Publisher: Reverb Publishing
Beatbuddy: Tale Of The Guardians is astonishingly beautiful. Players are thrown eyeballs-first into a pulsating underwater world of rich vibrant colours and bio-luminescent detail, of gyrating submarine fauna that perform a bewitching synchronised dance in front of your disbelieving retinas. Despite being a modest debut from a small boutique studio, Beatbuddy is achingly sublime, the kind of aesthetically outstanding artistic masterpiece that defies any number of AAA studios hiding behind shiny soulless engines. Frankly, it's one of the most breathtakingly attractive games you will ever play.
To put this in perspective, I'm currently reviewing the sumptuously stylish Killer Is Dead, an orgy of violent colour and provocative imagery. Beatbuddy makes it look like a bucket of porridge.
However, the most remarkable thing about Beatbuddy isn't the way it looks, but the way it sounds. Gameplay is painstakingly constructed around a soundtrack from several Grammy-nominated artists, resulting in a game that actively makes you a part of the music.
In raw gameplay terms, Beatbuddy is a free-swimming puzzle platformer that clocks in somewhere between Ecco The Dolphin, The Undergarden, Unmechanical and Aquaria. Players assume the role of an incorporeal spirit of music who awakes to discover a dastardly plot in motion, and sets out into the audio-powered ocean to put things right. This boils down to six hours of swimming through sprawling labyrinths, dodging dangerous marine fauna and solving a wealth of environmental puzzles using mirrors, momentum, switches and time-based logic.
Half a twitchy platformer and half a cerebral puzzle game, Beatbuddy presents a nifty and engaging genre hybrid, and could have easily been worth a recommendation based solely on its core mechanics.
What makes Beatbuddy special, though, is the way its levels and mechanics are wrapped around a six-song soundtrack from Austin Wintory, Parov Stelar, Sabrepulse and La Rochelle. Far from a simple accompaniment, the varied track list is deeply engrained into the action, informing both the level design and the way you play.
Every object, puzzle solution and hazard pulses and dances in time to the music, from your submarine that only moves on every second beat, to 'high hat crabs' that conduct orchestras of spiny snails and throbbing sea anemonies blasting out water currents in time with the bass drum. Fireball-slinging crustaceans add syncopated beats. Submerged totem poles drone out a bass line. Even NPCs communicate via beat boxing, while the adorable Beatbuddy grooves away in idle moments. You'll find yourself tapping your feet and drumming your fingers, unconsciously swept up as you go with the flow.
It's not just a synchronised slide show, though. Rather than just moving to a pre-existing track, scenery elements and objects create the music themselves, meaning that you'll listen to numerous different arrangements of each song depending on what specific combinations of foes and hazards happen to be nearby. As you explore the levels, you'll begin to appreciate how each track is constructed out of its component layers, from the bass to the samples, almost like an interactive musical theory lesson. Combined with the exquisite visuals, the net effect is utterly entrancing.
Indeed, for want of a better word, it's absolutely wonderful.
A six to seven hour runtime and limited replay value might raise a few eyebrows in our value-savvy readership, but it's more than appropriate considering the price and quality of the content on offer. More to the point, however, it also stops some of the more repetitious elements from overstaying their welcome. Because each level is forced to feature certain elements to fit each song, such as the omnipresent bass drum anemones and high hat crabs, later levels just tend to recycle the same core hazards in increasingly complex ways. You'll have seen most of what Beatbuddy has to offer within the first three stages, shook up only by the infrequent arrival of parasitic foes who swim in unpredictable patterns against the rhythm. Any longer and wholesale repetition would have probably set in.
Some minor nitpicks need addressing before we move on. Awkward keyboard controls make using an Xbox 360 controller essential (they're natively supported, but require manual activation in the options menu), while the wealth of animated detail comes at a high performance cost. Low-spec or even mid-spec rigs will be put through their paces by this resource-hungry monster.
I'm convinced that Threaks are capable of producing a true indie classic, a game for the ages that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Super Meat Boy, Rez and Bastion. Beatbuddy proves that they have what it takes, but fantastic as it is, it's not that game. Threaks' debut doesn't quite have the confidence to put its best qualities front and centre, and they'll have to grow into the role with time and experience. Making a couple of brave decisions could have paid dividends here.
First off, the text-based dialogue breaks gameplay and musical flow as you stop dead and scroll through the chatter, which ultimately presents a somewhat insipid tale. It's a shame, because the magnificent art direction and music could have supported a more abstract non-verbal storyline conveyed through environmental details and sound design alone. All without taking us out of the experience and the all-important rhythm. Going forward, I hope that Threaks have the confidence to make their aesthetics and soundtrack do the heavy lifting for them.
As a more obnoxiously pompous observation, it's also a little odd that you don't take a more active role in creating the music yourself. 'Buddies' are supposed to be responsible for creating and guarding the music of the world, yet you're not able to interact with it beyond temporarily stopping or slightly changing certain layers; listening rather than playing. Every jump, block and powerup in Bit.Trip Runner forms a note of a unique melody that changes every time you play, while the likes of Rez or Child Of Eden makes each attack a sample, and it's your passive role here is arguably a missed opportunity. Gosh, that really was pretentious. Sorry about that.
Take heart, though, because these personal 'what-if?' observations absolutely shouldn't detract from this superb indie proposition, nor stop you from considering an immediate purchase.
- Fun gameplay expertly merged with a superb dynamic soundtrack
- Jaw-droppingly, breathtakingly beautiful to behold
- A synesthesic feast for the senses
- Later levels can get repetitious
- Weak storyline and dialogue breaks flow, is arguably unnecessary
- Awkward keyboard controls, resource-hungry
The Short Version: Beatbuddy looks, sounds and plays beautifully, underpinning its solid puzzle gameplay with achingly gorgeous visuals and a dynamic soundtrack to die for. Audiophiles should submerge themselves in this enchanting adventure in as soon as possible.