By Nathan Grayson on October 11th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
Soundodger was absolutely excellent back when I played its original free release earlier this year, but has it somehow become horrible in its frenzied dance lust for more? That unlikely question was brought to you by a need to artificially build contrived tension, and its answer is a resolute, incontrovertible “NOPE.” Soundodger+ brings new songs and the ability to make levels out of your own music, but also a price tag. Make no mistake, however: it’s worth the money. Here’s wot I think in the form of both wordshapes and THE MOST MEANINGFUL VIDEO I HAVE EVER MADE.
My thoughts on the core fundamentals of Soundodger+ are still very much the same as they were when the original danced my fingers into a laughing lather – so much so that I’m just going to point you to my review for effusive praise of the basics. The gist, however, is as simple as the game’s title: music bobs and weaves and spirals and swarms around you in various shapes (mainly triangles), and you do your damndest to dodge it by moving your mouse cursor. Getting hit briefly interrupts tracks, but you can drop into a helpful (though score lowering) slow-mo state at any time.
It’s all so very simple yet stylish, and probably the best approximation of dancing I’ve ever seen in a game. Not literally, but in terms of rhythm, flow, and feeling. The music is your dance partner, and it’s on you just as much as it is the pulsing conglomerate of shape and sound to make the performance work. It’s part frantic reflex, part peaceful, almost zen-like flow – just as it is with any good dance. I suppose you could argue that it’s also part bullet hell, which is something fewer dances have in common with it.
Now then, onto that pesky price tag. It is, admittedly, itsy bitsy, weighing in at a mere $7.99, but why pay for this piper when the original doesn’t cost a dime? Well, 11 new tracks (all playable on multiple difficulties) lead the charge, and they’re all fantastic – ranging from the soothing sounds of Fez composer Disasterpeace to an especially stirring orchestral track by Journey and Banner Saga maestro Austin Wintory. But they’re hardly the main event. Instead, the biggest additions both allow you to do the same thing – turn your own music into levels – potentially extending Soundodger’s shelf life until the day the music well and truly dies. Or we all get bored and decide to go do something else.
First up, there’s the oft-requested, Audiosurf-esque auto-gen feature. Throw in a song, and it’ll spit out a level in seconds, quick and easy. But honestly, auto-genned levels don’t hold a candle to the game’s pre-constructed ones, and in many cases they’re actually kind of bad. No flow, no attention to the little bits that give songs their character, no life. Just shotgun bursts of random obstacles, toothy mouths chomping with reckless abandon. Sound, fury, signifying nothing, blah, blah, quoting Shakespeare in a game review, blah, blah, etc.
Thankfully, Soundodger+ also throws in an extremely robust custom level editor, and it’s a much, much, much more useful tool. Basically, if you’ve seen it in-game, the editor can do it. Take any song you want, place bullets as you please (singular or in groups, in all sorts of arrays, with numbers, angles, enemy types, spin rate, and more set to your exact specifications), and – 136 painstaking hours later – unleash it on the world.
Despite potential complexity, it’s actually a pretty easy-to-understand system, and there’s a handy tutorial right through here. I do wish, however, that there was a way to slot the game’s official soundtrack into the editor, if only to deconstruct/reverse engineer it and learn the developers’ tricks. Personally, I’m most excited about what others will inevitably dream up, seeing as there’s really nothing stopping them aside from their own imagination and penchant for designing Indiana-Jones-worthy deathtraps around toe-tapping beats.
But the nice thing about Soundodger+ is that there are many ways to get your money’s worth out of it, whether you want to tinker with a song until musician’s unions are legally forced to recognize you as a producer or simply zone out for a couple hours while languidly drifting between perfectly sculpted notes. True story: I spent the past week desperately ill (games journalism comes with many dangers, all of them death plagues from various conventions), and Soundodger+ ended up being the perfect salve for my savaged nerves and joints. Even as creeping crud threatened to drown my brain and shove my lungs up through my esophageal tract, I was able to feel both relaxed and on the edge of my seat. I probably would’ve died of a really nasty cold without it.
OK, not really. But still, it’s rare that a game can be both intensely stressful and ethereally soothing, yet Soundodger+ somehow manages to walk that line. It’s a careful dance, a measured one, but it also knows just when to turn up the heat. It’s a thing of beauty, this game. Or, to shamefully quote a sappy scene from American Beauty entirely out of context and then turn it into a videogame level:
MY HEART JUST CAVED IN.