Change the Target
When designing a rhythm game, unless you’re looking to get a bit experimental, there’s two main things you’re going to be showing on the screen: notes and targets. Really, as much as I love rhythm games, they’re typically not much more than a musical version of Simon Says, so you have to give commands to the player somehow.
The fun comes in through the way you present these things. Do you go the Guitar Hero/Rock Band route and line up all the targets at the bottom of the screen, with the notes scrolling toward them? Maybe the Project Diva route, where you spread your targets all over the screen and have the notes fly at them from every which way? Perhaps flip that idea, and have the targets approach the notes, like in Elite Beat Agents?
There’s as many approaches to layout as there are stars in the sky, and if you want your rhythm game to stand out from the crowd, the best bet is to come up with a unique one of your own.
That’s exactly what developers Life Zero did with their recently released rhythm game. With their title Sonar Beat, they decided to go a bit more…circular.
Developed and published by Life Zero, Sonar Beat was released on January 22nd, 2019, for PC via Steam, iOS, and Android. The Steam version was played for this review.
Round and Round
As I mentioned, the setup of Sonar Beat gives you a circular playing field. A sonar readout, if you will. Notes appear on the outer circle of this sonar, with the target being a line constantly sweeping around the circle. Of course, once the line passes over a note, you press a button.
Unique to this game though is that if you miss a note, it doesn’t just go away. Rather, the note moves into another circle closer to the center, and you have the chance to hit it again next time your target sweeps around. Miss again and it moves further in to final circle. Stumble here and the note vanishes…but you also lose a “life,” with the game being over if you lose all of them.
It’s a unique premise, but also one that completely throws a wrench into the concept of keeping rhythm in a rhythm game. When a missed note reappears, other notes that coincide with the song’s current rhythm are still showing up, requiring you to keep the main rhythm going while also trying to hit your missed note, which more often than not no longer fits into the rhythm of the song.
This means if you play rhythm games more through aural than visual cues (like I do), one or two missed notes begin a cascade toward failure. Hitting these now off-rhythm notes often meant I’d fall completely off rhythm of the main notes, missing even more.
On one hand this isn’t all that bad, as most of the game’s notecharts are rather simple. On the other hand, Sonar Beat isn’t done throwing spanners into the works yet…and these spanners are rather massive ones.
First up is the go-to engine for an unusually numerous amount of indie games recently: procedural generation. Each playthrough of a song is made to be unique by switching up the notechart that it gives to you throughout the song, usually happening as the target line passes between quadrants of the sonar field. What it really feels like is that each song has multiple notecharts charted to different instruments in a track, with each song switching between these instruments at random. This makes it incredibly difficult to get into a groove, as you’ll be playing the basic rhythm at one moment and then suddenly playing the buried-in-the-track bassline the next.
Finally, and most damning, are the controls. Sonar Beat uses two buttons: one for hitting single notes, and one for hitting double notes (whether they are stacked on top of each other or on two different circles). The double-note button can only be used in conjunction with the single-note button; it does not function at all on its own.
This essentially means that, outside of double notes (which do not appear often unless you start to miss notes), you only have one input button. As the difficulty of the tracks begins to increase, notes start coming quicker, and once triplets and faster notes begin appearing, you’re forced to hammer this single button as fast as you can to keep up.
In most rhythm games where you’re expected to input fast notes, the game allows a couple of input buttons that you can alternate between. Not so in Sonar Beat. I felt sorry for the poor ‘Z’ key on my keyboard as I hammered it into oblivion trying to keep up. I wouldn’t recommend even attempting this game using a controller, either, as there’s just no way most people’s thumbs will be able to input a single button fast enough.
These input flaws lead me to believe that Sonar Beat was built for mobile devices, and ported over to PC as an afterthought. These notes could be hit easily on a touchscreen, alternating thumbtaps. Here, though, it’s just not happening.
In rhythm games, of course, the soundtrack is king. Unfortunately, in the case of Sonar Beat, it’s more like a pauper.
Sonar Beat consists entirely of instrumental electronic songs, only offering up twelve tracks. Every one of the tracks sounds like it was created the same way: someone laid down a bassline, then opened up a cheap MIDI synth to layer over some weak melodies and drums.
It got to the point where every song near the end game started to blend together. I can swear that three or four of the final songs all started with the exact same bassline. Worst of all, these songs are boring. There’s no emotion or excitement behind any of them, and they all just kind of washed over me like the repetition of the tides.
Visually, the game doesn’t fare much better. Every single track features the same sonar layout, occasionally in a different color. Some abstract shapes appear and fade in the background while playing, but they don’t create anything interesting to look at.
Fall In and Drown
Sonar Beat was the first new rhythm game I played this year, and I came out the other side of the game utterly disappointed. The songs are tedious and unmemorable, and I honestly can’t believe that the soundtrack is being sold as a separate purchase on Steam at the time of writing. The visual style is much the same, completely forgettable.
That alone could get away with being called a mediocre game, but the control scheme is dumbfounding. Only allowing a singular input for the majority of the notes makes no sense, with the final couple of tracks feeling essentially impossible to perfect for all except inhumanly fast button tappers.
Sonar Beat feels like a throwaway mobile game (which I guess you can say it is, since it’s on iOS and Android as well) that was ported half-heartedly to PC for some inexplicable reason. The game is running only $2.49 at the time of writing, but if you have to subject yourself to this game’s music, use that money on the mobile versions. Avoid the Steam release at all costs.
Review copy provided by Life Zero for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.