Skipping one too many beats
Beatbuddy is a difficult game to dislike, and the truth is I don’t dislike it. But when I see the game world and hear snippets of the music and think about the idea behind it all, I am disappointed nonetheless. It’s close – it’s really close – to being something special. But in the end, it just doesn’t quite pull it off.
Beatbuddy is an immortal being who slumbers along with his companions, Harmony and Melody, and dreams up the music that’s the pulse of life in the world of Symphonia. But when the wicked Prince Maestro kidnaps Melody in a twisted attempt to make the Symphonians dance to his tune, Beatbuddy is awakened and embarks upon an epic quest to save his friends and the world!
The hand-painted backdrops of Beatbuddy and the bizarre denizens who inhabit the game look great, as does Beatbuddy himself – a blue, perma-headphoned little fellow who, despite his bulbous shape, has some smooth dance floor moves and will bust them out anytime he’s left alone for a few seconds. And the music, at times, is excellent – as it should be, coming from top-notch composers including Austin Wintory, who was nominated in 2012 for a Grammy Award for his work on Journey.
But the devil is in the details, as they say, and this is where Beatbuddy stumbles. The game can be controlled with a mouse, keyboard or controller, but the mouse setup is awkward and still requires the use of the keyboard, and the keyboard on its own is far too imprecise to satisfactorily guide Beatbuddy through the many obstacles he’ll encounter. It’s far too easy to get stuck on a corner or protruding edge, which is doubly frustrating when you get hung up midway through a tight passage that only gives you a few seconds to escape before death strikes. It gets worse when you’re behind the controls of your vehicle, a rickety submarine that pulses to the rhythm of the music and can only move quickly in time with every other beat; it’s durable enough that you can bang it around a bit without fear of death, but it’s hardly a precision driving machine. The game also, very oddly, doesn’t allow for mouse control in the menus, even when the mouse is selected as the control option.
You won’t necessarily die often, especially if you’re patient and careful, and the good news is that there are plenty of checkpoints and lots of health “bubbles” lying around, so an untimely demise won’t cost you 30 minutes of lost gameplay. But there are segments that can be frustrating, and a couple of times I elected to switch briefly to the greater directional accuracy of the mouse to navigate through a certain area, and then reverted back to the more intuitive keyboard scheme once I was through. Your mileage may vary, obviously, but neither of those two control options (I didn’t try a controller) really felt up to the challenges of the game.
Beatbuddy also suffers from the classic problem of “too much breadth, not enough depth.” It’s not a massive game but it’s big enough – you’ll probably get at least half a dozen hours out of it if you’re pokey – to make the variety of things to do seem pretty thin. Despite the sprawling nature of the world, it’s a very linear experience and after a while you’ll start to notice that you’re doing the same things over and over again, and while it’s pretty, there’s just not all that terribly much to see.
The music is often very good – which, again, should come as no surprise – but in some areas of Symphonia it can also break down into nothing more than a monotonous, pulsating beat. I found myself stuck at one point – because of a glitch, I suspect (more on that later) – with nothing to listen to but a steady “boom boom boom,” and while maybe that’s cool with the kids these days – I’m old and haven’t been hip since the Hip were actually Tragic – it started to grind on me after a while. It’s also not nearly as interactive as I expected it to be: there are occasional sections where you’ll be required to keep the beat in one way or another, but I never had the feeling that I was actually impacting the music in any meaningful fashion. It’s quite possible to affect it by, for example, interrupting a stream of bubbles, but it’s usually something that happens as an incidental effect of moving forward, like banging your face into a wall while crossing an unfamiliar dark room, rather than something that’s actually a component of gameplay.
My (possible) technical hiccup came by way of three bounce pads that I spent roughly 45 minutes fiddling with before quitting and checking the Steam forums, where I found a few other people reporting similar, although not quite identical, problems. Restarting the game and the level, I was able to make it past the troublesome area within seconds – effectively on my first retry. Was it a bug or just bad luck? It’s impossible to say, but it’s an awfully strange coincidence; and even if it wasn’t an error, it’s still problematic. Spending the better part of an hour trying to find the precise angles for what should be a simple bit of bouncing just isn’t fun.
The good news is that Threaks, the team behind the game, is hard at work on a patch, and in the meantime if you happen to get stuck, a simple level restart should (hopefully) fix things up. What it won’t do is correct the game’s more fundamental flaws. When Beatbuddy works, it’s a beautiful, charming journey of exploration through a lush and magical undersea realm. When it doesn’t work, it’s frustrating, repetitive, and dull. And as much as I wanted it to be mostly the former, there’s just a little too much of the latter for it to really sing.