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A City Sleeps / 30th of October 2014

Harmonix are a team that I have always had a lot of respect for, now whilst Dance Central may not hold any allure for me, it has primarily been their brilliant work on Guitar Hero and Rock Band that really swayed me towards them, though even back before this they were making music themed games such as their debut title, Frequency, and its successor, Amplitude (this is getting a reboot on PS3 and PS4 thanks to a successful Kickstarter fund). Now though, the company are trying something a little different, a low-key, musically themed, bullet hell shooter known as A City Sleeps, which presents an undeniably intriguing concept, yet unfortunately, the promise that it might first appear to offer, is something that the game sadly fails to realise.

A City Sleeps was developed by a small team within Harmonix, and is the first release following on from a major reshuffle within the developer that has seen the formation of multiple teams moulded around the notion of producing smaller concepts that can be created quickly and with little financial expenditure. The videogame industry has been witnessing a move towards a more indie focused market, and clearly, Harmonix want to play a big role in its future, starting with this optimistic meshing of two very different genres.

In A City Sleeps, players assume control of a character known as Poe, she is the youngest of a clan of dream exorcists, and must work their way through a side scrolling shooter to rid the dreams of sleeping hosts of the demons that occupy them. Stylistically, the game is somewhat similar to Cave’s brilliant Deathsmiles, yet fundamentally different in several key areas. For one, A City Sleeps is actually a twin-stick shooter, which sets it apart from every other game in the bullet hell genre, but of course, so does its reliance on music as a fundamental gameplay addition. And its influence can be felt in almost every aspect of the game.

Holding the right analogue stick in a direction will, naturally, have Poe fire her weapon that way, however, the rate of fire is governed by the beat of the music, which means that firing rates can, and frequently do stutter, taking control away from the player to a certain extent. I have experienced instances when my main weapon simply refused to fire and I was simply left open to an enemy counter, which on some occasions, was enough to finish me off. Obviously then, this is a pretty massive flaw in the game’s design, with screens regularly filled with both enemies and their shots, players will find it less encouraging to return to areas to best their scores and climb up the leader boards when such a central part of the game appears to be out of their hands, and this also makes the game increasingly frustrating as the difficulty levels are increased.

A nice feature in the game, is the sword attack that Poe can utilise to take out enemies close to her, there is a similar risk versus reward mechanic to Treasure’s brilliant Radiant Silvergun, in that using this repeatedly will fill up a bar that will eventually-once filled-allow the player to unleash a super attack to clear out every enemy on screen. I don’t think that it works as well as Treasure’s effort, particularly as the rate of the sword attack is also dictated by the music, and given that it is mainly used as a last ditch defence against enemies who have avoided the player’s shots, well, I’ll just say that there certainly can be a lot of risk involved in using it in this way! A City Sleeps does gift players a dash manoeuvre, which can be used to escape from such situations, but sadly, there really isn’t enough control given to players using this, as it frequently ends up putting them in situations even worse than the one which they were trying to escape from in the first place. The biggest flaw with this particular move, is that the player is not rendered invincible whilst in use, so dashing to avoid enemy fire will typically impose the opposite effect instead.

Another major problem with the game is its length, there are only three levels, and this means that to extend any lifespan out of the experience, players will need to play the same levels on their higher difficulty levels, now it has been designed as such, and doing so will reward players with additional items and abilities, yet it stifles the whole experience quite sufficiently. The difficulty is ramped up far too quickly, giving players little time to learn the nuances of the gameplay, and thereby giving them little reason to return to it for additional play sessions either, and perhaps more importantly, it really doesn’t give Harmonix time to develop the game as much as it seemingly deserved. At the end of each level though, players are confronted by an end guardian, now, boss battles are always a key feature to bullet hell shooters, and A City Sleeps is certainly no exception. Each of the three bosses here present a challenge that requires both brains as well as brute force to overcome, they may have filled the screen with death dealing plasma (as a good boss should), but they were undoubtedly the most enjoyable aspects of the entire experience in my opinion.

Another feature in the game is the addition of ghosts, these are essentially items that can provide a variety of effects, to begin with, Poe comes armed with the spirits of “Mercy” and “Anger”, these two-when utilised in a level-will either attack enemies with additional fire, or generate healing orbs to restore the player’s health. The downside to them, is that these too appear to be affected by the background music, meaning that there are times when they will do absolutely nothing, now whilst this may demand that players learn the levels and the songs to understand the ebb and flow of the game, the chances of most players giving it the chance to do so is rather low. It is a pity as Poe can carry three of the ghosts into a level, and after unlocking more than the initial selection, the game does inject an element of strategy by encouraging players to select a combination that will best suit the environment, which is a brilliant feature.

Personally, I didn’t find myself overly impressed with the graffiti styled visuals, they may be bold, but I found them overly simplistic, and the same could easily be said of the soundtrack too, though whilst Harmonix appear to have borrowed from UGA’s incredible, Rez, with actions seemingly adding sounds that supplement the musical accompaniment, the results are certainly not in the same class. In its defence though, the music and the visuals certainly do meld together well enough, so with a bit more work, A City Sleeps could have undoubtedly been a work of real beauty, so it is rather disappointing that the end product is not.

Ultimately then, A City Sleeps represents a missed opportunity, a game that should have been an artistic triumph let down by its inaccurate controls, incredibly short length and general lack of difficulty curve. It is certainly a game that clearly has bags of potential though, so I would certainly like to see Harmonix have another crack at it, but as it is, A City Sleeps remains little more than a surprising disappointment.

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