When you think “musical game”, you probably think “rhythm action”. Well, Stockholm-based indie team Ichigoichie are here to confound your expectations with Backbeat, an evil funky puzzle game on the subtleties of playing in a group.
Ichigoichie’s first game was the one of 2019 hexagroovewhere they were already shaking up the musical game by mixing creation of dance music, DJing and Guitarist– Rhythm action style following the track. The studio’s legacy even dates back, via co-founder David Ventura, to the Nintendo DS classic. Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! (ancestor of Elite beat agents in the West). And the awkwardness of this game’s story and character’s world map extend their tendrils through the decades to 2023. setbackAlso.
Despite its background, however, Backbeat is not a game characterized by performing in time with a beat, or even playing the right notes. The gameplay, its significant depth introduced over many levels, involves the manipulation of four timelines, one for each member of a funk band, as they move across a map to reach an objective area. Each move takes a turn, progressing through the timeline, while pressing “B” to go back, allowing you to rework your potential solution. This interaction happens in parallel between the four characters, and their interactions with the level alter the possibilities of their party mates.
Each stage is completed with story cutscenes. It’s a simple trick, but one that gives color to the debates and manages to keep a very technical set of rules light. In short, a young bassist, Watts, gets her start in her parents’ garage in a mid-Atlantic town in the 90s. She assembles a ragtag group of misfits and sets them on an unlikely path to jam funk in the most chic room in town. It’s all lovingly dressed in VHS distortion, video tape rental shops, retro shopping malls and the surprise of cell phones. Coupled with a very neat graphic style in varied and attractive color palettes, the visual presentation is there.
Basically, the game is just as refined sonically as it is visually. Each step is backed by a very simple metronomic beat, which adds not exactly pressure, but a kind of anticipation. As you plan your characters’ movements, which is a bit like a turn-based strategy game, they begin to play funky snippets of their instrument: bass, keytar, drums, or sax. As your solution builds, the individual parts coalesce into a jam session, with the completed level culminating in a full performance journey as everyone heads towards the goal.
Hearing the gameplay is a delight – it sounds like a small group in your Switch playing with ideas. Ichigoichie touted the ability to set your unique soundtrack as you play but, in practice, puzzle logic drove our choices, not musical potentials.
Although there is no rhythm action, it is very true that Backbeat is a “musical game” of a different kind. Apart from the plot and its battle of groups, the mechanic creates an engrossing feeling of jamming as a group. On the one hand, the characters’ different movements set them apart and give meaning to their instruments: the drummer makes big, clear moves to the beat, the bass and the key-tar play against each other to cover each frets the other cannot, and the sax soloist moves in jazzy triplets – three steps on each beat of the bar. The set of rules constraining these movements requires the regularity of the change of direction on the rhythm, the variety of different beats with each member of the group, and the careful timing of the solos to support each other or give space to show off.
By the time the full range of mechanics have been thrown into the mix, it gets seriously complex – and the process of putting it all together really feels like refining a composition. Sometimes we weren’t sure if we were making a puzzle solution that felt like a piece of music or if we were making a piece of music that sounded like solving a puzzle. The only slight problem with the ambitiously complex mechanics and interface is that changing a decision made earlier in the level forces you to undo whatever came later – but that’s not a cut-throat irritation. breath. It’s fascinating that despite this inherent musicality, you can play Backbeat without the sound. It’s a musical game that makes you think about music, but doesn’t force you to play or listen to it.
The lack of action gameplay means you’re free to trace, rewind and rework your jam session as much as you want – which is just as well because we usually took around half an hour to complete the more complex steps, and one in particular had puzzled us for ages. And that brings us to how Backbeat handles its difficulty. New mechanics that accumulate at high frequency make the learning curve steep, though at least very smooth. However, if you TO DO stuck, there is no hint system in the game. Walkthroughs will surely appear online and so Ichigoichie seems to have decided to delegate tips and advice to the internet rather than control this experience. It’s a bit of a shame because the game world is so clever and stylish that it would have been nice to stay there and get some sweet hints.
Another side effect of the increasing complexity of mechanics is that going back to earlier stages can feel rather odd. There are critical path stages that must be completed to progress through the game, but there are other sub-stages that unlock alongside the main ones. This means that if you go through key story mode levels before returning to sub-stages, you’ll find yourself playing without the later mechanics you’re now used to. It’s a testament to how the advanced rules handle that it’s frustrating, but it limits replayability somewhat. Proofreading to get an S+ rank is handled well, as your final solution is saved and you can rework it rather than starting from scratch. However, we found that there was rarely much of a difference in difficulty between simply completing a tricky stage and getting that perfect score.
Backbeat stands out among puzzle games for its attractive graphics and constantly pulsating funky soundscape, but above all for its impressive depth of mechanics. Juggling phrase lengths, bar markers, alignment, offset, solos and special moves – all in interactive levels full of moving parts – is like having a wah-wah pedal hooked up to your brain. Besides a sometimes tedious interface and limited replayability, Ichigoichie hit all the right notes.
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