Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Almost what I want

First, The Box.

I discovered Orbital during my cloudy college days at about 2:00 in the morning while driving home from a bar. It was so foreign and awesome that I ran out to Best Buy the very next day and used food money to buy all of it I could. This interest wandered a bit into Future Sounds of London (and MTV's Amp show. Remember that one?) but always came back to Orbital. After I got out of college and had more time to play games I always wanted a game that had a sound track similar to their music.

Yesterday as my day was winding down I hit up the PA Report and read this. Damn you, Ben, I had plans, not to mention that I avoid the PlayStation Marketplace like the plague that it is. It took me two tries to find Retro/Grade and I never even attempted to change the credit card information to my new account number. It still worked, and after adding $9.99 to my wallet and then taking it back out again I was ready.

Ben's description is both apt and completely inaccurate. It certainly looks like a shooter being played in reverse. The begins at the end and every level runs backwards, with enemies appearing from their explosions and the shots that killed them racing back towards you. Judged as a shooter, which it thankfully isn't, the game is bland and boring. If you want a good shooter go play Sine Mora on XBLA, don't play Retro/Grade.

So what is it? Retro/Grade is a music game, nothing more. It is a representative of a genre that cannibalized itself to death a few years ago, and it is a good one at that. The reverse shooting bit is just the visual framework used to force the player into jumping between tracks and catching glowing balls as they approach. Sounds familiar? It should. The game cribs so heavily from Guitar Hero that using a guitar to control the game is encouraged. There is the added wrinkle of dodging attacks coming in from the left of the screen while trying to catch the ones coming in from the right. This creates a visually busy, difficult to follow mish mash in the center of the screen. Practice makes perfect, though, and just like Frequency and Amplitude, Retro/Grade's closet peers, having success at the highest difficulty will take a lot of it.

I want to be thrilled with Retro/Grade, but there are problems. The game begins on the harder difficulties. Playing with only three tracks to worry about is much too easy. There is no problem avoiding this in the campaign, just choose hard (or extreme if you are ready for all five tracks), but the challenge mode, in which you unlock all sorts of goodies, starts off with challenges based on the easiest difficult. This is boring to the point that I am not even going to bother.

This leaves the game as mastering the same ten levels and same ten tracks at higher and higher difficulties and it would not be a problem if all ten levels and all ten tracks were good. Unfortunately only about half of the levels are well designed and fun to play with the balance suffering from incredibly difficult to avoid attacks or being so visually constipated that telling what to shoot versus what to dodge is almost impossible. It also runs out of ideas for new attacks after about three levels, recycling them in different orders and frequency in attempt to keep them fresh. All this would forgivable if the music was good; this is a music game after all. But it isn't. Much like the levels, about half of the tracks are very good and the other half are not. The middle levels are the worst, experimenting with syncopation and failing to be interesting to either play or hear.

Retro/Grade lands right at the intersection of several guilty pleasures: music games, shmups and underfunded indy projects with more ideas than they have skill to implement. After running though all ten levels twice I wanted to turn on my computer and play Audiosurf so I could do almost the same thing with better music.

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