Review: Gal Metal

A History of Music

I’ve been immersed in music for as long as I can remember. From the beginning, my parents had myself and my siblings all start taking piano lessons in kindergarten (thanks to our local university offering free lessons for kids). We were also encouraged to pick up other instruments in school, which led to me beginning to learn the viola in 4th grade. The school district I was in has been consistently recognized for its music programs, leading to my exposure to multiple other instruments as well.

The time my parents finally allowed video games in our house was around the time Guitar Hero 2 was released, and I was instantly hooked. Like many others around my age, the Guitar Hero (and eventually Rock Band) franchise ended up shaping my taste in music. Hell, the first CD I ever bought was Queens of the Stone Age’s Era Vulgaris after hearing the song 3’s and 7’s in Guitar Hero 3.

To this day, I still play piano. I spent a couple years playing in a local band (releasing a couple albums with them), and I wound up studying radio broadcasting in college, through which I helped put together live shows both on the college radio airwaves and in various venues on the campus. Hell, my first writing gig was as an intern writing about local music for a city paper.

With all this in mind, when I had the chance to talk with Tak Fujii about his rhythm game Gal Metal at E3, his views on the game and its audience really intrigued me. When we asked about the game’s development process, Fujii said, “I wanted to bring that feeling, what a band is, what music is, what you have to do as a musician. That is something that I want to introduce to the game player, what a band is about, what music is about.”

Developed by DMM Games and published in the west by XSeed Games, Gal Metal was released on October 30th, 2018, exclusively for the Nintendo Switch.

The Power of Metal Compels You

While walking home from school one evening, a nameless high school boy is abducted by aliens known as the Octoids. These aliens are here to destroy Earth, as their planet was destroyed by the music found on the Voyager Golden Record. The Octoids have chosen him, as well as a high school girl, to act as defenders of Earth…but they also claim there can only be one defender, so they transplant the boy’s soul into the girls body.

Luckily, the girl is the drummer for a high school metal band. Knowing that the Octoid’s planet was destroyed by music, they decide to use their own music to stave off the Octoid’s invasion. Unfortunately, though, the boy is currently in control of the girl’s body…and the boy doesn’t know how to play the drums.

So begins a wacky and off-kilter story about saving the planet with the power of metal. The game is split into multiple chapters, (or “acts” in the game’s vernacular), with the Octoids introducing some crazy new plan for destroying Earth in each. The core plot is very cartoony in its presentation and writing, which fits the wild overall aesthetic of Gal Metal perfectly.

As Fujii mentioned in our interview, he also wanted this game to communicate the feeling of being in a band. Outside of the Octoid battles, much of your time is spent communicating and hanging out with the other members of your band, handled in a very slice-of-life style. The dialogue here is entertaining and often humorous, showing off just how close-knit all of the band members are. Each of the members have wildly different personalities, but music brings them together – exactly what I’ve seen of many bands in my local music scene, including the one I played in.

Out of Sync

The core gameplay here sets Gal Metal wildly far apart from most rhythm games. The genre typically involves following and inputting commands the games give to you. There’s only one way to play each song, and the goal is to do so as perfectly as possible.

Gal Metal eschews all of that and tells you do whatever you want.

There are three basic inputs here – swing the right Joycon for a bass drum, the left Joycon for snare, and both for a crash cymbal, essentially giving you a three-piece drum kit. While playing a song, just hit these different drums to the rhythm. No scrolling note bars, no commands, just create your own beats and inject your own personal flair into the music.

That’s not to say the game is completely absent of structure, though. There are twenty or so specific four-beat rhythms that you can play (often with names that make metal references, like “Battery” or “EnterSand“), unlocked by either learning them in story mode or just happening to play them while drumming. By using and alternating between these different rhythms (as well as throwing in your own crazy drumming), you can build combos to get better scores.

