Beatbuddy is an interesting title that takes an old idea and fully realizes it: a game built around music. We have had platformers that utilized music in its gameplay before, SoundShapes is the most recent that comes to mind, but none are ingrained into the gameplay. I cannot imagine this game without the musical aspect. The enemies, obstacles, puzzles, and even your own movement are controlled by the music…or the music is controlled by these elements of the game. It really is quite genius. Even watching a video of the game did not prepare me for the experience of Beatbuddy. It is something that needs to be felt, you have to be in control to really understand. With that said, lets start from the top.
This game has an amazing art direction that feels like a mix between Aquaria and a children’s book. The foreground, playing area, and background are all 2D, flat planes layered on top of one another giving it a very strong “pop up book” style. The game is highly stylized and exhibits charm even in it’s enemy design. Everything that you can interact with has beautiful movement and moves with the beat of the song. Colors pervade the environments and, until you get accustomed to the puzzles, there is a childlike wonder as you explore this strange world. Even the little details are tied to music. When the Beatbuddy looses health little music notes fly out of him. This trailer shows a bit of the game in action. It really is a beautiful game to look at.
Being a game about music one can assume that the audio is top notch, and it is. In fact, I would say that is a bit of an understatement. There are actually very few sound effects in the game. Everything that would have a sound effect in any other game is actually in control of an instrument for the song. Bounce pads are the bass drum and only bounce you with the beat, crabs are the hi hat and activate timed hallways when struck. Bubbles are the snare drum and are used with keys to open doors. The audio track doesn’t play all of the parts all of the time either. Each instrument is only represented when it is on screen. If you hear a bass drum start to fade in then you know you will be seeing bounce pads soon. The same goes for the other obstacles and puzzle solving items. Listening as everything comes together is spectacular. And none of that would be worth while without the soundtrack. There are 6 levels, each with its own song, and each song seems to blend with the levels unique environment as well. While I’m sure all of the artists have their fanbases the only one I recognized was Austin Wintery, composer for Journey. All 6 songs are a treat to listen to. The only downside is that you rarely hear the entire song at once and when you do it is a quick loop. Since the game needs to be consistent with its instruments to keep all of the mechanics working identically all of the time, this is not so much a flaw in the music as much as a limitation based on the relationship of puzzle solving and song.
Gameplay is very much like an underwater adventure titles. You have movement in 8 directions, an attack, and a dash. Another instance of rhythm permeating through this game is how dashing works. Beatbuddy can only dash on the beat, or in layman terms whenever the bass drum makes a sound. This small mechanic pulls the player into the music. Not only is the world reacting to the beat but the player is now too. Sometimes I did find that the window was a little small, causing me to miss a much needed dash, but for the most part dashing is more of a means to get around faster than a puzzle solving tool. There is a huge issue though when Beatbuddy is low on health. The music fades out and on certain songs it is impossible to hear the beat. I have died several times in the middle of combat because I could not find the beat to dash away. Speaking of combat, it is a fairly shallow concept in the game, definitely a conscious choice to not make it a focal point of gameplay. There is one type of enemy and it is invulnerable until it has dashed at you first. They will pause, make a very distinguishable noise, and then dash after you. They will then be tired and wait 3 seconds before moving again, this is when you punch them. The only variant to this is armored enemies and they require two hit.
The core gameplay is using bounce pads to ram into shell walls, breaking them down. This opens up new areas where you will hopefully find a key to open the door to the next section. Spikes block some narrow passages and will retract, for a set amount of time, when you hit a crab. Reflector are used in conjunction with bounce pads to keep bouncing you around. Some of them can be rotated and are used to hit shell walls that a bounce pad will not hit. This is the glaring fault in the game. While new obstacles are introduced, like snails that shoot fire, the core puzzle solving never changes. Break down a shell wall, break down another, grab a key, unlock a door, break the next shell wall, etc. While some of the last couple of puzzles stumped me for a few minutes there was nothing that I couldn’t figure out without in few minutes and most were pretty obvious how to complete.The only thing that breaks up the monotony are the vehicle levels which at times are intuitive and other are extremely infuriating. The vehicle only moves, in a set distance, to the beat of the music. It takes huge leaps, then pauses for a second, then takes another huge leap. It works great in open areas but when trying to navigate small passages between two enemies I end up moving to far and hitting the one behind me or I skip a beat and hit the one behind me. The machine gun seems like an afterthought but the idea that it only shoots to the right and that you need to change gravity to hit other obstacles was actually pretty brilliant. Overall, while I did enjoy bit of the vehicle levels, I felt it negatively impacted the pacing and oddly distant from the gameplay created for Beatbuddy.
The length of the game is fairly good. 6 levels are ~30 minutes a piece sets the game at roughly 3 hours to complete(I think my finally time was 3:45). There are crystals to collect that unlock some behind the scenes pictures, concept art, and a comical synopsis of how the game came to creation. This adds a little bit of replayability for those that love the gameplay. I did run into a small bug that, upon death, made everything invisible except for the enemies, checkpoints, and some pieces of the environment. It happened twice but fortunately corrected itself as soon as I hit the next area. It is either a pro or a con as to how I made it though the level without seeing it, either the levels are quite intuitive or predictable. Either way it worked out for me.
The story is barely there compared to all of the work done with the gameplay. There are 3 Beat Gods that keep the music going in the world of Symphonia: Harmony, Melody, and Beatbuddy. Harmony and Melody get kidnapped and Beatbuddy goes to save them. He runs into Mr. Clef, who really doesn’t do much other than provide some comical dialogue between levels, and the two of them venture of in search of the two goddesses. That’s it.
Beatbuddy is a fantastic display of what games can do with music, or what music can do with games. Unfortunately I can’t really see this as much more than a really great tech demo. It is visually charming and certainly showcases how interactable environments can be manipulated by or choreographed to music. The first couple of levels are definitely fun and the mechanics are sound but around level 3 is when the charm begins to fade and it slowly becomes a puzzle game that doesn’t really change much from start to finish. In the developer’s defense, I will say that the difficulty was perfectly raised. There were zero puzzles where I felt that the difficulty spiked and yet the hardest puzzles in the final level still gave me a sense of accomplishment. I just wish the middle levels didn’t feel like a chore.