony is and find it to be a ton of fun but in its current state it is less than the stellar title it should be. Perhaps with a future patch the title could morph into something special but right now it is just untapped potential.
- Fun, simple top-down arcade style gameplay
- Music import functionality seems to really analyze the peaks and valleys to give a truly unique experience based on each individual song.
- Boss battles are fantastic.
- Music import system cannot handle very large music libraries.
- Menu/navigation is atrocious
- Occasional in-game lag
3 / 5