Here’s a shameful admission: I absolutely loved the Def Jam wrestling games as a kid. While I like hip-hop I don’t tend to be a big fan of wrestling, but these games just worked for me. The 7th-gen rendition of the game, Def Jam: Icon, featured an awesome feature that I haven’t seen replicated in many fighting games since. In Icon, you’d constantly have a hip-hop track playing in the background like the previous titles, but here the music would have actual effects on the fight; the shock from a heavy beat might shake up the whole stage and cause a damaging explosion, for instance. This lent the game a lot of character and helped it feel true to its hip-hop roots.
I mention this because Harmonix’s spiffy new shmup, A City Sleeps, basically takes that concept and makes an entire game out of it. When last we heard from Harmonix, they were working on a new version of Amplitude (oh god yes) and a questionable “rhythm FPS” called Chroma which they’ve largely shuffled under the rug. A City Sleep feels like an attempt by Harmonix to prove that they can in fact make passable non-rhythm games – in other words, to do what Chroma’s failed to manage so far.
Astoundingly, it actually works! Well, if you’re into bullet-hell-styled shmups, anwyay. A City Sleeps is unrelentingly difficult from step one and only keeps the pain flowing as you go on. I’ve played tougher doujin shmups, sure, but I really wasn’t expecting this kind of brutality from a Western game. You play as Poe, a member of The Silk, essentially an exorcist/psychologist/dream analyst who solves your inner issues by entering your dreams and murdering your personal demons. They may or may not be actual demons, for the record. The plot is spoonfed via little text snippets at the level selection screen. These are interesting reads but feel a bit pretentious, not to mention they’re plagued by embarrassing typos.
Who cares about the plot, though? We’re here to shoot stuff! Poe’s armed with a sword and an array of spiritual sentries called Ghosts. The sword can fire energy blasts that match the beat of the BGM, meaning that at any time your basic attack might grow more or less powerful; adjusting to the game’s music tracks is key to success. At melee range this becomes a slash that charges Poe’s super meter, eventually allowing her to summon a massively damaging giant sword for a short time.
Likewise, the Ghosts, when set into Slow and Fast Idols that float on screen at prescribed times during a stage, have different effects based on the music and the type of Idol. Anger, for instance, emits a damaging shockwave every few beats when in a Slow Idol and a stream of energy blasts much like the sword in a Fast Idol. Mercy, on the other hand, offers various flavors of musical healing that Poe needs to catch; in a Slow Idol these are radial healing waves, in a Fast Idol it’s projectile healing, and in either idol you take a score penalty because this is a shmup and you really shouldn’t be healing. You can select a loadout of three Ghosts before each run and their use is integral to survival.
This is a bullet hell game through and through, so expect to deal with beautiful and deadly patterns of bullets to dodge. While these felt fair and it was certainly possible to learn how to get through them, Poe’s enormous character model made things a little difficult at first. While your hitbox is clearly displayed as a green point in the center of the model, I found I had the most luck when I stuck with shmup instincts and didn’t look at the character at all. Players who are new to the genre are certainly going to be stymied by this until they learn how to focus on the bullet patterns rather than themselves. You’ll also need to balance this with setting and exchanging Ghosts, which adds another level of complexity onto the frenetic gameplay and makes it even more difficult for shmup novices.
There’s technically only three levels but each is divided into several difficulties that drastically alter how the level plays out in terms of bullet patterns and enemy density. Later levels, along with the typical bullet swarms, include “curses” such as increased numbers of bullets, a slower character or the dreaded one-hit kill. Like any good shmup, the highlight of the experience is definitely the boss battles; in particular, the boss of the third level looks and sounds amazing and is almost worth the price of admission by itself. A fair amount of the game’s content is locked behind higher difficulty levels, so players who aren’t able to make it that far are going to be a little disappointed.
While playing A City Sleeps I was reminded a bit of the DS classic The World Ends With You, an action-RPG that combined urban and fantasy aesthetics for a unique feel. Character models are simple and only slightly animated while bullet patterns pulse, glow and cover the screen with light. The soundtrack, as you’d expect, is full of electronica and is absolutely amazing. Since you’re going to be hearing a lot of it and it plays so heavily into how the game works, this is certainly a plus.
A City Sleeps is a nice break for Harmonix. It’s no Guitar Hero or Amplitude, but it’s a solid little downloadable distraction for fans of electronic music and shmups. Or even the classic Geometry Wars. Players who aren’t familiar with the bullet hell genre might want to steer clear thanks to the punishing difficulty, but shooter fans will find the game of their dreams.