Note: Before the Echo was originally titled Sequence. This review was written before the title change, and we left the original text intact.
I love rhythm games. Whether it’s Elite Beat Agents, Dance Dance Revolution, Project Diva, Rhythm Heaven or [email protected], I can’t get enough of tapping (or jumping, if I pull my mat out) along to arrows and beats. When you combine my love for that genre with my love for RPGs, surely you’d have a winner right? Well, Sequence proves that isn’t necessarily true. Released exclusively as a download title, Sequence attempts to bring together RPGs, rhythm mechanics and cringe-worthy hipster jokes. In theory, these three aspects (well, maybe minus the hipster stuff) could get along rather famously. Unfortunately, in this case they get along about as well as a feuding family.
After waking up in a strange tower with no idea how he arrived there, Ky is beset by strange monsters. Guided by his ‘shepherd,’ Naia, Ky has no choice but to work his way up the seven floors of the tower, defeating enemies and guardians through the power of rhythm. Only then will he be able to escape his strange experimental prison and return to his own world. Sadly, only the ending of the plot holds any real interest, and even then it’s pretty bizarre and will be hit or miss for most players. The previous 3-5 hours leading up to it gives you little insight into what’s happening or the purpose of the tower. I suspect this was done to increase the mystery and suspense, but all it does is leave you feeling irritated and without purpose.
This is worsened by the horrific script and characters. The dialogue is clichéd, overwritten, uninteresting and seems to rely on pulling out cringe-worthy jokes every few lines. This can be forgiven to a point, since most of the jokes intentionally parody the lameness in hipster culture. Unfortunately, they’re not very funny. The characters have incredibly two-dimensional personalities and you’ll feel no affection for them at all. The only saving grace is the voice acting. Script aside, the actors, for the most part, do a tremendous job of portraying their characters. Strangely enough, one of my favourite parts of the game was the credits (probably not want you want to hear when considering buying a game). They’re narrated by the actors playing Ky and Naia and it’s probably the most enjoyable credits sequence I’ve experienced in any game.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: the gameplay. In essence, Sequence can be broken down into two parts: rhythm battles and RPG-style item synthesis. On each of the seven floors, your primary goal is to collect the materials needed to create a key that will open the door to the next floor. To obtain these ingredients you must battle nearby enemies. After defeating them, you have a chance at obtaining various items that will likely be useful in synthesising items such as armour, weapons, new spells and the required key. Just to be clear, all actions are controlled by menus and there is no actual walking around.
Sounds good, right? The problem is that some of these items have a relatively low drop chance (some as low as 16%) and you’re often forced to play the same 2-3 minute battles over and over and over again. In fact, on the seventh floor, I had to replay the same battle 13 times before the item I needed for the key dropped (and that was with a 70% drop chance). It can be absolutely infuriating being forced to do the same battle again and again.
On the bright side, the battles themselves are pretty fun and incorporate some very unique ideas. Once you begin, you’re presented with three different boxes on your screen. One is for attacking, one is for defending, and the third is for regenerating mana. Both you and your enemy have a health meter and it’s your job to deplete theirs to zero before they either do the same to you or time runs out.
So, where’s the rhythm, you ask? Once the music begins, each of those boxes becomes flooded with arrows. As arrows come down (in time to the music, of course), you need to hit the corresponding arrow key. So, when the enemy’s attacking you, you’ll need to hit the arrows in the defence box. When you’re attacking, you must hit all the arrows in the attack box to pull off spells. The catch? Only one box can be active at a time. Whilst you can see them all on screen at once, you have to swap between them using the Q and E keys to be able to interact with them individually. This can lead to some particularly hectic moments, especially on the higher difficulties where choices must be made on whether to sacrifice your attack to defend or vice versa. It’s a very clever and intense little system that can provide a great deal of challenge for veterans of the music genre.
To actually attack your foe, you must choose and cast spells assigned to your sphere by hitting the corresponding numerical key. At first, you can only take a couple of spells into battle at once, but by the end this can be expanded to seven. New spells are learned by synthesising items and passing specific musical challenges. The attacks themselves include direct damage, damage over time, healing and more. There’s a decent variety, but the real strategy comes in picking one spell over another. Do you pick a spell that does more damage but has a shorter recharge time? Do you take the most powerful healing spell even though it requires a huge amount of mana to cast? The spell choice adds a much needed layer of depth to the game.
If that doesn’t sound hard enough then don’t worry, it doesn’t stop there. Each floor of the game has a guardian that presides over it and can interfere in each battle. By exercising their individually unique powers, guardians can seriously hinder your progress. Some can drain your mana while others can reverse the position of arrows, block your view of the arrow grids and even change the playback speed of the song. Once you finally forge the key and finish a floor, you then must then confront the guardian and defeat it. The guardians attack far more aggressive than regular enemies and the battles tend to have shorter time constraints. It’s great fun.
Underlying all this great fun, however, is one massively poor design choice: synthesising items costs experience. Picture it: you spend an hour destroying enemy after enemy and collecting all the items you need, only to fail your synthesis and lose two levels worth of experience. It’s incredibly frustrating. Each time you synthesize you are literally betting your hard-earned experience to increase or decrease the chance of success (up to a maximum of 95%). On later floors it can be utterly devastating to lose so much. At least you don’t lose the items, I guess.
The music used throughout the game is of fairly good quality. Fitting in with the theme of the game it’s mostly electronic-sounding, which will really be a hit or miss thing for individual players. The tracks used during battle are solid (Piano Jam being particularly awesome), but there just isn’t enough variety. Across the seven floors there are only around 10 songs used, and you’re stuck with the same song for each battle. So, if you’re fighting that same enemy five times, you hear the same song five times, which gets monotonous. Outside of the battle the music just sort of merges in with the rest of the game and is easily forgotten.
Aesthetically, the game starts off solid but starts to disappoint the further you play. The stylistic, artsy design of the characters and environments are fantastic the first time you encounter them, but they’re reused far too often. Background graphics are reused a number of times throughout the game and enemies are palette swapped to an offensive degree. Character design, however, is well-rounded. Each of the guardians sports a unique and interesting design that sets them apart from each other and matches their somewhat stereotyped personalities. Ky may look like a generic hero, but you certainly can’t fault him artistically.
So, did I enjoy Sequence? Yeah, I did. It’s a fun game with some great mechanics and intriguing ideas going for it. If there was reduced experience gambling, less incessant grinding and a few additional songs, it could have been a far superior game. It may not be hardcore enough as either a rhythm or role-playing game for some, but there’s still plenty here for both camps to like. If a little more polish can be applied and some mechanics changed, Sequence 2 is sure to be a game to watch out for.