In a year where live music fell silent, a game that kept the beat going.
If I were to rewind back to early 2002, there’s a scene I’d be able to point out where my outlook on music games was planted.
I would’ve been in front of my Playstation 1, trying out five key Beatmania for the first time. Already deeply familiar with DDR, the gameplay mechanics of doing something to the beat were not new. But pushing a button to trigger a “keysound” – some small sample, sequenced into the notechart – was very different. Properly following the game’s instructions got you better sounding music, rather than solely higher score. That clicked something inside my head.
I am the first to admit that, on average, I am not good at music games. Even though much of my “gaming legacy” is around being a “Bemani veteran”, I grew tired of the grind long ago. I am not going to regain whatever marginal skill I previously had in beatmania IIDX, or start a quest to grind out the hardest DDR songs. Yet I still love the games where I can fumble my way through “playing” a track.
This outlook change happened again when Harmonix’s Rock Band first hit the market. Now, it wasn’t merely making music play, but doing it together. Playing at a part was a thousand times more interesting than chasing gold stars on Expert.
Harmonix’s Fuser, released this November, has pushed my music game views forward once more. Here, we’ve moved past keysounds entirely, and in a world where stems – the individual instrumentation or vocals – from any song can be stacked on top of each other. The work that Harmonix did to automate beat-matching, pitch, and tempo in Dropmix migrates to Fuser and integrates so well it feels magical. Almost any combination of tracks can sound good.
The gameplay elements of Fuser are effectively secondary. Sure, you can quest through some sort of music festival narrative fulfilling requests from the producers and fans in the crowds. But it is less interesting and more tutorial-ish than the two modes I have spent the most time in: social mix making, and co-op freestyle.
Social mix making happens weekly, where based on some given criteria, you can put together a mix and unleash it into a queue-based voting system. The game’s traditional scoring mechanics go out the window. Here, you’re only going to place well for the week if you put together something that sounds good.
Here was my submission for a competition around building an “entrance theme”:
Separately, co-op freestyle has you and up to three people switching off at the virtual turntables, putting down what you think sounds good. You can cheer for each other, and there’s some algorithmic determination of the “hottest moment”. Those elements are ignorable; just getting to noodle around with friends trying to re-assemble old songs in new ways is a blast.
Harmonix has already built a pipeline of DLC releases and is making changes in light of community feedback, so there’s no doubt I’ll be coming back to Fuser again and again in 2021. Music gamers looking for thrills beyond AAA hunting should check it out.
Fuser is available on Steam, PS4, Switch, and Xbox. I’ve spent 17 hours in it as of writing this.
In a year where facts were in question, a game about truth.
By the time Paradise Killer hit the market, it was September 2020. For perspective in the future when these memories feel less fresh, that’s six months deep into COVID-19 and two months from the presidential election. The world felt in limbo, society near a breaking point.
Diving into the bizarre world of Paradise 24, striving to solve The Crime To End All Crime, I approached it as an escape. It ended up as something more meditative.
Gameplay, quickly: open world detective game with minimal hand holding. Investigate a bloody crime scene. Interview suspects as you chase multiple leads. Name the guilty and bring justice to a dying island.
Much has been said elsewhere about Paradise Killer’s unique styyyyyyyle:
“The world of Paradise Killer is a queer-friendly, cosmic horror bonanza; a heady mix of sun-drenched Miami Beach paradise meets madness from beyond the stars. The lurid aesthetic and vibrant soundtrack is decidedly at odds with the traditional cosmic horror tropes of imposing libraries, fish-headed monsters, and gruff investigators.”
What made the game feel most unique, though, is the philosophical question placed in front of you by Justice as you begin your investigation: “fact or truth?”
If you miss out on a fact somewhere along the way, does the truth change? Does your truth change?
If you have a fact that is inconvenient for a character that helped you – that might implicate them – do you include it in your truth?
To be forced to grapple with these questions in a video game was refreshing. To have largely free reign to find justice, rather than being stuck on pre-designed narrative pathways with a tidy ending to the mystery was a true joy.
For a first title from a two-person studio, Paradise Killer is ambitious as hell and succeeds more than it fails. And that’s the truth.
Paradise Killer is available on Steam, Switch, and PS4. I clocked about 12 hours on the Steam version.
In a year we could not escape, a game about escaping.
Like so many others this year, I spent chunks of it trying to break my way out of hell. Supergiant’s Hades is the easiest game metaphor for 2020.
I have been no stranger to roguelikes over the years, so the run-die-learn-upgrade cycle of Hades fits like a glove. Struggling to cut a path through the four levels of the Underworld, that familiar sting of learning through failure was intoxicating.
First, a downright intimidating amount of voice acting. A run-based game should invite repetition, but through my 40+ escape attempts I haven’t heard a single bit of repeated dialog.
Second, I am appreciative of their commitment to scalable and managable difficulty. I was at risk of bouncing off the game entirely after 20 failed runs, so I opted to enable GOD MODE. The game didn’t shame me, didn’t disable my ability to earn progression, and didn’t even make me invincible – just gave me a little bit of an extra boost for each failure. The lack of judgment kept me going, and now I find myself grinding “heat”, a configurable difficulty system to keep later runs entertaining.
Last, I am genuinely impressed they found a way to wrap the run-centric nature of the game into the story itself, allowing for a unique narrative and a clever game loop to develop.
It’s as refined a game as you’ll find in 2020. If only that were enough to top my list this year. But it was a tough year.
Hades is available on PC and Switch.I clocked about 30 hours in the PC version.