One might think, as inclined as I might be to mix the scrutiny of game design with affectionately-intended trash pop, that Beatbuddy: Tale Of The Guardians is the crux of musicality, ingenuity and design I’d write scads of lovelorn poetry for.
Not only is each level of the underwater puzzler Beatbuddy: Tale Of The Guardians named a ‘song’ and comes with a different piece of music composed by such melodic adonises as Sabrepulse and Austin Wintory, but everything in this game has a beat, the artifacts of gameplay each add a small note to an eventual symphony of rhythm and beat and song. Your very collision with other sea creatures creates music and warps environment; enemies alert you to their presence off-screen by their music slowly working in on a tide towards you. But there’s something stuck in the heart of this grand piano. There’s something slightly out of shape. There’s something off. And that hurts: because that first glorious hour is like being bedded by some baritone merman with rigorous, human-proficient hands. You feel like you are an instrument being strummed. And you settle into the rhythm of it.
The beautiful, hand-drawn and layered world of Symphonia is styled in ripples of cyan and indigo, and you begin, directing little Beatbuddy, the little ocean morphling, through an intriguing undersea platformer. You collect little pink beatpoints, and can punch little balls floating nearby to replenish health. In the far off waves you can hear a little beat, some bass, and you swim towards whatever off-screen delight awaits you. The story is simple: you are to rescue your sisters from some embittered moistened royalty, wherever they are, and finding them whilst negotiating irksome coral and chirping crustaceans will be less than straightforward. For example, this beat you are approaching turns out to be some sort of sea... flower? And it is creating a catchy beat: it is a bass drum. You can ram into these to ping you across the level and smash into stuff, opening up new areas. Little spiky-shelled dancing crabs sound like hi hats that retract when you (perhaps unfairly) punch the hermit crab conductor, who sits conducting the symphony with a little tendril, as if it were holding a lighter in the air. Starfish dance in rows and you must negotiate in between them, you pick up keys for switches and paddle between snails who spit fire to the rhythm. Lyrics drift in and out as you near or drift from objectives. At one point a giant fish pursues you through the level, and you press spacebar to the beat to boost yourself past hazards, all, all to a track that over time has built up to resemble something gloriously like Mr Scruff.
And indeed, you keep moving. Some things retract and disappear when you hit them to the beat to reveal new areas, and each level has its own distinct layers of beat. Some cymbal-sounding bubble-walls are only negotiable on a syncopated beat, and some snork-looking dudes will often suck you up and spit you out in another part of the level, teleport style. But the moving, progressing part is the first part of the problem for me: where music creates the structure of the game - and lord, what a complete technological and artistic feat that is - it seems to dominate the level design in a way that often makes the puzzles end up slightly repetitive, because the same obstacles, which make a certain noise, have to be reused over and over. Occasionally I found that the puzzles required more time in a subdued holding pattern section of song that got on my nerves after a while, and there weren’t enough euphoric moments where the whole song comes together to have you dance through the last moments of the level as reward. What I guess I’m saying is: after the initial wonder at what the developers have pulled off with the music, there’s no sustain. The music alone wasn’t enough to have me want to always play on: I needed more variety in the puzzles.
Some concessions have also been made to the music that perhaps shouldn’t have been: get in the BubbleBuggy, a little mechanical device with a little gun on the front, and it only dances in a slightly jerky fashion up, down, left and right to the beat of the ocean, and whilst conceptually that might sound very fun, and visually, is very pleasing, it is a jerk to control. Inputting to a vehicle that only answers to your reply a second later and veers unpredictably around is not very pleasurable, and escaping from a giant fish in it only serves to have you scrabble, annoyed at the keyboard. Perhaps I was treating it more as a puzzle platform game than a rhythm game, admittedly.
All not so much of a problem, as long as you can bop along to Sabrepulse. But by far the most heartbreaking flaw I found was that there were game-halting bugs. About three or four hours in if you die and respawn in a level with a rotating pipe puzzle, the little teleporter guys who suck you up and spit you out elsewhere in the level stop working. Stuck, and uncertain as to whether I was just sucking at puzzles or encountering a genuine bug, I played on stuck in the same chamber for another hour longer investigating every nook and cranny and getting slowly frustrated with hearing the same music sample over and over again until I finally switched the game off. Returning later, I decided to restart the level, before encountering exactly the same problem again. The music started to tread water; it had an echo of the school disco when the girls left and the lonely dancefloor expectantly looked at the boys, who looked back clinging terrified to the walls. I know you are expecting something from me, game. But I can’t give it to you. Eventually I restarted the whole level and played through perfectly, without dying, and managed to get the level to work. But it put a significant dampener on the flow by then, and the puzzles were still not as interesting as I craved.
The bugs will be fixed in a patch I suspect, but I fear the game is still a masterpiece of musical ingenuity without being a masterpiece of pacing and level design. Whilst it is a wonder to me that the team managed to score this like they did and coordinate gameplay with it, the feeling of puzzle solving as the beat waits impatiently for you is sometimes not enjoyable, and occasionally I craved a more euphoric high point than just bobbing along gently through a track or being spiked by dancing molluscs whilst scrambling through to the next chamber. There needs to be more of a progression, evolution even, in the actual puzzle design for it to really be great.
By far the strongest current of this game is its charm: the music tracks are varied, the visuals are cute, the dialogue is adorable (characters are voiced in beatbox!), and when you let Beatbuddy idle, he does a little groove to the beat. Alas, the actual playing of the game wasn’t enough to have me lash myself to its prow forever more, but that first hour... That first hour of discovery... It was a delight to see it all come together. There are occasional moments where you see the denizens of the sea dance conga, and you can’t help but think you’re in The Little Mermaid. In a good way.
You can find the lovely Beatbuddy here on Steam. I'd say it's more than worth a tenner just for the spectacle alone - what an achievement - but perhaps wait until some of the bugs have been addressed before diving in.