Ever since what I like to think of as The Great Rhythm Game Crash of 2013 (aka when Harmonix ended their regular DLC release schedule after Rock Band 3), it’s been difficult to find a fun and pure rhythm game on home consoles. Everyone was just kind of burned out on them after the market flooding of the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series, and the genre seemed to go into a lull.
Aside from the occasional random release, rhythm games mostly retreated to their original home – the arcade. This was a major problem for us rhythm fans here in the west, as arcades aren’t really much of a thing that exists here anymore. The genre continued to thrive in arcades in Asian markets, though, with long running series continuing to evolve and news ones seeming to be almost constantly in development.
There was still the odd game here or there on handheld systems, though, which is where a Korean rhythm game with a thriving fandom had long been holding strong. Beginning as a web-based PC game, the DJMax series got its real start with the PSP game DJMax Portable back in 2006. The series wouldn’t make its way to western shores until 2009 (in the middle of the rhythm game craze), but by then, it already had a cult following from importers.
The series has been dormant since 2013, and even then, had only been focusing on mobile games and spinoffs since 2010. Recently, though, the developers of the series decided that the DJMax name had been quiet long enough. They decided to bring it back in a way, as they have said, that pays homage to the series’ past as well as pushes it toward the future.
Developed by Rocky Studio and Neowiz MUCA and published by Neowiz Games, DJMax Respect was released on March 6th, 2018, exclusively for the PS4.
Pure and Deadly
The basic playstyle of DJMax is highly reminiscent of Konami’s various rhythm games, espeically Beatmania. Rectangular notes scroll from the top of the screen to a target at the bottom, and you have to tap a corresponding button. There’s no fluff or gimmicks here, just pure and straight-forward button tapping.
This release of DJMax provides something that I’ve been looking for for a while in home rhythm games: a challenge. Even on some of its easier difficulties, this game is a tough one. There are four basic play styles offered up here, with the difference being how many buttons you have to use to play: four, five, six, and eight. I jumped right into six-button when I first loaded the game up, assuming my past experience in the genre would help out…only to get my ass handed to me immediately.
There seems to be a natural progression curve across the different play styles. Rather than each having its own curve of simple to insane, each step up assumes you have some level of mastery of the stage before it. As such, I swallowed by pride and started off in four-button, and now, after about two weeks with the game on-and-off, I’m just stepping in to five-button. Stepping up through the modes reminds me of making the jump between difficulties in the original Guitar Hero games when I was younger, and I have to say I love having a rhythm game where I can’t just jump into the highest difficulty from the get-go.
Alongside the styles, DJMax also offers three overall game modes. The one I spent most of my time in was, of course, Freeplay, where you can play any song you have unlocked. There’s also Arcade mode, where you’re given a more traditional arcade-style experience, playing three songs in a row then receiving a total score. I played this mode a few times before abandoning it, as I didn’t really see much use in it over playing in Freeplay. There’s also a Mission mode, which gives you various challenges to accomplish with certain songs (hit a certain combo, get a specific rank, etc). To be upfront, I didn’t really touch this mode.
Speaking of unlocking songs, while DJMax offers up just over 140 tracks, most of them are locked when you first load up the game. There are two was to unlock them: either completing certain challenges in the game’s various modes, or just letting them unlock automatically through the number of songs you’ve played. Unlocking the songs via challenges is faster, but I personally preferred letting them unlock through playtime, as I was already playing enough songs to practice and increase my skill level.
This release also features both local and online multiplayer, and I managed to rope my roommate in for a few rounds of local. In multiplayer, the game allows each player to select their own play style, difficulty, and options, including note track speed. As my roommate isn’t much of a gamer in any genre, he opted for the absolute easiest skill level available. The game seems to do some kind of score balancing to keep thing competitive between players of different skill levels, as even with us playing two completely different difficulties, we were often neck-and-neck when it came to final scores.
The multiplayer also highlighted one of my favorite aspects of the gameplay – your button presses actually affecting the music. Every note on the chart you play is a sound in the song you’re playing, and it plays when you hit its corresponding button…whether you’re accurate or not. This ended up really pushing me to play as accurate as possible, as even falling just slightly off rhythm would turn the song I was playing into a painful cacophony. In multiplayer, if both players are playing different difficulties, they’re each going to have their own notetracks. As such, each player is contributing different sections to a song, which made the experience feel like Rock Band in a way.
DJMax is rather simple in its presentation – you have a notechart, and a video in the background. If that’s even too much for you, you can press the PS4’s touchpad to dim the video. I’m not sure why you would want to, though, as the various videos are often produced quite well and fit their respective songs perfectly.
Even with the simple layout, the game offers a number of customization options. You can unlock various styles for your play area, as well as the note targets themselves. You can choose to have the play area display in the middle of the screen, or off to a side if you’d rather see the background video better. Hell, you can change the speed of your note track on the fly by pressing the L2 or R2 buttons, and you can set different speeds to different songs if you so choose. Everything here helps to make DJMax accessible, despite its difficulty.
And finally, of course, we have the soundtrack. As I mentioned, the game has over 140 songs. The vast majority of them are sourced from previous entries in the series, with forty songs being brand new to this game, with the genres ranging across rock to rap into R&B and every electronic subgenre you can imagine. The songs themselves were often hit-or-miss for me (leaning more toward the positive), but with so many available in the game, there were bound to be a handful I didn’t enjoy.
There ended up being a number of songs that wormed their way into my head, though. One of them, an electronic-infused R&B tracked called “Get Out,” is currently running its way through my brain as I type this.
Hey Mr. DJ Keep Playin’ This Song For Me
Well, folks, I can say I found a new addiction, as I pretty much had to pull myself away from the game to write this review. Overall, DJMax Respect is exactly the game I’ve been looking for – a rhythm game offering up some good music and a fun challenge. With plans apparently underway to bring over all the currently available DLC in the Asian release, I can easily see myself playing this game for a good long while.
Even without that, just practicing and working my way up to the eight-button play style should be enough to keep a vice grip on my attention…and I really hope my controller is up to the task.
DJMax Respect is easily a must-buy for any fan of the rhythm genre, from newbie to veteran. It may be a bit too challenging for a newcomer, but I’d definitely say not to let that stop you. Aside from a handful of “eh” songs and the seemingly frivolous Arcade mode, I’d almost go so far as to call this the perfect rhythm game for home console.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by Neowiz Games for PS4. Screenshots courtesy of Neowiz Games.