Empty Clip's musical shooter, Symphony, is now out on Desura and the Steam game distribution service. It's one of those clever inventions which allows you to use your own music collection to furnish its levels. So I peered into my whirry old hard-drives, picked out Bach and the Beastie Boys, and set to work telling you wot I think.
Symphony takes music files and processes them as a shoot 'em up. That's the basic trick here. As the beats and melodies play, so waves of enemies arrive to be blasted to pieces by your neon wing-ship. This works particularly well as a manner of enjoying the kinds of electronic music that I favour, and I have to admit that I didn't spend too long listening to the music that comes with Symphony - accomplished though it is - before I began to raid my own catalogue for satisfying tunes. Dayvan Cowboy was a particularly stirring theme for the exploding monorail I found myself on.
As a shooter it's fast and largely satisfying - although I began to feel it needed a little more variety, particularly in the early stages. Although the background scrolls, it's actually more of an arena in which enemies come in from the top and sides. Playing with a mouse makes it an incredibly twitchy experience, and you dart in and out of the chains of enemies to pick up the musical notes that they drop. These notes are your score, but also repair your ship if it gets damaged. The higher the score at the end of the track, the more you have to spend at the game's shop.
Customising your ride takes the form of unlocking new weapons and abilities, and then tinkering with the ship itself. The unlocks give you new methods of exploding your enemies, and you can choose the angle that guns point out, meaning that you can work out the perfect fan of lasers and photon-rockets to spray the waves of baddies that you face. It's sort of incidental to the experience, and I would have been fine with a traditional set of static unlocks as a I played, but I suppose it's pleasing that the devs took the time to allow us to tweak and tune, so to speak.
Difficulty is spread across six levels, and you have to unlock these as you play. This generally increases the pace at which enemies are pumped into the level, and it rapidly becomes a fierce and sometimes frustrating challenge. As with all such games which rely on spectacularly visual noise to satisfy you sensually, one of the main issues is watching for things that might collide with and potentially destroy your craft. Cursing because you didn't see that torpedo in the clouds of burning pixels is basically an inevitability. (A depressing inevitability.) Your craft can take a few hits, and be restored as you gather drops, but it's still incredibly fragile versus the torrent and damage that comes your way.
There is, naturally, a parallel to be drawn with with the enormously popular Audiosurf, which turned your music into a sort of puzzle racing game hybrid thing. Symphony is, I would argue, far less interesting as a concept - and ultimately as an experience - than Audiosurf, and consequently I don't imagine it will end up being anything like as popular. On a personal basis, though, I just find blowing things up, and the resulting scintillations of glitter-death, to be more satisfying as a game. Yeah, that's probably somewhat contradictory, but interesting things can be less satisfying than simple, straightforward things. It's all in the audio-visual feedback, I tell you.
Perhaps I am just wired too much in the direction of destruction and easy stimulation, but Symphony's twitchy explosions, across anything from Beethoven to Boards Of Canada, left me mildly entranced. It's the pace of the thing, and the responsiveness of it, that can satisfy. Even for novelty value, this is probably worth the few dollars you will pay. When it hits a sale, I expect your finger will be inexorably drawn to click that purchasing tractor beam.
Here's a trailer of the game doing its thing:
One final thought: the "processing-music as game" notion is a brilliant one. Audio often entirely sells a game experience, and for it to work in this way seems magical. Sadly, what Symphony generates from its music - a predictable, if well-engineered shooter - isn't actually inventive in itself. I would love to see this idea of music-as-level-seed furnish something a little more ambitious, or abstract, or something that didn't follow the well-trodden neon-visual express. It's this need for novelty and peculiarity which means that Audiosurf will likely be remembered for its take on this idea, while Symphony, I suspect, will not.
Symphony is out now.