This arcade-like score chasing is what is truly at the core of Gal Metal. The game’s story mode, which you have to go through to unlock songs, includes some basic stat-building gameplay through hanging out with your bandmates in between alien battles, but I can’t say I ever really put much thought into this aspect. I had no trouble completing the story mode (which only lasts a few hours) despite my lack of attention to these stats, and really, the story mode is just warm-up for the score chase in freeplay mode.

Despite the “do whatever you want” presentation of the game, the actual mechanics of the rhythm game itself can get pretty deep if you’re chasing the highest score possible. You have to make sure you play with enough variety, but also tailor your choices of rhythm to different sections of each song, in order to get the best scores you can. The only struggle I had here was trying to memorize all of the different rhythms – there’s a practice mode where you can learn all of them, but when playing a song, you have to rely on your memory alone.

The biggest issue I had with Gal Metal is a common issue with console-based rhythm games – lag and visual sync. Thanks to the kind of setup I have, I often have to make big adjustments in rhythm games to compensate for visual and input lag. As far as I can tell from my time with the game, though, Gal Metal does not have a way to make lag adjustments manually.

The only calibration menu in the game took me some experimenting to find, as it will only show up if you undock the Switch, re-dock it, and then select a song. The game calibrates using an auto system, where you have to swing your Joycon to a beat. Unfortunately, this calibration didn’t work for me; even after attempting it multiple times, there was still a half-second lag between me swinging the Joycon and the game registering a beat.

Due to this, I was forced to play Gal Metal in undocked mode, which is, in my opinion, less-than-ideal for this kind of rhythm game. In docked mode, I have a full surround-sound system to blast the music through. Undocked, though, I’m either relying on the Switch’s tinny built-in speakers or plugging in headphones, the latter option being frustrating as the headphone cord would often get in the way of my playing. Fujii told us during our interview that he sees Gal Metal as a party game, but the lack of ability to make this game playable on all TVs and sound systems kind of defeats that purpose.

From the New World

The music selection in Gal Metal is definitely one of the more interesting I’ve come across. All of the tracks are metal covers of classical music, ranging from selections like Dvorak’s New World Symphony to what I think is supposed to be the Jupiter movement from Holst’s The Planets. If you aren’t familiar with classical music though (much like myself), you’ll be hard-pressed to pick out what the original sources for these tracks are.

What the music is in this game, though, is straight-up catchy. Something about blending metal sensibilities with a classical structure created multiple tracks that stuck in my head. Perhaps this was the point, as creating the best rhythms to each of the game’s songs requires knowledge of the track you’re playing. Having a song become memorized so easily definitely helps with that task.

The visual style of Gal Metal is also quite striking. The game goes for rather simple manga-style designs in both its characters and environment, with its story being told directly in manga-style comic panels. While most of the game is done with 2D artwork, the music sequences are done in a full 3D cel-shaded style. The animations can be somewhat lacking (the drumming in particular), but it exudes charm nonetheless.

Dig Deeper

Overall, Gal Metal is an interesting experiment that I feel succeeds in much that it tries to accomplish. The story is lighthearted and humorous, with some of the best moments being in the interactions between the band members. The structure of the actual rhythm gameplay makes the game accessible to pretty much anyone. Those that want to just go wild making up their own beats can have a blast here, while those more interested in score chasing have a surprisingly in-depth system they can dive into if they so choose. The game doesn’t force you to pick – you can play this game however you want to.

The lack of a real way to compensate for lag, though, is a bit of a sucker punch to the face. Having manual adjustments for this is damn near required to play timing-based games on modern entertainment systems, making this game impossible to play on my home theater. Rhythm game enthusiasts will likely be disappointed by the short tracklist as well (only thirteen songs).

When talking about this game, Fujii told us, “I don’t expect some player sitting in the dark with pop and chips alone in front of the TV, swinging the Joycons, thinking, ‘Hey, I can’t do this,’ or thinking, ‘Hey, stupid game, it doesn’t detect my beat!’” While this is the exact way I played this game for review (minus the pop and chips), despite the technical issues, I still had a great time with it. There’s plenty here for rhythm enthusiasts, even if it doesn’t seem like it at first.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by XSeed Games for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer.
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