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Despite A Few Missed Notes, Musical Platformer Beatbuddy Strikes A Chord
by Becky Chambers | 12:31 pm, August 23rd, 2013
I was not a happy camper on the day that I was supposed to be playing Beatbuddy. The weather was oppressively rainy. I was sick. I felt gross, and the world felt gross, and I did not want to do anything. But then this squishy little dude came up to me. He had glowing eyes, and a body like a gummy, ghostly penguin.
“Hey,” he said. “Come on. Let’s go have an adventure.”
“I am not in the mood,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, tapping his foot in perfect rhythm. “What about a sweet dance party under the ocean?”
I raised my head off the couch. “Nothing that needs much thinking?”
“Nope. Just cool jams, bright colors, and easygoing platforming.”
“…that’s exactly what I need right now.”
The squishy little dude in question is Beatbuddy himself, one of the three guardians of underwater world Symphonia. Music is the lifeblood of their planet, but as you may have guessed, something has gone amiss. Beatbuddy and his two sisters, Harmony and Melody, have been awoken from their eternal dreaming by the nefarious Prince Maestro, who wants to control the music for himself. Oh, Prince Maestro. Don’t you know how these things go? Naturally, Symphonia’s wildlife is thrown out of whack, and it’s up to Beatbuddy to make his way through hi-hat crabs and bass drum sponges and deadly dancing jellyfish, all so the poor guy can get back to sleep.
Symphonia itself is a joy to explore, with its lush colors and fanciful creatures. Every area explodes with tentacles, claws, and fins, all bouncing along to the music. I don’t see how you could not be cheered up while coasting through those hand-painted reefs and tunnels. Even my bad mood melted away. The look and feel is remarkably similar to Aquaria, to the point where I paused the game to see if any of the devs had worked on that as well (nope). But Beatbuddy is a far more up-tempo offering. Aquaria was a soothing, dreamlike experience. Beatbuddy is a happy, hopping discotheque.
I’m a big fan of game music anyway, so playing something designed as a delivery vehicle for said same was an unexpected treat. The soundtrack boasts a knock-out lineup of artists, including Sabrepulse, Parov Stelar, and Austin Wintory(!). The music is nothing short of outstanding, and I was delighted by how the sounds of Symphonia’s creatures blended into each song, especially since those sounds respond to the player’s actions. Matching your movements to the rhythm is essential to overcoming most obstacles, and once I fell in sync, I absorbed the music all the more. At times, guiding Beatbuddy past danger felt less like dodging, and more like a dance.
I’m finding myself reluctant to get into my unavoidable quibbles, because I liked this game, truly. And moreover, I liked what it was aiming to be. I was charmed by the world, and the characters, and the way Beatbuddy put a hand on his headphones and jammed if I let him stay still. It had all the right ingredients to cross the line between good and great. But as much as it pains me to say this, it didn’t quite get there.
For starters, the puzzles began to get repetitive. I seriously dug the possibilities posed by switches and reflectors and pluggable sockets. More variety along those lines would’ve been welcome. The introductory puzzles left me hungry for more, but I didn’t find much of a challenge in the ones that followed. That might have been okay, had the right balance been found. Since the game included obstacle gauntlets and fast-moving baddies as well, making the puzzles overly complicated could’ve bogged things down. But it wasn’t enough as it was. I mastered what the game gave me early on, and was left wanting. Honestly, though, I mean that as a compliment as much as a critique. The mechanics were all on the right track. They just needed a little more oomph.
And speaking of mechanics…oh boy. In all my years of gaming, I’ve only said this one other time, so I’m going to need a moment.
Beatbuddy would’ve been better if I’d played it with a gamepad.
Please understand, this is coming from a keyboard and mouse evangelist. For me to be actively wishing for analog sticks during a playthrough is saying something. As I did not have a gamepad at my disposal, Beatbuddy offered me the choice of keyboard or mouse (both layouts still require a minimum of input from the other). I didn’t bother using keyboard. The game warned me that it suffered from problems with ghosting, and that it couldn’t guarantee that keyboard input would work properly. Halfway through mapping out the controls, I decided I didn’t want to chance it. I figured mouse would be fine — and it was, initially. Freely flowing around the mousepad was the perfect kinesthetic accompaniment for an underwater world, far more than my clunky keyboard would’ve been. But problems began to emerge. The first mouse I tried didn’t play nicely with finicky tasks such as lining up reflectors, which started to feel more like getting my toaster to stop burning bread than solving a puzzle. I switched to a more sensitive mouse, but movement became a little too fluid, often sending Beatbuddy a few disastrous steps beyond where I wanted him to go. I learned to compensate, but it was never as effortless as I wanted it to be. A gamepad, I imagine, would’ve been a wiser tool for the job.
My issues with the controls might well have been based on my end, I’ll grant you that. But I can’t say the same for the occasional bouts of laggy framerate. My computer exceeds the game’s minimum requirements, so their appearance was puzzling. I never experienced more than a few seconds of stuttering at a time, but that was enough to wreck me in narrow corridors, especially when I was working within a time limit. That, combined with the inadequacy of my peripherals and two encounters with game-breaking bugs, let to several stretches of that most frustrating of gameplay experiences — knowing what you need to do, and knowing you have the skill to do it, but fighting against the game to make it happen. Thankfully, this didn’t occur often, but when it did, that sweet sense of flow crashed hard. (Edit: there have been two subsequent patches that address both the framerate problems and “a lot of bugfixes.” These weren’t present in my review copy, so I can’t comment on them, but it does sound like the devs are on the case.)
Still, though, even that wasn’t enough to turn me off of the game. It’s charismatic, and funny, and visually engaging enough that my partner glanced over to see what I was playing, pulled up a chair, and spent the last two hours of the game laughing and yelling alongside me. Even when I was wrestling with it, I wanted to give the game a hug. It’s not perfect, but it’s loveable anyway. I was genuinely impressed when I learned that dev team Threaks started Beatbuddy as a student project. Overall, the finished product shows some serious chops, as does the roster of folks that collaborated on it (did I mention Austin Wintory? And Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett, credited as “Script Polishing Queen”?).
Let me put it to you this way: if you want to spend an afternoon listening to great music and playing something that will make you smile, Beatbuddy will fit the bill (and if you’re on the fence, there’s a free demo on Steam). It made my rainy sick day a whole lot better. High fives to any game that can pull that off.
Beatbuddy is available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux, with consoles on the way.