Demo Driver 8: Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians
I’m not generally a fan of Steam’s recommendation setup simply because, well, it doesn’t work too well. It picks out things that it thinks I’ll like, but it bases those recommendations upon elements that aren’t necessarily delivered with any panache. Case in point: Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardians.
Regular readers know that I’m a big fan of pairing music with gameplay. When done correctly, it really marries rhythm to action, something that creates a different gameplay flow than you normally find. So the idea of Beatbuddy, of having an action-adventure game that flows along with the beat, is very appealing to me.
Unfortunately, the game fails to deliver on that promise. Beatbuddy has great music, great visuals, and even largely solid gameplay mechanics with a few downsides. But not only does the music fail to flow along with the gameplay, in many cases the marriage between the two makes the game less fun and playable, rather than more. Which seems pretty notably backward, all right.
Despite the fact that the story is clearly trying to set up some sort of mythic journey, I didn’t get a sense of any of that from the demo – you’re thrown in with no sense of why you’re doing what your doing, with your only illumination being a bit of narration when you find various notes. These notes are read off by someone who’s trying to both sing and speak the words, a sort of half-scat half-spoken narration, and it works about as well as… no. You know what? It just doesn’t work well. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good.
Of course, you’re unlikely to notice that for a bit, because you’re too busy focusing on the incredibly attractive game world. Here is where the game shines; the graphics are crisp, clear, and interesting. Swimming through an underwater world, you’re surrounded by spectacle, bits of jetsam wedged hither and yon, plenty of various cool stuff to look at as the soundtrack bops and thrums along. By the time I had swam for a little bit, I was ready to get into the first musical bit, wondering what strange way musical mechanics would be integrated into the game.
Surprise! They aren’t.
Rather than making music a core part of the gameplay, some bright spark involved with the development apparently thought that the whole thing would work better if instead you sort of had music sitting alongside the gameplay. So the bouncy pads that you have to run into add a bass drumline to the music, the little shifting barriers add a snare line and force you to time your movement with the beat so as to avoid running into them, and so forth.
The first problem here, of course, is that this neatly removes actual music from gameplay considerations altogether. You aren’t interacting with the music, you aren’t layering new elements on the music, you’re just listening to it. It’s musical in the same way that the changing soundtrack of Super Mario World is musical, because hopping on Yoshi changes the music of a stage.
But at least you’re moving along with the beat, right? In theory! In practice, everything that’s beat-focused seems to be just a little bit off, so the beat not only doesn’t help you but will actively hinder a great deal of your timing. Hearing the hi-hat section come from the crabs didn’t actually make it any clearer when the spikes they sprout would re-emerge, nor did it offer me any assistance in avoiding them, it just meant that when I heard a hi-hat I knew crabs were around to be punched.
Totally off of the beat.
With no consideration for the beat, even.
So instead of carefully lining up my movement, every action and sound effect throws you off from the music. This is kind of the opposite of what the game claims to want. It also means that the game is down to relying on its mechanics to distinguish itself from every other 2D action-adventure-ish title out there in gameplay terms, which means turning the harsh light on gameplay that is neither good nor bad. It’s mediocre. Serviceable. Functional without being spectacular, decent without being good.
If it was horrible, it would be… well, bad. But it would at least have something to it. It’s just bland, ticking through the numbers of what you’d expect to see whilst hitting neither highs nor lows.
Eventually you get into a little vehicle, and now your movement does randomly match the beat of the music. Except that it actually gets more awkward this way, as the weird timing issues with beat vs. what the game thinks is the beat still persist, and now your ability to dodge, move, and react is entirely tied to this strange disconnection. There’s a movement mode that relies entirely upon hitting the button with the second beat, the sort of timing that I wouldn’t relish if I were playing a game that actually didn’t have these weird beat-based issues.
The pity is that the game isn’t bad, and the core of the mechanics are salvageable if uninspired. And no lie, the game is beautiful. The animation is smooth and charming, the music hums along, and I was thankful when the game stopped trying to feed me a story that I fear I am genetically incapable of caring about in favor of giving me just a bit more of exploration and smooth music. It’s even pleasant to hear musical sections fade in and out as you approach other obstacles.
But actually navigating those obstacles isn’t fun. It’s not tedious to the point of agony, it doesn’t make me want to throw my computer out the window, but it doesn’t make me want to play more, either. I want the game to stop so I can listen to the music and enjoy the scenery.
That’s what the game seems to want you to do, too. But that isn’t a game; it’s a DeviantArt slideshow with a specific soundtrack.