inFocus

“Its a Symphony from Hell!!!.

Game Info
Publisher: Empty Clip Studios
Developer: Empty Clip Studios
Genre: Bullet Hell
Release Date: 08/06/2012
Meta Score


While taking a break from Darksiders II, I started talking to a friend on Facebook about music. We were discussing “I Will Wait” by Mumford and Sons, which had me listening to a few songs I hadn’t heard in a long time. I enjoy listening to music, but my iTunes playlist hasn’t been updated since college and is painfully behind the time. So to catch up, I bought the new Mumford single, but instead of listening to it straight away, I decided to pop into an indie game I picked up from Steam a few weeks back called Symphony.

symphony1

Story: Symphony proposes that an evil entity is assaulting your music library and using it to take over the world. You must cloak yourself in a shield of music to fight off the being. That’s really as extensive as the story gets; every few songs or so you’ll fight a boss to progress the story, but it never really gains any kind of depth.

But Symphony shouldn’t be played for the story. Symphony should be played for the new way that it allows you to interact with your music. While plenty of rhythm games in the past have allowed you to play with your music in a new way (Beat Hazard lands pretty close to Symphony in the core concept), what separates this game from the others is that it isn’t a game with music, but more like music with a game. I know that tautology doesn’t make much sense on the surface, but as you get into the game, you’ll come to understand it.

Graphics/Presentation: For its simplicity, Symphony can be a real gorgeous game. I found to be bland at first (especially after just finishing Transformers), with blue, red, and purple comprising its primary palate. But as time went on, the colors really grew on me, and I came to love to bright and furious particle effects that spasmodically explode across the screen.

symphony3

Like Geometry Wars, the enemies are comprised of simple and see through shapes. While it doesn’t recapture the utter fear that a circle can inspire in you in that game, Symphony does come close. A few of the enemies will make you lurch when you see them (like the squares that kill everything in the direction they’re pointing), but they don’t feel particularly inspired.

Gameplay/Controls: Symphony is played with only a mouse. You move it around to move your ship, and click to fire. That’s it. Unlike other games in the genre such as Galaxy Wars, you have no perks to keep track of such as bombs. Instead, Symphony offers you the ability to edit your ship. As you collect inspiration and kudos, the in game currency, you can unlock new types of weapons, like rocket packs, guns that shoot forward and back, or energy blasters. Up to four of these guns can be placed onto your ship facing any direction you chose, so prepping your ship before a level becomes a routine.

As you play through a song, the level begins blue, but will turn purple or red as the song gets more complex. When things are red, enemies move faster and are more dangerous. This is one of the ways in which each song comes to feel different from another one. Songs that have heavy highs and lows really work with this system. It’s awesome when the music drops and everything turns blue but you know that red jump is coming back. On some songs though, this doesn’t work so well. It was strangely bizarre to see the red pop up in Ingrid Michaelson songs when she sings just a little faster than normal.

symphony4

Symphony consistently felt more like the audio/visual synthesizer in iTunes, giving an image to your music, than it ever felt like a game, but that doesn’t mean the game aspect of the game was lacking in any way. It plays in traditional bullet hell style, but it works well. The fact that the game never really punishes you for playing it (one of the things I hate the most about this genre) is a really refreshing change from games like Ikaruga. When you die, you lose a few points and respawn instantly allowing you to keep playing, and more importantly, to keep listening to your song.

The most interesting facet of Symphony, like I said earlier, is that it really changes the way you come to know your music. Songs that I have long since known all the lyrics to seemed entirely new when put through this game. The song you’re listening to is your only ally in the game (unlike in Beat Hazard, where it is your enemy), and learning where the pace changes and picks up becomes a vital part of the games strategy. It can be both intense and cathartic when you’re playing through a crazy hard part of a song and it drops from red to blue exactly when you knew it would.

If there was one thing that I would really have to harp on, it’s that the bosses and the story really feel tacked on. Long before I beat the games 15 bosses, I had already retired the story from my mind. It’s a very simple tale, and you can tell from the beginning it isn’t going to build in any meaningful way. The bosses can be a real pain in the ass, too. The first few times you encounter them, they’re fun, but they quickly become tiresome as you fight the same boss three times each, and some of them (like boss 4-3) can get insanely difficult to beat unless you equip and spam your Crescendo attack (like a digital Kamehameha). The lack of balance and purpose makes them seem like a distraction from what the game is really about: interacting with your music.

Sound: Symphony is guaranteed to have your favorite soundtrack: you load your own songs into the game to play them. This will be different depending on the quality of the music you own (time to buy a HQ version of your favorite song to replace your crappy pirated copy), but generally the game sounds awesome.

symphony5

Symphony also comes with a preloaded soundtrack in case you don’t have your own music, or don’t want to play a synth-rocker-bullet-hell to the Slayer anthology (that would be haaard). While the songs on there can be hit or miss, some of them are seriously awesome. Dynasty Electric, Seasick Mama, and Prettydead Ferrari are at least three bands that I’ve been actively listening to since turning off Symphony, and I’m really glad that the game introduced me to some new music like that. On the other hand, I played through Sun Rise Marfa, which may have been the most boring song conceivable for a game like this (though it put me on a long Dubstep kick, which is great in this game). On a bizarre sidenote, it’s strange that for a game with such a classical music fetish – all of the achievements are named after composers or musical terms – there weren’t any classical orchestrations preloaded into the game to be played through.

I turned the sound effects down and the music up so that the space-age blaster and explosion sound effects didn’t wash over the music I was trying to listen to, but they still added to the game. I would have loved to have seen some more enemies that interacted with my music in audible ways, such as the aforementioned volume-lazing enemy, but it’s nice that there are any enemies who take the game on in the audio front rather than the visual.

One major problem I encountered was with refighting bosses. Every time I had to fight one again after losing to it once, their introduction from the evil voice would just appear as static. Since I was already pretty down on the boss fights, this really took the piss out of having to replay them again for me.

Replay: I don’t know if you’ll ever find a game as indefinitely replayable as Symphony. In the week that I’ve been playing it, it has already become far more than a game to me – it has replaced iTunes as the de facto method for delivering me my music. When I listen to a song, I often sit and stare at the screen, but Symphony has offered me a way to actively participate in the music that I’m listening to, showing you the little tricks and turns of the song that you’re listening to while playing it.

symphony2

If you want more of a game, you can turn it up to the nightmarish Fortissimo difficulty, or for more pleasant listening, turn it down to the Forte or Mezzo-Forte difficulties that are less frantic and more about connecting with your music. Symphony is a game that will sit at the top of my playlist for a long time to come: I just bought The Paper Kites album Woodland and my first listen to it will be through the game.

I’m sure that looking back at my top gaming moments later, I’ll be remember back to how Symphony hooked me for hours the first night I picked it up, playing through “I Will Wait” over and over again. It’s a good thing that girl got me talking about music, or else this indie gem might still be sitting unplayed in my Steam library.

Overall, Symphony has a few problems, and as a game it can be far from perfect, but as a music-listening experience, it’s one of the best around. Once you get past the pesky bosses, it becomes a near perfect tool for sorting through and rediscovering the songs in your iTunes playlist (or you Zune account, you uncouth heathen). It’s a really fantastic experience, and I recommend it to people who love games or just want their music alike, at any price. The fact that the game only costs $10 on Steam is just icing on the cake.

Written By: D.R. Maddock