Symphony – Review

Platform | Release Date
PC | August 6, 2012
Developed by Empty Clip Studios
Published by Empty Clip Studios

The Pitch:

Your music is under attack, you must liberate it!

A mysterious entity is absorbing and corrupting your music before your very eyes. You must battle through your own song collection, discover items, customize your ship and fight boss enemies to liberate the Symphony of Souls and reclaim your music!

Symphony is one of the most music-driven games ever made. In this vertical shooter, re-experience each of your songs as it becomes a unique battlefield driven by intensity and tempo.

Your music collection is now an item collection! Each of your songs contains an item you can discover, equip and upgrade. Fully customize your ship to reach score targets, upgrade items and unlock new difficulty levels.

Score-attack isn’t what I play games for. I play to relax, not for frantic gameplay and mandatory frustration as I repeatedly fail to get a high score. Symphony is a frantic arcade-style shooter where your single spaceship faces off against a swarm of aliens. With each new difficulty level I unlocked, I stared in disbelief at my computer as my deaths racked up. Is it my fault I can’t thread the needle when there are thirty enemies and five instant-kill missiles on screen? No.

I want games to tell me a story. The Witcher 2 has an amazing combat system, full of detail and strategy, but what I remember most are the relationships I formed, and the twisted tale it told me. Symphony has a story, but it’s unbelievably dumb; an excuse to throw pattern-match boss fights into a game built around procedurally generated levels.

Despite this, I love Symphony.

Most games start with a tutorial; instead players are greeted with a dialog box asking for your music directory. Like many arcade shooters, each level starts with your spaceship, but the type and pace of the enemies is derived from the music track you load. Frantic, fast-paced death metal? Enemies will pour from every side and the screen will be an angry red color. Calm, sedate classical music? Enemies will still pour from every side, but at least they’ll be more polite about it.

The composition, paths, and sheer numbers of the enemy units are baffling. I can see where music affects the level, something particularly true when the song has strong shift in tempo, but, music aside, the procedural generation itself is quite laudable. Judged as a randomly-generated arcade shooter, it’s a solid experience; the effect of music simply takes it to the next level.

The game engine is capable enough to recognize songs no matter where you purchased them, though I have yet to encounter a well-populated leaderboard, so score-attack is done with a limited audience. Hopefully this will change, but the single-player experience is more than enough to justify the purchase price. As frustrating as the demon boss progression is, the “story” of the game will take roughly eight hours to complete.

The deep unlock system allows you to purchase and modify weapons on your ship and even which powerups will drop during a level. The more firepower your ship has, the lower your score multiplier will be, but modification is essential for tackling the game’s incredibly steep difficulty curve. It takes several attempts to master a song at each of the six difficulty levels, not to mention tweaking your ship to get the right amount of firepower without hurting your multiplier, and with it your chance at the leaderboard.

While I’ve had fun with a wide range of genres, if you like electronica and rap you’re in for a treat with Symphony. Deadmau5’s “Ghosts ‘n Stuff” is a blast, and “Soma” from the same album is a fantastic example of extreme changes in tempo affecting gameplay. “Niggas in Paris” and “Welcome to the Jungle” from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album Watch the Throne are fantastic, particularly if you have the Subwoofer weapon. Most of the weapons in the game are best in autofire mode, and a few extra powerful ones can only be fired manually, but the Subwoofer shoots out musical notes of various sizes depending on how strong of a beat the song has. Punchy bass? You’ll blast the hell out of whatever it is you’re fighting in the game.

The game’s central conceit is really lame. Demons have “taken control” of your music and you have to “liberate” it. In reality, this amounts to a boss fight every five tracks or so, punctuated by painful cut scenes where the master demon taunts you until you win hours later. The fights are a change of pace, admittedly, but they’re typical pattern-recognition boss fights that feel directly opposed to the game’s random level generation.

If you can tolerate the periodic annoyance, what the boss fights do rather well is gate Symphony’s content. Successfully defeating each series of bosses unlocks the next difficulty level, each of which are an enormous step up, perhaps almost too much. More importantly, even if you’ve hit the maximum difficulty you’re comfortable with, new enemies will appear down in that difficulty level. What’s unclear is how that affects leaderboards in songs you played with a simpler mix of enemies but this isn’t exactly a game built on balanced PvP competition.

While the core gameplay is really good. Where Symphony is let down is by its UI. Music is a vast, vast space and most of us have very large libraries. I dislike this aspect of the game as much as I hate most music programs. The organization paradigm of sorting by Artist or by Album – and that’s all – just doesn’t cut it for me. Less forgivable is that tracks are presented alphabetically rather than in album order. I realize the album paradigm is much weaker in the age of iTunes by-track purchases, but so much music out there is designed and mixed to be listened front-to-back, nor is there a playlist function. Another annoyance is that item unlocks are tied to the track you “found” them at, so if you want to upgrade your ship’s equipment, you have to remember which song you got it from. Good luck with that if you’re as eclectic as I am.

The game is sold digitally at many outlets but Steam integration would have done wonders. As it stands, you have the option of creating an account for online leaderboards that’s unique to the game, so you may never cross paths with a friend unless you pester them outside of the game. It would be nice to send or post score challenges on specific tracks but that’s where the legal climate of music licensing comes into force. If they don’t own that track, are they going to buy it just to play it with me? Symphony is a budget-priced title but hopefully Steam or a music social network like Spotify will take a look at what a game like that could do as part of a music sharing and discovery service.

Symphony ships with a soundtrack that promptly gets buried under the weight of your own music library, but that’s kind of the point. Part of the fun is seeing what the heck this song will generate, and occasionally being surprised by the fact that someone else had the same idea. I’m surprised at how much I’ve taken to an absolutely frantic arcade shooter, as the game is more about deft handling with the mouse than anything else, but it’s a great ride.

About David Hughes

David Hughes is an Editor for Splitkick. PC gamer, mod lover, screenarcher, and Elder Scrolls fanboy.
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