Preview: Spin Rhythm XD

The thing about rhythm games is that from one perspective, they’re really simple to make; they just need a coherent sound and a solid control scheme. What makes it complicated is that those things are simple, not easy.

What Spin Rhythm XD gets right even in this pre-early access build is the sound. This is a game that both has a coherent visual style and a soundtrack to complement it, a smooth electronic flow that scratches, beeps, bangs, thumps, and rocks along with every twist and turn of the controls. Unfortunately, that control scheme is where you get into territory where the game has certain issues that will kind of color your ability to enjoy it over the long-term, even if the visuals and sounds make you want to keep playing.

Let’s back up a little bit. Spin Rhythm XD is an early access title from Super Spin Digital in which you control a little ship that appears to be producing a track of musical notes… or maybe you’re chasing the ship, or… you know what? This is one of those rhythm games where there’s no real explanation for the visuals. You’ve got a track of musical notes, a surreal landscape zooming past you in the distance, and nothing to do but match notes and sequences correctly to keep the song rolling along.

Inorganic Control

Herein lies what I’d call the biggest problem that Spin Rhythm XD has – its controls are just too complex for what it wants to accomplish.

The thing about good controls for these sorts of games are that they’re usually not just simple but blindingly so. In Guitar Hero and Rock Band, you were literally hitting notes one of two ways across a few colors. Dance Dance Revolution basically has two styles and four directions. Theatrhythm has three things you’ll have to do, and the result of all of this is that it’s immediately obvious when you have upcoming notes exactly what you should do. Every time you flub a section, it feels like you just reacted too slowly and you deserved it.

In Spin Rhythm XD, your main thing is matching notes with your rotating wheel at the bottom. Little notes don’t require you to press anything, they just have to match the color showing below them on the wheel. You do have to hold down a button to rotate the wheel back and forth, though. You also have to release the button and press it in perfect time for square notes. Also, there are hold segments where you need to tap the note but keep holding the button to match the curve. Also there are “spin” moments wherein you need to jerk the wheel violently to one side or the other, but you also have to release the button right away because of the timed square notes, but if you press the button again during a spin it flubs things.

Oh, and there are also intermittent “beat” presses of the spacebar. You know, because this doesn’t sound extensive enough yet.

Individually, a lot of these bits sound like fun elements of an alternative control scheme. Bits of the scheme remind me of Rock Band Blitz, which was a cool game that I think no one else remembers existing at this point. But the sheer volume of different mechanics winds up overwhelming things, leading to many moments when I found myself feeling not like the mistake was mine, but the game’s.

One of the pull quotes that the designers are leaning on a bunch is that playing the game feels like learning an instrument. This is true in the broadest sense, but less in the sense of providing a smooth and organic flow and more in those frustrating moments when you’re still not sure how the instrument is supposed to work.

It’s fair to say that learning the controls of the game are the biggest hurdle. They strike what feels to me like an uncomfortable balance between being too complex and too simple at once, using too many buttons for too little return. I keep feeling like removing one or two mechanics would have been a welcome change, although the whole thing is so interconnected that it’s hard to point to a given “problem” mechanic.

It also felt, at least to me, like there wasn’t much signposting for when to hit buttons or what your window for reaction was. This feels like a very easy thing to fix with just minor UI tweaks, so I don’t want to drag on it.

Needless to say, this never really connected for me. There’s a certain period of learning expected with any given rhythm game but, despite my best efforts, this particular scheme never connected with me. However, by that same token, I feel like people who do connect with it will probably have a grand time. It’s entirely possible that I just wasn’t thinking of it right, or the development in early access will clear these issues up nice and quick.

Inorganic Sound

The bright side is that, however many issues the control scheme might have, you can be compelled to overlook them by music, or at least be inspired to keep fighting to learn the controls. Spin Rhythm XD delivers on that front with the nine tracks on display when I played.

Spin Rhythm XD has a selection of tracks that flow and jump, scratchy and electronic, pounding and electric, the sort of music that gets you tapping your feet and jazzed to keep going. It’s the sort of music that feels like the perfect soundtrack to exactly what you’re doing, frantically whirling around and trying to keep up with a barrage of surreal environs.

To give an example, go ahead and give a listen to Pegboard Nerds & Tristam’s “Razor Sharp.” It’s definitely one of the peppier songs on the existing track list, which also covers trance-like bops, drops that feel like they cave the floor out from beneath you, and smooth pieces that meld liquid piano and smooth vocals with remixed samples like tossing pop rocks in wine.

…but, like, a version of that which doesn’t sound disgusting. It’s good, is the point.

The only real failing in this department is that the track list is only nine songs right now, plus an additional random option. There was no options aside from the select-a-song “Arcade” mode in the build I played, which meant that once you’d cycled through the songs on display, you were kind of left with little to do beyond replay your favorites and tackle higher difficulties.

Limited? Yes. But every single preview video shows more songs on offer for the future (not to mention the inline image provided by the publisher just above), and it seems clear that this is just an early offering for the early access version. I take it more as a proof of concept than a final listing.

Spin Doctored

As I mentioned back in the beginning, this is a genre of game requiring fairly straightforward elements. Spin Rhythm XD gets the distinct sound right, to the point that it already sent me down a rabbit hole of musical exploration because of how much I already liked the songs. It’s a pity, then, that the controls just don’t deliver that same delight to me.

Obviously, since we’re still in the early stage of development (given that it’s an early access title), there’s plenty of time for this to be improved and expanded upon in subsequent patches and iterations. It’s also the sort of game wherein you can get a pretty clear sense of whether or not it’s going to be for you within the early hours. It has some hurdles even for fans of rhythm games, though, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite connect with you.

And don’t be surprised if you find it not connecting yet you keep going back, because darn it, you want to feel that flow with this music.

Review copy provided by Super Spin Digital for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Super Spin Digital.