It’s not hard to see the allure of the rhythm action genre for game developers, providing as it does a framework within which to work while at the same time enabling some hugely idiosyncratic and downright eccentric experiences. When executed well, the tension between interactivity and aural feedback can be wonderfully liberating, but problems can arise when these two worlds fail to meet; as unsatisfying mechanics flounder to connect with aural elements. The latest title to attempt to seamlessly meld these two elements into a cohesive – and toe tapping – whole is Fun Unit’s Groove Heaven for the Nintendo 3DS, but does it find perfect harmony or ear-drum perforating dissonance?
Groove Heaven’s rhythmic leanings are not readily apparent when glancing over screenshots, appearing as it does to be a fairly rudimentary platformer. In reality, however, there is very little in terms of actual platforming, mainly as lead character Rhymi can’t jump. Instead, she must navigate through a series of short levels while avoiding hazards; reach the exit and it’s on to the next level. Of course, this alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain a gaming experience, this being a job that is left to the game’s core mechanic which dictates that you can only move in time to the rhythm of the music. So, the music functions as framework, an invisible force that you cannot directly master but must instead fall into line with in order to succeed.
In the broader scope of the rhythm action genre, Groove Heaven undoubtedly sits at the more gentle and accessible end of the spectrum and has clearly been designed with a younger audience in mind. Inputs are stripped back, coming in the form of two large buttons that appear on the 3DS’ touchscreen; on the left being ‘Turn’ and on the right ‘Move’. Tap either with the stylus and Rhymi will do just that, but only if you do so in time to the music.
The required adherence to the rhythm combined with the simplified inputs allows the levels to pose a challenge that belies their design. Where dextrous characters such as the Mario or Sonics of the world can happily charge around a leaping foe, for Rhymi even the most basic of manoeuvres is difficult if you fail to get into the rhythm of the music, as taps are wasted in between beats and do nothing more than aggravate your demonic charge. This mechanic also lends the game a staccatoed pace, with each of Rhymi’s shortened movements being sandwiched between moments of inactivity. At first, this can prove to be quite jarring, but there’s no denying that you can occasionally get lost in the rhythm of the music and your own stylus taps.
It’s unfortunate then that this mechanic and the level design do not prove enough to sustain the experience. Although things get off to a good start with a gentle but well pitched learning curve and a smattering of interesting concepts, the game soon settles into a leisurely pace that struggles to hold your attention and before you know it the credits are rolling. There are also a few slip-ups in terms of design, most noticeably in the game’s attitude to lives; you start with three and can accrue more through the collection of musical notes, but rather than rebooting your stock when you reach zero, lose them all and you must restart with nothing. The upshot of this is you will frequently find yourself revisiting levels that are filled with large quantities of easily accessible notes just to restock on lives, an option that is all the more tempting when facing levels that can be extremely frustrating should you attempt them with no extra lives to soften the impact of dying mid-level.
There are two modes of play included in Groove Heaven. First up is ‘Story’ mode – that just about lives up to its title by sandwiching the game’s 30 levels between a scene setting and narrative closing cutscenes. Although short and of limited value to the overall experience, these cutscenes are good looking and stylishly presented. The story, as far as it goes, is also actually quite sweet, telling of a Devil who has fallen hopelessly in love with an angel and who sends his minion – Rhymi – to deliver a bunch of flowers. The narrative does a good job as a bookend then, but it’s a shame it doesn’t do much more than that.
The second mode is ‘Timed’ which, as you might have guessed, presents a series of levels that you must complete as quickly as possible. Though this adds to the longevity of the package, with no real way of speeding Rhymi up, these levels become tests of memorising levels and sustaining a steady rhythm with limited scope for satiating the high-score hunters it is obviously aimed at.
Groove Heaven’s biggest failing is in its music. It’s not bad, but it commits a cardinal sin for the rhythm action genre by being for the most part utterly forgettable, in turn failing to drive the action onward. In many ways, the music can be used to sum up the game as a whole; it’s produced well enough and is perfectly serviceable but it never quite gets the blood pumping and ultimately fails to sustain your interest for long. Groove Heaven is a relatively good looking game, there are some good ideas here and if you approach it expecting ‘My first rhythm action game’ you won’t be too disappointed, and maybe in this it has done its job. However, it is disappointing that it fails to reach the euphoric heights hinted at by that title.
Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS; game provided by Teyon Software and Entertainment
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