Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Raycatcher Review

Raycatcher, developed and published by Slam Dunk Studios and Thinking Studios.
The Good: Solid core gameplay with simple controls, rates you on a scale of “awesomeness”
The Not So Good: Requires strong percussion to work well, difficult to import songs, no song randomize option, very low tolerance of failure
What say you? A second-class attempt at a music-based puzzle game: 5/8

Considering the rabid success of Audiosurf, it was only a matter of time before imitators started flooding the information superhighway. The popularity of music-based games cannot be denied, from Rock Band to Ultimate Band (OK, maybe not that last one). Enter Raycatcher, a two-man operation that has you raycatching (it’s in the title, people!) to the rockin’ beat of whatever crappy 80’s song you happen to have on your hard drive. Catching rays is no longer limited to the beach! Sorry, I couldn’t think of a better pun. Let’s just move on, shall we?

Raycatcher features some very basic graphics. The background is animation but slightly bland in its repetitive nature. The colored shapes do have some unique designs (monkey heads, anyone?), but it can be difficult to tell the difference between dimly-lit colors (especially red and yellow) and how many times they have been filled. While the rays are mostly obviously colored, the subtle tips of the white rays can also make it difficult to identify their appropriate placement with a quick glance (which is all you get on most difficulty settings). I guess it’s a contrast issue between the various color levels that makes Raycatcher less defined overall. The music for the game can be customized, but the default tunes are nothing special and Raycatcher actually comes some ironically bothersome menu music (although that’s simply a matter of personal taste). Puzzle games such as Raycatcher do not require outstanding graphics and sound, fortunate for this game as there is nothing notable about the presentation.

Raycatcher features a fairly unique take on the color-matching puzzle game. You control a circle with colored areas that must be matched with incoming colored rays. Moving the mouse rotates your circle, and the controls are intuitive and sensitive enough to allow for rather precise movements. The circle layout is not randomized, as the design is completely symmetrical in order to support catching double rays of the same color coming in from opposite ends of the screen. As I mentioned in the graphics section of this review, it can be difficult to differentiate colors and how “full” the sections are (repeating this information makes the review appear longer). Your circle will grow in size as you fill up each component, and eventually the shapes that constitute the circle will alter in shape (those wacky monkey heads), although this does not come with any change in gameplay. You are rated on an awesome scale of “awesomeness,” much like the health bar in Rock Band: getting notes…sorry, rays…makes you more awesome, while missing a bunch of rays in a row will cause you to fail. Raycatcher is not light on the difficulty: the game is tough on any setting but the easiest, punishing imperfection to the full extent of the law. I rarely got through a single song on anything above “easy,” and “easy” was actually a bit too easy; I’d like to have more of a middle-ground setting for players who want a challenge but not epic failure (that would be me). Special glowing notes…sorry, rays…can be collected to unleash super powers: pressing the left mouse button removes all of the rays on the screen, while the right mouse button is used to cause more ray pairs. The mechanics of Raycatcher are enjoyable and somewhat unique, despite the lack of auxiliary features (no pausing the game, no online scoring).

Ironically, where Raycatcher missteps is in the music department. The game allows you to import any MP3 or WAV file to use in the game, just in case you don’t like the default music (likely). Unfortunetly, this aspect of the game is poorly executed in a number of different ways. While Raycatcher does support playlists (take that, Audiosurf), adding songs to one is a gigantic pain: the game doesn’t let you import more than a couple at a time, and certainly not an entire folder at once. This means using a large music library that I am sure most people have is difficult, and this essentially negates the usefulness of having the playlist feature. In addition, you can’t randomize the song order in a playlist, further reducing the effectiveness of a playlist. The game also has a tough time with ID3 tags: most songs that work perfectly fine in an MP3 player or Audiosurf show up with blank titles or just the artist (take that, Raycatcher).

On top of the woes associated with simply importing songs, the actual implementation of the songs in the game leaves a lot to be desired. Audiosurf did an excellent job making you feel like you were playing your music, but the disconnect between what you are hearing and what you are playing in Raycatcher is quite large. If you choose a song without a solid beat, the song and the game seemingly have nothing in common: the appearance of rays never seems to match anything in the song, making the game just plain weird to play. I tried out a bunch of the songs in my library, and none of them came close to the level of synchronization I saw in the promo trailer. Even with “better” songs, the synchronization isn’t as obvious or as consistent as it should be. In a game that relies on music, this is an important shortcoming, as people are bound to have a wide variety in tastes in music. Audiosurf meshed these two aspects almost perfectly, but it’s quite a different situation in Raycatcher, where the results are quite hit or miss.

Raycatcher takes a straightforward and almost compelling puzzle game and damages it with substandard musical elements and features. While some songs fare well enough in Raycatcher, you gotta have a song with a strong drum beat, or the game will hardly match at all. The relatively high difficulty (on “medium” or “high” settings) makes this detachment even more obvious, as the songs help you none in predicting when a barrage of rays will be incoming. Importing songs is an exercise in tedium and frustration, as you are arbitrarily limited to two or three at a time even though Raycatcher has a playlist feature, and song titles are absent most of the time. Without a randomize feature, the inclusion of a playlist is meaningless, especially since you’ll fail one or two songs in anyway. Although Raycatcher has unique core gameplay, the incorporation of musical elements is lacking and overall the game pales in comparison to Audiosurf. It almost would have been better for Raycatcher to completely forgo the music import feature since it doesn’t work that well and the core game is marginally interesting on its own. As it stands, Raycatcher is an also-ran in the pantheon of musically-influenced computer games.