Friday, August 17, 2012

Symphony Review

Symphony, developed and published by Empty Clip Studios.
The Good: Uses custom music, extensive ship customization, interesting progressive damage
The Not So Good: Vague visual difference between enemies and pickups, irregular music-to-action matching
What say you? A music-based shoot-em-up with nice ship upgrades that could connect more with the tunes: 5/8

NOTE: I received a DRM-free review copy from the fine folks at, so, you know, give them all your monies.

Ever since Audiosurf blasted onto the scene in 2008, the music-based game genre has seen regular entrants. Allowing users to import custom tunes requires less development time making levels and avoids copyright violations. It's win-win! The latest attempt at adding music into our games is Symphony, which adapts the notes to the shoot-em-up arcade game. Not only does the game design its waves of enemies around your poor musical taste, but you also unlock new weapons and can customize your ship for future failures. Does Symphony sing a high note, or come out flat?

The overall graphical theme of Symphony is “glow bright”. The neon hues that dominate the game look futuristic and pleasingly chaotic when plenty of enemies and bullets are on the screen (which is most of the time). Of course, all of this bedlam comes at a price, as it’s really hard to differentiate between hostile enemy and friendly pickup when things are flashing across the screen. The distinctive enemy designs help, as you’ll instantly know their behavior pattern based on visuals. In addition, enemies exploding into music notes is a nice tough. Still, the visual overload is a bit too much for the strategic thinkers among us. Symphony has reasonable sound effects that accompany all of the rampant destruction, from enemies exploding to collecting power-ups. The boss also gets computerized voice work that’s infrequent enough not to become annoying. The music is, obviously, yours, and I must say it is really terrible. Overall, Symphony delivers solid, albeit confusing, graphic design.

In Symphony, you must liberate your music from five demons. Obviously. The game allows you to import any song from your library, filtering by artist or album (or simply displaying everything at once), and builds the levels from there. The on-screen action doesn't match the music as well as in some other music games: non-interactive elements to the side of the screen do mirror drum beats and the like, but the enemy movements have little to do with the ebb and flow of the music. You can predict when fast and slow sections are upcoming, but Symphony lacks rhythm with your music, tossing a seemingly semi-random assortment of enemy units at you. There are six difficulty levels that unlock gradually over time (as you defeat the aforementioned demons in a boss battle); they add more enemies at a faster rate, which can make the game very challenging. I like the inclusion of more diverse enemies at the higher difficulty levels, but their sheer numbers makes the game prohibitively difficult. The increased rewards for playing at a higher difficulty level are negated if you have to respawn every twenty seconds. Symphony also features online leaderboards, but I guess I have a really weird taste in music (or Symphony is just not that popular) because I lead every song I've played (except for one), no matter how badly I played it (on a related note, I'm still getting the occasional “dethroned” e-mails from Audiosurf, a good four years after I set most of my records).

Points earned during each song are spent unlocking and upgrading weapons and items. In fact, even if you don’t get the goal score, you still unlock something, although after the first ten or so songs you won’t need it (unless you want to double up on a specific weapon). There are several weapon types to choose from: missiles, spread, slow-firing-but-powerful, multi-direction, and so on. All of these can be upgraded as well, so there is something for everyone. The game doesn’t say what an item does (just the name) before you unlock it, so some of the musically-inclined items are a bit vague (care to guess what the “1812 overture” does?) and you may end up wasting your money. A strong aspect to Symphony is the ability to customize your ship with four weapons of your choice: you can alter their orientation and fire mechanism (left-click, right-click, or continuous). You can spend quite a bit of time tinkering with the perfect combination and alignment of weapons.

The enemy intensive is based on the music beat, and things definitely get more challenging as the songs get faster. You do not earn points directly for destroying enemies; rather, they drop musical notes (called “inspiration”) that you must collect to get your cash. This means you have to venture close to other enemy units to collect your prizes, a dangerous proposition when the screen is filled with fast-moving bad guys. The “inspiration” also heals your ship; as you get bombarded, the weapons on the damaged side of the ship get removed, which is a pretty neat mechanic. When you eliminate an entire wave of enemies, you get a bonus that upgrades your weapons, and a severe point penalty (plus a time delay for respawning) occurs when you die. As I mentioned earlier, it can be hard to differentiate between enemies and pickups amidst all the chaos, and the very fragile nature of your ship doesn’t help matters. Indeed, you’ll be seeing “RECAPITULATION” plenty as your ship respawns.

Symphony has a solid concept that falls just short. First off, the game difficulty is high on anything beyond the first two beginner levels because your ship is fragile and the screen is filled with enemies and things you have to collect. The confusing graphics do not help navigating through this chaos, and you'll accidentally run into things just trying to collect points. Your weapons (even when upgraded) also seem to lack the firepower required to dispose of the sheet number of enemies, though I like the ability to have auto-fire on the weapons of your choice. The fit of the game to the music is not as engrossing as in Audiosurf: things speed up and slow down properly, but the appearance of enemies seems to be somewhat randomized, and the connections to the beat are certainly not as obvious as in that other ground-breaking title. Symphony also has repetitive level design, despite the use of boss battles and (seemingly empty) leaderboards. The earned items and ship customization give incentive for pressing onward, and choosing your components and mounting them in the best directions is enjoyable. Still, Symphony needs to meld better with the music to create a more memorable experience.